Posted by: bluesyemre | June 18, 2020

Security experts on how to reopen safely

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As libraries prepare to reopen, safety is a primary concern of leaders and workers alike. Measures to keep staff and patrons as safe as possible from coronavirus infection are being instituted in libraries across the country. But most of those measures require patron cooperation. Reports of retail customers attacking store and restaurant workers over being told to don masks, as well as general worries over lack of compliance or having to enforce new rules, have added an extra layer of uncertainty for those returning to work.

LJ spoke with several security professionals to get their takes on concerns that our readers shared, including Steve Albrecht, author of Library Security (ALA, 2015) and a library security consultant and trainer, and three representatives from Margolis Healy and Associates: Cofounder and CEO Steven J. Healy, EVP Daniel R. Pascale, and VP for Strategic Initiatives Christi Hurt.


The main question that concerns library staff, whether they are planning their reopening or are already back in their buildings and looking to gradually expand services, is how to ensure that patrons will comply with mask and social distancing regulations, and best practices for pre-empting confrontations.

Steve Albrecht head shot
Steve Albrecht

For many library users, these new rules will simply be extensions of the ways they have already been protecting themselves and their neighbors. However, noted Albrecht, many people are growing frustrated and tired of following these precautions, which some see as encroaching on their rights. Particularly if a library’s city or county has not created ordinances, policies, or municipal code around these protocols, people will often push back. When local mandates haven’t been set up, enforcement will fall on staff. “The best we can do from a compliance perspective,” said Albrecht, “is to be as assertive and polite as possible with patrons coming in, remind them of the things that they’re supposed to do, and hope that they will.” That can be helped along by modeling, he pointed out.

Steven J. Healy head shot
Steven J. Healy

Communication with patrons should start before they set foot in the library, said Healy, through email and other messages to cardholders and community members. These should emphasize not only what they will need to do when they come in, but should highlight what the staff is doing—the protective measures visitors will see them using as well as how the space and materials are being cleaned and sanitized.

Signage and wayfinding at the library will help reinforce those messages. Keep it clear and simple, Healy noted, emphasizing those same messages. “We’ve seen a lot of different creative approaches to helping people maintain their social distancing,” he added, “from simple lines on the floor to removing seats so that you don’t have more people sitting in a particular area than you would want.” Pascale suggested looking at local retail and food service messaging and signage for ideas about what sets clear guidelines.

Daniel R. Pascale head shot
Daniel R. Pascale

Pascale also recommended purchasing TensaBeams—the portable barrier system used in banks and movie theaters—to help control the flow of traffic. For example, he explained, “If we want folks to go in one path down stacks in a library, then we can label the floor with arrows and we can have TensaBeams that lead you to that area. This will force folks to go in a direction that we want them to, in a way that is not intimidating”—or confrontational. Limiting access points can also be useful, he added allowing staff to keep track of how many people are inside at any given time.


Once a patron is at the library, communication about safety protocols can get personal and, often, tricky.

All the experts LJ spoke with recommended, if possible, bringing in supplemental security personnel to help with the transition. “And when I say security personnel,” noted Healy, “I mean really low-key security, not with a police or militaristic look” or manner, but rather professionals who are trained in conflict resolution, and who can serve as a resource for library staff who may find themselves unable to defuse a situation on their own. “I think that we do a disservice to our employees if we expect them to do that without any level of training and orientation about having conversations, being respectful, de-escalating those situations where folks might want to confront one of the policies,” he said.

Hiring managers can and should be picky about any outside security they bring in, and consider how their style will fit with the library’s culture, added Albrecht.

Christi Hurt head shot
Christi Hurt

Leadership should provide training opportunities for staff ahead of their interactions with the public outlining the library’s safety protocols, how those should be enforced, what is expected of workers in their interactions with patrons, and what to do in the event of conflict. “We will get into more challenges in all of our spaces that are shared if we aren’t consistent about the application of these policies and principles,” Hurt said. “That’s when confusion and potential challenges will arise.”

Bringing in an outside trainer is ideal, if possible. Document all training sessions, so that they can be replicated if need be and so the library has a legal record.


In the event of a conflict, language is key, said Albrecht, as is trying to keep the interaction positive and avoiding lectures or legalese. “People hate being told what to do, and many times patrons get offended that somehow you’re singling them out for their behavior,” he noted. “I think we have to create an environment which is, ‘Hey, thanks for coming in, I bet you’re just as frustrated as we are, but I know you’re excited to use the library. Here are the things that we’re doing to keep all of us safe.’” Make sure staff takes time to review basic communication guidelines, such as not saying “Calm down” to a person who is agitated, and not confronting people in front of their children or partner. Albrecht advised not arguing about why protocols are in place, but sticking to the facts of the library’s policy.

