Today I paid my first and what I hope will be my last visit to the town of Bessemer, Alabama, 12 miles southwest of Birmingham. I visited its public library and was appalled before I walked through the door. Oh, it’s a lovely site, perhaps the nicest in town. The 1908 building dates from the town’s era of prosperity, long before its iron ore deposits were depleted and its steel mills closed. Inside and out, the Bessemer Public Library looks fully restored and refurbished, inviting, and yes, even prosperous, in a near-dead downtown bordered on every side by dilapidation and grime.
On the library’s pristine door is a stern announcement.
No one under the age of 18 is admitted without a guardian. No exceptions.
Can you imagine? I’ve seen other library policies asking that children under say 10 not be left alone routinely for extended periods at the library, or that pre-schoolers be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
But this is quite different, isn’t it?
Every summer afternoon when I was 12 I went to the library, alone, and shelved books for a couple of hours, and when I was a teen, my parents often dropped me at the library’s door on Saturday mornings. I don’t remember either ever coming in with me. Nothing unusual about that. Of course, I wasn’t living in Bessemer in 2009.
Why do people put up with this? Can this be legal?
Let’s have a look at Bessemer for the answers.
This is what City-Data.com tells us (2007):
- Median household income below state average. [And keep in mind that Alabama came in 47th in the nation for median income.]
- Median house value significantly below state average.
- Black race population percentage significantly above state average.
- Hispanic race population percentage significantly below state average.
- Foreign-born population percentage significantly below state average.
- Institutionalized population percentage above state average.
- Percentage of population with a bachelor’s degree or higher significantly below state average.
Unemployment in June 2009 was 15.5%; the local paper estimates that 30% may truly be out of an income, if those whose benefits have run out, or who are underemployed are taken into account.
A couple of comments come to mind:
- Who wants to bet that you would never see this policy in a predominantly white community with an income at or above state average?
- And while such a policy would be wrong any place, is it not especially reprehensible and outrageous that it exists in the only public library within an impoverished town? The next closest library is 4.4 miles away.
- What does the — who? — city council? mayor? library trustees? library administration? — think that the under 18s are going to do to their library? Mind you, there is a security guard at the door. Why? To make sure that a 17-year-old doesn’t sneak in? He watches the entrance door, it seems to me, not the interior of the library.
I wanted to see if I could find any references to the Bessemer policy online. No luck, but I did learn:
- that its director was fired this last month
- that the front page of the July 22, 2009 Western Tribune (the local paper) featured a photo of a man sprawled asleep in a chair under the headline, “Bessemer Library’s Problems Continue. Troubled director goes AWOL as basement floods; top staff member sleeps on the job”
- that in 2007 a part-time bookkeeper was charged with embezzling $400,000 from the library but died before the case went to trial.
I live more than a 100 miles from Bessemer, and I am not a resident of Jefferson County, so I’m not in a position to badger its board live and in person. But that doesn’t mean I’m finished with this talk.