Literary Hub

Librarians in the 21st Century: We Need to Talk About Library Security

library fight

If I am writing about security in libraries, something is very wrong. I would much rather write about the importance of funding for teen services, why funding based on program attendance decreases the quality of programs offered, and the various ways public libraries, well, make America great. But instead I’m going to write about security.

The public library is both fragile and resilient—it’s funding is perpetually on the chopping block and yet it persists, making every penny stretch as far as possible. That thriftiness, combined with steady or increasing library use, has allowed libraries to thrive in trying times. If, however, we do not take proactive steps to make libraries safe in increasingly trying times, the future of the public library is less clear.

Public librarians are not naturally concerned with security issues. Our philosophy centers more around granting access to resources and information than preventing it. We take seriously the phrase “free and equal access to information.” All librarians are like this to some degree—providing access to needed information is more or less why we exist—but few institutions provide more access than the public library. It’s what makes the public library such an essential, dynamic, institution: knowledge and resources available to all.

Any person can walk into the public library and spend as much time as they’d like there. Most public libraries have guest logins for computer use and while folks without a card can’t check out materials, anyone is free to browse and use materials in the library. The things that look like metal detectors near the entrances and exits really just monitor whether a book had been checked out or not. There are often multiple entrances and exits and, consistent with  librarians’ dedication to privacy, surveillance is usually minimal to nonexistent. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Public libraries should be welcoming, they shouldn’t feel strict or intimidating—the space is a reflection of the public library philosophy of access. But it is impossible to deny the security risks associated with this space.

In an effort to make the library accessible and welcoming, librarians make themselves accessible. We sit in the middle of reading rooms. We approach patrons who look confused and offer our assistance. We engage with any patron who approaches us, and anyone who walks through the doors of a public library is considered a patron just as much as the folks who’ve had the same library card for decades.

Access and vulnerability often go hand-in-hand, yet we rarely, if ever, talk about safety and security in libraries. Perhaps we are afraid of making a fuss, of suggesting that libraries function as anything less than a perfectly oiled machine, lest the pitiful funding we are allocated come under further threat. But librarians are not in the business of denying reality and we must honestly assess what libraries could be doing to better serve their communities. We can only figure that out by talking openly about the kinds of situations that arise in the public library, between library staff and patrons and between patrons themselves.

Public librarians encounter everything. We must interact with patrons who are using public computers to view pornography, mediate domestic disputes and feuds between patrons, all while remaining neutral and professional. We are responsible for Toddler Storytime and Computer Basics for Seniors existing harmoniously in the same public space. The fact that libraries are chronically underfunded and understaffed makes these challenges increasingly difficult to navigate.

Paranoia is something I frequently encountered when I worked in the public library—the combination of publicly used technology (like public computers) and a space bustling with strangers can trigger a variety of reactions in people who have trouble in these situations. These issues are usually resolved by taking the time to explain how the public computers wipe personal data or relocating the patron to a less busy area. But resolving these situations takes time and diplomacy and that’s challenging on a busy Saturday, when you’re the only reference librarian. Furthermore, librarians aren’t trained to deal with complex mental health issues. One of the best solutions for this I’ve encountered is the inclusion of social workers at the San Francisco Public Library. But very few libraries have the resources to do so and we’re pressured to play de-facto social workers while we juggle reference questions.

All public librarians have encountered complicated patron issues, but in a profession where librarians often identify as women, it’s impossible to discuss public library security without acknowledging the sexism and sexual harassment that often saturates patron encounters. These experiences can simply be uncomfortable: a patron once told me I looked like an actress he found attractive and then needed my help to print out several color pictures of the actress so he could take them home. They can also be outright dangerous: a male patron began calling the Reference Desk repeatedly and asking for my schedule. When he was denied it, he tried waiting in the library until my shift was over and then physically chased me into a staff-only area. There, a fellow librarian blocked him from following me any further.

Neither the librarian who stopped the aggressive patron from following me nor I had any training in how to handle that kind of situation. Certainly, following me into a staff-only area was crossing a line, but what should we have done prior to that? The most advice we’d received is “call the police if you feel threatened,” which is good but incomplete. We weren’t going to call the police because he’d repeatedly requested my work schedule. How was I supposed to interact with the patron? What role or responsibility did my coworkers have? Should we be concerned about him behaving similarly towards another patron and, if so, at what point should we intervene?

