Healthy Snacks, Safe Stacks: How One Library Enhanced Its Security

Article by: Guy Robertson

Re-post from the Spring 2015 Edition

In virtuous British Columbia, one library’s occupational health and safety (OHS) committee has replaced the coffee and doughnuts at its meetings with organic celery and carrot sticks, which committee members wash down with the purest bottled water. The result of this change in snacks is remarkable. OHS meetings used to fill two hours. Now the committee reaches agreement on most points within forty-five minutes.

“There is a positive correlation between healthy food and reduced meeting duration,” says Glen, the committee’s chair. “That’s probably because people are sick of celery and carrots, and everybody wants to dash down the street to the coffee shop that sells gooey cinnamon buns and cupcakes. Anyway, the committee has made some interesting decisions lately regarding security at our main library and branches.”

The library’s director asked the OHS committee to identify security problems that might arise over the next decade, and to recommend ways to solve them. What Glen and his colleagues determined would interest librarians worldwide.

Anything can go
It is not surprising that theft of library materials remains a risk at all of the library’s sites. What has changed is the variety of items that might disappear. In the past, thieves stole popular books and magazines. Now they attempt to steal anything that they can carry, from books, magazines, CDs, and DVDs to keyboards, chairs, and the pencils and pens on the circulation counters.

“Nothing is safe,” says Glen. “We’ve had posters removed from the walls of a children’s department. At the same branch, the umbrella stand by the front entrance went missing. At another branch, somebody tried to break into the public photocopier to steal the coins. And there have been a number of incidents involving unauthorized persons entering staff areas. On one occasion, a librarian had her purse stolen from her locker. The thief also went through staff members’ coats in the cloakroom and stole two sets of car keys.”

Fortunately the key thief did not succeed in stealing anyone’s vehicle. Glen assumes that the branch’s parking lot was too busy, and that the thief did not want to attract attention.
“Nevertheless, the thief had a lot of gall,” says Glen. “He or she was also quick and clever enough to get into our staff area unnoticed.”

After this incident, Glen and his committee members had to consider several unpleasant questions. First, could a staff member have committed the theft? Second, if anyone caught the thief in the staff area and in the act, was there a risk of violence? Third, might the thief strike again? And finally, would the security measures in place at the branch be unable to prevent similar incidents?

“We investigated the matter thoroughly, as did the police,” says Glen. “We’re satisfied that an outsider committed the theft. We also believe most thieves are not likely to become violent, and that if they were caught in the act they would try to leave the scene as quickly as possible. As for a repeat performance, another theft, that’s always a possibility. And even with an advanced security system—for example, live-monitored CCTV—our library would not be entirely secure, since no security system can guarantee absolute security.”

Temper, temper
Aside from theft, Glen and his colleagues considered incidents involving patrons who verbally threatened staff, mishandled hardware such as keyboards and photocopiers, vandalized print materials, and damaged furniture and washroom fixtures.

“We had to distinguish between wear and tear and willful damage,” says Glen. “With the increasing use of different branches, we’ll see a lot more wear and tear, which we consider the cost of doing business. But we’re also seeing an increase in willful damage. Fortunately it will not pose serious risks to staff or patrons, but library management must take it into account at budget time. Damage costs money.”

Inevitably, online misbehaviour and crime became a topic of discussion. The usual problems came under scrutiny: accessing pornography at public terminals, hacking, electronic bullying, and vandalism. Monica, the library’s systems librarian, suggested that while there were security measures to discourage such activities, there would always be a risk, and the library would never be able to prevent all attempts to access pornography sites or send abusive messages through library terminals. Nor would it be possible to detect even a fraction of such incidents.

“Anarchy rules on the Internet,” says Monica. “There will always be ways to work around security filters. We have to face the fact that porn users and hackers can be as clever as the programmers who create the filters and related protocols. This does not mean that we should give up our attempts to discourage ugly behaviour, but we should not expect high levels of success in preventing it. That’s the realistic approach.”

Meeting set-up
Glen organized a series of meetings for the committee to decide upon its recommendations. He set the goal: the formulation of a list of the library’s ongoing and future security risks, with a series of clearly stated recommendations to deal with them. He then scheduled three meetings—complete with organic vegetables—to finish the job.

“I’ve been a librarian long enough to recognize the possibility of never-ending planning processes,” says Glen. “It took another committee months to make a decision about replacing the furniture at one of our branches. In the end, the furniture started falling apart, so the decision virtually made itself. I didn’t want to spend months arguing about anything, so I limited our discussion time and told committee members that there would be no postponements or delays. This approached worked well.”

The committee agreed that current security problems would continue to exist in future, with increasing frequency at branches in growing neighbourhoods. At some branches, there could be more attempts by thieves to steal patrons’ portable technology, such as laptops and mobile phones. One hopeful note: the risk of violence toward staff might not necessarily increase over the next decade, and at some library sites it could decrease. To address all of these circumstances, the committee made a series of recommendations that the library’s management and board have approved.

