Library and Information Studies (LIS) has traditionally taken a conservative and uncritical approach to security and policing in libraries. The available literature usually adopts one of three frameworks: the liability framework emphasizing risk and its management, the security consultant framework featuring authors with private security or policing backgrounds, and the First Amendment framework seeking to balance the rights of the individual with the rights of the majority as seen in Kreimer v. Morristown. Despite some helpful recommendations from these contributions, they tend to encourage library staff to develop close relationships with local police and security guards without considering the negative effects this closeness can have on patrons who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC), people experiencing mental illness, and people from other marginalized communities. Research from outside of LIS has documented the negative psychological effects of police presence on BIPOC and has also established connections between the increased presence of police in libraries and the broader increase of police and security guards in public spaces. If libraries are to be safe places for patrons of all backgrounds, authors in LIS, and library workers in general must incorporate insights from other disciplines into their practice and begin to meaningfully address the complicated roles of police and security guards in the public library.
By Ben Robinson
While issues relating to library security tend to be the concern of a small group of academics within the field of Library and Information Sciences (LIS), some of the more disturbing accounts of violence in North American public libraries have recently been covered in the general news. In 2018 alone, two news stories about violence in Canadian libraries were circulated widely, including one in which a patron kicked an elderly librarian in the chest at Richmond Public Library in British Columbia as well as another in which a librarian at a Christian Science Reading Room in Ottawa was sexually assaulted and then murdered in the middle of the day (Yogaretnam, 2018; Ferreras, 2018).
Because of these well-documented incidents, there has also been greater news coverage of the increasing presence of police and security guards in North American public libraries. In February 2019, the main branch of the Winnipeg Public Library (WPL) increased security measures by requiring patrons to go through bag checks and metal detection. Ed Cuddy, Manager of Library Services at WPL, said the changes were made because of “violent incidents, incidents involving people that are intoxicated or using other substances, where there has been significant threats to staff and security” (Caruk, 2019). Similarly, in January 2019, Yellowknife’s public library introduced security guards after seven fights broke out in 2018. The library also announced it would close earlier on those nights “when many municipal enforcement officers are in court, meaning they can’t respond to calls for assistance from library staff” (Panza-Beltrandi, 2019).
Accounts of violence against library workers and patrons have been accompanied by several stories of security and police overreach in libraries. In 2017 in Lakewood, Ohio, an off-duty police officer working a shift at the Lakewood Public Library broke the jaw of a seventeen-year-old patron after he placed her in “a full-nelson-type hold” when she refused to leave the premises (Mosby, 2017). At a branch of the District of Columbia Public Library, a security guard demanded a patron remove her hijab if she wanted to remain in the building. The incident led to “protests and a widespread lack of trust on the part of patrons,” resulting in the officer being placed on night duty to avoid further interaction with the public (Dixon, 2016).
These stories highlight the complex power dynamics at play in interactions between library patrons, library staff, security guards, and police officers. Though both staff and patrons were injured in the scenarios above, it is worth noting that while staff may be able to call on police or security guards if they feel unsafe, this is not always possible or even desirable for patrons. Many library workers – particularly if they are white – also enjoy the protection that professionalism affords – of being seen not just as an individual but as part of a large government organization with the added legitimacy that provides – sometimes the same large government organization employing the police officers or security guards tasked with settling disputes. Patrons, on the other hand, may not have anyone to vouch for them or legitimize their claims, leaving them on their own in these scenarios. Further, “because libraries and their staff represent a particularly middle class and white worldview”, BIPOC patrons do not have the luxury of starting from a neutral position when interacting with library staff but, from the outset, are more likely to be subject to discrimination (Selman et al., 2019, p. 13). Inversely, BIPOC staff may also be susceptible to similar discrimination from patrons, co-workers and/or security staff. Discussions surrounding these incidents of violence and the dynamics at play within them are all the more relevant in the context of the broader discussions about power, policing, and public space currently being led by groups like Black Lives Matter and need to be given greater consideration by library workers moving forward.
