Safety First | Library Security

The safety of staff and patrons is a top priority for all libraries, with managers striving to maintain a welcoming and secure environment for all who wish to make use of the space. Library systems nationwide enact security policies tailored to their respective communities and resources. Although these vary from library to library, librarians must strike a balance between offering a broad open door policy for all community members and ensuring a safe, secure environment for staff and patrons.

The safety of staff and patrons is a top priority for all libraries, with managers striving to maintain a welcoming and secure environment for all who wish to make use of the space. Library systems nationwide enact security policies tailored to their respective communities and resources. Although these vary from library to library, librarians must strike a balance between offering a broad open door policy for all community members and ensuring a safe, secure environment for staff and patrons.

Spotting & assessing trouble

While libraries are committed to making all people welcome, not all behaviors are equally so. A wide variety of patron actions can prove disruptive and dangerous, from drug use and public intoxication to abusive language. Library staff must be on the lookout for dangerous conduct, and libraries must articulate policies on how the offending patrons should be treated.

Many libraries address these issues by banning repeat offenders from the premises for a period of time, which serves both to remove disruptive individuals and send a message that the library doesn’t allow such conduct. For example, the Omaha Public Library (OPL) recently adjusted its policies on suspending library privileges in response to staff concerns that the previous policies were too lenient. The penalties for the two most common violations—public intoxication and harassment of staff or patrons—have been increased to one month for a first offense. According to OPL executive director Laura Marlane, the library banned a significant number of people when the penalties first increased this January, but the frequency of such disciplinary action has since “tapered off as people realize that [such] behavior is not tolerated anymore.” The library will also ban patrons for a longer period for more serious infractions. For example, OPL recently permanently banned a patron who threatened staff with a Taser.

Melissa Munn, community conduct coordinator for the King County Library System, WA, describes a policy of teaching patrons “how to be a successful library user” by clearly communicating the library’s expectations for behavior. Staff are trained to assume that misbehaving patrons don’t know about the rule that they are violating and—provided their actions are not violent—are given warnings and an opportunity to modify their conduct before they are asked to leave. Munn explains that the library also trains staff “to focus on the behavior and not the person...which has helped responses become more balanced. If a child is screaming, the child will be asked to leave the library the same as a [disruptive] adult” might be.

Some public libraries attempt to combat the root causes of problematic patron conduct through outreach. In Tucson, AZ, for example, the Pima County Public Library (PCPL) brings in registered nurses specializing in public health hired through the county’s Department of Health to address behavioral and mental health issues among patrons. These are challenges that library staff may lack the time or the expertise to handle properly. According to PCPL deputy director of public services Karyn Prechtel, behavioral health problems can be the “root cause” of many dangerous activities. Since starting this program in 2012, the library has seen a marked reduction in 911 calls reporting threatening conduct and an increase in calls seeking help for health crises.

Security on-site

Librarians and paralibrarians cannot be in more than one place at a time, and managing troublesome patrons can prove too much for them to deal with alone. It is common for larger public libraries in urban settings to hire some combination of professional security guards and off-duty police officers.

Such support comes at a considerable cost. PCPL budgets just shy of $650,000 for the salaries of security guards at 12 out of 27 branches and off-duty police at two. That budget doesn’t include the cost of security cameras, another common measure, installed at nine locations and potentially expanding to more.

Owing to the expense, library systems must prioritize higher-risk branches for enhanced security staffing. According to Marlane, OPL will “target the branches that need it most,” and security officers will “trade off roving schedules and go to other branches to check in as needed.”

ljx160502webSafetyQuote1Interactions between library security and patrons don’t always run smoothly. The Shaw branch of the District of Columbia Public Library made headlines in March when a library-employed security officer demanded that a patron remove her hijab or leave the building, spurring protests and a widespread lack of trust on the part of patrons. The library has issued an apology, and the officer was put on night duty, where he would not have to interact with patrons.