Short scripts for potential conversations—often available through local public health departments or other venues—can be helpful to have on hand in advance, said Healy. Albrecht also recommended checking the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website for Business and Workplace resources and the Society for Human Resources Management site.

In the event of a difficult conversation, staff should be encouraged to call over a manager or a coworker—Healy recommends designating employees with good non-confrontational skills who can be tapped for help, and providing them with extra training to ensure that the language they use is consistent.

A number of LJ readers expressed concern about the potential for conflict if a staff member of color needs to ask a white patron to comply with social distancing or mask-wearing, and the possibility that such a confrontation could escalate into a dangerous situation.

“It’s really important that when we form our policies and practices, we’re looking at those power dynamics,” said Hurt. One workaround might be to send people out into patron-facing situations in pairs, suggested Hurt—both for support and, if partners are chosen to provide a range of life experiences between them, to increase the odds that one or the other will be able to connect with a patron. “The reality is, race is one of the many factors that people are going to need to consider when we look at these power imbalances,” she noted. “It’s a really important one, especially right now.”

Providing this kind of support for employees, added Healy, has to be part of library policy ahead of time, and not just implemented on an ad hoc basis. “You just can’t make stuff up—it’s got to rest in policy,” he said. “It’s got to be legally defensible. Public libraries that are part of a city, part of a county, have access to a general counsel that can review the policy and say, ‘This is in concert with our local, county, and regional guidelines.’”

Calling in law enforcement should be a last resort, if staff are afraid for their—or other patrons’—safety, if a patron is threatening or engaging in violence.


Make sure extra break time is built into the day, noted Albrecht. Working a full day with a mask on can become uncomfortable and even affect employees physically or cognitively. “You get a little lightheaded from having a mask that’s controlling your respiration,” he advised. Providing a regularly sanitized or sterilized break room will give staff a safe space to remove their masks and recharge.

Make sure there’s time to debrief together as well, whether physically at a safe distance or in a video chat at the end of the day, added Albrecht. “Share some situations as the library opens: What happened yesterday? What happened when you dealt with that particular person? Use the staff meeting process as a way to do a little training, a little role playing, to problem solve, and to…say, ‘What are some of the best practices we got as a result of what we witnessed yesterday?’”

Given the powerful health, economic, and societal shifts of the moment, in many cases compounded by grief, fear, and uncertainty, libraries should consider building some level of trauma-informed practice—organizational framework that involves understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects of all types of trauma—into their attention to the security and safety needs of both patrons and staff.

Many libraries are doing some form of this already, particularly when it comes to dealing with patrons who have experienced a range of trauma, said Hurt. “For staff, there’s some security in being reminded that they already have some of these skills,” she noted. Even if a library has already incorporated trauma-informed practices into their workplace culture, however, outside organizations and agencies can be of help.

“When I think about trauma-informed care and support, I think a lot about our local rape crisis center and domestic violence agencies that are so skilled in this space,” advised Hurt. “Some libraries may have relationships with them already, and bringing in folks from those operations to come and do training might be useful. I think talking with public health officials about the resources they might see in this space could be good.”

And it’s not only patrons who will benefit from a compassionate approach. “Staff in all these spaces have been going through a tremendous amount of upheaval, and potentially trauma, during this time,” Hurt said. “How do we provide support for the staff to be coming back to work physically when they have experienced trauma or upheaval?”

Libraries with on-site social workers can tap them as a resource, suggested Albrecht. Many cities and counties have an Employee Assistance Program as part of their benefits, where employees can access a certain number of counseling sessions online or by phone if they’re anxious about returning to work, their financial situation, or other concerns.

Overall, leadership should pay close attention to local and county health officials to make sure that their practices align with what is being asked of people outside the library as well. Consistency is important, all agreed. “Look at a local public health department for similarly situated public organizations,” Hurt advised. “Using similar language in different public spaces will help the public understand what’s expected, and eliminate some of the vagueness between the different thresholds they’re walking through.”

“We’re in such new territory for how people return to work and what that looks like,” noted Albrecht. He advised patience—on the part of directors, managers, and staff, both in interactions with the public and with each other. “We can’t always choose the way that patrons behave,” he added. “The patience piece is a big key to how we’re going to get back to the new normal.”

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