Where Silence would be Golden, Instead the Clatter of a Circus

No sooner had I began writing this column, from inside my cubicle, that I found something which didn’t quite fit the tenor of my work that morning. I had just gotten up to stretch, and when glancing over the shoulder of a man behind me at his computer, saw an image on the screen usually observed in privacy. It was that of a naked woman, being bent over and penetrated by a man, who pulled out and ejaculated all over her face. Just minutes before, while on a packed elevator heading up from the entrance, I’d watched a mentally ill man talk loudly and incoherently to a woman who he didn’t know, but who was smashed up right next to him inside. After getting off on my floor, the man walked around yelling through the aisles, before being removed by security.

By the time noon arrived on this prototypical day around my cubicle, I had endured several more distractions. A man who couldn’t get the printer to work began fussing at it—“man, fuck this piece of shit!”—and when the staff tried helping, directed his anger towards them. Another talked on his cell phone, which when not being used, would still frequently buzz and beep and ring. And of course there were smaller distractions: men who snored loudly; or who smelled bad; or who talked openly with one another about drug dealing; or who, when not finding anyone to oblige, just talked to themselves.

So where exactly was I that I ran across all this while working? Was it a frat house? A homeless shelter? The county jail? No, it was a building that, while theoretically meant for scholarship, resembles some combination of all three—the San Francisco Central Library.

This library indeed provides a surreal experience for anyone who enters, past the swarm of people loitering out front. Once inside, they’ll find that it is a de facto lounge for indigents, many of who bring a toxic brew of insanity and bad decorum, and who don’t avoid quieter areas any more than they do the busy front atrium. Eventually visitors will realize that in spite of them the library is a legitimate research center, with thousands of books and a vast technology apparatus. But if they are like me, they won’t consider this combination of debauchery and erudition charming, but one that undermines the overall atmosphere.

Part of this atmosphere results from the rampant homeless population that exists downtown, and that enters the library beyond anyone’s control. But the management has not helped itself, or the morale of staff, by tolerating behavior that it could prevent. The signs posted in the bathrooms instructing users not to shave, undress, or bathe are routinely ignored. The aforementioned conversations, on the phone and between patrons, take place right in front of librarians, who, presumably for safety reasons, don’t always stop them. Rather these and other negligent acts are addressed by the guards, who come around every blue moon, and who seldom crack down on anything anyway. (A man who was once stretched out sleeping on the floor was, rather than told to leave, just placed at a desk, where he fell asleep again and was ignored the rest of the day).

Management recently decided to let patrons view pornography on public computers, which you don’t have to oppose morally to still believe is unfitting here. Not only is it distracting, but violates philosophical notions about how libraries should be used, especially in a time of high demand and scarce resources. It also suggests that management is unconcerned, in any way, with which types of people it wants to attract. Which types, after all, would view pornography in a public library? Probably the same types who, clearly immune to social decency, would violate other codes of conduct too. Fill a library with enough of them, especially when they’re already permeating your neighborhood, and you get one that, like in San Francisco, is noisy and chaotic—and that repels serious users.

While the atmosphere in San Francisco’s library may be the worst, similar ones can be found in other cities. And while to some this may seem colorful, to me it symbolizes what is wrong with this and so many other government operations. Facilities which are meant to enrich civic pride and understanding instead deteriorate because they can’t even define, much less enforce, good behavior. In San Francisco this is called “tolerance”, and is used to justify, amidst the finest contributions to civilization that can fit on a bookshelf, a circus of vulgarity.

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