Winnipeg library's new security approach creates 'draconian and humiliating barrier'
Lara Rae, a longtime and frequent library user, says new security measures remove a safe space for vulnerable
In February 2019, Winnipeg's Millennium Library began asking patrons to undergo bag checks and hand-held metal detection for weapons and liquor as they enter the downtown library.
Officials say the security measures are in response to an increase in the number and seriousness of violent incidents and threats.
Lara Rae is a longtime library user. She offers her perspective on the changes.
Since I was a child, the library has been a safe, happy space.
And as someone who has dealt with mood disorders, emotional regulation and attention issues for decades, I like spaces where I feel safe.
That's why I'm almost always at the Millennium Library.
In fact, some weeks, I'm there every day. I feel a calm come over me as I pass through the atrium, and through the wide and welcoming entrance where I'm once again surrounded by love. And by love, I mean books.
I use all the services — the computers, the printers, the audio stations, the private and swishy local history room, the DVDs and, most importantly, the knowledge base of the friendly staff.
I am a big donor too. As well as hosting events, I spend a lot at the annual book sale and more impressively, I have given the Winnipeg Public Library service more than $3,000 over the years — in overdue fines.
Now, when I am asked as a regular library patron if the downtown library has changed recently, I say emphatically "yes."
But that's not always an indication of threats or even bad manners.
A few elderly women with walkers, who looked terrified, waited behind me. One male senior citizen just turned and left.- Lara Rae
The library is a safe space for many who deal with mental illness, and sometimes their symptoms include loud vocalizations, rocking forward and back and other coping strategies.
Regardless, they are fellow patrons and we often nod to each other and sometimes chat.
Sometimes, I will observe people passing a small plastic mickey of vodka between themselves. And sometimes, as these people get intoxicated, they get louder.
But I will say this: I have seen very few people deliberately causing trouble.
This is not to say I haven't been yelled at or insulted; I have even broken up a fight, and stepped into the middle of an escalating shouting match between a couple. I moved in front of the man, after the woman had told him four times not to touch her. He called me many foul things, but to his credit he did not misgender me.
In no way did I really fear for my safety.
All of a sudden, I had to dump my change into a tray, have my purse rifled through and endure a wand swipe, after waiting in a long line (while in a cast and relying on a cane).
It was the first time in 25 years I felt unsafe at the library, and insecure.
And I was not the only one — a few elderly women with walkers, who looked terrified, waited behind me. One male senior citizen just turned and left. He was red-faced and appeared embarrassed.
On the other side of the divide, the guards were friendly and polite, trying to be respectful. They did not look like they were having a great time.
Yet no one I have talked to, either patron or employee, can put a finger on why this draconian and humiliating barrier to community has been erected, other than saying things have gotten more unsafe.
Up until recently, the library has done a decent job in making the library a commons. They don't police every infraction (i.e. they're not too "shh-y").
So there must be other ways of solving the new social problems, like our recent methamphetamine crisis.
The tools to fix the meth problem lie with social services, Manitoba Health, the province, the city and the federal government.
On that nearly empty floor, I felt elitist and distanced from my city, our city, the real city, as it really is. - Lara Rae
And with us. We understand drug use is a bad coping strategy and that many users will abstain if they can have access to — and can be healed enough to accept — intimacy and human connection.
We have the power to see our fellow citizens in distress as neighbours, reach out to them when appropriate, and leave them be when possible.
We need not not always anticipate conflict, as it is often the cause of the thing we mean to prevent.
Fences, in my (emotional) opinion, make bad neighbours.
One evening, I stopped by the downtown library to pick up a movie (yes, I still watch DVDs). The library seemed a ghost town.
I have confirmed this sense of emptiness with a few other regular patrons. So, while some might have a perception of increased safety (and this is all, at the end of the day, that any security policies afford us), it comes at a cost.
On that nearly empty floor, I felt elitist and distanced from my city, our city, the real city, as it really is.
To be blunt, I suppose I felt safer. But I sure as heck did not feel comfortable.
- This column initially said the security process included a pat-down. In fact, there was no pat-down.Mar 11, 2019 12:15 PM CT