Dealing with patrons who break library rules is no one’s favorite part of the job. But establishing clear policies and penalties, and a consistent system for tracking misbehavior, is the first step toward creating an environment in which staff feel confident when enforcing rules and patrons understand the consequences of misconduct.
“If you don’t allow sleeping in the library…then what are the guidelines for the enforcement of that rule?” says Warren Graham, library security consultant and author of The Black Belt Librarian: Real-World Safety & Security (ALA Editions).
With a minor infraction, he says, staff might be inclined to give patrons leeway, but if there’s a rule against behavior, there need to be consequences associated with breaking that rule and an established threshold for leniency.
“Let’s say our guideline is that I wake you up twice, and then on the third time you’re asleep, you have to leave the library for the day. That’s a structure. So employees don’t have to call their own shots—one person gives six warnings, one person gives no warnings. That’s what gets you in trouble, because [inconsistent handling of a rule] can infer a bias.”
Most libraries have some system in place for staff to report issues, but Graham suggests that libraries use three separate methods to track problems.
- Incident reports for notable offenses by individual patrons. Any behavior that merits ejection from the library, such as repeated minor offenses or major offenses, would be one standard for writing up an incident report.
- Security logs to help identify problem areas. If multiple patrons are bringing food into a computer lab, for example, a log can track how often this happens and progress as new enforcement or communication strategies are put in place. Graham suggests libraries maintain at least one log per floor.
- A separate “potential problem” log for patrons who exhibit disruptive or disturbing behavior that doesn’t necessarily break a rule, such as staring or being rude or combative.
“If someone starts establishing a pattern, and you’ve given [resolving the problem] your best effort, if they keep that up, you’ve got the days and the times documented,” he says. “You can say ‘enough of this.’ ”
Reports and logs not only help ensure that rules are consistently and fairly enforced, they also enable libraries to share information among branches and build a case to present to funders when additional staff or security equipment is needed.
The tracking system can be simple—as security manager of the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, NC, from 1989 through 2006, Graham collected and compiled handwritten logs and incident reports and used spreadsheets.
Commercial incident reporting software suites, such as Report Exec, iTrak, and Incident Tracker, are used by private security forces. But these generally include robust features—modules for computer-aided dispatch, subject profiling, investigation support, insurance fraud prevention, etc.—and are priced accordingly.
Denver-based Quipu Group last year launched its Patron Incident Tracking System (PITS) designed with help from Berkeley Public Library (BPL), CA. The secure, web-based application maintains branch-level rules of conduct and follow-up actions and helps staff create uniform incident reports with input fields for incidents, perpetrators, physical descriptions, victims, and witnesses.
Digital photos, security footage, and documents such as warning letters can be associated with reports. Designated staff receive notifications when reports are created, a dashboard provides access to reports and suspensions, and the system supports a variety of access models for collaboration with local law enforcement, including individual or group logins for police. The system doesn’t interface with integrated library systems, so police won’t have access to patrons’ reading history. Currently, BPL, Contra Costa County Library, CA, and Englewood Public Library, CO, use PITS.
Quipu partner Scott Stockton says PITS was developed after noting that many libraries use repurposed, open source “trouble ticket” software—designed for IT help desks—or paper systems in which reports are filed but rarely accessed.
“Part of what we wanted to do with PITS was to make sure that it was designed to capture all of the information that [libraries typically track] in paper forms, keep it in a place where staff could find it easily, and store the data as securely as possible,” Stockton says.