In writing this article, I want to acknowledge that my positionality as a white man affects my relationship to this topic. While I have witnessed incidents of violence, seen exclusion methods in action and spoken to patrons who have been discriminated against by security guards and police officers in libraries, I do not have personal experience and will never be able to fully understand the experiences of BIPOC with regard to policing and security. Though I can only make recommendations from my narrow understanding of the topic, the lack of existing literature on this topic motivated me to pursue it despite my limited perspective. I hope this article can serve as a basis for further study in this area by authors better situated to comment on how marginalized communities experience policing and security in libraries.
In the following sections, I will analyze the scholarly literature since the turn of the 21st century to assess the range of responses to policing and security in North American public libraries. I will begin by exploring the more conservative perspectives in LIS, starting with what I term “the liability framework,” which approaches patron and staff safety, network security and building security in a similar manner. Then I will analyze “the security consultant framework,” paying particular attention to two books, The Black Belt Librarian: Real-World Safety & Security by Warren Graham, and Library Security: Better Communication, Safer Facilities by Steve Albrecht (2015; 2012). I will then examine “the First Amendment framework” within the LIS literature which focuses on balancing collective and individual rights, before concluding with a survey of relevant perspectives from outside LIS.
Typically, LIS scholars writing on security and policing in libraries have taken a conservative and uncritical approach. They tend to overemphasize the positive effects of police presence without giving much consideration to how increasing securitization adversely affects BIPOC including both staff and patrons, people experiencing homelessness, people dealing with mental illness, and other marginalized groups. Although disciplines such as psychology and justice studies have documented the disproportionately negative effects of police presence on marginalized communities, this perspective is notably absent from even the most progressive LIS authors writing on policing and security. I will explore and critique the current LIS literature on policing and security in North American public libraries by supplementing it with research from other disciplines relevant to the current discourse in LIS, ultimately asking the question, “who gets the right to feel and be safe” in public libraries, and who does not (Barry, 2015)?
Fire, Flood and Fist Fights: The Liability Framework
The liability framework tends to view safety and security as a holistic endeavour and often aims to address fire and flood prevention, theft, online privacy, and violent behaviour simultaneously (McGinty, 2008). The need for security infrastructure is stressed throughout and the articles often provide long lists of devices and alarms that can be installed to improve security (Forrest, 2005; McGinty, 2008).
In addition to technological solutions, Forrest describes the “security ethos” which encourages library and security staff to monitor certain patron types who are deemed most likely to exhibit “suspicious activity” (2005, p. 91, 95). The focus on patron types is best captured in McGinty’s statement that “unfortunately, libraries also attract aberrant individuals, the homeless, and the mentally ill by having comfortable public space and tolerant staff” (2008, p. 117). Rather than celebrating this comfort and tolerance, McGinty suggests this is a liability. The implicit logic is that if comfortable spaces and tolerant staff attract ‘aberrant’ individuals, then less comfortable spaces and less tolerant staff are needed to repel them. This model followed to its logical conclusion, would exclude “aberrant individuals” in the hopes of making the library environment as controlled as possible (p. 117). Further, this reliance on patron types and ambiguous terminology like “aberrant individuals” is a thinly veiled application of stereotypes about what kinds of patrons staff believe are likely to cause problems in the library (p. 117). It is critical here to point out “that those most likely to have…been treated repeatedly as suspects are Black, Indigenous, poor, and gender non-conforming people” (Selman et al., 2019, p. 31).
The liability framework sometimes blurs the distinction between library staff and security staff, as at Western Kentucky University (WKU) where student patrollers were hired to assist campus police (Forrest, 2005). While their priority was monitoring patrons, the student patrollers were also free to answer reference questions if they were otherwise unengaged. Forrest states that “other institutions have reported similar benefits from the addition of student patrollers to the library’s security force,” citing a program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale where “during the 18 months prior to the patrol’s assignment to the library, there was one criminal arrest, but there were ten arrests during the patrol’s 18-month presence in the library” (Forrest, 2005, p. 92). Again, we see exclusion methods being celebrated, and the implication that an increase in arrests in the library is desirable. The possibility that any of the arrests might have been unnecessary is not considered.
