My visit to the Pollard Library

The email arrived late Friday. Immediately my pulse quickened and my breath became short. The book I had ordered from the Pollard Memorial Library had arrived and was waiting to be picked up. My physiological reaction wasn’t due to excitement about the book, it was due to my apprehension about visiting the library.

As a kid I spent countless hours in the Lowell library and I’m a regular visitor now, not just to check out books but to sit and do research for extended periods of time. I’ve always found it to be an orderly, interesting and safe place, but something must have changed because watching the city council meeting this past Tuesday night, I was left with the impression that the city library had become a haven for sex offenders and other miscreants and that nothing was being done about it. I knew it had to be a dire situation because I had looked at the council agenda and nowhere on it was there any notice that sex offenders at the library would be a topic for discussion at that meeting and I hoped, at least, that councilors would not gratuitously engage in “agenda by ambush” unless it was an extreme emergency.

Summoning some courage, I headed for the Pollard midday on Saturday. Entering from Merrimack Street, it was strangely quiet with no hint of the lawlessness and chaos implied at the council meeting. Relaxing a bit, I decided to linger and do some Lowell history research up on the second floor reference room. That giant room is the main work area for patrons (as well as being the most beautiful public space in the city) and is also the location of the public access computers. The room was filled with people. There were local historians scrolling through microfilm over there, high school students making notes from reference books over here, and lots of people of all ages hunched in front of computers.

For more than thirty minutes I stood at one of the waist-high bookcases in the middle of the room, searching for the names of Civil War soldiers from Lowell in the hundred year old Massachusetts in the Civil War multi-volume set. Frequently I would glance around the room paying particular attention to what was on the many public access computer screens in sight. I was too far away to discern precisely what was being viewed, but there was no pornography because, to quote former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, when it comes to pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

My research complete (in more ways than I had intended), I made a quick circle around the first floor (all quiet there) before descending to the ground floor to check out my book. From around the corner I heard a muffled voice say something; the only word I could pick out was “graphic.” Had I finally found that sex offender? No, it was just a pre-teen at the circulation desk seeking graphic novels. His father was with him so I guessed it was OK. I checked out my book and departed, feeling a lot better about my city’s library than I did after watching Tuesday’s council meeting.

Jack Kerouac said that his true education came not in any classroom but in the stacks of the city library. That’s been true for thousands of others and from what I saw yesterday, it continues to be true now. I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of having convicted sex offenders in our library or even in our community. In my prior career as a criminal defense lawyer, I had more contact with that area of the law than I care to recall. It’s an area in which re-offending after conviction is not only likely, it’s predictable. That said, if there is legitimate concern about policies and their enforcement at the city library, make a motion so it gets on the agenda so that all sides are prepared to discuss the matter. Don’t treat it like a remake of The Crucible. To do otherwise is unfair to the employees, the trustees and the patrons of our very fine city library.

13 Responses to My visit to the Pollard Library

  1. Marianne says:

    Excellent post, Dick!

    I am really concerned about what was said about the library at the City Council meeting on January 8th. As a trustee, I know that Victoria Woodley, the library director, and the library staff have worked diligently to make the PML safe for all visitors to the library. As a patron and frequent visitor to the library, I always feel safe there. It is very upsetting to me that, because of an anonymous letter, members of the City Council are saying that the library is unsafe. It flies in the face of the work that staff and volunteers have done to create strong and valuable programs, activities, and events at the library.

    I am reaching out to people who care about our library, whether you are a patron, volunteer, friend, trustee, or staff person, to come together to talk about this issue and ways the we can support our library. We’re meeting at the Old Court on Monday (tomorrow) night at 6:00 pm to do so. Thanks!

  2. Bob Forrant says:

    Asking for logic, thoughtfulness, adult behavior, Council rule following – Dick, how dare you?:) It is an election year and face time and looking tough on Tuesday night from the Council Chamber is now going to be the rule. What you seek will be the exception. Sad.

  3. Renee Aste says:

    Why did the pre-teen need his father?

    I could easily go off on my own by 7 or 8 years old 25 years ago.

    The library felt so empty, the times I’m there. No one. My daughter had to do a search, and the computer was password ‘locked’. I asked someone to unlock it, and she apparently had to get someone to unlock it.

    It use to be full to the brim as a child. I know we have the internet. But otherwise responsible children can’t just roam the stacks themselves.

