Librarians face increasing violence on the job, Toronto Public Library figures show

Library officials blame increased levels of violence on "societal issues" and say staff are more aware of the importance of documenting incidents. The union, however, feels declining staffing levels play a significant role.

Part of the problem is fewer staff at the branches, librarians' union says

Books, staplers, even computer monitors have been tossed at Toronto Public Library staff, who are reporting violent incidents on the job at an increasing rate. (Shannon Martin/CBC)

Librarians in Toronto say they are the target of an increasing amount of violence and abuse, including spitting, verbal threats, and staplers and books thrown their way.

Data provided by the Toronto Public Library (TPL) to CBC Toronto shows the number of reported cases is growing.

Officials blame the increase on "societal issues" and also say staff are more aware of the importance of documenting incidents. 

The TPL's data ranges from 2011 to 2018:

  • In 2011, there were 103 reported cases of violent and abusive behaviour, and 262 cases of threatening behaviour or verbal threats.

  • By 2018, that number had climbed to 249 reported cases of violent and abusive behaviour, and 623 cases of threats.

With more than 17 million visits to the city's 100 branches last year, the TPL says it is the world's busiest urban public library system. 

In an email to CBC Toronto, a spokesperson says "while the overall percentage of these incidents is very low, we take them very seriously and staff health and safety is a top priority."

Declining staffing levels play a role, union says

The union representing the librarians says part of the problem is fewer staff at the branches.

In the last 20 years, staffing levels have dropped 15 per cent, according to the Toronto Public Library Workers Union president, Brandon Haynes.

"It hinders us and doesn't let us keep in the loop what's going on in the branch and monitoring situations before they escalate," he said from the union headquarters at Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue. 

Haynes points to a couple of incidents last year, where objects were thrown at librarians and where teens used a stun gun on a branch security guard. 

In a 2018 survey of the union's 2,100 members, 39 per cent said they do not feel safe on the job, while 37 per cent answered they "sometimes" feel unsafe.

When asked if the TPL provides a safe work place, 60 per cent said no.

"The scars really run deep. People have really been traumatized with what's going on," Haynes said.

"When we see the response from our employer has not kept up to our expectations, that of course throws salt in the wound, so to speak, and makes people feel more unassured."

Brandon Haynes, who was recently elected as the president of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, says workers are heading into collective bargaining and staffing levels and health and safety are top concerns. (Shannon Martin/CBC News)

Coun. Gord Perks, who represents Ward 4,  Parkdale-High Park and sits on the Toronto Public Library board, says after amalgamation the library's budget took a big hit.

While he says things have improved in the last few years, "we are nowhere near the staffing levels or the number of hours open that we need to be."

"We've now had 10 years of austerity at the City of Toronto under two different mayors — Mayors Ford and Tory — and that shows up in services not being what they used to be, and public employees not feeling as safe at work as they used to," Perks told CBC Toronto.

Coun. Gord Perks, who sits on the Toronto Public Library Board, says there's a legal and moral obligation to ensure public workers feel safe on the job. He says the board is working to address health and safety concerns head on. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

Boosting security, training and support for staff

In a statement, a library spokesperson told CBC Toronto a contributing factor to increasing violence is "issues of our urban environment.

"This is a societal issue more so that a staffing issue. We have heard from our partners across the city that the increase in incidents is not unique to libraries."

The library says it's added more security and moved staff across the system to help balance out levels.

The statement goes onto list several initiatives underway by the TPL, among them: boosting its annual security budget over the last three years by $1.4 million to  $2.9 million in 2020 and increasing its mobile security service so it can respond faster in times of need.

TPL officials say they're also hiring a social worker to develop a "system-wide approach for developing services for vulnerable populations," and will offer more training courses and support for staff.

The Toronto Public Library says over the last five years, it added Sunday hours at 42 branches, with support from the City of Toronto's Poverty Reduction Strategy. (Toronto Public Library)