Thursday, July 22, 2010

Be careful what you wish for : teenagers in the library

We have been trying for as long as I can remember to attract teenagers into the library. Well we have done it. The library is the coolest gig in town and come 3pm the kids rush down from school. And its all for the internet, and the warmth, and its dry and, its seems just lately, its also a great place to punch hell out of other kids.

Take today for instance. 3 skinny white boys known to staff were quietly playing Risk, the board game, when 2 bros walked past. They abused our boys, shoved each other onto the board game and then each of the bros punched - yes punched - one of our boys in his face. At which point I was frantically summoned by 1 of the other boys.

When I challenged the bros, asking for their names, asking them to wait please while I ring the police because they have assaulted a library patron (yes I labelled it) I was turned on by 4 big girls, their sisters or friends or whatever. 15 or 16 years or so, full of attitude and lip: "oh leave them alone", "they didn't do anything", "they are only little" blah blah blah. At which point I pulled a camera out and took their photograph before heading back to my office to call the Police. I was followed back inside and up the stairs to my office by a very confident young lady, hurling abuse, mouthing off at the boys who had been bullied, getting right in my face until I said loudly and clearly "this is intimidation - you need to leave now".

Now I would like to say this is an unheard off incident, but sadly no. Yesterday 3 very naughty annoying girls bullied a couple of boys, the same girls who had spat on a staff member the previous weekend when asked to leave at closing time.

Actually that incident had capped off a scary scene an hour or so earlier when a staff member had been abused in extremely colourful language by a big fella who had taken offence at her rescuing his 18 month old toddler who was about to hit the bottom of the stairs after hurtling around the library screaming at the top of their lungs. Our staffer had already rescued the toddler once from running out of the library onto the street and had tried without success to find an adult to claim the toddler. Fortunately other members of the public came forward to defend her, someone called the police, several people made statements and the 'Gentleman' left the premises with obscene expletives still streaming from his mouth. He has since been trespassed for 2 years from the public library.

But what do we do with these kids? I don't want to trespass them for 2 years, the length a trespass order applies for. I want to welcome them in from the cold and rain, to use the computers, read the glossy music magazines, slouch in the velour couches and flick through the graphic novels. I just don't understand the psychology of their appalling behaviour. What motivates these kids to act they way they do and stuff it up for themselves? They want what we have - desperately - and queue every day for their free internet time. But I just cannot let this behaviour continue. All kids, the hip cool dudes and the geeky boardgamers alike, are equally entitled to a safe library experience.

Now my own kids will tell you that I'm pretty staunch and not scared of much, but in 25 years of public library service I have never felt as vulnerable as I did today when this young woman was in my face going off. I didn't know what was going to happen next - couldn't believe it was happening at all really.

So where to now? I'm dammed if I'm going to let my library be taken over by thugs. I am just not prepared to have public and staff feeling unsafe in the library. I'm going to have to find precious funds to roster more staff on the floor, probably hire a security guard, and start handing out trespass orders to the ringleaders.

And I just don't want to.


Debbie Engelhardt said...

Hiring a security guard - one with a positive attitude who will get to know the kids and earn their respect in most cases- will go a long way. The staff will feel safer and will be able to concentrate on the jobs they were hired to do. The rule-abiding kids will know that you have taken another step toward creating an environment where they can concentrate on library activities like reading and homework. And those kids' parents will breathe a sigh of relief, knowing there is a certified security guard looking out for their children, as well as a library administration that knows excellence in public library service also means taking steps (read: spending the money) needed toward the provision of a suitable, safe facility.

Joann Ransom said...

Thanks Debbie - I needed the positive spin around hiring a security guard, Cheers Jo.

Ross Becker said...

Jo, thanks for posting this tragic story. It seems to me that you are on the right track to get adequate and appropriate security in place so the young people who want to use the library for their fun & learning can do so safely. You can't let the bullies ruin all the work you've all put into your super library.

ameliadec said...

Have been mulling over this since last night Jo. Every librarian's worst nightmare. I'm going to say something I never thought a geek such as myself would say... but sometimes I wish we didn't have the library computers. And yet they are so important to have as well because they are so vital to many of the community (digital divide etc etc). So we are caught in a catch22 situation. Imagine that scenario in a little library where there is only you or you and a junior in the library. So I agree with Debbie that the right kind of security guard would be a good idea. It is only a band aid in the wider picture of the issue but down at grassroots library level we cannot do a lot more. It was interesting to hear @ranginui's take on the issue because that hadn't even occurred to me when I read the post.
We are evolving very rapidly in the library sector and we must not lose sight of our vision for libraries.
So make the library a safe welcoming environment because I feel that is one of our most important tasks

Michael Parry said...

Talk to the community youth constable. We have had similar issues at Woodville, and have trespassed one girl permanently.

We also had one of the local youth social workers making the library as a regular stopping point for a while.

Hang in there

Michael Parry said...

Hi Joann

I have to add that I think your choices in how you described the teenagers were not the best. It detracts from the post by opening you up to being dismissed as a bit of a redneck racist, which is far from the reality...

Joann Ransom said...

Yep - bad choice of descriptors - I could say I was really really upset at the time,but I genuinely didn't mean anything racist at all. I think of 'Bros' as being hip and cool and the 'skinny white boys' as being the polar opposite (geeky, quiet, boardgamers.

I'd quite like to change 'white boys' and 'Bros' actually to claer up any misunderstanding but I think its really bad form to materially change a post once its gone wild .... I'll see if this explanation and sincere apology for causing offence suffices :)

Deborah Fitchett said...

