As library professionals, we are all familiar with the common refrain of, “Oh, it must be so nice to read all day!” and “Your job must be so relaxing! I would love to do that when I retire” when we tell others what we do for a living. We’ve all heard it, and I suspect most of us react with a similar internal eye roll. Although I’ve worked in public libraries since 2003, these comments, while generally well-intentioned, still grate. Not only do they diminish the labor that actually goes into library work, but they also fail to take into account that there are inherent risks involved with any public-facing role. The last year and a half has certainly posed new risks to staff safety, but public librarianship was not necessarily risk-free pre-pandemic either.
A few years ago, an irate patron at my previous library ran my car’s license plate number to obtain my personal information and bragged to our mayor about it, solely because he was unhappy with the library’s parking offerings. I’ve personally been sexually harassed by both patrons and colleagues. As a manager, I’ve intervened in countless incidents of patrons berating and threatening my frontline staff. All of these situations have occurred while working in a county whose crime rate is far below the national average.
I know I am not alone, and that fellow librarians have fared far worse. Kelly Jensen’s 2017 Book Riot article, “The State of Sexual Harassment in the Library” does a fantastic – if not alarming – job of illustrating how widespread harassment is in today’s libraries. Physical violence against library workers has been in the news in recent years as well. Security guard Sandra Wilson was stabbed to death by a patron at Finkelstein Memorial Library (Spring Valley, New York) last February. Amber Clark, a Branch Supervisor in the Sacramento County Library System was shot to death in 2018 by a patron she had asked to leave the library. Unfortunately, there are many more stories like theirs.
The pandemic has brought a host of additional safety challenges. In 2020, public libraries across the U.S. were faced with the sudden need to provide services in the midst of a public health crisis. Public-facing workers had to wrestle with elevated risks for exposure to COVID-19, on top of increasingly difficult interactions with patrons who did not agree with their libraries’ mask policies. Other workers found themselves in organizations without strong safety guidelines or on-the-job protections. Some of these concerns have gotten marginally better as the pandemic has shown some signs of improvement, but it is far from over.
Is all of this to say that working in public libraries is a miserable experience? Of course not. The same aspects of library work that can become unsafe in certain situations – chiefly, dealing with the public – can also be incredibly rewarding. Most of us are in this line of work because of our desire to help others and make a difference in the world. However, that is exactly why our employees deserve to feel safe and protected in the workplace.
While it is not feasible to plan for every possible negative outcome that could arise in the library, our administrations must make safety and emergency planning a priority. There is a great deal of truth in the well known Benjamin Franklin quote, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” This is true in terms of having a plan to deal with difficult patrons, as well as more specific scenarios such as weather emergencies or active shooter situations.
As a leader, it can be overwhelming to think about these things because so many of them might seem outside our wheelhouse. I would venture to guess, for example, that most of us did not study epidemiology in library school, making pandemic planning a little trickier. Fortunately, we are not alone. There are a multitude of safety-related training resources available to librarians, especially from ALA. For more site-specific emergency planning, I have found my local Office of Emergency Management to be a wealth of information.
Of course, simply reviewing these resources or drafting policies and procedures in a vacuum is not helpful. Staff at all levels should be invited to the conversation. Team trainings on how to handle negative patron encounters or other disasters are vital so workers have the chance to ask questions and truly understand the material. This also allows for consistent enforcement of policies concerning patron behavior and emergency response. When new employees come on board, handling these scenarios should be part of their training. If an incident does occur, leaders should allow their teams to debrief and offer employees a chance to have their concerns and fears heard.
first step towards creating safer libraries is to acknowledge that they are not
always the quiet, idyllic spaces that the masses tend to think they are; they
are open public places with all the risks that come with that. Leadership must
value their workers as whole people, not just as vessels to provide a certain
service. In order to retain our talent, we need to ensure that we are doing
what we can to make things as safe for them as possible. We will never be able
to eliminate all of our challenges, but through ongoing training, formal
policies, and open communication, we can at least be well prepared to handle
them when they arise.
 “Female Security Guard Fatally Stabbed at Rockland County Library, Suspect in Custody,” CBS New York, February 18, 2020, https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2020/02/18/finkelstein-memorial-library-stabbing/.
 “Ronald Seay Arrested for Shooting of Librarian Amber Clark,” CBS Sacramento, December 13, 2018, https://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2018/12/13/arrest-amber-clark-ronald-seay/.
 Knight, Kimberly & Melanie Lyttle, “Gaining Patron Cooperation on Mask Wearing,” Public Libraries Online, April 30, 2021, https://publiclibrariesonline.org/2021/04/gaining-patron-cooperation-on-mask-wearing/.