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.