It’s an Emergency!

Mary Kelly —  April 9, 2013 — Leave a comment

Martial arts knowledgeEvery librarian I know has a story about something weird, disgusting, criminal or out of the ordinary at the library.Large scale emergencies are usually obvious and have been addressed in emergency manuals.  Everyone understands the obvious fire or accident, but sometimes things happen that do not fall clearly into the “emergency” column. Having worked mostly in smaller libraries and with small staff, I have been on the spot many times. Let me give a couple of examples from my own experience:

  • Two men verbally sparring about someone being too loud.  It escalates quickly into a shoving match.
  • A woman complains that a student she is tutoring has threatened her.
  • A parent left a four year old child in the youth area while she ran to the grocery store.

I would guess that for most experienced librarians, the above scenarios are not that unusual.  However, these situations do have the potential to escalate into full scale emergencies.  If you are new to working with the public, making that first decision is tough and scary.  Here is a handy guide to handling these situations.

  1. Get back up help. This can mean having a co-worker with you and/or calling a supervisor.  I have even had help from a regular patron.  (Think of this as “two heads are better than one.”)
  2. Assess the situation.  If there are harsh words being spoken, a crying child, or someone who looks ill, it will be necessary to intervene by asking, “Is there a problem?  What is going on?” Use neutral language and project authority.
  3. Make a decision and follow through. Use your own judgment about the gravity of a situation. If you even think “maybe we should call the police,” call them.  However, do not sound indecisive in front of others, especially patrons.
  4. Write an incident report as soon as possible. Use neutral language and stick to the facts. If you don’t know the names of the people involved describe as much as you can remember. It is important to inform all staff of this incident.  Any unique or unusual situation (regardless of the outcome) is an opportunity to discuss and prepare for the next unusual situation.

So what about my problem situations presented above?  Here is what happened:

One man complained that the man next to him was making noise at the computer.  Things escalated and quickly turned physical with a shoving match.  The librarian spoke in a loud and authoritative tone and told the men to sit down at different computer chairs in different parts of the room, and told them to be quiet.  I believe she also shamed them a bit for making a scene.  Both men calmed down and there was no further incident.  What was helpful in this situation is that both patrons were regulars and knew the librarian, which gave her more confidence to be authoritative with them.

The tutor incident happened to me and I was alone at the reference desk.  (There were a few patrons around.)  The woman approached the reference desk and said that her student had made threatening moves and put his hands on her.  I was calling the police as the perpetrator decided to get into a shoving match with me by snatching the phone.  Immediately, two circulation staffers came running and two patrons that I know came over as well.  The student took off.  Two hours later the sheriff showed up and took statements.

The child left in the library was known to the librarian, and the mother returned about a half hour later.  Of course she had no idea that leaving a child while she ran errands was a bad idea.  Since the librarian knew the parent (and child), she lectured the parent on library safety issues and that staff is instructed to call the police under these circumstances.  Parent, duly ashamed, apologized and there was no further incident.

Library security is an issue that everyone needs to take seriously.  Reviewing policies and procedures frequently will always help next time (and there will always be a next time) a problem shows up in your library.

For more reading on library security:

Black Belt Librarian: Real World Safety and Security
Warren Graham
ISBN 978-0838911372

Mary Kelly


Co-founder of and library utility player. Lover of: library data, spreadsheets, collection quality, cats and cardigans. Follow me on twitter @librarymary40

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