Social workers, snacks and 'a place of respect': How 3 libraries try to help visitors and maintain safety

While Winnipeg's Millennium Library has instituted bag checks and security screening, libraries in Halifax, Calgary and Virginia are leveraging design, training and local partnerships to help prevent violent incidents and other safety threats before they start.

Halifax, Calgary, Virginia libraries leverage design, partnerships as Winnipeg's Millennium ups security

Guards search bags and use metal detectors on visitors entering the Millennium Library. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Scott Firestine works at a library where at any point, anyone walking in may legally be carrying a loaded firearm.

But he still says he wouldn't want to see mandatory bag checks and metal detectors — security measures recently introduced at Winnipeg's Millennium Library — at his facility.

"I don't think it's welcoming when you have to walk through a metal detector and empty out your pockets to enter into an institution of learning," said Firestine, director of Richmond Public Library in Virginia —  a state with open-carry gun laws.

"I don't want anybody to do that. I don't care if you're experiencing homelessness or you're the most wealthy person in the city of Richmond."

Some Millennium Library-goers and social justice advocates feel the new measures not only tarnish the perception of the library as a welcoming space, but that the screening processes displace homeless patrons and discourage other vulnerable communities from entering.

Library services manager Ed Cuddy told the media in February that the bag checks and metal detector sweeps were a response to an increase in the frequency and severity of violent incidents and threats in the library over the past few years.

Cuddy said the Winnipeg Police Service encouraged the bolstering of security measures, though some criticized the library for not consulting with the broader community.

Libraries in other jurisdictions have adopted a variety of strategies in the face of mounting safety concerns stemming from substance use, mental health crises and homelessness.

Two public libraries in Virginia have taken starkly different approaches from one another. In Canada, libraries in downtown Calgary and Halifax have also devised different ways to try to improve safety without a perceived compromise in accessibility.

The Millennium's new approach may not be common in the context of Canadian public libraries, but it's been done before south of the border.

Tale of two U.S. libraries

In January 2018, the Library of Virginia in Richmond, Va., rolled out mandatory bag checks and metal detectors in its front lobby.

Library communications manager Anne E. Henderson said the Library of Virginia deals with "some of the same issues that all libraries do," and there wasn't necessarily one particular issue that catalyzed the shift to bag checks and metal detectors.

"This change in operations is consistent with operational procedures of other Capital Square [government] buildings and enhances the security and safety of our patrons, staff, and collections," she said in an email.

Library of Virginia is state-run, but a few blocks away the city-run Richmond Public Library serves a slightly different purpose and has taken a different approach to dealing with people with mental health and substance issues downtown.

Richmond Public Library in Virginia has taken steps to make its building more welcoming and accessible to the homeless. (Submitted by Scott Firestine)

"That's kind of the consequence of working in an urban library and it's a challenge," said Richmond Public Library director Firestine.

"Some librarians enter the profession and they don't realize that…. People who interview [for jobs], the first thing they say is, 'Oh, I just love books.' Books are our product. That's not our service. Our service is people."

Despite being faced with some of the same challenges as all urban libraries, Richmond Public has not resorted to instituting bag checks or installing metal detectors.

It's true that Millennium faces challenges many other libraries don't from Winnipeg's meth crisis, poverty and homelessness issues. It's also true that some forces in the U.S. inject a level of risk in public spaces there that may seem unfathomable to many Canadians.

In Virginia, it's legal to carry blades less than six inches in length, though anything greater than that or brandished publicly isn't allowed into the library, Firestine said.

Virginia is also an open-carry state. Citizens may freely carry loaded handguns at any time. Armed local gun rights advocates have gone so far as to exercise their state-sanctioned democratic right to protest and held demonstrations within Richmond Public, said Firestine.

'Acute awareness of danger'

Anyone at any time may be packing, Firestine said, and the library is powerless to stop that.

"We have a very acute awareness of danger in our society right now," he said, referencing the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. "We have many security measures in place."

Those measures include panic buttons, cameras, and security guards on every floor of the building doing routine walkthroughs.

