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Problem behaviour at Vancouver region libraries escalates

Library workers in Vancouver and Burnaby say they need more training and enhanced security

By Ryan Patrick Jones and Monique Rodrigues , in City , on October 25, 2017

Library workers in Vancouver and Burnaby say they need more training and enhanced security to help deal with an escalation of violence, aggression and problem behaviour in the workplace.

“We have always been a place for people who don’t have a home, but we are starting to deal with significant street problems,” said Aliza Nevarie, president of the Vancouver branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. “We are concerned about the rising levels of violence from the public against each other and staff.”

Inappropriate behaviour at the library has been a reality for a long time, said Sarah Bjorknas, vice-president of CUPE 23, the union for library workers in Burnaby, but “it is certainly expanding.”

On a daily basis, library staff grapple with patrons who use the space to sleep, loiter and take drugs. Sometimes they are victims of verbal aggression and physical assault. In the absence of proper security, staff themselves must confront those who violate library policies, by waking up sleeping patrons or forcing them to leave for disruptive behaviour.

Some workers complain they feel uncomfortable handling situations for which they have little training. 

A 2015 report by CUPE on workplace safety found that 20 per cent of library workers feel unsafe on a monthly basis.

Many workers “do not feel that their education/training has prepared them to deal with the diverse circumstances that arise,” said the report. 

Social problems on the rise

These situations are becoming more common in the Lower Mainland as the region faces a trifecta of crises in mental health, drug addiction and housing.  Homelessness increased by 30 per cent in the past three years, with 3,600 people identified as homeless.

Drug use in libraries is now so common that needle drop-off boxes were installed in the bathrooms of all four Burnaby branches this year. These devices are also available in some Vancouver branches. In March, a man in his 20s was found dead of a suspected drug overdose in the bathroom of the Metrotown branch of Burnaby Public Library.

A “No Loitering” sign outside the Metrotown branch of the Burnaby Public Library.

Public libraries have become important refuges for homeless people and others on the margins of society.

According to Jean McKendry, the author of a 2013 study about homeless men using libraries in Vancouver, they see these spaces as safe, welcoming and inclusive. They go there to stay warm, read, spend time and access technology. Some of them treat libraries as de facto daytime shelters.

A balancing act

In Vancouver, Nevarie said, the library administration is trying to encourage employees to fill out more incident reports, which would help identifying problems when they arise.

However, she believes they need more resources for security, training and staff.

Sandra Singh, chief librarian of the Vancouver Public Library, said she does not agree resources are limited and the VPL receives great support from the city. For next year, the administration plans to request funds for contracting additional security guards, as the two top floors of the central branch — currently under construction — will be opened.

Singh acknowledged that challenging behaviours are becoming more common but said the VPL has procedures to ensure the health and safety of employees. Security guards roam many locations, staff follow security guidelines, and employee training sessions are available in violence prevention, conflict resolution, de-escalation and customer service.

The number of incidents is low compared to the number of visitors the library receives, according to Singh. Only 1,460 incident reports were filed by library staff at all locations of the VPL out of 6.5-million visits last year. Incidents can range from someone pulling the fire alarm to watching porn on library computers to abusive behaviour to violence.

“What we try to do here is take a compassionate, empathetic approach, ensuring the safety of the patron, while also ensuring the safety and security of our staff,” Singh said.

Burnaby deputy chief librarian and Metrotown branch manager Deb Thomas agreed the consequences of the increasing number of people without homes can be stressful and challenging for library workers.

However, she said that the BPL is working on ways to prepare employees.

“We have been doing training with the staff more regularly in the last three to five years and we have designed a disruptive behaviour manual to give people some guidance,” she said. “I haven’t heard major complaints since.”