Libraries Across the US Are Receiving Violent Threats

Librarians and patrons believe the threats were part of a coordinated effort to limit information access, and come amids a recent wave of book bans.
Stacks of shelved books in a library
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In the last two weeks, at least a dozen public libraries across the U.S. received threats that resulted in canceled events and systemwide closures. While bomb and active shooter threats to public library systems in Nashville, Fort Worth, Denver, Salt Lake City, Boston, and other cities across the country were ultimately deemed hoaxes, library workers and patrons say they’re still reeling in the aftermath. 


Some of the recent threats have been directed at LGBTQ events hosted at libraries across the country. A library in a Chicago suburb canceled its drag bingo night after receiving threats earlier this month. And last week, a teen drag star was forced to cancel a book reading at a library in the Bronx after a series of homophobic threats

Other threats seemed to have no obvious motive but come at a time when libraries and library workers have increasingly become targets of harassment. Public libraries were also closed statewide in Hawaii over the weekend due to an “unspecified threat.”

Library workers close to the events at the Denver Public Library (DPL), Nashville Public Library, and Boston Public Library confirmed that the threats were received via digital reference points that allow patrons to communicate with library workers. These services are run on software platforms powered by Springshare, and thousands of library workers use Springshare’s tools to communicate with patrons through direct chat, email, or SMS functions. 


According to several Denver Public Library employees who asked not to be identified due to their proximity to the situation, there were inconsistencies in communicating about the situation to on-site workers. Meanwhile, sources say there was about an hour when the remote employees managing DPL’s online services were encouraged to remain online. Eventually, all employees were offered a paid day off. 

“[Leadership] didn’t seem to have a protocol in place for receiving this kind of threat,” one DPL employee told Motherboard. The source found this lack of preparation “disappointing” considering how commonplace threats have become in the US over the years to many public institutions, including schools and hospitals. 

“I don’t think [DPL’s] preparation or response to safety issues and trauma in the workplace is great overall,” the source added. 

The lack of trust librarians have in their institutions to protect them from threats isn’t unique to DPL. A recent study from the New York Library Association, Urban Librarians Unite, and St. John’s University explored how public library workers in urban centers experience trauma while providing library services. The findings reflect frontline work during the pandemic and the increased need for librarians to wear multiple hats, including some social work responsibilities. While the study does not specifically address bomb or active shooter threats, the study does demonstrate that institutions have traditionally prioritized service to communities in need over the well-being of staff to the detriment of the affected staff. 


Alison Macrina, executive director of the Library Freedom Project, told Motherboard that librarians have lost trust in their administrations’ ability to keep them safe during a volatile moment. 

“It’s been a larger pattern through all these right-wing attacks,” Macrina told Motherboard. “Admin just like, not taking any of it seriously enough, not getting it. So their responses to these bomb threats are seen as more of the same. And also admins just not communicating through these situations [makes] the workers feel even more isolated and at risk.” 

Shirley Robinson, executive director of the Texas Library Association, told Motherboard that library administrators are treading a thin line. They are responsible for serving the public by ensuring that their libraries are able to remain open and support collection guidelines and reconsideration policies. They also work with the people electing city council leaders and school board leaders to better understand the censorship issues, in addition to retaining library workers. 

“It is an incredibly difficult position [for leadership],” Robinson told Motherboard. “And then for the library workers you are on the front lines, you are interacting with members of the public who may come in and just be really upset that a certain book is on the shelf. To be in that frontline position and explain to an angry patron that yeah, this book may not be here for your child, but it’s definitely here for another child or another member of the public, and you have a right to choose what you’re checking out or not.” 


Macrina said that library workers are willing to give leadership room to figure out how to operate in these times. 

“But at this point, it’s clear in a lot of places that there is just total denial of reality,” Macrina said. 

While the motivations behind some of the hoax threats to public libraries are unspecified, many are coming from out-of-state in each case, suggesting the threats are a coordinated effort to interrupt public library events.  The threats also come on the heels of a recent report which tied efforts to ban books to far-right, anti-LGBTQ advocacy organizations. According to the American Library Association, a record number of books have been challenged or removed from library shelves in the past year.

While the level of coordination is unclear at the time of reporting, library workers are now trying to figure out what it means to accept hoax threats as a normal part of their jobs. 

“There’s just no easy answer for any of it right now other than to vote in November,” said Robinson.