Steve Albrecht, security consultant, moderated “Library Security,” the May 8 episode of American Libraries Live. The panel also included Jennifer Velasquez, teen services coordinator at San Antonio (Tex.) Public Library, and Catherine Hakala-Ausperk, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Regional Library System.
Albrecht explained that the popular idea about the library industry is that it’s about books, when actually it’s about people. “In our case and for this conversation, it’s actually about challenging people.” The panel discussed dealing with challenging or problematic patrons, codes of conduct, and safety for library staff and customers, and also took audience questions from the chat.
A key component the panel agreed on is distinguishing between behavior that might seem inappropriate and behavior that is disruptive and ultimately hurt the business of the library. Albrecht’s measure for responding to issues involving security and safety is to think about what impact the action is having on business.
How do you use the code of conduct you’ve established in your facility in an effective way?
In libraries, Codes of Conduct (COC) are often kept under the circulation desk on a clipboard, or posted on the library’s website. But in Albrecht’s perfect world, the COC should be on large, six-foot panels posted all around the building.
Velasquez shared that she recently visited a library where the COC was in vinyl letters on glass as you entered the library, in small font.
“Sometimes when we post something like that, the implication is that everyone who passes by reads it and understands it. In my experience, if there are situations that arise where the COC is being violated, it’s probably something that’s fairly obvious. We talk a lot about ‘acting right.’ You don’t need to write out specifically what acting wrong is; patrons know. Often times, the things they’re doing are inappropriate and it’s the difference between making that information readily available and enforcing something in a helpful manner. I don’t know how the display of a COC could help people modify their behavior.”
Albrecht explained that it’s tough to enforce what people don’t know. “How do we encourage people to look at a COC and take the opportunity to enforce a sense of boundaries for behavior in the library?” he asked.
Hakala-Ausperk agreed with Albrecht that it is important to clarify the COC and display it, not just for patrons but for staff’s benefit, too. “If a library is committed enough to create and display a COC, it means that they support it.” She said that this sends a message to staff that the administration is behind them and will support them.
The best example she said she’d ever seen was a library that had reduced its previously lengthy list of “can’ts/don’ts” to three rules. (1) You cannot cause a disturbance, (2) Library staff will determine what a disturbance is, and (3) If you cause a disturbance, you will be asked to leave. It was framed and put on the wall, so patrons saw it, and most importantly, staff knew that they were supported.
Viewers chimed in on the episode’s chat and said that patrons who violate the COC will argue with staff it the COC isn’t visibly displayed or ask where it’s written that their behavior was inappropriate.
Albrecht also mentioned that often COCs are written in the negative but could be changed to be more positive: “Don’t eat in the library,” could be changed to, “Please enjoy your food and beverage outside.” “The idea isn’t that it’s so inflexible that we’re kicking people out, but we want it to be a balance between business impact and the public’s right to access,” he said.
Albrecht also explained that sometimes patrons or staff won’t share that something they’re experiencing is hurting the business of the library. He gave an example of an elderly woman who won’t go to the library anymore because she’s afraid of the homeless man that sits there with 15 bags of his belongings, and she might not share that with staff. “We have to be more cognizant of how these things might impact the folks that might not tell us what that impact is,” Albrecht said.
Hakala-Ausperk explained that her primary point is that security is everyone’s job. “We should be walking around and looking for situations that might be disruptive or disturbing even without someone telling us, to make sure they don’t escalate,” she said.
Velasquez agreed that making it part of everyone’s responsibility is a good way to show staff how we can be advocating for patrons. “As library staff, we play a role in being preemptive and when things go down, how we react plays a role in how things ultimately play out,” she said.
Albrecht also explained that there is a wide variety of security functions within libraries. Large urban libraries may have uniformed security or police, but smaller or rural libraries may not have the budget. “It’s difficult to make an overarching security policy or statement if we don’t have the kind of security personnel that is able to carry those things out. So it really falls back to staff—not to be security guards, but to be vigilant,” he said. “Asking for help on a security issue should not be a sin in a library. We need to bring as many folks over to help and support you when you are having conversations with entitled or angry or threatening or disturbing patrons that we come across.”
Hakala-Ausperk explained that training was the key. In one library where she worked, they received consistent training on how to deal with disruptive patrons, and as a result, staff would always come to help with a problem situation without being called or asked because of their heightened awareness.
