I read with interest a post from Katie McBride Librarians in the 21st Century: We need to talk about Library Security on the very real issues of Library Security in American Public Libraries and reflected on a recent incident of violence in my library. Public Library staff face challenging situations every day as we pride ourselves on being welcoming to all and complicated patron issues can be compounded as a significant number of Library staff are women and outright sexism can be a factor in staff / patron interactions. Like Katie, I was Manager of a Public Library when an older male patron began stalking a younger female staff member. Strategies that were implemented as a protection included ensuring she was not on the public desks when the patron came in, ensuring that she had a secure carpark and staff with her after work and eventually making a formal complaint.
As a Manager, other strategies that were implemented were to seek training from the Police Liaison officers, Mental Health services, and to hold formal debriefs at staff meetings so that discussions could be had on patron conflict strategies that worked for staff. None of these responses cost the Library Service money, except staff time, but it did need explicit thinking on the security issues and the willingness to discuss how staff were feeling and then to respond. Not always with the answer staff expected though, as we could not afford a security guard to walk with every staff member to their car at the end of their shift.
We also focused staff training on de-escalating conflict situations and this was the training that needed to be budgeted for and was well worth the investment as staff did feel more confident after this training. these five steps have been the common denominator in the training implemented over the years.
1. Listen: In the first instance it is always important to listen to the patron and show that they are heard. Often it is frustration rather than anger that is the powerful emotion driving the patron. Taking the time to listen can be a challenge for busy Library staff as there is usually a queue to deal with as well. As part of this first step it is often necessary to move yourself and the patron away from the desk to a more suitable space to deal with the issue — and if this is not possible at least to move them away from the queue of other patrons. Asking questions can also deescalate the anger as it slows down the patron’s thoughts as they answer with the detail you need to move the conversation to a solution.
2. Acknowledge and accept their feelings: This is important and staff need to accept the patron’s feelings without passing judgement. Simply saying ‘I can see this situation is very upsetting for you’ and repeating what the problem they have is acknowledges that you have understood the issue at hand.
3. Apologize for your/ library’s contribution: This is an important point. And the apology can be for the way the policy, situation, or staff member’s actions made them feel. Not for the policy itself and not for the staff member’s action in implementing the policy. And it does not help a conflict situation to point out all the ways the Library is right. Recently a situation arose with our Inter Library Loan policy, which in our library means the loaned item is to be read on the premises if from certain major institutions. Our signage, our forms, and our notices all state this. It would have been very unhelpful if I had pointed this out to a very angry patron who felt we had wasted his time, thought he was a thief as we would not loan the item to him and felt his complaint of this treatment was not being heard by staff.
4. Control your tone and body language: It is also necessary to control your voice and ensure your body language remains non threatening. And it is also important to acknowledge what you can and cannot manage — sometimes you need to separate the patron from the queue, let them know you do not have the authority to make a decision on his / her issue and that you will be back in a specific timeframe (5 minutes, 10 minutes) with your supervisor who will be able to help. Your body language also needs to be confident but not aggressive.
5. Focus on a future action: Shifting the conversation to an action or the future moves the conversation into a problem solving activity. In my Inter Library Loan conversation, I gave the patron some simple actions. The Policy does come up for renewal and his perspective is important information that can be used in the review and I requested that he write his issues down and send that to us. While he did not get to take the item on loan, he had found a copy for purchase.
For Library staff you need to make sure that you are Library Fit and identifying what training and support you need is important information for your teams to discuss and work together on. Resilience is a key skill that can be learned and you need to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, identify key learning activities and practice these skills. Teams together can focus on these issues building a really supportive environment in difficult situations.
For Management some key support mechanisms for staff to feel confident in managing difficult patron situations need to be in place.
- Policy: a Responsible Conduct Policy that details what is acceptable, what is unacceptable, what actions staff can take when they feel they are in an unsafe situation, and clear guidelines for when a patron can be banned, need to be in place and understood by all staff.
- Implement the Policy: take the actions required when required. This is important as Management must follow through if staff are going to be confident in the Policy.
- Ensure Staff Debrief: For every difficult and dangerous situation that happens in the library staff need to be debriefed. Make this formal, and expand the feedback mechanism to teams and staff involved. This identifies training needs, further support for the staff member that may be required and helps staff to process the conflict situation and de-stress.
- Ensure Understanding of the Policy through in-house training: At our library the Responsible Conduct Policy training happens once a year and all Front of House staff are taken through it. Our Policy is also reviewed every two years to make sure it remains relevant.
- Bring in Community Partners to help: We also unashamedly ask for help. The Police Community Liaison Unit comes in and does safety talks for staff. Not for profits like the Endeavour Foundation and Micah Projects who work with the homeless and the mentally handicapped have also willingly given us some staff time to discuss library staff engagement strategies with some of our more challenging patrons and their behaviors.
This does mean that Library Management must explicitly deal with the issue and to keep staff and patron security as a focus. Yes we are welcoming to all, ensuring accessibility for all and we do this by focusing on safety as an issue.