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Preventing Suicides @ Your Library

I was going to write about “racial fatigue” at the ALA Annual Conference, where a librarian of color got fatigued being around so many nice white ladies explaining things to her and white men complaining about being minorities in the profession, the poor dears.

It could have been an interesting discussion, but after looking at the reader comments on the topic as it made its way around the right-wing echo chamber, I was so disgusted by the vitriol, hatred, and bigotry that I couldn’t go any further.

So instead we can talk about something lighter, like suicide.

We’ve seen how libraries are training staff to deal with overdoses, homeless people, and the mentally ill, but now the San Jose Library is learning to deal with suicide, or at least prevent it, or at least prevent it in the library.

In February, “a 36-year-old San Jose man shocked patrons and employees of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. library by climbing over a seventh-floor railing and plunging to his death in the building’s atrium.” That was the second suicide by atrium in 13 months. Pretty grisly stuff.

Whereas in other libraries social workers are being hired or staff are being trained to spot patron problems before they become bigger problems, the San Jose library is taking a different route.

The city and San Jose State University, which jointly operate the library, are spending $2.6 million to glass “in the big inner space from the second floor up to the seventh,” making it impossible to leap over the side of the seventh floor.

Maybe someone could break some glass and do it anyway, but by that point someone else would probably notice a potential problem emerging.

What’s maybe not obvious is that this renovation is a complete break from the trend we’ve been seeing in news stories about libraries in the last few years. In almost all of those, libraries are expanding to include services and skills that are far beyond what libraries typically provide while not actually solving any problems.

San Jose is instead foregoing any opportunity to go to the source of the problem, whatever that might be, and dealing only with the consequences.

Whereas some libraries are training people to spot potential mental problems that could lead to bigger problems, San Jose is saying, do what you’re going to do, just don’t do it in our library.

Some in the comments to the article are taking the city and university to task for that. “Millions on renovation and nothing for mental health treatment,” stuff like that.

But what is the library supposed to do? The same argument could be made when cities like San Francisco put up suicide barriers on bridges that are popular suicide destinations.

“Why not just treat everyone in San Francisco or San Jose for mental illness instead?”

But it’s a false dilemma. San Jose, or San Francisco for that matter, might not be spending enough to treat mental illness, but the amount of money to do that is both undefined and unproven to be completely effective. No amount of money will prevent all suicides.

A suicide barrier that prevents people leaping to their deaths involves a finite amount of money and is generally effective. Suicide by atrium stopped. That’s one problem solved. Now to move on to another one.

The oddest argument, which appears both in the recent article on San Jose and the older one on San Francisco, is that it’s pointless to put up such barriers because people will just find another way to commit suicide.

Maybe, but reducing the easiest ways to commit suicide could also prevent some suicides, if that’s the goal. Bridges, and presumably the San Jose Library, are attractive as suicide locations because the suicide is relatively easy and relatively sure.

Falling from seven stories is a lot more reliable than overdosing, and impossible to come back from. Removing that opportunity makes it harder to commit suicide. People might indeed find another way, but they won’t find this way, and the way they do find might be reversible.

The arguments against such barriers are always about some other problem. Libraries, or bridge authorities for that matter, aren’t capable of dealing with the root problems that lead to suicide unless the adopt the utopian policy of Library Culture and give everyone a reason to live.

What they can do is keep someone from using a very public space to easily commit suicide. And it keeps hundreds of other people from having to watch the results in real time. Anyone arguing against that isn’t trying to solve any problems at all.



  1. Cut Both Ways says:

    “Hang in there, baby!” posters, coming soon from the ALA store.
    Will the kitten make the leap from struggling on a tree branch to hanging on to a book?

  2. I know you went away from this topic but…racial fatigue? Seriously? I love how you say ‘right-wing echo chamber’…well let me explain something to ya…there echo chambers on all sides and in the middle, too. It’s all one huge echo chamber.

    • *huge eye roll*

      You’re so right. People of color have no reason to be tired of either being constantly dismissed, talked down to, or outright barraged with racial animus. And it’s so very very rare for them to be exposed to views that don’t reflect their own. None of them own TVs, phones, or computers, or ever go outdoors, you see. And they certainly don’t know who the president of the country they live in is or what his views are.

  3. What the San Jose library did is far from novel. NYU’s Bobst Library did the same thing around their 12-story atrium about a decade ago, for the same reason.

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