Libraries are open to all, but are library staff equipped to help everyone who comes through the doors?

As communities deal with multiple crises, libraries are increasingly filling the gaps in the social safety net


Libraries are open to all, but are library staff equipped to help everyone who comes through the doors?

As communities deal with multiple crises, libraries are increasingly filling the gaps in the social safety net

Photo: Jolene Rudisuela
Photo: Jolene Rudisuela

Libraries are open to all, but are library staff equipped to help everyone who comes through the doors?

As communities deal with multiple crises, libraries are increasingly filling the gaps in the social safety net

Get the news and events in Victoria, in your inbox every morning.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Libraries are open to all, but are library staff equipped to help everyone who comes through the doors?

In January, workers at the Greater Victoria Public Library’s (GVPL) Central branch filed a total of 37 incident reports.

Eleven of the complaints, obtained by Capital Daily through a Freedom of Information request, involved patrons refusing to wear masks or skirting COVID guidelines. Some patrons left without incident, while others put up a fight, taking their anger or annoyance out on the library workers. 

The reports detail patrons shouting expletives at staff and multiple calls to police in response to disruptive or antagonistic people in the library. In one case, during a time when masks were mandatory in the library, police were called after a maskless patron with a knife hanging by a lanyard around his neck became loud and defensive. Police arrived after 20 minutes, as the patron was leaving on his own. In two of the five incidents in which police were called, officers arrived after the incident was resolved. 

Twice, washrooms were closed because drug paraphernalia was found inside and cleaners weren’t available. On one of these occasions, the worker who filed the incident report ended up fetching gloves and a sharps disposal kit and cleaning up the mess themself. 

Multiple times, the person who filed the report describes feeling unsafe. In one case, a library worker felt so threatened that they had to leave their shift until a particular patron—who became angry after the worker repeated their password out loud—left the library.

This is just one month of incidents, but they hint at a larger problem that library workers are facing in systems across the country. Even before the pandemic wreaked havoc on communities and the social services within them, the role of libraries was changing. 

Libraries are one of the few places where anyone—no matter their financial status or living situation—can go, sit, escape the elements, and access bathrooms, power outlets, and computers. They are open to all, and library staff are at the helm, helping everyone who comes through the doors. 

Sometimes that means helping a student find sources for a research project, or helping an elderly patron use a computer. Sometimes that means directing an unhoused patron to a place to sleep for the night, or connecting someone with mental health or addictions services. Sometimes it can also involve diffusing a situation with a person in the midst of a mental health crisis, or ensuring an overdose patron gets the help that they need. 

It’s easy to romanticize libraries as simply places of books, imagination, and learning. And while these beloved public institutions still fill that role, they also fill an important need in the community and for the more vulnerable or marginalized patrons who use them.

But for the librarians and library workers inside, the added pressures of the job are sometimes putting them in triggering situations and leading to burnout.

As the pandemic wears on in step with multiple other crises, librarians and library workers are increasingly finding themselves in situations that they are not trained for or helping people they are not fully trained to help. The situation has gotten so difficult for staff that working conditions were part of a recent Island-wide strike. For many other workers, the conditions are causing them to leave the profession.

“I’m glad I’m doing this when I’m older,” said Laura Kaminker, a library manager with the Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) system based in Port Hardy, “because I don’t know, when I was younger, if I would have been able to cope.”

More than just books

Librarianship was an easy choice of second career for Kaminker. It was a career that ticked every box for her: public service, helping the community, giving equal access to books and learning and resources. 

As a freelance writer and author in her previous life, she had spent a lot of time in libraries, so she already knew the institutions’ full role in communities. She was aware that people without housing sometimes fall asleep in chairs or use libraries as places of shelter in heat waves or cold snaps. 

“All the giant holes we have in the social safety net, a lot of things are falling through those holes and libraries are catching them,” she said.

Libraries are a reflection of the communities they serve. If there is a rash of drug toxicity deaths, libraries will see more overdoses within their walls. If there are inadequate mental health and addictions supports, libraries will feel the effects. 

“We’re on the front lines, but we weren’t trained to be mental health workers or first responders,” said Kaminker. “We’re not social workers. So a lot of people went into library work, they love books, you know, which is great, but they didn’t necessarily sign on to this, what we’re experiencing.” 

Incidents with patrons can be triggering. Some staff have been deeply affected by COVID and other overlapping crises, and Kaminker says her staff have taken a lot of time off work for mental health days in the past two years because they just needed a break. 

There is still a romanticized, almost stereotypical view of what public libraries are, says Amanda Oliver, author of the new book Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library. And while that isn’t necessarily incorrect, these institutions are so much more. 

“Certainly, I think anyone who goes into this profession has an understanding that you will be called on to do many things,” she said. “But I think that [with] the number of things that some librarians can be called on to do … ultimately, you’re set up for failure, and you’re set up for burnout.”

