Thursday, February 21, 2013

I know the librarians aren't babysitters, but...

The incident that prompted this post actually happened a little while ago. I've just been thinking over what to write about it.

On Fridays our branch closes at 6:00. At about 5:45 I noticed an anxious small kid hanging around by the public phone. I spoke to the adult who was using the phone and she wrapped up her call so the kid could have a turn. At first he couldn't figure out how to use it, and then he was reaching an answering machine, after which he hung up.

I went over to help him. It came across that his mom, thinking the library was open later, was planning to pick him up at 7:30. I got him to leave a message for her, but he said she was at the laundromat and was planning to come straight from there to the library, so she probably wouldn't get it, and she doesn't have a cell phone.

Did he know where he lived? Well, no. More because he was panicking than because he really didn't know, I think, but the effect was the same. Did he know where the laundromat was? Not really.

I got the bright idea to look up his address using his library card, but it turned out that the address was outdated (he didn't know his current address, but he could identify the one I read to him as not it). And he didn't have someone else he could call to come get him.

It was 6:00 at this point and the library was empty except for staff and this little boy (he was maybe seven years old). The jaded circulation supervisor basically said, boot him out, too bad, but we can't be responsible for him.

But it was dark, and he didn't have a phone, and he was going to have to wait an hour and a half in an okay-but-not-perfectly-safe neighborhood. So I decided I was going to sit and wait with him because I just didn't know what else to do.

I thought everyone else had just gone home, leaving the boy to his fate. It turned out that most, but not all, of them had. After 15 or 20 minutes the young youth services librarian came around to where we were sitting. She had phoned the police and explained the situation. In a few minutes, they (in the person of Officer Smith) came to give the boy a ride to the laundromat where his mom was.

It was sort of terrifying to me that there was no better plan than this for dealing with an abandoned child. If my coworker and I had not had cell phones we couldn't even have phoned the police. It was also alarming that we were two of the greenest staff members in the building, suggesting that after years as library staff we might develop the same mentality as the circulation suprvisor who seemed to resent having to stay five minutes late while I looked up this kid's address.

As a taxpayer, maybe a parent, maybe a library staff person, maybe a once-forgotten child left at the library, how do you think out library would handle this situation in an ideal world?


  1. I think calling the police is the right action to take. As a kid whose parents occasionally forgot to pick me up, I know the terror of being shut out of a safe place. Of course the library isn't in the business of daycare, but I don't think pushing a seven-year-old out the door, knowing it's dark and the kid is alone, is a responsible decision. The library should have a clear policy for these situations, which are, unfortunately, a fact of life for public libraries.

  2. Yikes! Sure librarians aren't babysitters but at this point I think you're responsibility comes not from being a staff member but just from being a responsible adult. Maybe I'm overly ideological, but I tend to feel that humans have some level of moral obligation to take care of one another when we are in trouble. I personally could never kick a 7 year old to the curb, so I would have done exactly what you did. It does seem like calling the police (who have better resources to track down his Mom) is a good way to resolve the situation, though. And this definitely seems like something the library should have a formal policy about. I'm glad he got home safe!

  3. Yikes! Our library has a formal policy about this, which amounts to about what actually happened in your situation. For any child under age 13 left in the library at closing: we call every number we can find/the child can give us. At least one staff person stays with the child for up to 10 minutes after closing, and then if no ride has appeared, that staff person calls the police for help. We can't always help people, but we can do our best to make sure the library doesn't harm them!

    1. I wish we had this policy! Although our people are mostly hourly, so I'd like it to be specified that whoever waits with the kid gets paid. Fortunately, I haven't seen a repeat of this incident here at the Michigan public library.