This kind of “pragmatic” approach common to the liability framework ignores the effects that certain security measures have on BIPOC, people experiencing mental illness, and other marginalized groups. In reality, the reliance on patron types within this framework serves to reinforce harmful stereotypes about marginalized communities. The primary flaw of the liability framework seems to be the authors’ unwillingness or at least failure to address the negative effects of the security measures they propose.
Countering the Black Belt Librarian: The Security Consultant Framework
Closely related to the liability framework is the security consultant framework, which relies on the expertise of external advisers. Key texts which promote this approach are Library Security by Steve Albrecht, a former San Diego Police reserve sergeant, and The Black Belt Librarian by Warren Graham, a former private-sector security director – both published by the American Library Association (ALA) (2015; 2012). This literature tends toward practical recommendations including conflict management training for library and security staff, establishing clear codes of conduct, and designing library spaces with security in mind. The importance of establishing a good working relationship with other community organizations such as advocacy groups for people experiencing homelessness and community mental health services is also emphasized (Albrecht, 2015, p.121-123).
In addition to partnering with community organizations, both authors support police involvement in libraries. Albrecht’s vision of this partnership is almost laughable as he suggests libraries should have “a place in the back office where [police officers] can sit and drink a cup of coffee” or “sit in your employees-only area just long enough to eat their lunch and finish a report before they have to go back out to face another barrage of radio calls” (2015, p. 119). While a cordial relationship with other municipal employees is certainly desirable, Albrecht’s vision drifts into the realm of fantasy. Though it is clear what police officers stand to gain from such a relationship, it is unclear how this would benefit library workers, not to mention the impression this increased closeness could have on patrons’ perceptions of intellectual freedom and privacy in libraries.
Albrecht’s only mention of police violence comes during a discussion of the different ways a patron might react to the police having been called, where he states “if the person is significantly mentally ill, he or she might believe that the cops will hurt or kill him or her when they arrive and take out their handcuffs” (2015, p. 74). Despite examples of police and security guards harming library patrons such as the ones highlighted earlier, Albrecht’s sole engagement with police violence frames it as a delusion of people with mental illnesses.
By publishing authors like Albrecht and Graham, the ALA, which is responsible for upholding and developing the professional values of librarians throughout the United States and beyond, has welcomed the ideologies of the police force and the private security firm into LIS. Albrecht and Graham are unapologetic about how their values differ from their vision of librarianship, and though they do provide some helpful insights into library service, their “quasi-military approach” and desire for “customer closeness” with police are incompatible with ensuring that library spaces are safe and welcoming for all patrons (2015, p. 71, 119).
In fact, both authors explicitly acknowledge they are not librarians, as Albrecht states:
…I’m perhaps less forgiving of the rude, angry, eccentric, entitled or threatening patron than you might be. What you are willing to tolerate, because of librarianship’s principles of access or simply because you see these same people day after day, may be different. (2015, p. xi-xii).
Statements like this in the introduction to Library Security should have been a warning sign to the editors that Albrecht was not the ideal author to write a book on a topic of such importance. Given that the available literature on security and policing in public libraries is quite limited, it is disconcerting that these two titles occupy such a prominent place. Library leaders and organizations like the ALA have not been confident enough in their expertise, opting to bring in “experts” from outside the profession, as we have seen with the introduction of CEOs, professional managers, and professional marketing staff.
