A large concrete wall with a colorful mural and metal lettering that reads "Oakland Public Library" and some graffiti lower on the wall.
Oakland Public Library's Main Branch, seen from 14th street near Lake Merritt. Credit: Amir Aziz

Most Oakland Public Library staff take pride in embodying an “everyone is welcome” ethos. Some see their places of work as the “last public space” in Oakland where people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds can interact. And they believe that all city libraries—Oakland has 18 branches, including a tool-lending library—should be safe spaces for patrons and employees alike.

But increasingly, according to many of those library employees, the latter isn’t happening. They say verbal abuse and threatening interactions have become so commonplace at some local branches that many consider them “part of the job.”

These are some of the takeaways from an internal report that The Oaklandside obtained from the Oakland Public Library. The 10-page report was commissioned by the library system in June 2022 and conducted by an Oakland-based mediation consultant to gauge safety concerns among staff and identify possible security and policy improvements.

The Oaklandside requested to see the report after receiving a tip that employee safety is a concern at some branches.

In his report, consultant Joseph Maurer wrote that the library’s ethic of inclusivity is one of the reasons the institution enjoys “widespread support” from members of the community, but that this expectation also places “enormous pressure” on library staff who often find themselves needing to navigate sensitive situations with mentally and emotionally unstable patrons.

Maurer began his research after a meeting with Oakland Public Library Director Jamie Turbak in June 2022 with the goal of “creating a culture of safety at the Oakland Public Library,” according to the report. Over the next year, Maurer had confidential conversations with approximately 50 library employees at various levels. 

Overall, he found that morale within Oakland’s libraries is low. Many staffers feel “more unsafe” than before, unsupported by upper management, and lack the training required to effectively work with people experiencing mental health and other crises. Staff who were interviewed said these conditions got worse during the pandemic. Some also reported experiencing verbal attacks based on their racial, sexual, or gender identity. 

“The Oakland Public Library is at an inflection point and needs to decide upon its path for the

future or its path may be decided for it,” Maurer’s report states. 

The report was made available after The Oaklandside made several public records requests to the city. Turbak, who has worked for the Oakland Public Library for two decades and was named the system’s director in 2019, declined our request for an interview, but stated via email that the report “is part of a process to improve safety at our libraries” and that she would consider sharing more when the “process is further along.”

The conversations about library safety and services for patrons with unmet needs come as libraries across the country are also being targeted by lawmakers who have sought to ban books that don’t align with their worldview and reduce funding for libraries, and far-right extremists who have threatened violence over LGBTQ+ literature and events. 

Here in the East Bay, a group of Proud Boys, a domestic right-wing terrorist group, disrupted a children’s library hour in San Lorenzo last summer hosted by Panda Dulce, a drag queen performer. 

Expected to provide care and empathy, but not trained for the realities of the job

Maurer’s report also concludes that Oakland Public Library staff love their jobs. But many are experiencing burnout after repeatedly providing untrained social work to people who need resources beyond what the library currently provides. 

Library staff who spoke to Maurer expressed being “passionate about service at the library but… overwhelmed with a feeling that in the current environment, ‘anything goes’ in terms of patron behavior.”

Staff nearly “universally agreed that the pandemic ‘made everything worse,’” leading to fewer patrons overall but more visitors with high needs representing vulnerable communities.

Oakland librarians are expected to serve these populations “with caring and empathy beyond minimum standards of equitable and courteous service,” wrote Maurer, “but are not trained in necessary boundary development, cultural humility… non-escalation/de-escalation and other skills to make such service effective, safe, and sustainable.”

Developing those skills “is the foundation for a culture of safety,” wrote Maurer. But not all library staff feel they’re receiving the support they need for that to happen. He noted that terms used by staff to describe library management included “aloof” and  “disconnected.” He wrote that it was “not uncommon for staff to wonder aloud ‘whether leadership was concerned with safety.’”

In June, library system director Turbak met with the Oakland Library Advisory Commission—a 15-member group appointed by the mayor and City Council that meets monthly and makes recommendations to the city on library programs and spending—to update them on safety concerns throughout the library system. Safety is an increasingly important topic, she told the commissioners, not just in Oakland but at libraries across the country. 

“A lot of people [are] kind of struggling with what to do,” she said. “How to make these public spaces safe and comfortable for patrons and staff.”

Oakland libraries have security guards, but staff still feel ‘vulnerable’

The exterior of the colorful, stucco, Main Library building, with a bus whizzing past it.
Oakland’s Main Library has made over 50 calls to the police to report people disturbing the peace or experiencing mental health crises since 2018, and nearly two dozen calls during the same period for incidents involving a gun or a violent act. Credit: Amir Aziz Credit: Amir Aziz

Maurer’s report doesn’t provide specific examples of dangerous incidents that have occurred at Oakland’s branch libraries. But Oakland police data obtained by The Oaklandside shows that not all library branches experience problems to a similar degree. Those with more frequent problems tend to be in the East and West Oakland flatlands and downtown. 