All we can do is be as vigilant as possible.- Scott Firestine, Richmond Public Library

The library recently received a grant to staff a part-time social worker on site to help people with complex needs.

Firestine said staff are trained and very well prepared for how to respond to psychological distress, intoxication and violence, but they also have strong relationships with local social organizations that may be called in for help.

"All we can do is be as vigilant as possible and be as responsive as possible and train staff to react in those situations should they, God forbid, ever happen."

'I want our buildings to be warm'

In the past three years, the library has repealed a restriction on visitors bringing in big bags and bedrolls, said Firestine. The rule was impacting homeless people who often carry all their worldly possessions on them.

There is a hostel located across the street from Richmond Public, and tourists looking to check their email at the library used to be out of luck.

"I was having to say to those folks, 'Yep, nope, can't come in with that world-travelling suitcase,'" he said, adding there's now no limit on bag size — but patrons aren't allowed to leave their things unattended.

I want the tone to be bright and pleasant.- Scott Firestine

"We're addressing the behaviours instead of the person or the items."

Firestine said there a variety of reasons he wouldn't entertain introducing bag checks and metal detectors, even if the library had the financial ability to fund those measures. For one, he doesn't want the library "to feel like the TSA" airport security.

"I want our buildings to be warm and inviting because it sets the tone and I want the tone to be bright and pleasant."

Fewer 'soft places to land'

About 1,900 kilometres up the Atlantic coast, the Halifax Central Library has also taken an approach that differs from Millennium Library's.

"We are a public space so we see the gamut of activities and vulnerabilities, but that's human life," said Åsa Kachan, chief librarian and CEO of Halifax Central.

"It takes a lot of effort and it requires a lot of care of the people who work in the library, because compassion fatigue is real."

Management at Halifax Central Library considers how the library's design and layout influences visitors, says chief librarian and CEO Åsa Kachan. 'Often, conflict comes with congestion.' (Submitted by Halifax Central Library)

She said the modern library world is still based on long-held democratic values that have always been a part of libraries, but daily life in between the stacks is quite different than it used to be.

Kachan said she senses an increasing vulnerability among marginalized library users, in part because there appear to be fewer "soft places to land" — spaces where people can hang out without paying, or being accused of loitering and shuffled off.

Halifax Central has taken some steps that may not immediately appear to fall within safety and security management, but which Kachan describes as ways to prevent conflict.

Halifax libraries have secured food grants that allow public libraries, including the central location, to provide warm drinks and free healthy snacks every morning. She said "food fosters conversation" and that conversation is part of building connections in the community.

"It's not to say that difficult situations never arise, but if we begin from a place of respect, then we work really hard to sort of … get ahead of some of the difficult circumstances," she said.

"Knowing people by name, providing some food, means that if we do need to have a conversation with somebody and say, 'You know, your behavior is really disruptive … time to head out for a little walk and see if you can sort of cool down,' that's done in the tone of respect, not exclusion."

'Non-intrusive' techniques

Management also considers how the library design and layout influences visitors.

"Often, conflict comes with congestion," Kachan said. "The way you do space in the public library also impacts behavior, so we're trying really hard to be thoughtful."

The Halifax Central Library opened in 2015. The library is piloting a program this year with an on-site social worker. (Submitted by Halifax Central Library)

Kachan said many staff are trained in nonviolent crisis intervention and "non-intrusive" de-escalation methods in the event they encounter a visitor who is inebriated, agitated or causing trouble.

Like Richmond Public, Halifax Central is piloting a program this year with a social worker on site who will work with a local mobile street-health unit, and will help build understanding and support library staff in the work they do.

Winnipeg's Millennium Library also has two full-time community crisis workers on staff.

Halifax Central also took the step of hiring and training its own library staff as on-site security guards, rather than outsourcing the service to a private third party.

We are in a unique position to work with others to solve some problems.-  Åsa Kachan, Halifax Central Library

"They're actually library employees who are acculturated into the values that our organization operates under, who really acknowledge that we're trying to meet people where they're at in their life."

