Like most public places, Hall County’s libraries attract all types.
Besides your typical book-lovers, students, news junkies and children, there are some folks on the margins of society who stop in, too.
As director of the Hall County Library System, Adrian Mixson has seen them all.
“We have everyone from the average Joe to the bizarre and in between,” Mixson said.
“We’re like a mall. Our doors are open to anyone. We probably have more difficulty than malls, because they are private. As a result, we have people with problems.”
Hall County’s libraries average about 500,000 visits a year, and last year patrons logged nearly 8 million minutes on the Internet, so there will be a few who don’t follow the rules.
About once a week, the library system staff has to permanently revoke a patron’s Internet access privileges for viewing inappropriate material, Mixson said.
About twice a year, the library is subpoenaed to turn over a patron’s computer records to the police.
While by and large the library is a quiet place of learning and leisure, there are the occasional strange or unwelcome episodes.
Mixson can recall at least one case of public exposure. A woman jilted by her boyfriend used a library computer to stalk him in cyberspace. A man later convicted of murder had to be told to leave his machete outside.
Twice in six months, gun-wielding men came into the East Hall branch to threaten someone in fits of road rage.
From time to time the library becomes a haven for drunks or people trying to lay low after committing a crime, Mixson said.
“We’re just like a park. That’s why we tell our patrons not to leave their kids here,” Mixson said, adding his staff can’t be expected to watch over children at all times.
Most of the trouble comes from the homeless and/or mentally ill, who in some libraries, particularly in large metropolitan areas, are omnipresent.
Mixson said his staff cracked down on the problem when he joined the system 11 years ago, making sure people knew that the library, while it is a public place, it is not a homeless shelter.
“We didn’t want them thinking this was a place to escape heat or cold weather,” Mixson said.
“We feel for you, but there are shelters for that. You can be homeless and use the library, but don’t come here and just hang out all day long.”
The employees of the Hall County Library System are required to do more than answer research questions, help find books and keep the stacks in order.
They have to keep a watchful eye on Internet activity, warn men against harassing female patrons, and when necessary, call the police.
“If you’re afraid to call the police if someone is publicly drunk, then you’ll start having problem environments,” Mixson said.
“All we ask (employees) is to follow policy, enforce policy, but be pleasant.”
Mixson himself takes on some of the toughest tasks, like talking to a particularly odorous patron about his personal hygiene.
People looking at careers in public libraries know they will face challenging patrons from time to time, said George Gaumond, dean of Valdosta State University’s master of library and information sciences program.
“It’s a difficulty I think anyone in public service faces,” Gaumond said. “Maybe more so in libraries because we are open a lot of hours and do provide free service.”
Gaumond said dealing with those challenges has always been part of working at a public library.
But it’s not nearly as much of a problem in Gainesville as in some areas, Mixson said.
“We are fortunate to be in a good community,” Mixson said. “I have worked in library systems where you had to have on-site security. But I think it’s also because we try to aggressively enforce our policies.”