Kreimer v. Morristown: The First Amendment Framework
Perhaps the most infamous incident involving police in a public library is outlined in Richard R. Kreimer v. Bureau of Police for the Town of Morristown. Mr. Richard Kreimer, a patron of the Morristown Public Library, in New Jersey, was often the subject of patron complaints due to his body odour and tendency to stare. When these complaints occurred, Mr. Kreimer was asked to leave the library by staff and “if he refused, the police were called” (Barber, 2012, p. 90). In 1991, after being removed from the premises by police on multiple occasions, Mr. Kreimer sued the Morristown Public Library in a case which eventually ended up before the United States Court of Appeals (USCA) resulting in a landmark decision cited throughout the literature (Barber, 2012; Wong, 2009). The USCA ruled that the First Amendment protects an individual’s right to receive information in an institution like the public library; however, the decision also stated libraries were limited public spaces and, as such, the library administration had the right to remove patrons from the library if they were violating a rule outlined in the code of conduct (Barber, 2012).
This First Amendment framework seeks to balance the rights of the individual against the rights of the majority and is supported by a great deal of the LIS literature on security and policing (Dixon, 2016; Trapskin, 2008; Wong, 2009). Wong frames the discussion as a balance between the needs of “majority users” and “special groups like the homeless” (2009). Though labelling certain patron groups “special” is reductive, this language of the unnamed majority and various minority groups captures the way a great deal of the LIS scholarship addresses these issues. Trapskin suggests that the recent security issues in libraries are the result of a lack of public space in cities more generally and a shift in how library space is used from a quiet study space to a more social space (2008). This struggle to balance the needs of various patron groups is captured well by DeFaveri who explains that “For every person who finds the library safe and pleasant there is another person who feels uncomfortable and unwelcome” (2005, p. 1). Similarly, just as there are patrons who would not enter a library if there were no security guards or police, there are patrons less likely to enter a library because there are security guards or police and both of these concerns need to be addressed.
In addition to providing a theoretical framework for a First Amendment approach to policing and security, these authors also offer practical recommendations including more traditional methods of library enforcement like banning mechanisms, library design, and the familiar suggestion that “library managers should work closely with their police departments” (Dixon, 2016; Trapskin, 2008, p. 76). Beyond these suggestions, the authors offer some progressive responses including partnerships with public health nurses to address mental illness and addictions, de-escalation training for library staff and security guards, and library programming which allows staff to develop relationships with patrons to increase mutual understanding (Dixon, 2016; Trapskin, 2008). While many of the recommendations in this section provide excellent alternatives to involving security guards and police, the persistence of an uncritical approach to policing and security is notable.
The most progressive vision of the relationship between library workers and police within the LIS literature comes from Chancellor’s 2017 article exploring two instances when American libraries opened their doors to the public amidst the unrest following the acquittal of police officers in the deaths of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown. The relationship between police violence and libraries in Chancellor’s examples are somewhat different than the ones considered here in that the violence was taking place outside of the library and the library functioned as a space of refuge from violence, however, I believe they are still instructive.
Though Chancellor’s article does not address the presence of police in libraries explicitly, it does argue that libraries must continue to “serve as safe havens in times of crisis” (2017, p. 2). Because widespread “racial profiling…mass incarceration, and shootings by overzealous police officers of unarmed African Americans are pervasive in today’s society,” ensuring libraries continues to be a safe space for all will require library workers to reassess their relationship with the police (Chancellor, 2017, p. 6). While this does not mean vilifying all police and security and banning them from libraries, to ensure libraries are a safe space for all, library staff will need to consider the effect of police presence on all patrons as well as their own staff. In the following section, I will highlight some perspectives from outside of LIS which extend Chancellor’s arguments and are relevant to this discussion.
Beyond the Bibliosphere: Perspectives from Outside of LIS
While Albrecht and Graham bring their perspectives from outside LIS, having published with ALA Editions suggests the audience for their books is still largely within the realm of LIS. Because of this, it is helpful to consider the work of a wide-ranging group of researchers from outside LIS entirely who have been studying issues surrounding policing and security in public spaces. One study of note, very much in line with Albrecht and Graham, found that “police presence can have a strong impact on public fear reduction” (Zhao, Schneider & Thurman, 2002, p. 295). This is relatively unsurprising given that if police presence did not affect public fear whatsoever there would be no reason to have a police force in the first place. At issue here is not that police presence does not have an impact on fear reduction for a portion of the public, but rather that police presence does not reduce fear for the entire public. It is interesting to note that the same study suggested “police presence may not have an influence on making citizens satisfied with police services,” indicating the public wants the police to do more than simply be present (Zhao et al., 2002, p. 295).