First, in future the library’s security will be reviewed on its own, and not as an aspect of management in general, occupational health and safety, or disaster preparedness. Considering security matters alongside other topics can blur the focus and lead to confusion. Security plans will thus not appear in binders or on the website with earthquake preparedness plans and first aid tips. Moreover, the committee will dedicate certain meetings to security matters only. In the words of the library’s director, security will have a “fresh, independent status” at the library.

Second, the committee will compile a security report for the entire library every six months. This report will be based on incident reports from all library sites as well as staff members’ observations and anecdotal accounts of security-related issues as they arise. In the past, incident reports were noted at only a few of the library’s sites. There was no standard incident report form or folder for each site. There will be from now on, and the department manager or branch head will be responsible for maintaining these records.

Security reporting will include not only descriptions of actual incidents, but also of warning signs of events that might happen. Examples include the deteriorating behaviour of a patron who seems to have serious emotional problems and who could threaten staff or other patrons; damage to locks on doors and windows that indicate attempted break-ins; scurrilous and threatening graffiti; the discovery of weapons including knives and firearms; and suspected stalking of staff or patrons. The reporting of these warning signs will alert staff to possible security breaches and encourage vigilance in specific areas of the library and at certain times. Attention to warning signs might in many cases prevent actual incidents.

“We want to enhance our workplace violence policy,” says Glen. “That is, we want to make it more than just another binder and training package. We hope that staff will learn to recognize the warning signs of security problems that might involve violence and physical danger. Forewarned is forearmed, as the cliché has it. We want that cliché to make sense to every staff member.”

Orientation and training
Third, the library will spend more money and time on security orientation and training, and all staff—including part-time and auxiliary employees—must participate. New hires will receive an orientation package on their first working day, and the human resources manager will make sure that they read and understand the material.

“Realistically, we don’t expect everyone to become security experts by reading their orientation package,” says Beverly, the library’s HR manager. “The package is basic information on staying secure while working at the library. There is advice about inappropriate patron behaviour, bullying, tampering with equipment, and vandalism. There is advice in bold type regarding 911 calls and when to make them. There are also directions about reporting these things immediately to one’s manager and making the necessary report. But will people take the orientation package seriously? Probably not. So we need to reinforce the initial security advice with follow-up training.”

In the past, the library has invited a security consultant to attend meetings for branch managers and department heads and to discuss general security matters. Now, the library will invite the local police to give brief (i.e., half-hour) talks on topics covering different kinds of warning signs, relations with potentially violent patrons, and dealing with thieves and vandals. Training will also include lunch-and-learn sessions for all staff with local workplace violence consultants, newsletter discussions of Internet security risks, and—when the budget allows it—the development of a webinar regarding library security. The committee hopes that the latter tool can eventually replace the orientation package, and that it will be easier and less expensive to update.

Fourth, the library will install more security-related signage at all sites. This will include signs that advise patrons to treat circulation counter staff with respect, and that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated. There will be signs in all public washrooms regarding regular patrols by library staff; there will also be signs discouraging washroom graffiti.

“We’re not sure how effective the anti-graffiti signs will be at some branches, but we’re willing to give them a try,” says Beverly. “If a sign persuades a single graffiti artist not to carve an offensive drawing into the paint on a washroom cubicle wall, then the sign will be worth the cost. We have spent a lot of money removing nasty graffiti.”

Exterior risks
Another addition to the library facilities will be CCTV cameras and better lighting in parking areas where there have been car thefts and break-ins, and in one case a mugging. While the library has avoided hiring security guards in the past, now it will establish a contract with a security firm for patrols of the exteriors of branches in high-risk areas. At present security guards are not deemed necessary inside those branches, but if crime increases in their neighbourhoods, guards could be asked to patrol inside entrances, public areas, and washrooms.

“We are of mixed minds regarding patrols by librarians and clerical supervisors,” says Glen. “Some branch heads accept this responsibility without hesitation; some have been patrolling their facilities for years. Others don’t like the idea, because they fear what they might come across in secluded areas of the stacks or in washrooms. What we might do is to canvass staff at every site and find out who is willing to make patrols. We would make the task voluntary. I believe that there are staff at every site who would be willing to do it.”

An overarching matter that the committee will consider regularly is the problem of apathy with regard to security. In many organizations people take it for granted, and eventually measures to safeguard staff and assets are forgotten. That is, until a security breach occurs and managers are forced to deal with the consequences.

“We intend to avoid apathy and keep our security measures up to date and effective,” says Glen. “It doesn’t require an enormous amount of effort or a big budget to do so, even with the increasing risk of breaches. After all, it’s not as if libraries are frequent crime scenes. Our brief, regular OHS committee meetings have served us well, and it’s fair to assume that our library is one of the most secure of its kind in the country. I urge others to follow our example.”

Celery, anyone?

About the Author:

robertson_guyGuy Robertson is an Instructor in the Library Technology Program at Langara College, and an Instructor in the School of Public Safety & Security at the Justice Institute of BC. In 2014, Elsevier published his Disaster Planning for Libraries: Process and Guidelines. As requested, he has changed the names of the persons quoted in this article.

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