The library workplace is no more immune to violent incidents than any other venue, sad to say, and just as vulnerable to physical attacks by troubled colleagues as from visitors. Consider these headline-grabbing situations, all taking place in libraries within a three-week period this fall:
- A 19-year-old freshman toting an AK-47 (surveillance video, 1:37) enters the University of Texas at Austin’s Perry-Castañeda Library September 28 and commits suicide on the top floor.
- A knife-wielding man hides in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Greater Olney branch September 27 after allegedly robbing the shoe store several doors away. Police follow him into the children’s section and, when the suspect lunges at an officer, shoots him. The incident happens 20 minutes before schoolchildren typically pour into the branch after school lets out.
- Library staffers of the Dayton (Ohio) Metro Library’s Madden Hills branch intervene October 4 when a man begins beating a woman just outside the building. The abuser responds by seeking a fist fight with those confronting him, and a library assistant who works a second job as a bouncer ends up punching the man. Before fleeing, the suspect reveals a concealed gun in his waistband and threatens to shoot the assistant standing outside and fire inside the library. Police apprehend him a short time later.
- Librarian Alan Godin is sentenced October 14 to 25 years in prison for murdering colleague Devin Zimmerman 364 days earlier at their workplace, the Northeast Lakeview College Library in Universal City, Texas. Prosecutors argued that the motive was Godin’s jealousy over Zimmerman’s appointment as a library instructor.
“Seek precautionary advice from your local police,” advises Richard Paustenbaugh, chair of the Library Safety/Security Discussion Group of the ALA Library Leadership and Management Association’s Building and Equipment Section. “It might be campus police, it might be your city police. Invite them in, give them a chance to see the lay of the land, and solicit their advice about what they’d want you to do in an emergency,” Paustenbaugh recommends. “Explain to them what you’re interested in—for example, ‘I want to know what you want us to do if we have someone come in with a weapon’ and go over that.”
Noting that it’s “ingrained in us to stop, drop, and roll” if we’re caught in a fire, Paustenbaugh asserted, “People rarely do any planning for encountering an individual in a violent setting in your building.” What is an obvious red flag in hindsight, such as the UT freshman clearly carrying a weapon around campus, can be interpreted by trained individuals as ambiguous. “You’re on a college campus; there’s a lot of weird stuff that students do. So is this someone dressed up, playing a game? It certainly appears the gunman went in completely unobstructed and nobody’s jumping out of the way in fright. It’s just kind of odd, but again, how would you act?”
Continuum of violence
“It is foreseeable. And it’s completely preventable,” said Paul Viollis, CEO of Risk Control Strategies in New York City in the October 17, 2009, San Antonio Express-News of Devin Zimmerman’s murder by his colleague Alan Godin. Agreeing, San Antonio–area attorney Manuel Pelaez explained that trained supervisors can detect a “continuum of violence” that can start with the red flag of a raised voice and progress to a slammed door and perhaps down the line, a direct threat. “No one ever just snaps,” he asserted, adding that troubled individuals “are looking to be stopped. They want the situation to change.”
What about safeguarding the library from violence-prone visitors who aren’t employed there? Paustenbaugh advises having regular conversations with staff members about the library’s crisis-intervention plan. “Just as we prepare for the eventuality of a fire alarm or other things, we need to do the same thing with regard to these kinds of incidents. You have written policies, but they’re stuck in a manual. You need to review what you want your staff to do on these occasions. Where do we go? What do we do with our patrons?
“You know it’s unlikely, but when that day comes, you need to be ready,” Paustenbaugh emphasized. “There needs to be an annual review, even for 10 minutes. It’s so helpful.”