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Protecting Library Workers : The Ongoing Battle for the Health and Safety of Library Staff

by on February 8, 2024

The ongoing battle for the health and safety of library staff has garnered increasing attention in recent years, with numerous reports and articles worldwide highlighting a troubling surge in negative incidents. These include verbal abuse, physical assaults, threats of violence, overdoses, and other alarming occurrences.[1] The statistics are stark: in Ontario, a survey of 500 librarians revealed that almost all had witnessed or experienced workplace violence[2], while in Oregon’s Multnomah County Library (MCL) system, over 1100 security incidents were reported in a single year and almost 75% of the public-facing library staff in the system indicated they felt unsafe at work.[3] Additionally, 5% of library respondents in the 2022 Urban Library Trauma Study “experienced violent or aggressive behavior at their libraries from patrons” (and 22% from their coworkers).[4]

Such incidents have taken a toll on library workers, leading to stress leaves and resignations, [5] and prompting unionization efforts across North America[6]. Central to this issue are the challenges of managing patrons with mental health and addiction issues, exacerbated by inadequate support from management.  According to an OPB article by Alex Zielinski, “security concerns were central to the latest contract negotiations between Multnomah County and library staff represented by AFSCME Local 88.[7]

So… what is going on? The following is a summary of the latest reports on current causes of negative incidents, which protective measures   are working to reduce incidents and which are not, and what new procedures and initiatives can be adopted to improve the lives of library staff and patrons.

Current Causes

Incident analyses and staff and patron surveys provided by the Library Workplace Violence and Harassment Survey (CUPE study), the Urban Library Trauma Study (ULT study), the Multnomah County Library Audit (MCL audit), and a number of articles (see reference list), the two main library issues are lack of support from management and patrons acting out due to mental health and addiction issues.

Libraries have long been a refuge for every type of person, including those under the influence of drugs and/or with mental health issues and (as the MCL audit report noted about their region) many cities have “systemic issues of inadequate behavioral health and substance use resources.” According to the ULT study, library staff working directly with the public “are being forced to do the work of social workers and they are developing secondary traumatic stress.” An increasing number of workers (nearly half of the respondents in the CUPE study) are now reporting that “they have assisted or intervened with an overdose or another trauma.”

The difference in type of work has led to a “discursive divide between differently situated workers in the library hierarchy.[8] In interviews, library management often focuses on giving chances, welcoming all, and trauma-informed service, not on the trauma front-line staff endure or the role of leadership to protect everyone. One survey respondent said, “many times things happen to staff and admin ignores it and doesn’t share any information to help others avoid it or words of comfort.[9] Staff are told to take breaks and call for help when needed but little is done to prevent incidents and in some cases staff are reprimanded for calling for help. Trauma resources for staff are little to non-existent and, regardless of the ongoing safety issues, staff are still expected to work or “rove” alone or in isolated areas of the library and enforce library policies.[10]

Current Measures

Many libraries have started employing security guards and, some have started employing social workers. In some cases, it’s an expensive solution. Toronto, Canada spends “$3 million a year on security guards” and Pima County Public Library in Arizona budgets $650k a year.[11] Beaverton City Library, however, partnered with Greater Good Northwest and CareOregon. The nonprofits assist patrons with social services and emergency supplies several days a week without additional salary cost to the library. In the Midwest, about a dozen social workers are now employed at libraries, connecting patrons to social and mental health services. One social worker at the Indianapolis Public Library said, “I’m able to spend that time, pick up the phone, ask the question, send an email to a community partner, if I have that relationship.'[12]

Some libraries, like Multnomah County Library, Saskatchewan, and Bozeman Public Library in Montana, have started providing their staff with conflict management and security-related courses. Annual staff days at Bozeman Public Library, 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.”[13] That said, more than 50% of those surveyed in the CUPE study said violence training either did not help or they didn’t know if it helped or not.