From the beginning of 2018 to August of this year, the Main Library made nine calls to the police for assault, eight for battery, six for someone brandishing a weapon, nearly 30 disturbing-the-peace calls, seven for fights, 23 related to a person experiencing a mental crisis, and 10 violations of a court order. 

The MLK branch saw more disturbing-the-peace and mental health-related calls than other branches, but OPD records also show the branch has utilized the city’s Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program several times in lieu of police, since MACRO launched in April 2022.

The Elmhurst branch on 88th Avenue and International Boulevard also has reported a higher number of violent events and patrons experiencing mental health crises than branches in wealthier areas. Recently, a car was set on fire in front of the building.

Conversely, at the much smaller and more tucked away Piedmont Avenue branch on Echo Avenue, OPD hasn’t responded to calls more than 20 times total in the last five years, with the most common reason being a false security alarm. 

Police data don’t accurately reflect all incidents at local libraries. That’s because employees who spoke to The Oaklandside off the record and others who participated in Maurer’s report said they are sometimes reluctant to call police for fear of escalating a situation or criminalizing patrons.

The Oaklandside reached out to several library branch managers, but they declined to speak with us on the record without permission from library management. When we sought permission from Turbak to speak to the employees, she declined.

Every library branch is supplied with at least one security guard through the city of Oakland’s agreement with ABC Security Service, a private contractor. Guards employed by ABC wear light blue shirts with black sweaters. Library security is also supplied at some branches by a subcontractor, National Protective Services (NPS), which on its website lists Oakland Public Libraries and the city of Oakland as partners. Their security guards wear black polo shirts with yellow bands around the upper arm.

The city’s contract with ABC states guards are “responsible for all phases of building protection,” including things like theft and fire, and also states they will “intercept and question” anyone attempting to make unauthorized access or harm staff. It says OPD “must be summoned” if police intervention is needed.  

But some library employees who spoke with the Oaklandside on the condition of anonymity said security guards are being instructed to merely observe and report—not intervene—if an employee is verbally or physically assaulted. 

“We’re really in a vulnerable position,” one employee said.  

The Oaklandside reached out to ABC and NPS for comment but didn’t receive a response prior to publication.

When we visited the Main Library on a Wednesday in early August, a guard in a black polo shirt greeted library patrons in a chair outside the security office next to the front door. A representative with NPS was doing rounds, checking in with library staff about their experiences with their guards. The two librarians at the front desk told the man they felt safe, and he left to visit other branches. 

At the West Oakland branch on Adeline and 18th Street, a guard in a black sweater and blue shirt sat at a table with a walkie-talkie in hand. The building also houses job resources and career centers, as well as a “comfort cabinet” that offers things like deodorant, socks, and sunscreen for patrons who need them. Calls to police from the West Oakland Branch this year include an assault and a fight. 

Library employees who spoke with The Oaklandside also claimed the city’s Public Works department is slow to respond to service requests for issues ranging from garbage cleanups to graffiti removal. As of March, there were 163 open requests from Oakland libraries, the largest number coming from the Main branch with 41. The majority of others came from branches in flatland neighborhoods, such as 81st Avenue, Elmhurst, Melrose, and West Oakland. 

A different vision for safety at Oakland libraries

Maurer reported that most library staff value having a “security figure” onsite, while also suggesting that guard positions could be reimagined or restructured to become “crucial library jobs focused on building relationships with patrons, fostering security and a culture of safety.”

Rather than contract the jobs out to private companies that may pay lower wages and employ untrained workers, Maurer suggested, library guards could be union jobs that provide training in de-escalation and nonviolent crisis intervention techniques. 

“When all staff are trained in these techniques, the guard role can shift to more of a community outreach role from their position at the boundary between the library and the community, perhaps also developing a ‘warm-handoff’ approach to connecting patrons with social services,” he wrote. “Ultimately, guard positions will need to be reimagined.”

Turbak said during the June commission meeting that about 130 library staff have participated in sessions to discuss best practices for keeping libraries open and safe spaces for all. One of the ideas that arose from those discussions was the creation of a “library safety manager,” or a position that is “primarily responsible for ensuring safety and security” at Oakland’s libraries.

Such a person could focus on “helping to make sure staff are trained, helping to make sure there’s consistent debriefing and feedback given,” Turbak said. “Also, being a liaison with organizations like MACRO or other social service providers.”

The position would also help obtain restraining orders against patrons when needed as a last resort, review library policies, and debrief after incidents—all things that Turbak said library staff are currently doing. 

The safety and security manager position is included in the library’s next proposed budget. If approved, the person will be tasked with revising the library system’s behavior guidelines and policies for patrons “with an equity lens” while also providing “adequate training and staff support,” which could include contracting with security guards.

Moving forward, Maurer recommended in his report that library policy be focused on “sustainable practice as opposed to self care” because it “puts the onus on the culture and not on the individual.” 

“If the expectation is for staff to engage empathically with patrons, empathy without skillful boundaries will inevitably lead to burnout,” he wrote. “The mental health of staff exists in symbiosis with the mandate to make everyone feel welcome at the library.”