Security employees can become a valuable part of the library, however, if they are properly integrated into the environment and form positive relationships with community members. For example, according to Prechtel, PCPL has made an effort to “find officers who are friendly and great with kids and really fit in those communities” served by the library. “That can make all the difference in the world,” she says, and when guards make “personal connections” with patrons their presence is less likely to meet with suspicion or concern.

It can also be valuable for libraries to form relationships with their local police force. This increases communication and understanding between library staff and the officers responsible for taking calls from the library. Munn emphasizes the value of “educating law enforcement about what our mission is—to provide open and free access to everyone.” Marlane tells LJ that she has made an effort to meet with local officers, including participating in a police “ride along,” to get a chance to see what they deal with and to strengthen the bond between librarians and police. Local law enforcement and library staff can collaborate as partners to exchange ideas and support.

The Bozeman Public Library, MT, has taken an unusual approach to the need for library security and collaborative relationships with the police without putting pressure on the library’s budget. Because the Bozeman police force recently experienced a shortage of staff space, the library provided an office on its second floor, which is regularly occupied by officers who respond to calls in and around the library. The police will also be developing an interactive children’s museum within a small room in the lobby. According to director Susan Gregory, this creates a “very low-key, very positive” visible police presence. In the weeks since setting up the new office location, Gregory says, the frequency of patron behavior problems has noticeably decreased.

Listen and learn

Library staff are “on the front lines and know the environment better than anybody,” Munn tells LJ, and managers should listen to their opinions on security matters and empower them to make security decisions. Holding input sessions with staff about their experiences gives them an opportunity to point out frequent problems and offer ideas for solving them. Munn calls this the “emotional intelligence” side of library security.

“Staff are oftentimes the ones who are the first to respond and manage a patron-on-patron conflict that may escalate into a fight,” Munn explains. Staff have to deal as well with other threatening issues, including drug use, gang activity, and patrons who “become verbally abusive when asked to correct a behavior, yelling at staff, calling them every name in the book,” Munn says. Staff can also encounter more dangerous conduct. Marlane notes that OPL employees have experienced patrons who “set fires in the bathrooms, and one who shot a BB gun at staff through a window.” At ­Bozeman PL, staff cope with “transient, unstable patrons who on ­occasion approach our young female [employees]...for dates,” says Gregory.

Management must stand behind public services staff. It is important that “staff feel like they are supported and...can do their jobs,” says Marlane. This approach includes increasing confidence through training and clear policies and “letting people know that if they have to make a tough judgment call...their supervisors will...not [override] them,” she says. It is valuable for staff to have documentation of how and when to draw boundaries with problem patrons. When staff make an error in judgment, she says, it is preferable to “talk about that away from the patron and, if the situation warrants it, clarify the issue with the patron themselves. That keeps [staff] in control and makes them feel accountable.”

Additionally, libraries should provide clear guidelines on expectations, for example offering policies for when staff should attempt to handle situations on their own, when they should contact management, and when they should call 911. Gregory notes that, in dealing with misbehaving patrons, Bozeman staff must adhere to a “Behavior Policy” that emphasizes the role of the library as a compassionate institution. If a staffer were to discriminate against a patron or abuse their power, she says, “we would write the staff person up immediately and give a verbal warning. We do not—ever—tolerate bullying...from our staff.”

Libraries also may work with the police to provide valuable training, teaching staff skills for crisis management and increasing their ability to address challenging situations. Annual staff days at Bozeman PL, for example, include law enforcement instruction that addresses common situations, such as how to de-escalate conflicts or how to approach individuals who are mentally ill or violent. Such training “gives staff a level of self-confidence,” says Gregory.

Staff can also combat security concerns simply by remaining visible, according to Munn. “Being present can be a major deterrent to bad behavior. The more engaged we are with our patrons, the less bad behavior we are going to see,” she says.