    As a mother with four children, I do not feel safe. I do not let oldest roam by herself. It’s a pain, because they are at different reading levels.

    Bathrooms are a big worry as well.

  4. Michelle Durand says:

    Well said. The Lowell Library was my sanctuary as a child and after I had children. It was a “free” activity/night out where I could lose myself in something I enjoyed: reading, exploring new subjects, etc. Its unfortunate that a past event dictates how our public feels of our library. Have any of the City Council Members visited the library and how often?

  5. Prince Charming says:

    gotta tell ya, they have me hesitant to bring the kids there. I’ve been using Chelmsford main library . I really feel that Lowell’s problem is staffing. Anytime I have used Lowell, they have been courteous and professional, although busy. It’s too big and cavernous to understaff it. And, yes I’ve seen porn at other libraries. Don’t know if the viewers were sex offenders though. I didn’t stop to ask.

  6. EileenL says:

    The PML is a treasure! I have always felt safe in the library. The history of the building, the artwork and even the windows are amazing.

  7. Renee Aste says:

    Safety issues with parents are not just with libraries.

    It’s a bit more difficult with opposite gender parent/child situation.

    Just in general… not the library I’m sadden how many pre-teen boys are forced to use the women’s bathroom by their mothers at the mall/theme parks.

    I was once at the mall with my children, I rarely do. My oldest son 7 at the time refused to go into the women’s bathroom but I didn’t want him just by himself outside, while everyone else had to go. This was the Burlington Mall and the bathroom was off to the side and there was an emergency exit out to the parking lot.

    So I go out to the main area, outside Norstrom’s and there was a woman just playing with her cell phone. I asked a stranger to ‘watch him’. I came back, he needed to go as well and I waited patiently outside the men’s room.

    Nothing wrong with strangers at times watching a child in these public spaces, but parents fear not that the stranger will harm the child, but the stranger will think the parents is neglectful for leaving the child with a stranger.

  8. Bob Forrant says:

    The issues everyone raises here are important and deserve responses that are intelligent and evidence-based and not shoot-from-the-hip city councilors who seem to bring up the library as a way to grind and grind and grind but never offer solutions.

  9. Sharon Sawyer says:

    The Pollard Library is the jewel of the city. My children and I spent many happy hours in the library together when they were growing up. As they reached high school age, they often went alone. Only once did I ever see anyone looking at porn on a computer. The librarians are not police, nor are they babysitters. The library is a public space, and people need to use common sense and good judgment about safety issues, just as they would anywhere else.

  10. Renee Aste says:

    Sharon, We’re not asking people to babysit or police, but if unsafe activity is occuring people need to intervene. Imagine if you were in need of help/assistance in public and everyone just ignored you. As a community we should be looking after one another.

    Sexual offenders and people with drug addictions don’t have common sense, and Lowell does have its share. We need all the good guys to be on the look out, even if it isn’t your own child.

  11. Victoria Fahlberg says:

    There are times when I’ve been back in the stacks alone, first person to have the automatic lights come on. It can be eerie because the stacks are so close together and little room to move about. With the door shutting automatically when you enter, well, let’s just say that it is is not designed to inspire safety. I spent my summers at the library as well – in Ohio where I grew up. There were no wall to wall stacks with automatic lights or doors that automatically close.

    Also, the staff treat teenagers very differently than others. My son came home recently saying that he couldn’t take out any books until he paid a $40 fine for some read aloud book he’d never heard of. He had books on hold and had felt like you, Dick, when they came in as he was anxiously awaitng them. But he didn’t get them. He did explain that he’d never heard of the audio book, but the young, slender man who was at the checkout counter didn’t pay any attention to him. He assumed he was guilty and said he couldn’t get any books unless he paid the $40.

    I was so angry that I went over to the library and went immediately to the audio books and within a minute had found the one that supposedly my son had not returned. How it got on his card, I have no idea. But when I took it over to a nice man – the community liason person, I think, he deeply apologized and said that in cases like these my son should have been given a form saying that they absolutely knew that an error had been made, and the fee would be waived.

    Only, because he was a teenager, that didn’t happen.

    I don’t know what the PML was like 30 years ago, but today it is not designed for safety and the staff still treat teens poorly. The nice man who helped me even said that just the day before the staff had a training on customer service. Maybe they need some extra lessons on how to treat teenagers.