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.
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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.
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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.”