Help us turn our restroom back into somewhere safe for kids
March 14, 2012 6:08 PM   Subscribe

Short-staffed libraries, how do you keep your restrooms from becoming a hookup spot? Seriously.

I work in a public library. In the last couple of months we've busted a number of couples in the bathroom together and have found clear evidence that we failed to catch other couples.

We're short-staffed, and our higherups want us to keep increasing how often we check the restrooms. In theory it's a great solution. In practice, when you're the only person on the desk and you constantly have someone waiting for help while you're helping someone else, it's a problem. It's also extremely uncomfortable for a woman to go check the men's room where you already know people sometimes have sex, but that's another matter.

Some of us suggested cameras just outside the restrooms, recording who goes in and out. TPTB don't want to spend the money.

Some of us suggested just locking the restrooms, requiring people to ask to be let in. TPTB don't want to do that, and it's unworkable anyway since we're already so short-staffed.

We're starting to think TPTB are in denial about the extent of the problem and have thought more than once about calling the press to tell them what's going on. So far, none of us have.

We're feeling frustrated, powerless, annoyed with the patrons, enraged with TPTB, etc. AskMe please hope us.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (34 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How 'bout some signs SAYING the bathrooms are being filmed? And maybe some of those fake cameras they sell as part of home security systems?

although I guess that might appeal to some people, which is a different set of problems
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:14 PM on March 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Put up a sign that says that any extracurricular activities occurring in the restrooms will be reported to the police for immediate action. Invest in a fake security camera, which can cost $15-25.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 6:16 PM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

What everyone else said -- post a sign on the bathroom door that says "For security purposes the entrance of this facility may be under video surveillance."

You don't have to put a real camera over the door to make people think there's one there.

Also, have you tried specifically telling The Powers That Be that sending women into the men's restroom to break up sexual activity is a liability issue? They don't seem to care about your safety, but they do seem to care about their money.

Have you tried chatting up your local police department to get help? My local library has had pretty good luck getting the police to just sort of hang out there now and again when they've had ongoing trouble with patrons using the facilities inappropriately. (In our case, it was mostly high school students playing hookey from the school across the street and smoking pot in the bathrooms.) It is technically illegal for people to have sex in the library bathroom (public indecency etc.) and the police may be willing to do random checks for a few weeks until enough people figure out that the whole using the library as a free minute motel thing is over.
posted by BlueJae at 6:22 PM on March 14, 2012 [9 favorites]

You might try putting speakers in the vents set to play very unsexy music? Or even better a collection of David Attenborough on tape, or Mr. Rogers, or C--SPAN.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:24 PM on March 14, 2012 [15 favorites]

You don't need to actively let people into the bathroom if you keep it locked. Just require those using the bathroom to retrieve a key from you, then return it to you after using. That way you don't have to monitor the bathroom, it's locked, and you know who is going in there and how long they have been in there. And most people will be less likely to mess around when they know you know they are in there.
posted by greta simone at 6:32 PM on March 14, 2012 [24 favorites]

I was going to suggest what greta simone did. Also, asking the cops to hang out is not a bad idea either.
posted by radioamy at 6:34 PM on March 14, 2012

Anonymous tip to the local news. If they have any hopeful Chris Hansens on staff, they'll leap at the opportunity to burst into a bathroom in order to catch loo-crossed lovers.

Or, you can ask TPTB to swing by and take a look for themselves. Be sure to salt the earth with condoms beforehand.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:34 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Prop & lock the doors open? Then folks in stalls have privacy but hardly enough to get it on. If it's a one-holer with no stalls this won't work. I have seen this in action at small public libraries, where the bathrooms are kind of in an alcove.
I am a librarian, though, and this to me is a sign of Poor Management- they should come up with a workable plan rather than add unreasonable and unsafe job duties. I currently have a job with Awesome Managers, but really wish I had done more to publically embarass my bad management at prior jobs when they have heroically failed at fixing problems by calling in the media for crap like this (our problem was a dude smearing feces on bathroom walls & fixtures; they suggested that us librarians monitor the bathroom, too.
posted by holyrood at 6:36 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Signs. A key. And if the higher-ups ask, you check them "as frequently as you are able." When any higher-ups are around, you ask them if they wouldn't might peeking in on the bathrooms while they are out and about. But, I'm not a very good employee like that and I think it's totally bunk that they are rejecting all your solutions.
posted by amanda at 6:52 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

In our public library, we keep the bathrooms locked. The keys are at the desk, in a basket, each tied to a giant plastic spoon (so they don't get lost or go wandering). We have a pink one for the women's bathroom and a blue one for the men's. Regulars know they can just pluck the key out of the basket; for new people, "Hey, the key's right here in the basket" is a 2-second transaction that you can do while helping other people.
posted by Jeanne at 7:11 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you have volunteers? Can you get some?
posted by COD at 7:13 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Go ahead and call the media, I say. Because it will be much faster and will not require you, the underpaid and overworked librarians, to become the vice squad/bathroom guards.