Adding a timestamped ETA to the top or bottom of your post is perfectly acceptable and likely to be seen by more people than just in the comment thread. I don't think there's anything wrong with strike-out/parentheses within the text either, as long as it's done in a way that adds clarification rather than removes evidence of what was originally said - but that's up to personal preference.

On the original topic - yours is definitely not the first library to have this dilemma. I agree a security guard (or I think I heard one library used a community worker? it'd have to be someone comfortable with conflict obviously) is a good idea though as Debbie suggests the attitude of the person is vital to balancing safety with welcomingness (for lack of a better word). Good luck!

Kate said...

Hi - this sounds so familiar. We have been working through the same situation for years in my library. Staff had been burning out and other customers had almost stopped coming- this was with a security guard! In the last 18 months we have almost turned this situation around entirely. Here's what we did:
1. Replace the security guard with youth workers from a local trust who were already working with the same kids in another context.
2. Decide in the team that we did want the teenagers in the library.
3. Get some help and training from other people (we got training from someone from a high school working with the kids who were excluded from the classroom).
4. Agree some standard approaches to different situations including some consistent language and debrief procedures.
5. Get ruthless with trepassing the kids, but put a short review date on the trespass notice. Depending on what they've done I review after 3 or 6 months (or less if they just need a shock). A review involves them coming to see me for an interview and I do require an apology. To come back in they have to see me and if they have been attempting to come in during the trespass period or have been causing problems immediately outside the library then I push the date out. I will also send a copy of the trespass notice with a letter to their parents.

We are currently working on linking kids we have trespassed with individual staff members who will chat to them when they see them around outside the library - the aim is that when they come back in we have already restored some kind of relationship.

I have tons of information on this if anyone wants any more. Just let me know.

Joann Ransom said...

Security guard now in place, but I am quite keen that we don't do this too heavy because we still want the kids feeling welcome.

Duties will include:
* maintaining a presence in the public areas,
* greeting visitors to the library with a smile, nod or suchlike,
* sweeping through the building on a regular basis paying particular attention to the public internet areas and the quiet ‘rooms’,
* ensuring the building is empty of public at close of business,
* escorting staff to their cars after dark.

Anonymous said...

Having recently trained and entered the library job market I have been constantly amazed by the elephant that most library services seem to have in the room.
The elephant I refer to is gender inequity. Within some library services the ratio is incredible, and I would say, unhealthily so. It is easy to say "there are no trained males applying for positions" which is probably true, but only to a point. Conversations I have had with other male library workers have substantiated my intuition that, to a certain degree, almost on an unconscious level, gender inequity within library services is actively perpetuated and men are only begrudgingly welcome.
It's an issue worth having a good objective look at.
Call me a traditional fool, but I think thuggery in libraries would occur less often if there were more men around. What do others think?
Incidentally, what gender is the security guard?
Apologies for the anonymous posting but its a small country and politic prevails.

Joann Ransom said...

Hi there anonymous,

Thought provoking post - thanks.

We have 2 permanent male employees plus 2 male student workers. I consciously seek out men when I can, but there aren't that many in the profession! As it is neither of our blokes are libarians although 1 is a teacher.

Security guard is a Maori gentleman, well over 50, knows half the town and chats to everyone who enters the library like they old friends. He chatting to some of our rascals - obviously knew them - and we have had 2 days of perfect behaviour. He understands that I need him to be personable and welcoming and chatty and that a certain level of youthful exerberance is fine.

Michael Parry said...

Anonymous: Gender equity/inequity is certainly a topic often debated within the library profession, although not from the angle that you take. Often the debate is framed around the pay gap, and how librarianship as a feminised profession has a lower wage level that equivalent jobs.

What you will also find, is that while it is true there are fewer men in librarianship, what men there are occupy a large number of senior roles within the profession.

“Conversations I have had with other male library workers have substantiated my intuition that, to a certain degree, almost on an unconscious level, gender inequity within library services is actively perpetuated and men are only begrudgingly welcome.”

I can’t say I have ever encountered that. The lack of males is more to do with pay than anything else. When I have had discussions with other librarians on this topic, we usually turn to how to encourage more men into the profession.

“Call me a traditional fool, but I think thuggery in libraries would occur less often if there were more men around.”

I don’t know. Like all things it depends on the person. I think it has less to do with the gender of the librarians, and more to do with how the profession as a whole is viewed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response. To be honest I had not considered pay inequity which, while unacceptable, I now realise is an obvious factor.
Quite possibly my own experiences represent isolated incidents and I am mistaken to take these as reflective of an ingrained trend. I am heartened by your take on the matter and will continue to encourage other men to consider libraries as a career choice.
It's good to hear the security guard is working out, though deeply regrettable that the need has arisen.....a sad reflection of our culture that the presence of an authority figure is required for a sense of order to be maintained.
I hope it all works out. By all accounts you and your staff do a sterling job at Levin.

Joann Ransom said...

Kate: Thank you for sharing your experiences. I know learning to manage the influx of naughty kids is a relatively new phenomenon in NZ libraries who have only over the last couple of years or so started offering free public internet through Aotearoa Peoples Network Kaharoa. Have you ever written up your experiences into a paper? I'd love to learn more and I bet others would to.

Cheers Jo.

Penny said...

Hi Joann
One other thing to consider doing is alerting any Maori Wardens in your area to do the odd visit too. I know you've got the security guy (Great!) but it might be good to have that presence too.

Joann Ransom said...

Penny: yep. Maori wardens helped us manage Shannon library behaviour during the last school holidays.