Addressing situations like the one outlined above can be made significantly less challenging with proper training but adequate staffing and resources are also essential. The incident with the patron following me into the staff only happened during the day, but what if it had happened in the evening? No one would have been in the back room to prevent the patron from following me further.

While library staff is in the thick of hostile patron encounters, the safety of other patrons is always a librarian’s primary concern. Some public libraries have implemented security guards, but there are complicating factors with this approach. Security guards are often there to act as a deterrent, the idea being that patrons are more likely to resolve or abandon disputes under the eye of a person in uniform. On the other hand, security guards have the potential to make the library less welcoming, something no librarian wants. Aside from the fact that many public libraries don’t have the budget for security, determining the role of a security guard isn’t always clear.

Jane*, a public librarian friend of mine recounted an incident that highlights the many roles librarians need to play when dealing with complicated patron scenarios as well as the benefits and limitations of having a security guard. She was at the Reference Desk when a patron approached her. “You need to call an ambulance,” he said. Jane picked up the phone. “What should I tell them?” she asked, because the patron did not appear injured in any way). “Tell them I’ve been off my meds for five days and I need help.”

The ambulance arrived and transported the patron to the hospital without incident. A short time later, the hospital called to inform Jane that the man claimed he had left a loaded gun in the men’s bathroom. The library was still open, and there was a steady stream of patrons in and out of the restroom where the patron claimed he’d left the gun.

The security guard at Jane’s library cleared the bathroom and began looking for the gun. As he was searching under paper towels in the trash can for the gun, Jane said to him, “I don’t know if you should be doing that.” The security guard wasn’t sure either. Neither of them knew what to do about the possibility of a loaded gun in the library. The bathroom-search the security guard conducted didn’t yield any results, so he and Jane improvised. The guard stood in front of the door of the bathroom and prevented people from entering until the library closed. When Jane asked her boss about what to do if a similar situation occurred again? According to Jane, her supervisor didn’t know either. “Call the police, I guess.”

Some libraries offer active-shooter training, though it’s more common in academic libraries than it is in public; when the training does make its way to public libraries, it’s usually limited to large branches with more resources invested in staff training. Even relatively minimal training can make a librarian feel more confident about how to protect patrons in an active-shooter scenario. One librarian I spoke to said that the extent of his active-shooter training was watching a video and even that was helpful. “A video can only cover so much because every situation is different, but it did shed light on knowing exit points, it showed how to properly barricade doors, and all that stuff,” he said. “I felt more prepared after having watched it.”

The American Library Association recognizes the need for active-shooter training for library staff; in 2016, ALA’s annual conference included an Active-Shooter Policies in Libraries program. The organization has also taken strong positions on gun control and gun violence: at the 2017 mid-winter conference, the ALA Council passed a resolution on gun violence affecting libraries, library workers, and library patrons.  But there are limits to what the ALA can do, however. It’s excellent that the ALA has taken a strong position on common sense gun reform legislation, but it’s up to libraries and their sources of funding to make public safety a priority.

The threat of a shooting in a library is real and serious. Equally serious attention, however, should be given to training staff in what most challenging patron encounters require: conflict de-escalation and resolution. Many of us learn this on the job, but is that really the best way to provide service to our patrons?

Although the examples I cite are among the more extreme, dedicated training in conflict de-escalation can help foster an overall sense of security in the library. More often than not, librarians are not tossed into the middle of full-blown physical fights, rather we try to tamp down minor skirmishes before they escalate. The more effectively we are able to do this, the better able we are to maintain a sense of equanimity and comfort in the library for other patrons. While experienced librarians might be able to do this skillfully, a “figure it out on the job” attitude is antithetical to a “best practices” approach and really does library  patrons a disservice.

The barrier to this kind of training is the same in most public libraries: funding. Libraries are simply not among the top priorities for government funding. With all of the important services and opportunities a public library offers a community, I cannot begin to rationalize why they are such a low priority. I do know this:  librarians are quick learners and nothing means more to us than providing the best possible service we can to our patrons. That service should include knowing how to handle these types of situations. Librarians and, more importantly, library patrons must advocate for the inclusion of training and resources in the public library’s budget. Too often after a tragedy like a mass shooting, we collectively ask ourselves, “what could we have done to prevent this?” Vocal support of robust funding for public libraries will help ensure they remain accessible and welcoming to all.

*name has been changed

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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