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Notes from the Executive Director – October 2017

It’s not very often that I consider a workshop a success when speakers get multiple critical comments. But such was the case with the program we co-sponsored on September 7. Every year MCLS joins with the Cooperative Directors Association, Library of Michigan, Michigan Academic Library Association, and Michigan Library Association to present a program on a topic of timely interest. This year’s program was called “Creating A Culture of Security & Safety in Your Library” and featured noted library security expert Steve Albrecht. We held the program in two locations. On September 6, Albrecht did a four-hour session in Gaylord, and the following day, he repeated the program in a three-hour time slot at Dearborn Public Library. At the program in Dearborn, we had two additional speakers: Jodie Layne, Founder and Director of Safer Spaces, a nonprofit in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Eva Davis, Director at Canton Public Library in Canton, Michigan, a western Detroit suburb.

Albrecht is an entertaining and effective presenter. He focused on the ways to handle disruptive library visitors and, if necessary, staff. He used a variety of examples from the commonplace and mundane to the horrific happenstance of an active shooter. With the shooting at the Clover-Carter Public Library in New Mexico fresh in everyone’s mind, Albrecht had a rapt audience throughout his presentation. Albrecht was firm on the need for clear policies and even-handed, consistent enforcement. He strongly advocated early calls to the police for disruptive library users.

After lunch, Layne and Davis focused on a different side of library safety. In their presentations, they talked about ways to ensure that all community members feel safe in the library and ways that the library can create outreach to minority and at-risk residents. Layne asked the audience to think about the ways that their libraries might be off-putting to these folks. She described her work in Winnipeg with populations that are often marginalized and victimized, and suggested that libraries can be safe spaces for them with a little effort.

Where Albrecht brought a focus on rules and policies and calls to the police, Layne encouraged the audience to look beyond policies and see the individuals. She advocated an approach that was not strictly policy-based, and talked about how we categorize visitors to our libraries in a variety of ways. She suggested that librarians can respond to some disruptive visitors with conflict management techniques that don’t require reliance on higher authority in the library or calls to the police. She said that some groups and populations distrust the police and their very presence may exacerbate an already tense situation.

In Canton, the public library has become a strong partner in the Canton Response to Hate Crimes Coalition, which includes the local police and several nonprofit, civic associations. Davis talked about some events that demonstrated the library’s commitment to engagement with the entire community. One such program was “Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbor.” Programs like this are not without controversy, and Davis was candid about fielding phone calls questioning the library’s sponsorship of events like this.

Audience reaction to the day’s presentations was all over the map. Some loved the whole thing. Others were quite critical of the openness and programming advocated by Layne and Davis, finding these approaches too liberal or inappropriate for the communities they serve. The evaluations reminded me how difficult it is for us to see the water we swim in. We all have cultural norms that we’ve imbibed from our youths, and it is often a tough thing to examine them and recognize that others do not share our perspectives, beliefs, and values. It can be just as challenging to bring discussions about different norms and outlooks to the programs in our libraries. But it’s vital for us to make the effort. Today, almost every city, town, village, or campus, no matter how small, has populations of immigrants or other minority groups that have been marginalized. One of the lessons from Canton Public Library’s experience is that it takes good partners to make events like these successful. As librarians, we are in a great position to find the partners that can help us create meaningful dialog around topics that may be uncomfortable. With thoughtful actions and effort, our libraries can be bridges to honest, civil, and open dialog about these issues. And everyone just may discover that they have way more in common than they thought.

I hope you’ll join me for the next “Coffee with the Executive Director” at 9am Eastern (8am Central) on October 13. No registration is required. You can find all you need to know about participating on our website, and while you’re there, jot down a question for me. See you on October 13.