Emergencies – Larger Library Viewpoint

hhibner —  April 9, 2013 — Leave a comment

Mary Kelly recently wrote about handling emergencies from a small library perspective, and we thought it might be interesting to tackle the same subject from a larger library viewpoint.  I work in a medium-sized library.  It is a three-story building in a suburban area with more than fifty people on staff.  There is only one main library; no branches.  I manage the adult services department.

First of all, Mary’s three scenarios were perfect because they’re fairly universal among libraries.  I’ll just point out here some other considerations that larger libraries would have to make in situations like those.

First of all, this is a blog about leadership, so I want to make that connection clear.  Who, in your library, handles either emergencies or uncomfortable patron situations?  Is it the Director? A security guard?  Whoever sees it first?  In a larger library like mine, we have designated “Librarians in Charge.”  They are seen as leaders; people who have enough experience to be aware of trends, people who have a solid grip on policies and procedures, and people who are trusted to make solid decisions in uncertain circumstances.  Any staff member can call any person designated as a Librarian in Charge for help with any situation.  That said, someone has to handle the situation until an LIC can get there.  Everyone has to take some level of responsibility and use their good judgment and the training all staff members receive.  Situations don’t just get pawned off on the LIC.  The LIC is there to make a final decision if needed and to back up the junior staff in any way they need.  The junior staff still has to take responsibility for handling the situation until the LIC arrives, and even to use their judgment to decide when an LIC is necessary at all.  Consider the situation Mary mentioned about the student who got physical with his tutor.  The junior staff member can’t just let it go until the LIC arrives; they must intervene so it doesn’t get worse.  They need to approach the problem, assess it, and take some sort of action.  Since the student left the building, the tutor should be taken aside and reassured in a safe area that the police are on their way.  It is unfortunate that in her example the Sheriff took two hours to get there. Our building is right next door to the police station, so the authorities show up very quickly when we call for help.  Being a large, prominent building in our community is another pro when it comes to being on the radar of emergency personnel.

Second, I mentioned that I work in a three-story building.  There are times when there is one staff person at each service desk.  If that person leaves the floor they are on, there is no one securing that floor.  We see staffing desks as much a security issue as a service issue.   When an emergency arises, we may need to call for backup.  Ideally, the backup person is someone who is off-desk.  There are pros and cons to a large physical building when emergencies happen.  A pro is that there are lots of staff members in the building at any given time, so getting help is not difficult. The con is that those people are potentially on another floor and it will take them some time to get to you.  Another pro is that an emergency on one floor may not affect patrons on another floor, so keeping patrons under control is much easier.  In a small library, it is possible that the spectacle becomes library-wide and panic ensues.  Another con is that if it is the kind of emergency where everyone needs to be aware (like if you’re looking for a missing child), it takes more time to let staff on all floors know what is going on.  In our larger building, when a child goes missing, all service desks are notified immediately and off-desk staff come out to help look for the child until the police get there.  In Mary’s scenario of the child left in the library while the mother went grocery shopping, we would have plenty of staff members to stay with the child while the parent is tracked down.  We are certainly not a babysitting service, but a young child cannot be left alone for any amount of time, so someone needs to watch the child until the police, or parent, arrives.  We could fairly easily carry on with business at the service desks while the situation is handled by other staff members.

Last, in a large library with lots of staff members, we are on-desk and off-desk at different times.  My regular patrons are potentially different people than someone else sees when they are at the same desk at a different time of day.  Communicating to the staff who a perpetrator was so that we can all be vigilant when that person is around is much more difficult.  We have to fill out incident reports and include patron names whenever possible.  Being able to describe the patron is crucial.  The pros in this situation are that the same librarian is likely to encounter that patron again and already be aware of the situation.  The con is that…well, the same librarian is likely to encounter that patron again.  In Mary’s example of the two men in a shoving match at the computers, in our building the librarian who broke up the fight will often be the librarian on duty at that desk every time those regular patrons come in, assuming they stick to their regular routine and keep coming back to use computers at their regular times.  Hopefully one of the men will alter his routine and the librarian won’t encounter that problem repeatedly!

As you can see there are many considerations in larger libraries when dealing with both emergencies and “uncomfortable patron situations.”  As library leaders, we need to have a game plan, have confidence, and exude authority.  We owe it to our patrons to make them feel safe.  No one wants to deal with unpleasantness, but if you ignore it you’ve ignored everyone else’s need and right to safety.



Adult Services Coordinator at the Plymouth District Library with a mild obsession for collection quality. Ok, maybe not so mild. Find me on Twitter at @hhibner and over at Awful Library Books (http://awfullibrarybooks.net)!

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