Escalation of violence in public libraries in Canada
The random acts of violence that occur on our streets and in our transit systems in cities across Canada also make their way into public libraries.
Local chapters of all sizes have reported an increase in verbal and physical violence. And for some, the pandemic has made it worse.
Over the past two years, one person has died and six others have been injured in a mass stabbing at a public library in North Vancouver. Last December, 28-year-old Terry Cayer was killed while visiting the Millennium Library in Winnipeg. Four teenagers have been charged in his death. Two branches of the Saskatoon bookstore have been temporarily closed due to concerns about staff safety.
Calgary Police receive evidence of a suspect in the assault of a senior official at the Central Library
Cameron Ray, a librarian at the Toronto Public Library, said he’s lived the experience firsthand — and many times over.
“I had one year where I was assaulted every three months. This guy chased me around the branch with hair clippers, like, ‘I’m going to stab you,’” he says. “That was terrifying.”
Ray and his colleague Ella MacLeish met when they worked together at a Toronto reference bookstore. MacLeish was shouted at, sworn at, and even chased after by a disgruntled patron.
“I’ve come across victims of overdose, people who are unconscious.”
MacLeish finds a dead body in the library’s restroom. “It was so horrific,” she adds.
MacLeish changed to a smaller branch, but she says it got worse. She received counseling and was on sick leave for a year before returning to work in April.
Experts say that libraries are a reflection of the world around them. Society’s problems find their way inside their doors.
“People come to the library with really big needs,” says Siobhan Stephenson, a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Information.
“There are all kinds of social crises, humanitarian crises, in our cities: homelessness, the opioid epidemic, random acts of violence…a social safety net that has been greatly diminished,” she told Global News. The new reality.
This has left many people with complex needs often without a place to go for support. Public libraries are committed, by their very nature, to being welcoming and inclusive.
“People come to our sites because they feel it’s a safe place they can come to,” says Brian Daly, chief human resources officer for the Toronto Public Library, the largest library system in North America by branch.
“Because of that, we need to be able to provide services for them here on site because that’s where they come in.”
He also points out that only a fraction of visits to library Toronto branches turn violent.
“About 20 of our branches have significant numbers of incidents of violence or vandalism out of our 100. Of the nine-and-a-half million visits, there were about 300 violent incidents,” says Daly.
“But having said that, if you are the one facing that incident as a worker or as our customer, even one incident is too many.”
Toronto trains library staff on how to deal with people who have experienced trauma.
Toronto also spends $3 million annually on security guards who are assigned to 40 of the system’s 100 branches.
But Dali believes this is only one piece of the puzzle.
“It’s not just about adding more and more guards. That’s not the answer to this. We don’t want to create an environment where people feel intimidated entering our branches.”
Millennium Library reopens Monday with security measures
Community crisis workers
Libraries across the country are struggling to find a balance between supporting those with complex needs and keeping all visitors and staff safe.
The Edmonton Public Library recognized early on that there was a gap between the needs of some of its most vulnerable clients and the services provided by the library. So I brought in the people most willing to help: social workers. It was the first library in Canada to do so.
Outreach workers are now a vital resource, connecting people to the services they need, such as access to information on where to find shelter, a hot meal, or how to obtain ID.
“People are starting to learn that a library is a place where you can come for these supports. They can be seated. They can be comfortable. They’re made welcome,” says Sharon Day, executive director of customer experience at the Edmonton Public Library.
Hilary Kirkpatrick is a social worker at the Edmonton Public Library. She says providing these services works because space is available, clients are treated with respect and they don’t feel judged.
“We’re really able to meet customers where they are and meet their needs,” says Kirkpatrick.
Social workers have also become an important part of the team at other libraries including Halifax, Calgary, Winnipeg and London.
Toronto is launching its own pilot programs to support at-risk visitors. In addition to connecting them to resources, they will also help identify problems on the ground and deal with them before they escalate.
“These are the social workers. These are individuals with mental health backgrounds who can come and talk to individuals who are in distress,” says Daly.
Toronto is also hiring six library safety professionals who will work not only with customers who need help, but with employees who are often on the receiving end of verbal or physical assaults.
“Most of the time there’s someone who’s spit out by society and chewed and spit out, and they’re at the end of their rope,” Ray says.
He and MacLeish believe that libraries need these types of programs because librarians and staff are not always equipped to handle these potentially volatile situations.
“It’s very difficult when you can’t really help someone,” says Ray. “As much as we’d like to be able to have relationships with and help all of these people, we can’t because I was trained on Dewey Decimal.”
Stephenson studied the use of social workers in libraries and saw firsthand the difference they could make. But she fears that they will be seen as an easy solution that justifies further dismantling of social programmes.
“It’s a much bigger political problem,” she says.
The opioid crisis has also contributed to the rise in violence. The Toronto Public Library found a link between the location of the branches with the most incidents and suspected opioid overdose hotspots in the city.
“There’s a lot of correlation with the kind of challenges we face more broadly in society,” says Daly.
The Edmonton Public Library has also seen an uptick in drug-related incidents. “We saw 99 poisonings in our branches in 2022, which is the biggest difference from what we would have seen before the pandemic,” Day says.
The Edmonton Library System brought in an opioid response team and added bathroom attendants in the hardest-hit branches.
In response to Tyree Cayer’s death, the Millennium Library of Winnipeg installed a metal detector and added a regular police presence. This was not the first time visitors had been screened on their way.
In 2019, hand-held detectors were used to screen visitors. But it was removed after one year after community groups protested that it had turned away people who most needed the library’s services.
Tyree’s mother, Tanya Kyer, feels that opposition to the extra security measures is misplaced.
“People who don’t work in that library, I don’t think they should even have a say in whether or not a metal detector is put on,” she says. “It is to keep these people safe.”
Tanya doesn’t blame the library. She believes there are bigger issues at play.
Winnipeg struggles with youth crime. She struggles with drugs. There are a million and one numbers. This is just one of them.” she says.
However, many libraries oppose adding entry barriers out of concern that it will discourage vulnerable customers from entering their doors.
“There will always be challenges when you’re in a public place dealing with every kind of person,” Day says. “The nice thing about it is that everyone is welcome here, but it’s also one of the hard things about it that everyone is welcome here.”
Library of the future: the hub of society
If you haven’t been to a public library recently, you’ll probably be surprised by what you see. It’s not just about books anymore.
Libraries are a mirror that reflects the people in societies and their evolving needs. This means big changes for public libraries everywhere.
They’re constantly adapting to take on these new challenges and, at the same time, take learning to a whole new level, with 3D printers, gadget-packed recording studios, community kitchens — even places to try out the latest video games. There are wide open spaces for relaxation and study.
“Think of your community library, your local library…as a community living room. A third space. It’s not working. It’s not home. It’s this other space,” Stephenson says.
The library of the future that is not like the library of the past.