Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Library Safety and Security, Part II: Practical Security Measures

(See Part I here)

When I look over my notes from last month’s Ohionet workshop on library safety and security, one sentence particularly stands out: “Address [improper] behavior regardless of contextual causes.” While our workshop leaders (Dave Ferimer and Robert Wood) made this suggestion with specific regard to child behavioral issues in a library, it’s just as valuable on a general scale as well. In every library, there are certain rules by which every patron needs to abide; making exceptions because of contextual factors isn’t a sound or safe policy. In this regard, a private law school library like Zimmerman should be no different than a public library branch like Dayton Metro.

Yet because Zimmerman and Dayton Metro are quite different types of libraries, do they always require the same approach towards bad behavior, even if they share the same principle against tolerating it? For example, many of the public librarians at the workshop were describing a fairly consistent struggle to maintain order in their environments. (Even for those not facing significant safety concerns, there were still maddening problems such as teenagers taking CDs into bathrooms and smashing them on the floor.) In comparison, aside from a couple of serious rules violations this year, most of the day-to-day problems at Zimmerman concern food and drink violations. Zimmerman also chooses to restrict patron access at certain times of the year, which obviously isn’t (and shouldn’t) be an option for public libraries.

Still, there are fair and practical security measures that both types of libraries can take without singling out any individual patrons or groups unfairly. Here are three examples that Officers Ferimer and Wood presented during the workshop:

--It helps to post a visible set of rules that 1) are clear and concise, 2) include a concrete consequence. One Ohio public library has a “code of conduct” that lists the following:

--“Disruptive behavior of any kind is not permitted.”
--“Library staff [members] have the authority to determine what is disruptive.”
--“Disruptive customers will be asked to leave library property.”

This code of conduct is quite clear and concise, and it lets patrons know exactly what will happen if they are disruptive. I also like the fact that the second point allows staff members some autonomy in defining whether or not someone is being disruptive. Staff members that feel empowered will likely correspond to a better library environment for everyone, which will in turn help staff morale. In Zimmerman’s case, it might be helpful if we had a better way of visibly conveying our food and drink policy to patrons and library students, along with listing a consequence or two (getting rid of the food/drink, leaving the library until has consumed food/drink).

-- If a patron refuses to leave the library after a staff member confronts them for breaking the rules, it technically constitutes a criminal trespassing violation. In order to have their local police department enforce violations like these, Akron-Summit County Public Library has an official form that they can serve to the patron. The form advises the patron that they are not allowed onto library premises (for either a set period of time or indefinitely), and that any further violations “may result in prosecution for the charge of criminal trespass!” This is a sound option for managing serious cases, and (to the best of my knowledge) would be helpful for both public and private libraries. Even with only two major rule violations in the past year, Zimmerman could have benefited from a trespassing form in one particular case.

--There was a lot of discussion at the workshop about managing, documenting, and resolving unacceptable behavior that becomes threatening or violent. Documentation can be particularly difficult because it’s easy to forget key descriptive elements—the person’s physical appearance, what they said, weapons, and any related activity—after a stressful situation. Accordingly, Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library has an online report form that allows its staff to input and submit a thorough description of major incidents. That is an excellent policy, and it’s something that I’m recommending that Zimmerman implements soon. Such a form doesn’t necessarily need to be online, but having a way of quickly documenting what happened provides a potentially vital security benefit, regardless of whether the library is public or private.

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