Library (in)security

Waiting for public accountability,  empathy and change at the Millennium Library

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

Libraries usually limit economic interactions with patrons to late fees. There’s a price to be paid for a missing book. But the new security measures in the Winnipeg Public Library’s downtown location also have a price – which will be paid by the city’s poor.

On Feb. 25, visitors to the Millennium Library were greeted with metal detectors and bag searches before being allowed to enter the library.

A Feb. 15 CBC Manitoba article reported that Winnipeg Public Library manager of library services Ed Cuddy “said the safety of all visitors is a priority, and the boost in security comes after an increase in the number and seriousness of violent incidents and threats at the library over the past four or five years.”

The library has yet to present details or analysis of the cited incidents or research that the new security measures will have a positive effect.

Libraries deal in books, but for some, the Millennium Library’s silence speaks louder than all the words it might house.

Hammers and nails

This silence began during the library’s decision-making process.

Ray Eskritt is a poverty advocate working with a group of local activists responding to the Millennium Library’s new security measures.

“We contacted Ed Cuddy ... and he said that there’d been no public consultation, which is amazing, because it’s a public space paid for with public money,” she says.

“There also was not a consultation with the library staff ... He (said) that the only people that were consulted were the Winnipeg Police Service and the service that they currently pay to provide security at the library, GardaWorld. Surprise, they suggested more security. It’s the old, ‘if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’”

On March 14, Eskritt and her colleagues organized a public event at the University of Winnipeg to discuss the library’s security measures, to which library representatives were invited. During communications with the library, Eskritt says they were met with resistance.

“The library said ‘yes’ and then they said, ‘Well, no, we’ll meet with (just two of the organizers) privately,’ and we said, ‘No, that’s not how this is going to go. This is a public problem with public consultation and a public solution,’” she says.

For the organizers of what is so far the only public forum on the security measures, the issue is not only a lack of transparency in a publicly funded institution. It’s also not just the violence and intrusion of privacy proposed as a solution. It’s confusion about what the problem to be solved even is.

Security Theatrics

Eskritt says whatever incidents have taken place at the Millennium Library are fundamentally about poverty, not security.

“The crisis is that people don’t have enough to eat, they don’t have anywhere to live, and people are suffering hugely under the burden of capitalism and all of the racism and classism and suffering that comes with it,” she says.

Adele Perry is a University of Manitoba history professor and casual user of the Millennium Library who posted links to studies of security in public places on her Twitter after the Millennium Library increased security. She says information on whether the sorts of actions the library has taken will have the desired effect (regardless of the ethics or logic of this effect) is readily available online.

“There is published research on these kinds of security measures in schools, especially in the (United States), that indicates that they tend to produce chaos, delays and mistrust and don’t do a lot to decrease violence,” she says.

Eskritt adds that the metal detectors at the library don’t even seem to work properly.

“They’re almost like dollar-store versions of a metal detector,” she says.

“We’ve had people go through and it not pick up the keys in their pocket or their belt buckle or jewelry ... They’re not effective tools, but we’re still going to subject you to it for the mental theatre of appearing safe.”

Perry says that while danger in public spaces is a real problem, the library’s proposed solution is not only ineffectual but insidious.

“I think women, non-binary, queer, Indigenous and racialized people all live with very genuine fear of violence, and this fear structures our lives and experiences in profound ways,” she says.

“I’m not sure that the kind of security measures adopted at (Millennium Library) can meaningfully address the pervasiveness of violence against marginalized bodies, and I fear that our legitimate concerns for our bodily safety and integrity can be exploited by panic and anxiety.”   

Ed Cuddy’s only explicit public statement about why the security measures have been implemented does not even cite a threat to the general public.

‘‘Our front-line security often have been the target of (violent incidents),” he told CBC.

‘‘It’s a concern, and it’s something we want to improve on, and we think this is the way to do that.’’

Alternative measures

Eskritt says it’s time to rethink security. Uniforms and demonstrations of authority are not effective, but training in conflict management, empathetic listening and local resources are.

Eskritt points to Winnipeg’s Bear Clan Patrol as an excellent example that could be emulated at the library through community resource workers regularly making rounds (current security guards at the library tend to remain relatively stationary).

Two community crisis workers are already employed by the library (although they’re currently located on the second floor, on the other side of the security screening), so the structural groundwork for this type of response is already in place.

“One of my favourite security things that we’ve been doing recently in the non-profit world is hiring kookums, Aboriginal grandmothers, to sit and be present and just come up to people and be like, ‘you look like you’re struggling, what can we do? Talk to me,’ and meet them at the level that they need,” she says.

A Feb. 25 Winnipeg Free Press article reported Cuddy as saying, “We need to get a locker system for people just outside the gates ... People who are homeless or semi-homeless may have a lot of stuff, but we want them to come.” (The Library has yet to issue a statement on when or if these lockers will be installed.)

Eskritt believes that while library lockers are a good idea, they do not address the central issue of how people are being punished for their poverty in Winnipeg. She says that many of her clients carry weapons simply to protect their own safety in a downtown that refuses to invest in their security, (the city’s massive investment in hiring more Downtown BIZ security in the years since the Winnipeg Jets returned to Winnipeg is a recent example).

“These people are meeting their needs in the best way they know how,” she says.

“They’re not looking for trouble most of the time. They’re suffering.”

Waiting for accountability

The City of Winnipeg denied The Uniter’s request for an interview, and a library spokesperson issued the following statement:

“The City of Winnipeg Library Services is accountable for providing safe and welcoming environments for all residents and staff.  Library Services has implemented new screening measures at Millennium Library with the goal of improving safety for everyone who visits the library ... The Millennium Library remains a welcoming place for all ... Staff and crisis workers continually reach out to social organizations to discuss ideas on how to reduce harm and better reach vulnerable people in the library."

Who precisely the library is accountable to was not specified.

Published in Volume 73, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 21, 2019)

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