In contrast, Warner and Swisher conducted a study documenting the effect of police presence on the health of people of colour (2015). The study explored the variations in self-assessed life expectancy for youth from different ethnic backgrounds and found that black, as well as foreign-born and second-generation Mexican youth, were least likely to believe they would live past the age of thirty-five. The authors theorized that “the lower survival expectations of black youth…may also reflect unmeasured stressors associated with discrimination and concerns about increasing police surveillance, harassment, and violence” (Warner & Swisher, 2015, p. 13). Thus, while police presence may have a calming effect on the public generally, their presence can also have negative health effects depending on a person’s race.
In the last decade, several studies have been published in the United States documenting the increased presence of police in elementary and high schools and the effect of that presence on students. A 2016 report from the American Civil Liberties Union investigating school-related arrests found that Black, American Indian, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and Latinx students were much more likely to be arrested at school than white students. Notably, students with disabilities were also three times more likely to be subject to school-related arrest. Students at schools where 80% of the students came from low-income families were also seven times more likely to be arrested than students at schools where 20% came from low-income families (Nelson, Leung & Cobb, 2016, p. 3).
Similarly, Weisburst’s study of police presence in Texas schools found that the rate of suspensions and expulsions increased by 200% and disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic students (2019, p. 338). This was coupled with findings that schools receiving federal grants for police programs saw a 2.5% decrease in high school graduation and a 4% decrease in college enrolment, both disproportionately affecting low-income students. While public schools and public libraries are certainly not perfect analogues, their shared educational mandates and tendency to host diverse groups of people suggest LIS researchers should consider these findings.
Alongside these findings about public perception of police presence are a host of studies detailing what is known as “the weapons effect”. These studies use a variety of methods to document the effect of an individual simply seeing a firearm. In the original study, participants were placed in a room with a shotgun and a handgun on the table which the researcher explained were left over from a past study (Bushman, 2013). The control group in this scenario had a badminton racquet and a birdie on their table. The participants were then asked to decide how strong an electric shock to apply to the research assistant in the next room with the group who was exposed to firearms opting for stronger shocks than the control group. The original study has been replicated more than fifty times with the most surprising variation finding that even just hearing the name of a weapon can make participants more aggressive (Bushman, 2013). These findings have significant implications for police presence in libraries as they run counter to Albrecht’s belief that police “presence…simply calms things down” (2015, p. 73). While it may be true that police presence decreases public fear for a portion of society, paradoxically, the presence of weapons on these officers can also increase general aggression which in turn can escalate encounters with police.
The changing nature of public space has also been studied extensively by scholars outside of LIS. Tilley suggests public spaces are becoming increasingly commercialized as their purpose shifts toward private consumption (2014). This emphasis on private consumption has resulted in the increased use of private security companies to manage public spaces like parks and plazas. Of particular relevance to the discussion around police presence and ethnicity, Tilley suggests policing practices in these spaces have shifted to deal not only with violent crimes but also with perceived threats. In a move that recalls McGinty’s statement about “aberrant individuals, the homeless and the mentally ill,” maintaining a sense of safety in public spaces has become “largely dependent on the exclusion of racialized bodies, the poor, and those who are deemed undesirable” (2008, p.117; Tilley, 2014).
These types of exclusion mechanisms and their effects have been documented extensively by journalists and scholars alike including Desmond Cole who reported on the disproportionate effects of police street checks or carding programs on young black men in Toronto (2015). A 2017 report prepared for the Toronto Police Services Board by faculty from the University of Toronto’s Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies compiled the results of recent studies on carding and police street checks from around the world and concluded “between 19 and 24 of the 27 studies show effects supporting the conclusion that minorities are more likely to be arrested than whites” (Doob & Gartner, 2017, p. A13). Even when youth involved in violent crime in the last year were removed from the equation, there was still a marked difference in involvement with police between white youth and youth of colour at 10.1% and 28.5% respectively (Doob & Gartner, 2017, p. A11). The critical point of application for library workers is that people “become less engaged with their communities if they are subject to what might be considered ‘unproductive’ police stops” (Doob & Gartner, 2017, p. A13).