Overall, reliable security “allows librarians to focus on their work” and provide “much-needed services to patrons” without constant worry about managing behavior, says Prechtel. “It absolutely makes a difference.”

Jennifer A. Dixon is a graduate student at the School of Information, Pratt Institute, New York, studying Library Science. Prior to starting at Pratt, Dixon worked as a commercial litigator and federal law clerk in New York City

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Perry

I have handled problems before within themselves, and the manager has not listened. I am done with the manager, what is my next option?

Posted : Dec 07, 2016 01:17

Perry

This is a important security issue. the librarians are as tasteless here as there sincerity to help others. The directors position is that she cares more about her own "skin" than of helping patrons and supports and "demands" it of staff members. For the grand reopening of the "expansion" they had planned a scavenger hunt as an excuse as a demand that patrons "find" things themselves rather than be shown. Now the kids loved finding things, however the general adult population didn't take well to this idea. 4 days after the reopening the director quote ordered that because it was an embarrassing situation, not mentioning that it was to her that very few adults wanted to participate into this event said thickly that the competition would continue, until they had given away the adult mug prizes, and said for workers to "Get" people to do it. So now for the past 3 days they have been forcing "Adults" to participate in the event. The common response is a question of "how long will this activity take?" This is a common question who don't have time/not interested in something and feeling demanded to do an activity, this of course is a conjecture by me. But you can't dismiss that its not just 1, but a number of people. Looking to improve my library experience, please give me some advice.

Posted : Dec 07, 2016 01:17


Perry

Do I have another option than the police, is what I want to know. I want to know how my local library is funded or someone above them because money and a service don't come out of thin air. I know its community money, so they must report to someone to get there funding. I would think my best option is to talk to them. So the librarians are encouraged to care more and be respectful.

Posted : Dec 06, 2016 06:21

Meredith Schwartz

HI Perry, your best first step would probably be to reach out to the manager, supervisor, or library director with your concerns. Human resource problems are normally handled within the organization rather than by the governing body, unless the problem is with the director themselves. Different public libraries are funded and supervised in different ways. Your library may report to a city council, or to a county board of freeholders, or to a library board of trustees of an independent taxing district. All of this information should be available to the public, probably on the library's website. Hope this helps!

Posted : Dec 06, 2016 06:21


Perry

Okay, I have a question about a local library. There is a librarian who has made fun of me for my allargies. I used to did not have this problem. It makes it so I often have to continuously blow my nose. The bathroom isn't always available and I pretty much would have to occupy there restroom sometimes up to a quarter of an hour. When A sneeze attack happens, it virtually happens with in 3 seconds most often. I do not have the money for expensive medications and they don't work. Sometimes they make it so I don't sneeze, but I'm really congested. And besides the fact of this issue. I really do believe this librarian would not pick on me for my allergies. Is it specific sort of thing that ends? Nope. Anything and everything sets it off. For Online safety I do not wish to pronounce the name of the library. I NEED to know if anyone believes this is NOT okay. Also I have had a number of other issues with this library. Including on the same day this other person was harassing me for it. Its life, I wont lock myself in a bathroom all day or not go into public for this. I need to know if this happens again if I should call the police. Thank-you.

Posted : Dec 06, 2016 02:09

Perry

Forgot to add, I live in a town where the police single people out and support administration in a nasty way. So I don't see how it will do any good...its just I'm feeling tired of being harassed. Especially for a medical problem.

Posted : Dec 06, 2016 02:09


stevenb

Public libraries are not the only libraries that need to pay attention to security issues and have appropriate policies and measures in place. Many academic libraries have security issues, not only with their own student populations but many are open to the public. Those academic libraries that offer the public access to computers can experience some of the same security issues as public libraries. I would have liked to see some coverage of academic library issues in this article. For more ideas on keeping an academic library secure see: http://bit.ly/1yOmIvQ

Posted : May 25, 2016 10:30


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