Laura Wilkerson

Laura Wilkerson
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Salon.com
APRIL 18, 2011 2:42PM

Turmoil and Grief in the Salt Lake City Public Library

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            The following seems apropos in light of my return to work after a week’s vacation.

            On Friday, March 11, 2011 a woman leapt 100 feet to her death from an indoor fourth floor pedestrian bridge inside the Salt Lake City Public Library. The bridge is used to gain access to public restrooms in the building. Surveillance cameras recorded the incident. It was the third public suicide reported from that location since the Library, which cost $84 Million to construct, opened in Downtown Salt Lake City, Utah in 2003.

            On July 18, 2005 a woman managed to get onto the roof of the Salt Lake City Public Library and leapt to her death on the brick pavement below.

In 2006 the Salt Lake City Public Library was named “Library of the Year” by Library Journal.  The building, whose bond passed with 68% of the public vote, was designed by internationally recognized architect Moshie Safdi. As Library Director Nancy Tessman described it at the time, “The building reflects the idea of an open mind. There are 360° views of the city from it. You can look outward in every direction.” The building is circular and suggests climbing. It is like a “walkable wall.” To experience it is uplifting and one gains perspective. A visitor can walk a circle from the heavily used outside public plaza all the way up into the main library building.”

            The article also claimed that, “the spirit and attitudes engendered by the new library grow stronger and deeper with every new service, event, or partner the library adds.”

 

             On September 15, 2006, a 57-year-old man from Downer’s Grove, Illinois, Thomas Zajac, angry over his son’s arrest in Salt Lake City for a DUI, detonated a homemade pipe bomb on the third floor of the Salt Lake City Public Library. No one was injured. Zajac, who was convicted of the Library bombing on April 14, 2011 and sentenced to 35 years in prison. He is also facing charges that he set off a bomb in a Hinsdale, IL commuter train about two weeks before the Library bombing in retaliation for a minor traffic ticket his son had received there.              

             In April, 2007, Nancy Tessman, who as Deputy Director had present during the 1994 siege of the Salt Lake City Public Library when Clifford Lynn Draper armed with a .45 caliber revolver and a homemade bomb took over 100 people watching a Sand Painting Ceremony presented by Tibetan Monks on the second floor of the Library hostage, retired after thirty years of service. The Library Board hired Nancy Elder, a former bookseller who later became a children’s librarian before moving to the administrative side of things four years before she was hired by Salt Lake City serving as Director of Public Services and then as Director of Planning. In hiring Ms. Elder over two other candidates, including the Assistant Director of the Library, Britton Lund, then Library Board President, Helen Rollins, described her as, “the quintessential librarian whose vision and inspired leadership will vault us into the future.”           

             Draper was shot and killed by Salt Lake City police March 5, 1994 as a SWAT Team stormed the conference room where the hostages had been herded.

On April 10, 2008 a woman jumped to her death from a third story balcony of the Salt Lake City Public Library.

 

In December, 2010, Ms. Elder announced sweeping management changes to the Salt Lake City Public Library based on recommendations made by an outside consultant George Needham who found the former Library of the Year to be a, “snarl of decision making.” As a result 31 managers were forced to reapply to their positions. Top level administrators were exempt from the process. As a result, 18 Librarians were retained as managers, five Librarians were placed on “special assignment,” and four Librarians chose to retire and four Staff members were promoted to Management positions. New people were brought in to run the Financial and Human Resources departments. The Library Managers had previously given a vote of “no confidence” to Ms. Elder’s leadership style.

Ms. Elder responded, “We are excited for the new year, new opportunities and the new synergies that will be created as people join together in new groups, committees and teams,” and that, “These processes are never easy. For any organization to grow and thrive, it must constantly evaluate services, innovate, reinvent.”

Library Staff responded that Library goals of, “"enjoying life" or "bridging divides," are too ambiguous,” and that the process to which the Library Managers were subjected were, “Humiliating,” and failed to reward “loyalty.”While then Library Board President Hugh Gillilan cried sour grapes, blaming the library staff who was, “accustomed to a prior organization, and they were very fond of the previous director, who was there decades, so it's understandable that making changes would feel uncomfortable for a certain number of people. My current concern is that there are some dissidents who don't like the changes and are not supportive of Beth, and they are creating a lot of comment in the media, which I think often is highly unprofessional."