“All of the security for customers is important, but it’s important to keep the library safe for staff, too,” she said. “We have to make sure we’re addressing concerns on both sides of the desk. And it’s important to bring it up to administrators or senior staff.”
Asking patrons to leave
Albrect asked the panel how they dealt with patrons who needed to be removed from the library (banning them, suspending their privileges, using restraining orders, etc.) and what their process was for making the decision.
Velasquez said staff shouldn’t assume that teens necessarily know how to behave on their own, away from parents. “Don’t take anything for granted; don’t take for granted that teens understand how they’re supposed to act in a public building. This could be their first foray into a public building on their own, and they may not understand what’s appropriate in a library. So it’s part of our role to help them understand boundaries,” she said. “But there are situations where it’s egregious. It’s about offering teens a choice; letting them know what they’re doing is wrong, and giving them a chance to modify their behavior is really important. If they then choose not to, I tell them ‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave for the day. Come back tomorrow and we’ll try again.’ And when they come back the next day, it’s an opportunity—not to relitigate the whole situation—but to welcome them back, ask them if they have any questions, and ask them to always be open with you about helping them understand what’s going on.”
She added, “Every day is a new day. It’s not holding it over a teen’s head that they’ve had problems in the past, but just being really clear that there can be a one-day, one-week, or two-week suspension. We even offer teens a copy of the COC, we discuss what it is that’s brought us to this situation where they’re being suspended, and we will write down this is the day they can come back.” Velasquez even encourages them to come and see her before they begin their interaction with the library again on the day their suspension is lifted.
Albrecht discussed the concept of “alignment”; sometimes certain library staff align better with the patron or may have a better rapport or connection. “Maybe they can’t stand you but they seem to be able to talk to your coworker. I’m a big fan of the flexibility of saying ‘I’m going to step out of this situation and let you handle it because you have a better connection with them.’ My thing isn’t about who is in charge, but it’s about who is the best fit to handle the situation,” he said.
Hakala-Ausperk explained she thought it was really important to have the authority to kick people out of libraries. “Employees should not have to tolerate or live in fear of this person who comes every day and causes a problem. There should be an opportunity to say, ‘Enough.’” she said. “There are two things to support effective procedures in removing people from the library: (1) Get staff to do incident reports. The facts are really important to have; (2) Giving staff the knowledge that if they make a call on removing a patron, you as an administrator will support them. Staff has to know you’re not going to throw them under the bus when the angry parent calls back.”
Albrecht agreed and said being specific and spelling out language and behavior in incident reports is vital.
“Don’t say a patron ‘cursed at you,’ put in quotes exactly what they said, because it could go back to the director, a board member, the mayor, etc. The incident report can help identify exactly what took place so that a staff member looks like a professional witness, not just someone saying ‘The patron was rude,’” he said. Albrecht added that many libraries have an approach that waits until a staff member has actually been physically touched before acting on a disruptive patron’s behavior. He suggests putting policies in place that prevent the situation reaching that level in the first place.
What can I do as a frontline staff member if my library doesn’t offer training?
Albrecht said that the episode itself was a training platform, and there are other ALA resources, online and face to face, that cover security. He also suggested taking the initiative as an employee and looking online for customer service training, as it sometimes is for high-risk customers. “Maybe some libraries don’t respond to security questions if one staff member talks about it, but if they all come together as a staff and say they don’t feel comfortable because of these circumstances, then that can put pressure on leadership to take some steps—whether that’s training or hiring security,” he said. “I encourage libraries to get ahold of their stakeholder partners; mental health representatives, social workers, teachers, etc. Staff may feel trapped that they aren’t empowered to do things, but there are many resources for you.”
Hakala-Ausperk suggested taking some solutions and data to your supervisors that speak to issues of workplace violence and the value of being prepared. “Unfortunately, you don’t have to look farther than the news to see all the dangers of the workplace, regardless of the kind of place you work,” she said. She suggested getting some data and facts and proposing it to management as, “We can increase our service numbers if we make this a safer place.”