Whereas one news story on "SHOCKING behavior in YOUR local library!!!" will have an immediate effect that will Get Shit Done. Because TPTB will be embarrassed and suddenly will miraculously find money and resources to fix it.

HOWEVER. Have an Anonymous Concerned Friend Who Is Not A Librarian make the complaint. If it's the public doing the complaining they can't write it off as some sort of disgruntled employee issue. Surely you can find someone who's witnessed the behavior/found a condom.
posted by emjaybee at 7:23 PM on March 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

Though now that I think of it, I wonder if the biggest factor in one library where I worked being Bathroom Hookup Central and one not is that Bathroom Hookup Central had the bathrooms where you couldn't see them from the staff desk, and Current Branch has the bathrooms in a direct line of sight from the staff desk.

There is probably not much you can do in the way of rearranging (or mirrors?) if your sight lines are bad, but I thought I'd throw that out there.
posted by Jeanne at 7:26 PM on March 14, 2012

Don't call the media unless you want it known far and wide that the library bathrooms are the place to hook up.

The generally accepted way to deal with people doing things you don't want them to in the bathroom is keep the key at the front desk, chained to something too big to steal. (A book would be a good idea.) You loan it out, they return it. It's no added work for anyone. A huge percentage of public business in most large US cities do it this way. This not only keeps out the hookups, but homeless people setting up camp.

And call the cops next time someone's having sex in the can.
posted by Ookseer at 7:40 PM on March 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

Don't call the media and give your local government an excuse to cut your funding more. Keep a key at the desk.
posted by freshwater at 7:48 PM on March 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

Lock the bathrooms and make people pick up a key from the library desk. That'll probably cut it down.

DON'T tell people that they are being filmed in a place where they are peeing or possibly changing their clothes, or other private but totally innocent things. In addition to freaking people out or pissing them off, in most places it's illegal.
posted by Kololo at 8:18 PM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree with some of the above- No on alerting the media, it will only attract more sex-capades. No on cameras, that's just wrong.

Try to find creative ways to make the restrooms less hospitable. You could try making it really cold in there. Splash counter tops with water, or cover them with plants and stuff. Leave cooked cabbage in there.

Post a sign stating: For security purposes, this restroom is being monitored by staff.

After 8:30p, when all the kids should be in bed, post a sign stating: We don't read in your bed, please don't have sex in our restroom.
posted by myselfasme at 8:34 PM on March 14, 2012

Don't contact the media. There aren't many ways that turns out good.

I work in a multibranch system, and some of the rougher branches keep bathroom keys at the desk. My own branch, which is in a fairly rough part of town, does not. We mostly keep half an eye on the rooms, knock on doors when anyone is in there for more than a few minutes (though that has proved plenty of time to piss all over the toilet paper dispenser, shit in the baby-changing station, etc.) and (puts on manager's necktie) cultivate an environment where staff feel that the building is theirs, and they're empowered to be in control of it.

I know that you've talked to TPTB, but keep talking. If they have a sense of the scope and depth of the problem, they'll want to fix it as much as you and the rest of the frontline folks do.
posted by box at 8:56 PM on March 14, 2012

Agree with those who say to lock the restrooms, keep keys at the desk. This is what the library in the town I grew up did and it seemed to work just fine.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:58 PM on March 14, 2012

On behalf of those with poor bladder control (pregnant, elderly, etc) and those with young children, please do not lock the bathrooms, especially if you are short staffed.

Bathroom keys are disgusting, germ ridden, gross and get lost. It is the absolute worse feeling in the world to be pregnant, having to pee and knowing that you are one sneeze away from peeing your pants only to be told that some teenager/homeless person/absent minded idiot walk off with the key and so the rest room is temporarily unavailable.
posted by HMSSM at 9:31 PM on March 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

To answer the question, fake security camera with a "these premises may be monitored" sign.

