The rise of violence in Canada’s public libraries
The random acts of violence that are happening on our streets and in our transit systems in cities across Canada are also making their way into public libraries.
Local branches of all sizes are reporting an increase in verbal and physical violence. And for some, the pandemic made it even worse.
Over the past two years, one person died and six others were injured in a mass stabbing in a public library in North Vancouver. Last December, 28-year-old Tyree Cayer was killed during a visit to Winnipeg’s Millennium Library. Four teenagers were charged in his death. And two branches of the Saskatoon library were closed temporarily because of concerns about staff safety.
Cameron Ray, a supervisor librarian with Toronto Public Library, said he has lived the experience first hand — and several times.
“I did have one year where every three months I was assaulted. This guy chased me around the branch with a pair of hair scissors, like, ‘I’m going to stab you,’” he says. “That was terrifying.”
Ray and colleague Eila McLeish met when they worked together at the Toronto Reference Library. McLeish has been screamed at, sworn at, and even stalked by a disgruntled patron.
“I’ve come across overdose victims, people who are unconscious.”
McLeish came across a dead body in a library washroom. “That was pretty horrible,” she adds.
McLeish changed to a smaller branch, but she says it got worse. She has received counselling and was on sick leave for a year before returning to work in April.
Experts say libraries are a reflection of the world around them. And society’s problems are finding their way inside their doors.
“People are coming into the library and they have really significant needs,” says Siobhan Stevenson, a professor with the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.
“There are all kinds of social crises, humanitarian crises, in our cities: homelessness, the opioid epidemic, random acts of violence … a social safety net that’s been so diminished,” she told Global News’ The New Reality.
That’s left many people with complex needs with often nowhere to go for support. Public libraries, by their very nature, are committed to being welcoming and inclusive.
“Individuals come to our locations because they feel that it’s a safe place that they can come into,”
says Brian Daly, chief human resources officer at the Toronto Public Library, the largest library system in North America in terms of branches.
“Because of that, we need to be able to provide the services to them here on site because this is where they come.”
He also points out that only a tiny fraction of visits to Toronto’s library branches turn violent.
“About 20 of our branches have high numbers of violent or disruptive incidents out of our 100. And of nine and a half million visits, there were about 300 that involved a violent incident,” Daly says.
“But having said that, if you’re the person who is experiencing that incident as a worker or as a customer of ours, even one incident is too many.”
Toronto trains library staff on how to deal with people who have experienced trauma.
Toronto also spends $3 million a year on security guards who are assigned to 40 of the system’s 100 branches.
But Daly believes that’s only one piece of the puzzle.
“It’s not a matter of just adding more and more guards. That’s not the answer to this. We don’t want to create an environment where people feel intimidated coming into our branches.”
Millennium Library reopening Monday with security measures
Community Crisis Workers
Libraries across the country are grappling with finding a balance between supporting those with complex needs and keeping all visitors and staff safe.
The Edmonton Public Library recognized early on that there was a gap between the needs of some of its more vulnerable clients and the services the library was providing. So it brought in people who were most equipped to help: social workers. It was the first library in Canada to do so.
The outreach workers are now a vital resource, connecting people with the services they need, such as accessing information on where to find a shelter or a hot meal or how to obtain an I.D. card.
“People started to learn that the library was the place you could come for those supports. They could sit. They could be comfortable. They were welcomed,” says Sharon Day, the executive director of customer experience at the Edmonton Public Library.
Hilary Kirkpatrick is a social worker at the Edmonton Public Library. She says providing these services works because the space is accessible, clients are treated with respect and they don’t feel judged.
“We’re able to really meet clients where they’re at and serve their needs,” Kirkpatrick says.
Social workers have also become an important part of the team at other libraries including Halifax, Calgary, Winnipeg and London.
Toronto is launching its own pilot programs to support vulnerable visitors. In addition to connecting them with resources, they will also help identify and deal with problems on the floor before they escalate.
“These are social workers. These are individuals with mental health backgrounds who can come in and talk to individuals who are in distress,” Daly says.
Toronto is also hiring six library safety specialists who will work not only with clients who need help, but with staff who are often on the receiving end of verbal or physical assaults.
“Most of the time it is someone who has been spit up, chewed up and spit out by society and they’re at the end of their rope,” Ray says.
He and McLeish believe libraries need these kinds of programs because librarians and staff are not always equipped to handle these potentially volatile situations.
“It’s so hard when you can’t actually help someone,” Ray says. “As much as we would love to be able to have relationships with all these people and help them, we can’t because I’m trained on Dewey Decimal.”
Stevenson has studied the use of social workers in libraries and seen firsthand the difference they can make. But she worries they will be seen as an easy solution that will justify the further dismantling of social programs.
“It’s a much bigger policy problem,” she says.
The opioid crisis has also contributed to the rise in violence. The Toronto Public Library found a connection between the location of the branches with the most incidents and suspected opioid overdose hotspots in the city.
“There’s a lot of correlation with the kind of challenges we’re experiencing more broadly in society,” Daly says.
The Edmonton Public Library also saw an uptick in drug-related incidents. “We saw 99 poisonings in our branches in 2022, which is the biggest difference in what we would see pre-pandemic,” Day says.
Edmonton’s library system brought in an opioid response team and added washroom attendants at its most affected branches.
In response to the death of Tyree Cayer, the Millennium Library in Winnipeg installed a metal detector and added a regular police presence. It wasn’t the first time visitors were checked on their way in.
In 2019, handheld detectors were used to screen visitors. But they were removed one year later after community groups protested they kept out the people who needed library services the most.
Tania Cayer, Tyree’s mother, feels the opposition to the extra security measures is misplaced.
“People who do not work at that library, I do not believe should even have an opinion on whether a metal detector is put up or not,” she says. “It is to keep those people safe.”
Tania doesn’t blame the library. She believes there are bigger issues at play.
“Winnipeg is struggling with youth crime. It’s struggling with drugs. There are a million and one issues. This is just one of them.” she says.
Still, many libraries are against the addition of entrance barriers because of the concern it will discourage vulnerable clients from coming through their doors.
“There are always going to be challenges when you’re in a public space dealing with every kind of person,” Day says. “The beautiful thing about it is that everybody’s welcome here, but it’s also one of the hard things about it as everybody’s welcome here.”
The Library of the future: community hub
If you haven’t been to a public library lately, chances are you’ll be surprised by what you see. It’s not just about books anymore.
Libraries are a mirror, reflecting people in communities and their evolving needs. That means big changes at public libraries everywhere.
They are constantly adapting to meet these new challenges, at the same time, taking learning to a whole new level, with 3-D printers, recording studios filled with instruments, community kitchens —even places to try the latest video games. There are wide open spaces to relax and study.
“Think of your community library, your local library … as the community’s living room. A third space. It’s not work. It’s not home. It’s this other space,” Stevenson says.
A library of the future that looks nothing like the library of the past.