In light of this research, the increasing presence of police and security guards in libraries is a part of the broader trend toward the privatization of public space which adversely affects BIPOC. If libraries are to remain safe and welcoming places for all people, library workers must be aware of and combat this shift in the way public space is used and managed.
In order to ensure public libraries are safe for all patrons, library workers must move beyond reacting to the effects of systemic issues and begin to directly address the root causes through strategic partnerships. At least “24 public libraries in the United States currently incorporat[e] social services and social workers” as well as several more at Canadian public libraries in “Edmonton, Winnipeg, Kitchener, Thunder Bay, Brantford, Hamilton, and Mississauga” (Fraga, 2016: Schweizer, 2018, p. 34). While social workers are becoming more common in library settings there is still remarkably little data about their effectiveness. This is an area in need of further study.
Halifax Public Libraries (HPL) also recently hired a social worker who has the unique role of overseeing the security staff at HPL (Selman et al., 2019, p. 14). This kind of creative restructuring of traditional staff hierarchies is critical for libraries looking to move “from a culture of suspicion to one of empathy and welcome,” (p. 19). As well as introducing social workers, HPL received funding to be able “to offer a free hot beverage and healthy snack to customers twice/week,” an important step in beginning to address the inequality in their community (p. 15). While certainly not part of the traditional function of libraries, this HPL program is an excellent example of library workers taking concrete action to address systemic issues affecting their patrons and incorporates Trapskin’s recommendation to develop “new programs and services that promote even more positive staff and user interaction” (2008, p. 74).
If library workers are going to continue to have relationships with police and security professionals then the two parties must have equal say in decision-making regarding library security. To close the gap that Albrecht describes between what library workers and police are “willing to tolerate,” library workers must have the means to provide meaningful oversight of library security and be free to uphold “librarianship’s principles of access” (2015, p. xi-xii). It is critical that library workers involve as many stakeholders as possible in these conversations, including other professionals partnered with libraries as well as patrons from a variety of diverse communities, especially those patrons most negatively impacted by policing and security methods. Such systems are already in place at the Thunder Bay Public Library where, in response to patron concerns about not feeling safe in their libraries, they developed “a Community Action Panel, Youth Advisory Council and Indigenous Advisory Council who give…guidance on safety matters” (Selman et al., 2019, p. 19).
Though librarians and library workers may not be trained as social workers and at times may struggle with the increasingly social role of the profession, collaboration with mental health counsellors, public health nurses, social workers, and other resources in the community can help ease some of this tension. Further research should identify and assess existing programs and examples of interprofessional collaboration which provide alternatives to security and policing. The increased use of video surveillance in libraries and its effect on patron privacy and safety, particularly for BIPOC patrons, is also relevant here and worthy of further consideration
For too long, the negative effects of police and security presence in libraries have been ignored or, at the very least, neglected. Police officers and security guards should be used judiciously just as one would use any other security tool available to library workers. If libraries are to be “safe havens” for all patrons as Chancellor describes, then the role of police and security guards must be reconsidered by library workers themselves (2017, p. 2). If we are to truly uphold the value of universal access to public libraries then we must continue to ask ourselves Barry’s excellent question “who gets the right to feel and be safe” and who does not (2015)?
I would like to thank my wonderful peer reviewers Sunny Kim and Ian G. Beilin as well as my wonderful ITLWLP editor Sofia Leung; they were thoughtful, kind and deeply intelligent presences throughout the process. I would also like to thank Dr. Ajit Pyati for guiding the Individual Study where this article began to take shape and Mark Standish for wise counsel during that process.
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