In a survey of American librarians Oliver conducted for the book, more than half of the respondents said they were actively trying to leave the profession. Every single respondent with a master’s degree in library science said the program did not adequately prepare them for the true nature of the work.

When unionized VIRL librarians went on strike for seven weeks in March and April, the increase in workplace violence and mental health effects of the job were part of their plight. 

The central issue behind the strike was bumping up librarians’ salaries to match inflation and close the pay gap between VIRL librarians and others in comparable regional systems. But it also called on the system to provide them with fundamental support to create safer workplaces. 

“VIRL management has refused to agree to many important proposals – including solutions to workplace violence and mental health impacts – without offering alternative solutions. Our health and safety, including our mental health, should be a priority,” read a letter sent by the 48 striking librarians to the library trustees at the beginning of their job action on March 3. 

In a statement, the BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU) said it had for years advocated for increased funding from municipalities and the province, greater awareness amongst library board trustees about the value of librarians to communities, and further support for librarians, including OHS training, counselling, and trauma response. 

VIRL librarians ratified a new collective agreement with VIRL on April 19. The new agreement includes 12% wage increases, with an additional $500 signing bonus for all active employees. It also includes improved terms for workload and workplace harassment. 

In an emailed statement, BCGEU said VIRL “stepped up enough to start addressing” the issues of workplace harassment and ensuring a psychologically safe and respectful workplace.

"The exact language changes on health and safety are unlikely to yield concrete improvements by themselves. They offer means to do so but need time to play out. We are hopeful that the employer will approach these avenues with an authentic interest in improving health and safety protections for librarians," the statement reads.

“However, an investment of government funding and improvements to provincial health and safety regulations would do a lot to encourage all B.C. library systems to better address and mitigate occupational health and safety issues facing library workers."

On the frontlines

Kaminker, up in Port Hardy, considers herself a frontline worker, but GVPL librarian Devon Tatton disagrees: she’s “more of a frontline observer,” Tatton said. “We’re definitely there to witness the opioid crisis … and the effects of the pandemic on the population, and we’re trying to react as best we can within the context of, ‘We are a library.’ But, you know, we’re not social workers, we don’t have the training. We’re not health-care workers.”

She said the library administration understands that there are things that staff are not trained for. When there is an overdose on site, which has happened multiple times, librarians are expected to call 911. They are welcome to keep Naloxone kits in their desks, but they aren’t required to use them. 

But the reality remains that overdoses, mental health crises, and other incidents happen in libraries. Library workers’ support can only go so far before going beyond the scope of their work and training.

More than a decade ago, the San Francisco Public Library was the first library in the US to add a full-time social worker, Leah Esguaerra, to its staff to help patrons struggling with substance use, mental health issues, or homelessness. Esguaerra told the Chicago Tribune in 2018 that she offered peer counselling and outreach to the library’s patrons, and had helped more than 120 people find housing.

Since then, more and more public libraries across the continent have begun hiring social workers and outreach workers as the demand grows for staff with the training to meet the complex needs of patrons. In March, a security guard at London, Ont.’s central library branch received a concussion while barring a patron from entering the building. A week later, the library system announced it would hire a full-time addiction and mental health specialist. 

Neither GVPL or VIRL have social workers or outreach workers on staff at any of their branches, though a VIRL spokesperson said the system has partnered in the past with organizations that provide outreach and support. 

“It’s something that is certainly in discussion, in terms of the best way to do that,” said Jennifer Windecker, GVPL director of library services. “And we haven’t quite landed on that.”

She said the library board is currently in a strategic planning process and they are dedicating resources to figure out exactly what the community’s needs are. 

In an emailed statement, VIRL director of library services and planning, Melissa Legacy, said the system is always looking at new training opportunities for staff, and they have previously undergone de-escalation training, training on homelessness, and mental health first aid training. 

“I have no doubt that community crises will persist and may even become more acute in the months and years ahead,” she wrote. “I am focused on ensuring our team members are equipped with the skills, confidence, tools, and resilience to safely provide critically important library services at a time when, I believe, the need for libraries to remain open, accessible, and welcoming will be more important than ever.”

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to libraries—each has a different, distinct clientele. The Central branch has different needs than the Juan de Fuca branch. Likewise, the Sooke branch has different needs than the Port Hardy VIRL branch. Each has to make its own decisions about how to serve its own community—and how to balance the needs of the wide array of people living there.

Meeting the community’s needs

Having 37 incident reports filed at Central in January is likely not far off what the branch sees on a monthly basis, Windecker says, though there have been spikes when public health orders change. This location is most used by vulnerable populations in the region because of its proximity to other social services in the downtown core.  

Central branch is the only one of the system’s locations to have security guards on site. Part of the reason is the size of the library, but it is also the branch within the system with the most incidents. 

Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

Incidents are not uncommon at the branch, Tatton said, but librarians are trained to meet people where they’re at, have a conversation with them, and try to get to the root of why something is happening. Often, having these conversations will be enough to defuse the situation, she said, but if not, the patron is asked to leave. If the situation escalates further, security may get involved. That doesn’t always work. 

“Sometimes [the security company] sends people who don’t really understand libraries,” Tatton said, adding that the team is planning to draft a letter, explaining how libraries treat patrons with empathy rather than in a punitive manner. 

The sxʷeŋxʷəŋ təŋəxʷ James Bay Branch, the only other branch within Victoria city limits, had a total of three incident reports in January. All were filed on Jan. 22, the same day as a large anti-COVID mandate protest at the legislature, and detail approximately 20 patrons entering the library to use the washroom, each refusing to wear a mask.

According to a GVPL spokesperson, additional staff were assigned to the branch the following weekends and staff were given permission to close the branch if they felt it had become an unsafe environment for patrons. Ultimately, the branch was not closed during any of the Saturday protests. 

The sxʷeŋxʷəŋ təŋəxʷ James Bay Branch, which opened in 2018, is set up better than the Central branch to support its clientele. The Central branch moved to its current location at 735 Broughton St. as a temporary measure in the 1990 after outgrowing its previous location on Yates Street. The building was designed to be a retail space, not a library, and it shows, Tatton said. The newer branches, like the location that just opened in Esquimalt earlier this year, are very open, have beautiful lighting, and have shelving that is easy to move around depending on needs—attributes the Central branch does not have.  

Tatton says that the number of “nooks and crannies” at Central make it hard for staff to be able to see all areas of the library. With increased sightlines and a more purpose-built space, she guesses that security would not be needed to the same extent. 

And as the city grows, the library will be less able to meet the needs of the community. In a report to Victoria council in June 2021, Thomas Soulliere, director of parks, recreation, and facilities, wrote that the location would have to grow by 17,000 to 23,000 square feet to meet future population projections. 

A completely new library or a large renovation are being considered by GVPL and the City of Victoria, but a feasibility study is still in the works. 

‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’

As a library manager, Peter Maguire, who is based out of Sooke but is currently on parental leave, primarily helps support the library workers who are interacting with patrons on a daily basis. And if someone needs to get kicked out, he is the one who does that. But from the beginning, he has made a point of ensuring that the people who need to use the library the most have access to what they need. 

Before the new Sooke library was built, there were occasionally discussions about cutting power to the only outside plug on the library. Maguire advocated for the plug to remain in use because people without homes frequently used it while overnight sheltering. 

“It’s a minor thing, but arguing for that really, really helped a couple of people who I knew had very, very significant needs that wouldn’t be met otherwise,” he said

While these might not seem like significant moves, small things like the library’s bathroom policy, and where sharps containers are placed, can have a significant impact on individuals’ lives. 

But some situations stick with you, and it can take a toll. Maguire remembers helping a woman who owed hundreds of dollars worth of fees for unreturned materials and wasn’t allowed into the local library branch. In speaking with her, he learned that unreturned materials corresponded with the day she left her abusive husband. He wrote a letter to the CEO and got the fines waived. 

“And that's the kind of thing that people would probably wind up overlooking if they didn't go and take the time to learn to talk to the person,” Maguire said. “But when you start looking at what some people are having to bear, it’s a lot.”

Oliver said librarians experience empathy fatigue just like health-care workers and social workers: spending too much energy caring for others may cause librarians to feel less compassionately towards patrons. 

“There’s only so much that one person can do and also, you know, just this idea of you can’t pour from an empty cup. It becomes even harder to take care of people when you are burned out.”

Kaminker says her staff have described this exact feeling. It all comes down to allocating more resources and opening new positions at libraries to make sure the institutions can give the best service possible to their patrons. 

Libraries are an incredible value, she said. “Taxpayers pay, like, dollars—tiny amounts—and get so much value from it.

“The more funding and the more libraries we have, the healthier communities we have. I am frequently struck by how much more I could be doing if I had more staff, if I had more resources. I could double my staff and everybody would be busy all the time. The needs are very great and we are a small resource. All libraries, even your best funded libraries cannot really meet the needs of the community.”

She says broad changes are needed in Canada to make peoples’ health a priority. Funding libraries better is a part of that.

Oliver, in her book, wrote that there needs to be a reckoning with how we view public libraries. Maguire agrees: as soon as the public, governments, and even libraries themselves, see institutions for all that they really are, then they can be designed in a way that better meets their needs. 

“You need to decide what it is you are and then design your service so that it does the thing you’re trying to do. I think that’s what libraries right now need to do.”

Related News

E&N Trail collision puts focus on CRD Cruise with Courtesy campaign
Stay connected to your city with the Capital Daily newsletter.
By filling out the form above, you agree to receive emails from Capital Daily. You can unsubscribe at any time.