Bobbie Bohman, the Library’s administrative secretary and a twenty-four year employee, ran afoul of the new Associate Director of Operations and Finance, Mike Beckstead. The Salt Lake City Tribune requested the audio from the Board Meeting from February 17th of this year where Library employees aired their grievances against Ms. Elder. Ms. Bohman, who had been the clearinghouse and point-of-contact for all such requests complied as she had always done, stating, “The Government Records Access and Management Act doesn’t allow for wiggle room.”

            Mr. Beckstead confronted Ms. Bohman about how the Tribune obtained the recordings and ordered Ms. Bohman to route all future requests through the newly hired Communications Manager Julianne Hancock and Director Elder. Ms. Bohman took offense.

"I felt like it was wrong.... We don't judge how the information is used; we just provide the information. It went against everything I have been learning and working for the past 24 years,” Ms. Bohman stated.

Both Mr. Beckstead and Ms. Hancock denied Ms. Bohman had been reprimanded for giving the Tribune information, but, rather, for not going through proper channels.

“We seek to understand what types of requests for information are made by the public and the media,” stated Ms. Hancock, “We do this not only to ensure full compliance with the requirements of GRAMA and the Open and Public Meetings Act, but also to ensure that we are following the spirit of government transparency as expressed by the Salt Lake City Open Government Policy, adopted in 2009.”

Ms. Bohman countered that for twenty-four years she been, “the contact person for 24 years. If people want copies of the minutes or of recordings, which is the law, they can have it within three days.”

Clint Watson, President of the Library Employment Organizations, which represents the 250 people employed by the Salt Lake City Public Library, reported, “There was a huge staff reaction. Bobbi was beloved by everyone in the system. She's always done her job incredibly well, and this time she got unofficially reprimanded for what she's done for 24 years. It was shocking to all of us.”

Ms. Bohman immediately quit after her confrontation with Mike Beckstead.

“I realized this wasn't the place I had started out,” Ms. Bohman stated, “ I knew I was going to be put through the wringer, so I just wrote a note and said I quit, packed up my stuff, and I left."

            After the No Confidence vote three Library Board members chose to resign. One of those, John Becker, stated, "It has been pretty much a rubber stamp to an administration run amok.”

            When Beth Elder was hired she was given a three year contract with the Salt Lake City Public Library. On April 7th, 2011 after a 2 ½ hour Board Meeting where it was realized Ms. Elder’s contract must be automatically extended for one year unless 90 days prior notice was given, extended her contract for one year with the Board reserving the right to terminate her at any time without cause. However, in accordance with the terms of her $117,000 a year contract, Ms. Elder gets to write her own performance reviews.

            You have to hand it to Consultant George Needham who did predict the changes would bring about, “cascading accountability.”

            “The building design is very transparent,” Salt Lake City Public Library Director Beth Elder stated after the most recent tragedy, “It has great advantages to how it can be used, but we will be exploring ways in which we can make it safe.”

            Perhaps putting function and public safety above high-minded abstract form would be a start. For years New York University’s Bobst Library had a problem with suicidal people jumping from its stacks. In 2003 two students leapt to their deaths at the Library while a third fatally jumped from the apartment he was leasing off campus.  Afterwards the University installed eight-foot tall Plexiglass walls along the stacks facing the Atrium in an effort to prevent such acts but it hasn’t worked. In 2009, Andrew Williamson-Noble, a Junior at the University, used his access card to let himself into the stacks and jumped from the 10th floor, killing himself.

Salt Lake City Public Library 

Salt Lake City Public Library

Bobst Library at NYU 

Bobst Library at NYU

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Gulp on a tightrope...
I think suicide is much like drug use. Our problem is not preventing access, but figuring out why. And in this case there is also the question of why people are seeking such a public venue for such a private act. The problem is far deeper than library architecture.