Hakala-Ausperk suggests that one way to get that data is to survey customers and staff. Ask them questions to get a sense of what they feel when they come to the library. The other thing is to learn from one another. “Most libraries have people on staff that have a lot of experience, so have some brown bag lunches where you can talk about incidents that took place. Sit down with coworkers and discuss how situations were handled in the past and how it could’ve been handled better,” she said.
Velasquez agreed about utilizing the internal resources of colleagues. “Look at those internal resources as well as partners—social services, mental health, etc.—and both of those are things that don’t cost any money so they shouldn’t be that difficult to implement.”
Albrecht suggests role-playing and getting feedback and debriefs from the rest of the staff who are watching.
Velasquez stressed the importance of feeling safe enough with colleagues and being able to say “I didn’t handle that the best way.” Albrecht suggested finding staff that align with a situation better and either asking them to teach you how to handle it, or asking them to help you in handling it.
Types of patrons
The panel outlined the types of patrons librarians encounter that may be problematic:
- mentally ill homeless;
- substance abusers (and may be mentally ill/homeless);
- gang members;
- entitled patrons—“I pay taxes, I pay your salary”;
- stalking behavior;
- disabled community;
- elderly community.
Albrecht made the point that every library falls under the beat of a local law enforcement official, whether that’s a cop with the library on his/her beat or a deputy. “Your building is part of their responsibility,” he said. In Albrecht’s perfect world, law enforcement should come by at least once a week and check in, at different times. He suggested that someone in leadership call a commander and ask if the library can get someone come in for episodic, random patrol to keep an eye on things and then leave. “It can send a message to patrons that are problematic. They have to guess when cops are coming by,” Albrecht said.
His approach is to set early boundaries, especially with people who are homeless. Hakala-Ausperk said it goes back to basics: How many are there? What they are doing? Are they causing a disturbance that’s stopping other people from enjoying the facility?
“If there is a disturbance, then you start by dealing with it as you’d start with any human being—you talk to them. Here’s a challenge, let’s deal with it,” she said. “You have to approach it like you would with a staff member; not with punishment or retribution in mind, but with a solution and you try to find an answer.”
When dealing with problematic patrons whose behavior is not allowed in the library, Albrecht’s key phrase is “You can’t do that if you want to stay here.” This harkens back to Velasquez’s idea about giving people choices: Identify what the problem is, and say if you want to stay here, you have to adjust your behavior.
“It takes the power off of me and puts the power in their hands. With teenagers in particular, if you explain the problem and lay out the choice, chances are they’re going to modify their behavior the first time,” Velasquiz said. “Being clear, being consistent, and having protocol—there is a warning, there is the outline of choices, a clear follow-up if necessary that outlines the consequences—really helps staff. If everyone is doing it the same within most situations most of the time, it helps staff and patrons. Teens learn to understand and navigate that service landscape at the library.” Albrecht says the choice also gives them a face-saving way out.
When dealing with homeless or mentally ill people, Albrecht suggests reaching out to social service outreach groups for assistance.
“Our currency is information,” Velasquez said. “We know how to get information and it really benefits us to be in those situations where we’re calling, making connections, seeking information that helps not only staff but also patrons.”
Albrecht also made clear that there are people who might be mentally ill that are not a danger to themselves or others, but library staff still has to deal with their behavior. Those cases make it really important to reach out to the people who have expertise in that field.
In dealing with gang members, particularly people who’ve actually been in prison, Albrecht says they’re hypersensitive to being embarrassed or slighted in front of their friends and especially in front of their girlfriends. “I am careful about not disrespecting them. I’m not afraid of them, but I don’t disrespect them, especially in terms of them using the facility. I think we’re careful in how we treat people, we recognize the diversity of people who come into the library, but we’re also sensitive to the idea that some of these folks can be quite volatile,” he said.
In terms of stalking or other inappropriate/sexual behavior targeted toward library employees, especially women, Albrecht says there are two parts to handling the situation: (1) The employee should have the courage to tell administrators that there is a problem and that the behavior is happening, and (2) management has to step in and tell the patron that the behavior is inappropriate and needs to stop.