And posters in the bathroom that have eyes to make people *feel* like they are being watched.
posted by HMSSM at 9:35 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Its been years since I've been, but the Main branch of the Berkeley library located a block from Berkeley high school used to require you to leave an ID for the keys to the bathroom.
posted by ljesse at 10:06 PM on March 14, 2012

In the spirit of HMSSM's suggestion: five bucks will get you a fake mini security camera dome, with a movement-sensor activated LED.. Your petty cash may cover it, but if my work duties involved rousting clandestine couples and poo smearers out of the bathroom, I think I might be willing to stump up the cash myself!
posted by Cheese Monster at 12:40 AM on March 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

A local library in my area put up some sort of buzz the door open system. The buzz/bell/button was behind the front desk. Said customer approaches front desk, requests the bathroom, library worker buzzes them in. I'm not sure how well this would work in your case, it depends on how far away the bathrooms are.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 1:19 AM on March 15, 2012

DON'T tell people that they are being filmed in a place where they are peeing or possibly changing their clothes, or other private but totally innocent things. In addition to freaking people out or pissing them off, in most places it's illegal.

However, it's perfectly ok to notify people that the area immediately outside the entrance to the bathroom "may be monitored"

It is the absolute worse feeling in the world to be pregnant, having to pee and knowing that you are one sneeze away from peeing your pants only to be told that some teenager/homeless person/absent minded idiot walk off with the key and so the rest room is temporarily unavailable.

What's preferable, a bathroom unavailable due to a missing key, or a bathroom unavailable because someone's got their partner propped up against the door so their sexytimes go uninterupted?
posted by radwolf76 at 1:22 AM on March 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

I do like Blasdelb's suggestion of playing audio in the toilets. An audio book reading, would be good, and in keeping with the idea of a library. It's also a relatively non-confrontational way of trying to discourage the extra-curricular activities.
posted by SuckPoppet at 1:54 AM on March 15, 2012

I don't have any advice to add, but as it happens one of our local libraries is dealing with a similar situation. There's an article here regarding their request for funds for video cameras that also mentions a town police presence and the privacy policy that would accompany the cameras. IIRC, the restrooms in this library are off in a corner near the nonfiction stacks.
posted by camyram at 4:26 AM on March 15, 2012

Bathroom keys are disgusting, germ ridden, gross ...

So is the door handle leading into the bathroom. Not to mention the doors into the library itself, the chairs scattered around the library, and the keyboards on every publicly accessible computer terminal in the place.
posted by COD at 8:21 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Kololo, I do not believe the OP or anyone in this thread is suggesting that the library put cameras INSIDE the bathroom. The OP's suggestion was to put cameras just OUTSIDE the bathroom at the entrance to help the library figure out which patrons are causing the problem. Answerers' suggestions have been to post fake cameras or signs warning of cameras OUTSIDE the bathroom to discourage the bathroom sex seekers (who presumably would prefer to remain anonymous in their trysting activity).

Cameras INSIDE the bathrooms would indeed be creepy and illegal, and I'm fairly sure our beleaguered librarian OP knows that.
posted by BlueJae at 8:39 AM on March 15, 2012

Tell TPTB that children are walking in on adults having sex. This should get their attention as it's likely to be a major liability issue for them.

Also, put up a sign on the bathroom door that says "If you see sexual activity in this bathroom, notify library staff immediately. They will call the authorities." And then follow through. Call the police each and every time. Depending on where you are, translate the sign into Spanish.
posted by desjardins at 8:58 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

(I'm assuming you're referring to men having sex with men; in my experience word will get around quickly that your library is not a safe place for these activities. There are entire websites devoted to ranking places to have public sex, and one of the criteria is "likelihood of getting caught.")
posted by desjardins at 9:00 AM on March 15, 2012

It is the absolute worse feeling in the world to be pregnant, having to pee and knowing that you are one sneeze away from peeing your pants only to be told that some teenager/homeless person/absent minded idiot walk off with the key and so the rest room is temporarily unavailable.

This is a good point, but I think the problem could be fixed by making sure you have more than one bathroom key.
posted by mmmbacon at 9:50 AM on March 15, 2012

Attach a sensor to the keychain, so it'll beep (like the books) if someone tries to walk off with it.
posted by barnone at 9:59 AM on March 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

IF price is a problem you can get wifi video cameras for like $80 to $100 each. They usually have software that gets installed on a pc on the network that does the recording.

That should be affordable.
posted by majortom1981 at 11:52 AM on March 15, 2012

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