For nearly two decades, Lisa Dunseth loved her job at San Francisco’s main public library, particularly her final seven years in the rare books department.
But like many librarians, she saw plenty of chaos. Patrons racked by untreated mental illness or high on drugs sometimes spit on library staffers or overdosed in the bathrooms. She remembers a co-worker being punched in the face on his way back from a lunch break. One afternoon in 2017, a man jumped to his death from the library’s fifth-floor balcony.
Dunseth retired the following year at age 61, making an early exit from a nearly 40-year career.
“The public library should be a sanctuary for everyone,” she said. The problem was she and many of her colleagues no longer felt safe doing their jobs.
Libraries have long been one of society’s great equalizers, offering knowledge to anyone who craves it. As public buildings, often with long hours, they also have become orderly havens for people with nowhere else to go. In recent years, amid unrelenting demand for safety-net services, libraries have been asked by community leaders to formalize that role, expanding beyond books and computers to providing on-site outreach and support for people living on the streets. In big …