A recent article called Trends in Library Security came to my attention a while back. It was infuriating to me, and I had a few choice words for it on Twitter. I am often hesitant to say too much about this topic because I have the luxury of never having to actually deal with issues like drug use in the library bathrooms or confronting an angry patron who objects to the person looking at pornography on a public-use terminal. These are day-in-the-life instances in a public library worker’s world and I’m just an academic librarian firmly ensconced in her tower. It’s not my place to say how public library workers should or shouldn’t do their job; not all heroes wear capes, as they say. But then, this article was shared within MPOW*. So. I’ve got something to say about that.
First things first. Steve Albrecht, the author of the article is a white man who is a retired police. His wheelhouse is coaching city employees – and library workers specifically – on handling workplace violence. He seems to have profile in American libraryland. Furthermore, I will also offer the caveat that I am a Canadian, and we have gun control in this country. I am eternally grateful for this and cannot imagine what it is like to live in a place where fear of an active shooter situation erupting could happen at any moment. All that being acknowledged, I’d like to focus on the tone of this article and the underlying message that it sends. Don’t even get me started on the “related article” suggestion that follows this piece called the “To Catch A Library Thief: Black Belt Security” – it is next level awful (and not by Albrecht, to be clear).
TL;DR – it problematizes marginalized populations and is completely lacking in empathy for the human condition and the systemic issues that creates the marginalization. The author makes a lot of presumptions of ill intent on the part of library patrons and encourages an us vs. them dichotomy. It is also implicitly endorsed by all of the organizations that publish, sponsor and advertise this approach to library work.
While dealing with drug overdoses and ransomware attacks are very real and present issues facing library workers, I’m really uncomfortable with the tone presented here. For example, the scenario presented where someone is blocking the library entrance to pray is highly unlikely. The presumption that this person is trying to make a statement about religious freedom? Are you serious? Maybe they are really just TRYING TO PRAY. In my experience, people seeking somewhere to pray are just trying to find a quiet spot appropriate for their needs. What’s more likely at play here and is left unsaid, is that people praying in public spaces can make others feel uneasy. It’s useful for us to instead question why that makes us feel uneasy, and recall that as proponents of access to all, what are we doing to make our space more accessible for those looking for prayer space. This man suggests that we should resort to calling the police.
Another example is the problematizing of “emotional comfort animals”. The inherent ableism and disdain for people’s right to medical privacy and self-determination of need is so incredibly patronizing and insensitive. He portrays privacy laws as an impediment to asking inappropriate questions to determine whether or not they should be allowed to have their animal with them. Is the animal defecating on the floor? Growling at the children? That’s another issue entirely. Treat it separately from the question of need and have some faith that the person in question knows what they need and is really not out to make themselves a public nuisance.
The first sentence of this article refers to “challenging patrons who sometimes adversely affect library services, including people who are homeless, have a mental illness, or abuse substances” and goes on to refer to them as “common problems.” In and of itself, when we dismiss the homeless, mentally ill or addicted as a problem to be solved, we are not acting with empathy. We are not acknowledging the myriad reasons why people may be homeless, mentally ill or addicted. Poverty is not a lifestyle choice.
American Libraries is a publication of ALA. Furthermore, ALA offers webinars led by Albrecht. My boss shared this article with our entire staff indicating that it was “useful.” Respectfully, I disagree. I think it’s downright harmful. Yesterday, as I pondered this post, a respected archivist who did important work in transforming the whiteness of the archives world quit. He declared that professionalism is the problem in the perpetuation of oppression and white supremacy:
Professionalism emphasizes “the work” — its completion, its evaluation, its perpetuity, etc. — without a meaningful critique of how “the work” mandates a replication of the patriarchy, oppression, and violence many in our world experience.
I can’t help but draw a parallel between that observation and this situation where a former cop’s expertise is upheld as the gold standard in how we do our work. What about leading with empathy? ALA is the same organization that invited Brene Brown – the queen of empathy – as a feature speaker at their conference. What if library managers hired life coaches instead of security experts to train their staff? If instead of perpetuating the notion that patrons are “difficult”, up to no good, and mean to do harm, what if we spent more time thinking about what brought them in the door that day, and what sort of reality they are living? It may not change the need to have to escalate if there is a genuinely dangerous situation, but when we act with empathy, we are far more likely to effect positive change. Small stones making lots of ripples and all of that.
I’ll conclude by mentioning that in the print issue of this magazine, this article was adjacent to this one. An interesting juxtaposition. We may no longer be explicitly excluding certain populations, but when we prioritize the comforts of the privileged, we are implicitly telling certain people that they don’t belong – and the cycle continues. We can do better. We can be better.
*context: I work at a downtown campus library that is open to the public.