Hakala-Ausperk says she sees it with younger staff, primarily pages. “With library reference/children’s staff, because they’ve been around long enough, they know what to do,” she said. “But we hire really young people to be pages, we send them to the furthest corner of the library to put away books at the very end of the stack range where they’re all alone. The best answer we’ve found over the years is that it has to be about training. When you hire someone for the first time, you tell them, ‘If you have a funny feeling, or someone is looking at you and it just feels funny, you’re probably right and you need to come tell us.’ You need to be really open about it and not say ‘Oh, this is a safe place and you won’t have any problems,’ because that might trigger the embarrassment and they might not want to come forward. It’s all about training and all staff as security staff. You have to stay involved to try and preempt some of these things, and we’re obligated to step in and take care of our staff.”
Albrecht says a primary problem is that library staff doesn’t feel empowered to call the police. “If your intuition says, ‘I wonder if I should call the police,’ the answer is to call the police. You don’t need any more of a reason,” he said. “One of the primary duties of the police is to show up and preserve the peace. It’s about showing up, lowering the emotional temperature, and setting the boundary. I’m a fan of being able to say this person’s behavior is moving in a certain direction, and we want to preempt that. The cops show up and keep it from escalating.”
Safety and security
Public libraries can also be utilized during natural disasters, and that might mean there may be several hundred people in a facility. This calls for an established protocol for handling those situations.
“In a post–September 11 world, people are used to security; they’re used to hearing warnings about things, and taking steps to protect themselves,” Albrecht says. “First responders to a disaster probably do not have the library as their primary focus and so that falls to the library staff to think about.”
Hakala-Ausperk suggests forming a Safety and Security Committee. “There are so many different things to think about—annual training and tests—and having a committee can be helpful. Rotate staff and bring other people in so that it keeps a level of awareness among staff and leadership.”
Dealing with firearms in libraries
Albrecht says this is a very problematic issue, so it’s important to understand city/county regulations and state laws. He suggests getting advice from the city attorney or county counsel, but if you’re in a state where gun culture is more prevalent, you have to be as flexible as the law and guidelines will allow. Some state laws say you can’t bring firearms into libraries, some don’t. “It’s not as much of a problem for responsible gun owners, but there is accidental discharge, theft, there are people that are afraid for their safety when they see people carrying guns. This broad-based use of guns is now more common than it was before,” he said.
The national protocol for active shooter training is “Run. Hide. Fight.” He suggests watching a video produced by the city of Houston, Texas, and Department of Homeland Security.
The protocol is, if there is an active shooter: Evacuate from the facility if someone is in there shooting. If that’s not possible, hide inside the facility—break room, conference room, restroom, training room, storage room—somewhere you can get in as many people as possible, lock the door, and barricade it. The third is the least palatable, but it’s also possible, which is to defend yourself. The good news is that libraries tend not to be the first target on the list. The bad news is that libraries have been targeted. The function is to remind people of something that is quite rare, but the response has to be built in.
If you see someone being abused, how can you figure out when it’s appropriate to intervene?
Albrecht says you need to be a professional witness in that situation. “If you want to intervene, I would make a scene if the abuser isn’t the parent of that child, especially in the case of a sexual predator, but in those situations where it’s a parent, I think you set yourself up for being hurt,” he said. “So be a professional witness, take down information about what’s happening and call child protective services, call the cops, tell them ‘here’s what I saw, this person left and has this license plate, etc.’”
Velasquez agreed and said it’s important for librarians to talk to supervisors to see what policies are in place, and if there aren’t any, to advocate for crafting them so that staff feels safe in how to proceed in those situations and backed up by management.
Hakala-Ausperk says it’s important for her staff to feel trusted to use their judgment. She said a former FBI agent once recommended listening to your instincts. If you think someone is being abused, call 911. “You’re not an investigator or detective, you’re a witness so call a professional,” she said. “Keeping the staff safe is important; the goal is to keep yourself and your customers safe and so whatever they think is a good decision is good.”
Albrecht says space and distance are really important with problematic patrons—too close is too close, so give yourself arms length plus a little more.
Hakala-Ausperk suggests that staff think about the distinct difference between customer service and verbal abuse, especially when dealing with “entitled” patrons, who weren’t discussed as much in this episode. That should be another element of staff training so that staff knows how to handle those situations, she said.
Velasquez said one of the most important things to remember with teenagers is to understand that this might be their first foray into the public space, and as important it is for them to understand how the catalog works, it’s also important for library staff to help them understand what is and isn’t appropriate in a public space.