Nova Scotia

'Kindness goes a long way': Why libraries train staff to work with society's struggles

As more people go to the Halifax Public Libraries, staff are being trained on how to deal with the range of behaviours people visiting these community hubs.

'When millions of steps come across our threshold, a pretty broad section of activity also comes'

Halifax Central Library logged 96 incidents over a 16-month period. (Emma Davie/CBC)

A child who fell and needed stitches, stolen iPads and a group fight in front of the glass building.

Racial slurs to staff, indecent exposure, a person having suicidal thoughts, youths using "hard drugs" and a man who urinated on the floor.

These are just some of the things that staff have had to manage at Halifax Central Library, according to incident reports from January 2018 to April 2019.

While tourists flock to see the landmark on Spring Garden Road, locals have more reasons than ever to visit their local libraries: cooking classes, recording booths, instruments and iPads to borrow, and, of course, books.

But as more people go to the Halifax Public Libraries to make use of these resources, staff are being trained to deal with the wide range of people visiting these community hubs.


"The public library, as a public space where everybody is welcome, means everybody comes," said Åsa Kachan, chief librarian and CEO of Halifax Public Libraries.

"When millions of steps come across our threshold, a pretty broad section of activity also comes."

Over 16 months, staff logged 96 cases of disruptive behaviour, thefts, physical violence and medical emergencies, among other incidents.

Åsa Kachan is the chief librarian and CEO of Halifax Public Libraries. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Medical emergencies ranged from a toddler who cut their lip to a person who needed a defibrillator. One medical incident simply reads: "Young guy in the third floor family washroom for a long time."

Acts of disruptive behaviour have the most incidents, but it's a broad category that includes entries of violence, such as "male patron slapped female patron."

It also includes things like listening to loud music, people found drinking alcohol and when an "unknown patron became irate when asked to stop watching another's screen and talking about conspiracies."

Staff training

To deal with all of this, staff receive training in customer service, mental health first aid and non-violent crisis intervention, which is done two to three times a year.

Kachan said they work closely with community police officers and the mobile street health team. The library also recently hired a social worker.

"Mental health difficulties exist in our community, she said. "So that's part of what we want to be prepared to respond to. Kindness goes a long way.

"We work really hard to reduce the likelihood of a difficult day to provide that foundation of respect and dignity that really elevates how everybody responds in this library and all of our branches."

The libraries have another, more creative, solution for dealing with unruly patrons. They feed them.

Some branches have started offering free coffee, tea and fruit for people at the library. Kachan said they've noticed that it reduces the likelihood that people will be disruptive.

"When you're hungry, it's really hard to be on your best behaviour," she said. "This is true of all of us."

Non-violent crisis intervention training is offered to staff at the Halifax Public Libraries two to three times a year. (Emma Davie/CBC)

In September, library staff will also receive training from Ryan Dowd, who works at one of the largest homeless shelters in the U.S. He does empathy-based training on how librarians can manage the behaviour of troubled individuals.

"Librarians probably, almost maybe more than any other profession, take their role of serving the entire community very, very seriously," Dowd said.

"But they don't necessarily have the tools to do that. They don't teach you how to deal with paranoid schizophrenics in library school."

Dowd's training focuses on helping staff understand "the world of somebody who's homeless" and how to manage situations when they arise.

"The way you stand changes the way people interact with you, whether you took the time to get to know their name or not," he said.

"The way that the staff member behaves changes pretty dramatically the way the patron behaves. And so I teach staff members how to change the way they interact with their patrons in a way that makes everybody safer, everybody calmer."

The Halifax Central Library had at least five iPads stolen in 16 months. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

In the incident logs obtained by CBC News, there were two classified as public safety issues.

The first, on July 30, 2018, involved two men on the fifth-floor patio who were "hopping the glass door."

The second happened last April and involved a patron who appeared to have a firearm. It was later found to be a pellet pistol.

More serious incidents have an effect on staff. Kachan said they have programs to help employees, whether it's debriefing as a group or sitting down with professionals individually.

"There will be days that are complex and somebody arrives who's struggling or somebody has a medical emergency in the public space," Kachan said.

"We work really hard to equip our staff in advance of those events. And if it is a difficult, a particularly difficult day, we want to help them process that, and land in a good place with that."

Homelessness on the rise

But there are certain things, such as drug and alcohol use at the library, that can get people kicked out. Sometimes it's just for the rest of the day, but Kachan said in extreme circumstances longer bans will be imposed.

"That's not OK in the library. And that's OK for us to ask that person to leave and it's important that we do," she said.

Dowd said when things escalate to the level of physical violence, that's when police should be called, adding that staff are not equipped to deal with those altercations.

He also said he's noticed that as homelessness increases in larger cities, these people have fewer places to frequent.

"What's happening is that so many other places are being privatized and shoving people out. And what's left is libraries," he said.

"There are fewer and fewer places elsewhere that homeless people can go and not be moved along or just flat out arrested. So it's kind of this perfect storm."

A statue in front of the Halifax Central Library has words like diversity, connection, growth and exploration. (Emma Davie/CBC)

But Kachan said public libraries are embracing these complex roles and, for the most part, the community having a place to congregate brings a lot of joy.

"What we've discovered is … people seek a place to come and linger," she said.

"That coming together of human beings is so critical. And it gets us out of the polarization that we're experiencing politically and it connects us to one another more deeply."