Libraries, Guns, & Advocacy

A big part of my job, as a librarian, is public service. I teach instruction sessions, I organize outreach efforts/events, and I work on an open reference desk every week. This week, with the fall quarter winding down and finals looming, I’m enjoying my time at the reference desk a bit less than I normally do. Why? Because I’m wondering if all of these students are doing OK, if any of them have violent intent, if any of them have weapons.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it is a reality for anyone in a public service position. It is something most of us have thought about, at least in a passing way, and it is something that *many* of us have received training on. While I was still at the University of Illinois I attended a training called “3 Minutes to Live.” Library administration had encouraged employees to attend, particularly in the wake of the library shooting at Florida State University. It was a *full day* training that was very comprehensive. A significant portion of the day was spent on mental health topics, mental health crisis response on campus, police training for dealing with mental health crises, etc. We went over the oft-repeated “Run – Hide – Fight” plan for responding to shooter/attacker events. The officers emphasized that planning and design choices can end up saving lives (e.g. service desks should be less open/have hiding places; rooms should have multiple exit points; doors should have locks and small/no windows) and that they would come do a space audit of our libraries at any time. The day ended with a simulated attack event in a police training building. An officer gave us a bit of lead time (in which we were to hide and barricade ourselves into rooms and remain silent) and then walked through the building firing blanks.

I want to be clear: I very much appreciated this training. I think I gained valuable information and lessons from the training and I appreciated the forthrightness and expertise of the officers involved. But throughout that day, and many times since, I have found myself thinking: this is our response? I do think that this training would be beneficial, even if our country saw massive gun control reform. Weapons will always exist, people will always get them illegally. But I cannot reconcile my desire to provide a welcoming, safe environment for my patrons with the fact that concealed carry is the norm in so many states, and even explicitly *allowed* on some college campuses.

Fun signs that every library in IL had to put up in recent years, assuming they did not want to allow guns. (Image source)
Fun signs that every library in IL had to put up in recent years, assuming they did not want to allow guns. (Image source)

I completed the training with a group that included many graduate students who worked for my department. Parts of the afternoon got very surreal as I watched them ask questions like: Is is better to run in a zig-zag away from a shooter or as fast as you can in one direction? (Answer: The police recommended speed more than anything, which may be hindered if you’re zig-zagging.) Could you give some examples of the difference between concealment and cover? (Answer: concealment, like a desk, is good for hiding; cover, like a steel door, is what actually stops bullets.) How long should you wait (for other people looking for shelter) before you lock and barricade a door? (Answer: Who the fuck knows the answer to this horrifying question.) Afterwards we discussed issues like space and service desk design: how could we reconcile wanting to have a round, open-on-all-sides, welcoming service desk with considerations for our own personal safety, should a shooter come up the grand staircase? I had no answers for them. Apparently at a previous iteration of the training that was for employees in an office on campus, the front-desk receptionist asked what they should do, individually, in the event someone walked in the door with a gun. The officer had replied that there was probably nothing to be done, as front-line people are often the ones who die before anyone knows what is happening.

I’m not writing this to illicit sympathy, stir the pot, or to scare library school students, but rather from a place of advocacy. I see advocating for both gun control reform and comprehensive health care (including mental health care resources) as part and parcel of my librarianship. I want my patrons and my colleagues to feel *safe* in our libraries. I want to be prepared for bad situations (in the same way that I’m prepared for fires, tornadoes, etc.), but I want the likelihood to go *way down.* When a patron walks up to the reference desk I want 100% of my brain to be thinking through the ways I can help them, not wondering if they have a weapon and how I would react if they did. I hope this point will become needlessly obsolete very soon. But in the meantime: get training, consider your policies and the design of your spaces, and consider how advocacy is part of your librarianship and what actions you can take to advocate for change. We do not serve in a vacuum.


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