To Catch a Library Thief: Black Belt Security

March 21, 2012

Warren Graham is a very suspicious guy. The author and library security consultant probably has seen more dangerous characters than Sandy Stern in a Scott Turow thriller. But being suspicious makes Graham effective, and he recently shared his best tips and more at  ALA’s Public Library Association (PLA) national conference in Philadelphia.

Graham peppered his talk with anecdotes as he described how to create and maintain safer libraries. He should know.  He’s a frequent presenter on security at ALA and the author of the 2006 classic Black Belt Librarians: Every Librarian’s Real World Guide to a Safer Workplace (now published as The Black Belt Librarian: Real-World Safety and Security by ALA Editions).  He described many librarians as ‘passive,’ who won’t stand up for what they need, but encouraged the audience to fight that stereotype in the case of security. “Stand up for the things you know aren’t going to work.”

Graham’s talk divided advice into two lists: one for communities that are building a new facility and can design security into the architecture, and a list for encouraging safety in an existing building. Here’s what he’d want for any new library facility:

  1. Avoid verandas overlooking the circulation desk that create an echo effect, distracting staff and patrons.
  2. Keep circulation desks near the door and book alarms. Staff can’t react in time to catch a thief, or even call after someone walking away inadvertently with a book.
  3. Bathrooms should be where staff can see people entering, not in vestibules. Bathrooms may become a spot for drug dealing or worse when doors are not visible to staff. Even better, design bathrooms with open entries.
  4. Teen areas should be supervised and open to view. Unwatched teens will get rowdy.
  5. Staff areas need doors or locks. Unlocked areas invite people who don’t belong to enter unobserved.
  6. Children’s areas should be inviting, not play areas where parents to drop their kids off unattended. Install low shelving, and don’t put them near adult bathrooms. Libraries need to keep children’s areas safe and away from adults unaccompanied by children.
  7. Computer screens should be seen by staff. He recommends the screens face staff, and located away from children’s areas.
  8. Provide lockers for staff to secure personal items.
  9. Limit multiple entries. The more doors, the more staff and surveillance required.
  10. Security offices should be near the entrance.  “When the security office is in the basement, it’s just not practical,” Graham said. Having them in front near the alarms lets the security handle situations on the spot, and can be an additional deterrent.
  11. Emergency exits and stairwells ought to open only to the street, not within the library. “They need to [have only] one way out—to the street—and alarmed,” Graham advised.
  12. All public areas should have adjacent offices or other regular foot traffic. Criminals thrive in used spaces.
  13. “Watch nooks and crannies.” That’s where experienced criminals go every time, he said.
  14. Eliminate outside benches and tables. Graham told the story of a library located near a soup kitchen that had picnic tables and chairs outside. It attracted an unsavory element every evening, with fights breaking out, trash and human waste left behind. The “furniture fairy” came one night and took the tables away, removing the problem overnight.
  15. Finally, don’t keep architectural plans to yourself. It helps to have someone—security expert, local police—look at layouts and offer advice on improving security.

In an existing facility, there are still many things that personnel can do to improve security. Graham offered a number of ideas that didn’t involve moving walls and doors:

  1. Move tables and chairs to where they can be seen. “All the bad guys would go to the tables behind the stacks,” he recalled from one library. “It helped out tremendously to move them.”
  2. Move circulation desk or angle stacks to open up the line of vision to all areas.
  3. Create storage or office areas in “dead zones” where little foot traffic occurs. When staff go through an area, it’s not a “safe place” for criminals.
  4. Remove outside tables, benches, and planters that people sit on. If it’s a problem, he said, remove it. Get the “furniture fairy” involved.
  5. Camera systems can be a big deterrent, but put them in vandal-proof housing, not just bolted to the wall where they are easily disabled. Mirrors in a corner also work well. “Even if the staff can’t see (in the mirror), the bad guy does,” Graham said. He advised against having fake cameras because they “give a false sense of security to patrons. Have enough cameras so if someone gets ejected or a person walks out with a child, you have a photo of them.”
  6. Ensure that staff members never work solo in the building.
  7. Put a device on the front door to let staff know when someone is coming and going. “I’ve even seen the old cowbell on the door. It works the same way as a chime and is a lot cheaper, too.”
  8. Close off secondary doors. “Nothing will stop people from getting their daily Internet fix. They would rappel into the library,” he said.
  9. Panic button (though he said he doesn’t like to call it that) and test every month. Test book alarms monthly, too. Inoperable alarms don’t deter anyone.
  10. Think like someone up who is up to no good and consider where the library’s vulnerabilities are. Petty cash drawers may not have a lot of money in your opinion, but “If you make it easy to steal, they will steal.” He advises locking money drawers and don’t “put one key on a big stick labeled ‘Money Drawer’.”
  11. Lock staff drawers and doors.
  12. Keep purses and briefcases out of public service areas. “No one wants to talk about internal theft,” he said. “Lock personal items up.”
  13. Remove posters and signs from glassed areas that limit the line of sight.
  14. Secure the DVD “thingamajig that has little holes in it” to the circulation desk. “If it is stolen, your DVD security is over.”
  15. Keep keys with you at all times. “If you have so many keys that you can’t carry them, you need to rekey your building.”
  16. Keep your building clean. Trashy buildings attract trashy characters.
  17. Maintain bushes and shrubs. Graham recalled finding a man with a cot and firepit living behind a library’s landscaping.
  18. Create rules and keep them simple, have simple enforcement, and be consistent in enforcing rules. “You can avoid reality, but you can’t avoid the consequences of reality. Keep rules visible and copies in the same place all the time,” Graham said.
  19. Keep a tally of staff reprimands required and numbers of times the book alarm goes off. Create incident reports (simple, straightforward reporting) for more serious infractions and any time someone is ejected.