Public libraries are considered a safe place for children and families to learn and explore. They are also a public gathering place, open to people from all walks of life. Recently, the level of criminal activity at the Miami-Dade County libraries was highlighted on their local news station. The story focused on extreme cases from the past six months. According to the report, over 400 criminal incidents occurred in the 49 branches. These types of stories catch the eye of the public-at-large due to an expectation of safety at the library. While 400 incidents is quite a large number, it pales in comparison with the 3 million visitors Miami-Dade libraries saw in the same time period.
Public libraries are not immune to crime. Library directors and administration have a responsibility to ensure their staff has a safe place to work. Library staff members have a responsibility to ensure their library is a safe and welcoming place. How can we ensure our libraries are welcoming places?
Establish clear policies and guidelines. It is important to clearly communicate to both staff and patrons what is acceptable and appropriate library use. Consistently enforcing the standards is fundamental in creating a library culture that is welcoming to all. Whether it is an argument or a fistfight, rules around disruptive behavior are essential in creating a welcoming atmosphere. It is difficult to feel welcome if other patrons are allowed to engage in disruptive behavior.
Does your library have an unattended child policy? Under what circumstances might children be allowed in the library without supervision? Be clear with parents that the library is a public place, much like a park. Let parents and caregivers know that staff do not control who might be present in the building.
Create a relationship with law enforcement officials or security personnel before you are in the middle of a major incident. Start a conversation with your local police department. Let them know about the types of incidents that may come up in the future. Discuss how best to handle them and what resources are available. Talk to them about issues you’ve seen in the past or trends they are seeing in the community.
Most library school curriculums do not spend a lot of time covering what to do if a patron is found defacing library property or engaged in a sex act in the bathroom. Train yourself in how to deal with difficult situations. The Black Belt Librarian and Verbal Judo are both great resources for developing skills and strategies.
Smaller disruptions can be gateways for bigger issues. A minor argument in the teen area can become a heated fight if allowed to escalate. Patrons need to be empowered to speak up if they see someone committing a crime. Staff should be open to hearing about questionable incidents and address or report them. Make observing activity in the library part of your routine workflow.
Tackling crime in the library is a long-term ongoing process. Focus should begin in changing perceptions about the library. Educate your patrons and let them know that the library is not a “safe” place to leave children unattended. Deal with inappropriate behavior whenever it occurs. Be observant and vigilant in dealing with smaller situations. This sends a message that inappropriate behavior is not tolerated. Keep the bar for disruptive behavior low to discourage more serious activities.
As libraries, our mission is to promote free speech and idea sharing. As librarians, we have a responsibility to serve the public each day. We are charged with creating an inviting environment that is safe for patrons. By setting high standards for appropriate behavior, being proactive in dealing with situations, and involving law enforcement or security personnel when necessary, we can help to prevent crimes and create public spaces where respect is a basic expectation.
Graham, W. The Black Belt Librarian: Real World Safety & Security, American Library Association, Chicago, IL, 2011.
Thompson, G.J. and Jenkins, J.B. Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, HarperCollins, New York, NY, 2013.
Cover Image Credit: Ildar Sagdejev