Librarians Under Siege

Most people think of the public library as a sanctuary where anyone can sit and read a book or look up information.

For the librarians at Berkeley Public Library in California, however, the library isn’t always a quiet refuge. One peaceful morning last summer, librarians were getting ready for the doors to open when a man pounded on the door, shouting for help. Moments after he was let inside, his pursuer raced in the still-open door, waving an antique handgun. The first man ran upstairs and into the stacks, where his pursuer lost him. All the gunman could see were empty stacks, however: One librarian had tripped an alarm and the rest had ducked under their desks or fled to the basement. “It was terrifying,” recalls one employee. “He was calling out, ‘Is anybody here?’ At least one person ran downstairs yelling and locked the door. Nobody knew what to do — it was complete and utter chaos.”

Fortunately, the baffled gunman was arrested before he hurt anybody. But for overworked Berkeley city librarians, serving the public still involves an element of risk.

Helen Harris is a circulation supervisor for the public library system in Berkeley. Earlier this year, she was physically assaulted by one of the hundreds of library users she sees each day. The female attacker was homeless and unstable. Harris, like other library employees, was trained to resist an attack without hitting. Moreover, she didn’t want to escalate the violence by fighting back, even though the woman tried to kick her and punch her face.

“She had come in here before, and every time we asked her to leave she would go into bad and threatening language,” Harris says. “She can be very intimidating. She knows that there’s not much we can do but sit there and look at her and ask her to go out. We can call 911, but if she hits me, I can’t defend myself. So we got a restraining order against her.”

Librarians as social workers

The library’s very public nature often places the people who work there in a vulnerable situation. In several recent instances, gunmen have taken people hostage in a public library. And although the American Library Association (ALA) doesn’t keep data on reports of violence between the stacks, many librarians say they have become increasingly aware of the hazards they face handling a diverse group of patrons, many of whom use the library until late into the night.

Library workers frequently find themselves dealing with patrons who have fallen through the cracks in an increasingly inadequate social services system. Patrons may use the bathrooms to wash clothes and clean up, and they often sleep for hours at crowded tables. Workers are often cursed at and physically threatened by patrons. Conflicts can crop up about overdue book fines and Internet rooms and computers.

“You have this picture in your mind of a library as a safe place. And we are by and large a safe place, but the fact that we are a public place makes us no different from a shopping mall or any other public place,” said Harriet Henderson, president of the public library division of the American Library Association.

Librarians must enforce prohibitions on sleeping and eating, patrol bathrooms, and manage unsupervised children and unruly adults, says Stevan Layne, a library consultant who organizes 100 training sessions a year on preventing violence. In some branch libraries, there is only one staff member on duty late into the evening.

One mentally ill patron named “Lewis” is among the regulars circulation supervisor Harris sees almost every day. Harris makes sure Lewis’s behavior isn’t too disruptive for other library users and occasionally makes sure he eats.

“He will rearrange the books and the chairs, and sometimes yell at you,” Harris says, referring to Lewis. “But I know how to deal with him. I know not to mention the word ‘medicine.’ I did that once, and he went off. Now I say, ‘Hi, Lewis, how are you doing? Remember we have to close at 5:30 because I have to get on public transportation.’ One time I saw him out there homeless, and I bought him a Coke and cookies.”

Many of the homeless are regular library patrons, and at times they turn to the librarians for help. Some librarians feel they must serve as social workers to help users find shelter, food, and other public services, says Jane Scantlebury, a reference librarian at the main branch in Berkeley, where she sees about 30 homeless people every day.

“We get to know people. Someone who has finally gotten an apartment may come to us for help, saying, ‘If I pay my (gas and electric) bill, I won’t be able to pay my rent or buy food,” she says. “So we try to connect people with agencies. Sometimes if they are really smelly and dirty we will tell them, ‘You are welcome to be here, but you have to go take a shower, and then come back. Here’s this sheet (that tells you where) to get showers and food.’ We have a sense of all the different agencies and how overworked they are.”

Librarians help beyond the call of duty in other ways, too. An elderly lady once fell on library premises, and when staffers called an ambulance, she refused help, so Harris drove her home. Harris also recalls an English patron who developed Alzheimer’s disease, which diminished her memory. “She had been a regular library patron who had read a lot, and then all of a sudden she said, ‘I can’t remember anything.’ So we keep her library card here, so she won’t have to worry about it.”

Library staff must also manage the risks to patrons. Young children, for example, can be vulnerable to potential predators. Some libraries set aside rooms for children’s books that are as far away from the building entrance as possible, and ask that any adults not accompanied by a child move to another part of the library.

Librarians, of course, face job hazards aside from burnout and threats from patrons. They can injure muscles from lifting heavy books. They can develop debilitating repetitive strain injuries, such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome — particularly if they’re checking out books or cataloging. They may also suffer from eye strain from cataloging on the computer screen. But the hazards of violence on the job have definitely increased in recent years, and library experts advise staff and administrators to be prepared for major emergencies, such as bomb threats and shootings. The Berkeley Public Library, for example, has recently held seminars in disaster and emergency preparedness.

Protecting yourself against violence

Layne advises that all libraries take these steps to avoid violence:

  • Perform a careful pre-employment screening for all staff positions and volunteers.
  • Have a professional evaluate your safety procedures.
  • Review crimes and threats in the neighborhood with your local police department.
  • Revisit your policies on theft, drugs, and violence periodically, and keep them current. If there’s been an increase in thefts or eating in the library, for example, it might require stricter policies to deal with the problems.
  • neighborhood crime and other safety problems.
  • Ask the staff to discuss their fears and concerns in meetings and with their supervisors.
  • Practice tight control over keys and access to all entry points.
  • Make sure the library has a system to coordinate emergency response from police, firefighters, and medical crews.
  • Don’t just put your safety guidelines in a manual. Walk through them with participating staff members.
  • Discipline fairly by having everyone follow the same guidelines. “Insist that everyone get involved in enforcing rules,” Layne advises. “You don’t want to be the only one to say to a patron, ‘Hey, you can’t do that in here.'”

Individual library workers can also protect themselves:

  • Take a conflict management course to learn how to avoid physical confrontations. “I try every way to walk off and move back quickly. My first thought is to walk off or not to escalate it,” says Harris, the circulation supervisor. “If you scream and yell, it gets worse.”
  • Enroll in a nonviolent self-defense course.
  • If you do have to confront a patron and you anticipate violence, ask a co-worker to accompany you.
  • Document violations of policy that occur, so you can bring chronic problems to supervisors for solutions.
  • If you work alone at a branch library, make sure you have a panic button that calls police directly. Request video surveillance or frequent visits from police or security guards.

Henderson, who in addition to her ALA duties is also library director for the public library system serving Richmond, Virginia, has some last words of advice about security. “You want to be aware of who is coming in the door and who’s staying long periods of time,” she says. “You want to be aware of behavior patterns.”

Despite the problems, library workers say they enjoy their connection to the community they serve. “I’ve been here long enough to see people who were (children) when they first began coming, and now they have families of their own,” says Dolores Wright, the circulation services manager at the Berkeley library. “And I’ve seen people who had something wrong with them mentally become well and whole. Some customers are so beautiful that if you see them come in, it makes your day.”

Further Resources

American Library Association (ALA) The group has developed a book, “Dealing with Difficult People in the Library.”


Willis, Mark R. Dealing with difficult people in the library. Amer Library Assn.

Richmond Public Library. Library Board.

© HealthDay

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