Bozeman also offered use of their office space for local police and, according to management, the increased “low-key” presence has decreased the frequency of problem behaviors. The police have plans to create an interactive children’s area in the library’s lobby to further increase the positive experiences.[14]

Recommended Measures

Almost every report suggested that changes needed to occur within library leadership to create a more supportive environment. “Leadership must value their workers as whole people, not just as vessels to provide a certain service,” said Gretchen Corsillo in her article “Creating Safer Libraries. [15] The ULT study recommendations all centered around trauma-informed leadership and support for staff: “the application of a trauma-informed approach to librarianship is one of the strongest arguments promoting the need for rigorous trauma responsiveness in libraries from an organizational perspective.” Another repeated suggested was professional evaluations of safety procedures to “analyze trends for more proactive response[s].[16]

In “A dangerous occupation? Violence in public libraries,” Sarah Farrugia suggests that “risk assessment is the crucial first step in this process and risk management strategies should follow.”[17] The recent MCL audit is an example of how it might work. The auditors found Oregon Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) compliance issues and offered 10 recommendations for improvement, including communication protocols, regular leadership visits to all locations, and further workplace violence assessments.

Other solutions from the CUPE report involved more effective or longer bans for problematic patrons, zero tolerance for abuse, expanded union education of employee rights, and hiring more library floor staff to cut solitary work. The ULT study noted that “the philosophy of ‘the customer is always right’” in libraries has contributed to inconsistent boundaries in library work, leaving frontline library workers “vulnerable to abuse.”

In conclusion, consensus across the literature underscores a critical reality: existing safety frameworks within libraries are inadequate. Despite libraries’ efforts to stay abreast of evolving societal trends, insufficient adaptation to safeguard both employees and visitors against emerging risks has been evident. Absent substantial reforms, the trajectory of this issue foretells a worsening scenario.


1. CUPE Research. “TURNING THE PAGE: Library Workplace Violence and Harassment Survey Report.” March 2023.

2. Travers, Lis, and Melissa Ridgen. “Why Is There an Increase of Violence in Canadian Public Libraries?” Global News, April 22, 2023.

3. “Multnomah County Library Employees Raise Serious Concerns with Security, Workforce Equity, and Staffing.” Multnomah County Website. Accessed [2/7/2024]. URL: https://www.multco.us/auditor-mcguirk/multnomah-county-library-employees-raise-serious-concerns-security-workforce-equity.

4.”Urban Library Trauma Study Final Report.” Urban Librarians Unite. Posted June 21, 2022. Accessed [2/7/2024]. URL: https://urbanlibrariansunite.org/ults-final-report/

5. “Health Hazards of Librarianship – Not Just Paper Cuts.” Public Libraries Online. Posted February 15, 2021. Accessed [2/7/2024]. URL: https://publiclibrariesonline.org/2021/02/health-hazards-of-librarianship-not-just-paper-cuts/

6. Union Library Workers Blog. Accessed [2/7/2024]. URL: http://unionlibraryworkers.blogspot.com/

7. Zielinski, Alex. “Most Multnomah County Library Staff Feel Unsafe at Work, Audit Finds.” Oregon Public Broadcasting, December 7, 2023. Accessed [2/7/2024]. URL: https://www.opb.org/article/2023/12/07/audit-finds-most-multnomah-county-library-staff-feel-unsafe-at-work/

8. Stevenson, Siobhan. “Third-Party Violence, Incivility, and the Frontline Public Library Worker.” The Library Quarterly 92, no. 4 (2022):  doi: https://doi.org/10.1086/721394.

9. Dixon, Jennifer A. “Safety First | Library Security.” Library Journal, May 24, 2016. Accessed [2/7/2024]. URL: https://www.libraryjournal.com/story/safety-first-library-security

10. Benson, Darian. “Why Your Local Library Might Be Hiring a Social Worker.” NPR, January 3, 2022. Accessed 2/7/2024. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/01/03/1063985757/why-your-local-library-might-be-hiring-a-social-worker.

11. Ibid.

12. “Creating Safer Libraries.” Public Libraries Online. Posted October 29, 2021. Accessed 2/7/2024. URL: https://publiclibrariesonline.org/2021/10/creating-safer-libraries/.

13. Ibid.

14. Dixon, Jennifer A. “Safety First | Library Security.”

15. Ibid.

16. “Multnomah County Library Employees Raise Serious Concerns with Security, Workforce Equity, and Staffing.”

17. Farrugia, Sarah. “A Dangerous Occupation? Violence in Public Libraries.” New Library World 103, no. 9 (2002): 309-319. doi: 10.1108/03074800210445444