Suicides and Silence: Why Is the Public Library Withholding Information?

With a dramatic and tragic death under its roof for the second time, the main branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County has some explaining to do. Why isn't anyone talking? The

Oct 17, 2002 at 2:06 pm

With a dramatic and tragic death under its roof for the second time, the main branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County has some explaining to do. Why isn't anyone talking?

The library is usually a peaceful respite for reading and a free resource for education and entertainment. Three weeks ago, however, tragedy struck there.

A 27-year-old employee at the library's main branch died Sept. 27 when she apparently jumped from the top floor of the building's interior. The death is under investigation as a likely suicide.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that this is not the only such tragedy to take place at the library. About eight years ago a man who worked downtown and frequented the library took his life there. He, too, jumped to his death.

The library has handled the most recent tragedy by keeping silent about it, similar to its response to the first death.

Media coverage of the two public deaths has been non-existent. The library won't even disclose the dead woman's name.

Kim Fender, director of the library, declines to speak about the two deaths. Several lower-ranking library staffers whom CityBeat asked about the recent incident claimed they weren't working Sept. 27.

Amy Banister, the library's public relations director, does give some scant information about the library's reaction to the deaths, but only reluctantly — and not without a lecture about a reporter's inquiry.

"If you think you are doing a public service by publicizing this, I think you really need to reconsider your motives," Banister says.

Perhaps so, but two deaths in a very public setting followed by complete silence seems slightly unsettling, even if talking about suicide makes one squirm.

Banister says the library is intentionally keeping silent because it fears future copycat suicides and wants to show respect for the family, friends and coworkers of the deceased employee. That, she says, is why there has been no media coverage of the death.

Still, the question must be raised: Is silence the best approach to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again?

The library's immediate reaction to the most recent death raises questions. When the woman fell to her death at about 4 p.m. Sept. 27, the library remained open for business. Police officers only closed off the area around the body.

If keeping the woman's death out of the public eye was so important, why didn't the library close for the rest of the day? What about other employees who were working at the time? Wouldn't closing shop have been a more sensitive response to the trauma they experienced?

Asked why the library stayed open, Banister says the facility is busy.

"There were many people in the library," she says. "It's a huge facility."

Grief counselors from the library's human services department were available to employees within an hour, according to Banister.

Spokesmen for the Cincinnati Police Department say the death is still under investigation, and the Hamilton County Coroner's office says the autopsy report is still pending.

While Banister declines to comment on circumstances surrounding the death, she says the library has been considering possible architectural changes to the facility.

Each of the library's four floors overlook the lobby. The only barrier to prevent someone from jumping is a brick wall 3.5 feet high.

Banister says steps were not taken to make changes after the first suicide at the Main Branch because nothing of the sort had occurred in the past and administrators foresaw no future problems.

The lesson is clear: Silence did not help after the first death and is likely only to delay changes to stop a similar occurrence from happening again in the future.

Suicide is a difficult subject, and most newspapers and broadcast media do not report such deaths. But when a person dies in a public place, doesn't the public have the right to know how it happened and whether negligence played a role — especially when it has happened in the same place, in the same manner, years before?

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.