Conditions at the Riverton branch of the Fremont County Library have eroded to the point that the new manager there has spoken publicly about the problem. It is important to the library - which means it is important to the community - that this situation be addressed and improved.
Riverton manager Shari Haskins told Fremont County commissioners about increasing problems related to vagrancy, loitering, and damage to library property. Anyone who uses the library has noticed the same.
With traditional use of libraries in decline, many have welcomed the opportunity for the facilities to serve as gathering places for people who are not there to check out books or study. This re-purposing brings its own challenges, however. Increasingly, Riverton children whose parents are at work when school lets out head to the library to hang around rather than go home to an empty house. School District 25 buses stop at the library every weekday. Most kids are well behaved, but this situation does create a period of an hour or more on most days when a significant number of young people are at the library unsupervised. When weather permits, they go in and out of the building frequently, perhaps wandering into areas of the property where the public is not expected to be, sitting on the sign outside, climbing around on the outdoor sculpture, straying east toward the neighboring United Methodist Church, and generally treating the library grounds as a public park.
This isn't good for the library, and it can be dangerous to the children as well. Unsupervised kids are targets for all kinds of trouble-makers.
In addition, vagrants have long since learned that the library is open to the public for many hours each day, and that its surrounding property is accessible all the time. Patrons and library staff alike can tell stories of problem intoxication both inside and outside the building among people who couldn't exactly be called "library patrons."
Smart library leaders nationwide have supported other uses for the facilities, encouraging people to visit the library to see art exhibits, attend concerts, stage community meetings, and, yes, simply to meet and hang out with friends.
Many human transactions are the stuff of delicate balance, and many now would say the scale is tipping out of balance at the library - away from acceptable use of the facility and toward the abuse of the property simply because it is public and it is there.
Library staff in recent days have taken pains to assure the public that the library is "safe." That's to be expected. No one is accusing the library of being a place that is actually physically dangerous to visit, at least not yet, but there is a difference between "safe" and "welcoming," "inviting" and "appealing."
Riverton's library is one of our finest community assets. Significant improvements in the unique and well-used community room have been accomplished over the past couple of years. Many important, enlightening and entertaining community events take place at the library, and its exhibit spaces and book collection reinforce its traditional uses.
Further, improvements to the physical premises have addressed concerns related to drainage and a troublesome roof at the architecturally creative building. There remain highly capable and committed staff members, under new county leadership, along with a small army of volunteers who care about our library and the mission of public libraries in general.
But there are some problems now that didn't exist before. Some of them are more than the staff members signed up for.
Our public schools have a "resource officer" who helps school staff maintain necessary decorum. Central Wyoming College has its own security personnel. Law enforcement officers now deploy routinely at our local hospitals and even at a big-box store. Municipal parks get more attention from law enforcement than they used to, as does the Rails to Trails recreation path.
Could it be time for similar assistance at the Riverton library? Many library patrons, and those who would like to continue being library patrons, probably would say yes.