July 21, 2017

Make the Academic Library a Safe Space…Literally | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellAs the guardians of a facility that welcomes all community members, academic librarians believe in the value of the library as a safe space. Keeping it safe, literally, takes effort. Knowing how to prepare and proceed can help.

What’s now known as “The Chicago Letter” is higher education’s latest controversy. Two sides, liberal and conservative, engaged in an active debate in the higher ed and mass media about the relative merits of the letter and trigger warnings for college students. It began when incoming freshmen at the University of Chicago received a letter from John Ellison, dean of students, informing them that the university does “not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’” nor does it cancel controversial campus speakers or “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Supporters cheered this effort to stop coddling college students by shielding them from new, potentially challenging ideas. Opponents claimed it was a short-sighted misunderstanding of the campus safe space and contradicted the intent to support academic freedom when it in fact placed restrictions on faculty as educators and denied their freedom to share trigger warnings.

If they choose to do so, academic librarians can be advocates on their own campuses to promote the library as a safe space for all students, as well as members of the public. As librarian educators, they can decide how to maintain the safety of library learning spaces. The nature of the conversation and the time of year have me thinking about another dimension of safety–making sure the academic library is a space that is free of crime and violence.

Keep it Safe–Literally

When visiting another academic library, I’m always pleasantly surprised if I encounter no door guards. It’s rewarding to know there are administrators who believe their academic libraries are so free of crime they are secure in leaving it unguarded. I recently visited a new academic library that had no collection security gates. Talk about trusting. Other academic libraries are like my own, an urban public university that places a premium on keeping students safe in buildings, on the street, and when traveling the fringes of campus. Achieving it requires a large police force, numerous security cameras, and constant vigilance. As a library community we can be thankful that episodes of violent crime in academic libraries are rare. Still, there are enough occurrences of theft, harassment, and vandalism that require us to put in place mechanisms to prevent and respond to more routine, but unacceptable security threats. The keys are advance preparation and staff awareness.

Pay Attention to the Three P’s

While there are any number of unique strategies we can employ to create a safe academic library, most would be represented by one of the Three P’s: Preparation, Prevention, Protection. If academic librarians focus on the first two they should deliver on the third.

Preparation encompasses efforts to provide staff with the resources to respond appropriately to security breaches. A good first step is reaching out to the campus or local police. These experts can offer everything from a building security audit to staff training for handling difficult situations. A fight between two students breaks out in the computer commons. What do you do? A mentally ill community member is naked and bathing at the bathroom sink. Who do you call? Knowing what to do as any incident unfolds and how to follow up when it ends is critical to supporting a safe space. But unless we physically and mentally prepare for these situations, actually running through the actions to take, we may panic and fail our students at the moment of crisis.

Prevention includes all those measures we take to secure the library. The degree to which you adopt preventive measures depends on the local environment. Only some need guards at the door, the display of identification, security cameras, or other resources designed to deter crime or provide useful information for investigations. No matter how secure you think your library is, it may be wise to install panic buttons at service points—and test them weekly. Add to prevention efforts a well–thought out code of conduct, along with forms to record code violations and procedures that lead to judicial review for students and permanent bans for non-student guests. Consult with campus police and institutional legal counsel on all security-related documents and procedures to avoid messy lawsuits resulting from poor decision making and arbitrary procedures.

Protection speaks to the needs of our students. We can prepare our staff and make our building more secure to prevent crime, but it all comes together when we care deeply about protecting our students from harm. That truly makes the library a safe space where they can study, learn, socialize, or simply take a break without fearing they will be victimized. That said, we can best protect our students by enlisting them as partners in crime prevention. We must regularly remind students to be aware of their surroundings and vigilant with their personal belongings. The goal is to keep them alert just enough to avoid feeling so safe in the library that they become complacent about their personal safety and the safety of those around them.

Inviting in the Community

Ideally we would like our academic libraries to be valued community resources. Serving local residents contributes to our institution’s reputation as a neighborhood partner. When the library is open to the public and allows non-student community guests to access computers and the Internet, there are some additional security measures to consider. It may lead to a situation in which the academic library is subject to some of the same challenges our public library colleagues deal with regularly. Requiring guests to show photo identification upon entrance or register in a guest tracking system is a minimally invasive approach to knowing who is in the building and when they visited. What’s more problematic is managing troublesome guests who harass staff or other library users. Again, it’s critical to have a visible code of conduct in place, registration forms with rules of usage for computer access, and a written procedure for terminating privileges, and then following them closely. It is rewarding to offer members of the public community access and 99 percent are a joy to serve. But be prepared to deal with that other one percent who will test your patience and the library’s security.

It’s Up to Us

When prospective students and their parents visit your institution they will most certainly have questions about campus safety. Even the most bucolic campus seeks to promote a safe environment, from a local security force to strategically located security cameras, to demonstrate a commitment to keeping students safe. Just as there is no classroom where students can be guaranteed safety from ideas and speech of a disturbing or stressful nature, the campus library offers no assurance of being crime free. If anything, the danger is that the library gives the false image of a peaceful haven that is a refuge from crime and violence. It leads students and staff to lower their guard by misjudging that the library is more safe than other campus buildings. The reality is that the “heart of the campus” needs our protection. To give students the level of security we know they expect in a library, it is up to the library staff to accept their responsibility to make the building as safe a space as is possible. The path to a library that is truly a campus safe space is to first ensure the library is a truly secure space.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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