DANGER IN THE BOOKSTACKS: LIBRARIES AT RISK
A December audit in Multnomah County, Oregon reported that only 34% of library employees agreed or strongly agreed that they felt safe at work – an alarming signal that the county needs to better manage this crucial community service with better communication, improved data analysis, workforce staffing solutions and more attention to safety and security issues.
That would include, as one employee responded in the survey, “more training on what we can and cannot do when a patron turns violent--beyond calling 911--which rarely (if ever) come.”
The audit reports that in calendar year 2022, there were more than 2,000 “incident reports” at library locations in the county, with most occurring in the central facility, but many also hitting neighborhood locations. According to the audit, “incidents range from minor violations of library rules to serious incidents that involve acts of violence and threats of physical harm.”
What’s going on here? Have readers turned hostile? Not quite. According to the audit, “Anecdotally, neighborhood libraries are serving more patrons with unmet housing and behavioral health needs than they did in the past. Sometimes patrons have unmet needs that neighborhood libraries are not set up to meet, such as a patron in a mental health crisis. These situations can contribute to concerns about security.”
Clearly, with large homeless populations in many cities and counties – many of whom would benefit from mental health care – this isn’t an issue confined to Multnomah.
While data challenges make it difficult to analyze the threat level experienced by employees, some incidents listed in the audit provide a solid sense of the basis for employee discomfort. These include, “a patron who made “hateful comments about transgender people while carrying a knife,” and one who “hid within the library overnight while carrying large knives.”
Other issues can be laid to the kind of rough transition that many organizations are experiencing in the aftermath of the pandemic. This includes, for example, shifts in where personnel are located and how staff is divided between virtual services and those that are delivered in person. Ill-feelings between staff and library leaders also have lingered after the pandemic due to layoff threats that never materialized but led to early retirements and employees leaving for other jobs.
The audit provides ten recommendations that range in expected completion between January 1 and October 1, 2024. The improvements expected soonest are already underway and involve better coordination with the County Security Program, and improvements to the operation of library safety committees to meet Oregon Occupational Health and Safety Administration standards.
Many of the other recommendations focus in on better communication between library leadership and staff and the creation of “continuous evaluation of the safety and security program” with attention to training, and an improved incident reporting process, with data analysis of trends and the documentation of corrective actions.
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