Home > cultural commentary > Librarianship – a dangerous occupation?

Librarianship – a dangerous occupation?

This local news report caught me by surprise: ‘Fewer library staff in Derbyshire attacked‘, reported on the BBC. The headline detail is that assaults on library staff in the county fell from 79 to 48 ‘in the past year’. Actually the report doesn’t say precisely what that means and the local paper cites additional figures that suggest the current year looks like assaults are increasing again.

What left me surprised was that, as a sometime library worker and occasional library visitor, they’d never seemed to me to be a violent environment. The users tend on the whole to be studious types, fairly civilised people whose idea of ‘causing trouble’ is to threaten to write a letter of complaint to the local newspaper. Historically the main problems have been things like thefts of rare, high-value books.

It turns out the likely cause is – surprise, surprise – the economic downturn. The last 20 or so years have seen a rise in the population of younger, unemployed people who have no realistic prospect of a job, a career or any of the opportunities the rest of us have. They have, as the criminological literature puts it, no stake in conformity. Actually, these days, fewer of us do have a stake in conformity but that’s a realisation we’ve come to over time, not something that’s been an intrinsic part of our lives since childhood. More recently, the economic downturn has seen the closure of youth projects and facilities.  More of the ‘disaffected’ youths have, as a result, been using libraries as places to hang out. Fights and arguments have become more common among the bookshelves, as have fights and arguments with staff.

The result has been people being banned from libraries (and, in some cases, coming in anyway and assaulting staff who try to eject them); personal defence training; conflict management training; and a police presence in libraries through their being used as neighbourhood safety advice centres.

As far as I know librarians aren’t (yet) coming to work in body armour but even if that doesn’t happen, there’s a story in the idea… And while I doubt there’s any ‘quick fix’ for the problem other than a security-based one, I guess the underlying issue is one of how long-term social and economic exclusion can have unanticipated effects in unexpected places. And for that, there’s no quick fix.

  1. September 7, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Funny you should say that. I was talking to a librarian the other day. Modern libraries have added computers and even DVDs. The book section of the library is as quiet and serene as ever, but trouble is always brewing in the electronic area, to the point that security guards have been hired. I suppose, future librarians will need a good literary background and excellent muscle tone. Ha-ha!

  2. September 7, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Yes, I know my local libraries are used by young people because they can use the PCs there to access social networking sites. I actually think that’s a good thing – and a lot of the comments I’ve seen on the local issues are along the lines of ‘the problem’s only caused by a small minority’ (which is true) and ‘you’d think being in a library would mean the troublemakers can take advantage of the facilities and actually read books’ (well, maybe – libraries used to have the sort of aura that did encourage that, and when I worked in one even the local drunks and street-sleepers who came in sat and read quietly).

    In one way, I like the idea (which comes from a completely different area, mental health) of ‘relational security’ – getting to know the people, getting to know what they’re like, building a personal relationship that means you get some level of respect and co-operation and a sixth sense of when trouble’s going to kick off. But at the same time, it’s difficult to do that in the short term with someone who’s been essentially brought up on the streets in a tough neighbourhood, whose basic outlook is to distrust any authority because authority usually means someone bringing them grief. And who doesn’t have the same ‘cultural’ agenda as other users, for a whole range of reasons.

  3. September 8, 2011 at 12:50 am

    Well put, and you’re right, it’s a difficult one to solve. The internet access offered by libraries is free, and I think this would also draw in those left out of society financially, too. For some this is their only way of interacting with the 21stC world.
    What a pity that youths who need the most encouragement, leadership and support and training get so little. They are the country’s fututre being washed down the drain!

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