Though the Halifax library's shiny state-of-the art building is only a few years old, it too has had its share of violent incidents, said Kachan.

Early this month the library was evacuated after reports of someone with a firearm. It turned out to be a pellet gun. Police arrested two people — a woman was charged with weapons offences, and a man was arrested for public intoxication.

Even so, the thought of enforcing mandatory bag checks and metal detectors has never come up as a proposed solution.

"It starts from a place of respect and dignity," said Kachan.

"We want people to be welcome, we want them to feel respected by us, and it's almost that incremental relationship: the more respect we can show to people the better the behaviour is," she said.

"I also believe that while we cannot solve every problem, we are in a unique position to work with others to solve some problems."

Crime prevention through design

Calgary Central Library director of service delivery Sarah Meilleur said bag checks and metal detectors aren't something her facility would consider implementing.

Calgary Central Library's new location opened last fall. (Michael Grimm)

"We have at this time even removed all of our security gates from our library locations," she said.

"We really want people to feel welcome and safe and so that's an important sort of philosophy for us, and it has been successful."

Things are relatively fresh at the building — the second-largest library in Canada — which just opened last fall.

Calgary Central is the second-largest library in Canada. (Michael Grimm)

Meilleur said in the old location, people had started to feel unsafe. So, as was the case in Halifax, library management focused on how people use the space and how design could prevent some problems from happening in the first place.

A City of Calgary security adviser helped them come up with ideas to deter violent behaviour.

Director of service delivery Sarah Meilleur said being a welcoming space is important and Calgary Central would not consider implementing bag checks and metal detectors. (Michael Grimm)

They took the bold step of repurposing a decommissioned fire truck into an early learning centre and placed it near the entrance of the old building.

"That really changed the dynamic of this space," said Meilleur.

"It was something that drove people there and it made it a really difficult place for inappropriate activity to take place, because all of a sudden the main floor was filled with children and families on a daily basis."

A decommissioned fire truck was turned into an early learning centre and placed near the entrance of the old Calgary Central Library building. 'That really changed the dynamic of this space,' says Meilleur. (Submitted by Calgary Central Library)

Engine 23 remains at the old Central Library but will be transferred to the new building later this year.

The library still has a zero-tolerance policy on drugs, alcohol and inappropriate behaviour, said Meilleur, but like the Millennium, Halifax and Richmond Public libraries, Calgary Central relies on having strong relationships with social service agencies who can help with some of these challenges.

Supervised consumption

Another thing Calgary Central has that the Millennium doesn't is a supervised consumption site nearby, where people can do drugs under the supervision of trained medical professionals.

That's one reason the Winnipeg group Millennium for All has characterized the bag checks and metal detectors as a Band-Aid solution to broader social problems. The group has pointed to how a lack of such a site in Winnipeg means many people end up using on the streets or in public spaces like the library.

Calgary Central also switched security providers from Garda (the same company Millennium uses) to C4S. The new suite of guards came trained with the ability to intervene and help administer naloxone, a potentially life-saving antidote that can be administered to someone in the event of opioid overdose.

Kachan said Halifax Central is in the process of reviewing how it might train staff or security to administer naloxone, following the lead of the Toronto Public Library, the Saskatoon Public Library, the Camrose Public Library, Vancouver Public Library, Calgary Central Library and others.

No naloxone kits at Winnipeg libraries

A City of Winnipeg spokesperson said there are no naloxone kits at city libraries, and there are no plans to train staff on how to administer it.

When the Millennium Library announced the new security measures in February, management said the library would also install lockers that people could use to store their items before entering. As of April 17, the city is still mulling whether that is feasible, a city spokesperson said. In the meantime, patrons have recently been invited to store their belongings in bags at the front.

Visitors at the Millennium Library have to pass through new security screening before entering. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

On the heels of all the backlash, area Coun. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) introduced a motion asking Library Services to produce a report on security incidents at the downtown library, as well as a list of security alternatives used by other libraries in Winnipeg and other jurisdictions.

The motion passed April 4. The completed report is due back to the protection, community services and parks committee in June.


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.


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