Playing it Safe: Author Steve Albrecht Tackles Security Measures for Libraries

stevealbrecht101915Dr. Steve Albrecht, author of Library Security (American Libraries Assn. [ALA]; see review, LJ 10/15/15), is retired from the San Diego police department and manages a training, coaching, and management consulting firm. To schedule security training at your library, visit

LJ: You say librarians should never rationalize irrational behavior. How can we overcome this?
SA: It’s easy to rationalize questionable or problematic behavior. We want to believe the best in people, even when evidence shows us otherwise. I often see a spectrum response. Some older, more world-weary employees don’t feel like anything can be done, so they don’t bother to report. (If previous management was unresponsive or apathetic, now they are, too). Newer employees may be hesitant to report because they are either unsure of whom to tell, afraid they’ll be blamed for not handling it correctly, or don’t want to be labeled as a tattle-tale. All employees need to hear, “If it bothers you and it hurts our business, tell us. We won’t blame the messenger.”

librarysecurity101915Can you elaborate on QTIP or “Quit Taking It Personally”?
It’s easy to take it personally when patrons are unsatisfied, rude, or not appreciative of our efforts to help them. I often discuss the need to be the “observer” when you’re listening to patrons complain about the service they feel they didn’t get. This means trying to watch the conversation from a distance and not get caught up in the personal part. They aren’t mad at you directly; they’re mad at what you represent, which often reminds them what they failed to do or can’t articulate to you. Managing your stress, anxiety, or growing anger is easier from this “half-step away” perspective. Library staff should be able to say, “I can’t solve your problem today” or “I can only give you the solutions I know and it’s up to you to choose the one that’s best for you.”

How did you develop the idea of under-promising and over-performing?
I wrote a book on customer service 20 years ago. I have watched the service experience deteriorate into the “electronic solutions” we see today, e.g., don’t pester our staff, use our web site, call our 800-number, enter your account number and PIN number. People still want to talk to human beings who are authorized to think creatively, assertively, and problem-solve on their behalf. Library staff are still the information providers they have always been; I think we are starved for answers from people instead of always from computers and phones. Today, government agencies have some of the lowest taxpayer satisfaction numbers in history. If we can give just a bit more service than most people are expecting at the library, they will be happy to tell others about it, and they will be more cooperative at the library as well.

How can libraries be proactive about security?
It’s about vigilance, observations, and defining what hurts the business of being a library. Staff is intuitive. They already know what behaviors make the place feel unsafe. During my training classes, they will turn to each other and mention a certain patron by name when I give an example of a problematic behavior. Others around them chime in and agree. They don’t have to confront dangerous or threatening people alone, or follow people outside, but they do have to be ready to report incidents to their boss or the police (without needing to ask permission through the library chain of command).

Why recommend library staff write their own code of conduct?
I certainly believe the city attorney or county counsel should fine-tune the code of conduct, but only after library administration has created a code with staff input (which is a good staff meeting topic over a span of time) and more importantly, staff buy-in. Staff won’t enforce a code of conduct they had no input in creating or don’t agree with. When you see your ideas in the code it’s easier to feel good about enforcing them. The code development process should start with the director and get input from every level: department directors, longtime employees, board members, part-time staff, etc., before it goes over to the attorneys for a final review.

Why do you think librarians are hesitant to call the police about abandoned children?
Because they don’t see it as a police issue. They are reluctant to “put the child into the system” because he or she has an inattentive parent or caregiver. All parents and caregivers need to know the library is a public place where constant surveillance of their children is just not possible. The Code of Conduct should state the consequences if you leave your child alone and subject to harm from strangers or predators. Library staff can also call their county’s Child Protective Services for good advice on what to do as well.

Have you found the Library Employee Security Survey to be successful?
I find surveys to be rarely used in libraries and other government organizations. Sometimes senior management doesn’t want to be “put on notice.” It’s always better to be proactive and know what we need to fix than be reactive and wait for the things employees have been complaining about for years to happen. I see two other problems with surveys: management wants to rewrite, eliminate, or change the wording of the questions, making them mostly toothless; and they answer a lot of employee concerns with, “We’re working on that already,” which may or may not be true.

How do libraries factor in a police officer’s routine?
Every library is supposed to be covered by a police officer or sheriff’s deputy who has that building on his or her beat. Calling the Lieutenant’s Office or Watch Commander’s Office and having a friendly chat to get to know each other is a great start. I confess when I was a patrol cop I only went to the library when I was called there. I should have been more vigilant; I think a lot of cops don’t always understand the patron behavior problems and the related security challenges that happen in libraries. This paradoxical equation is true: the more the cops can come to the library early and often, and help with problem people, the less the cops will have to come to the library later and deal with problem people.

What’s the most common security issue facing libraries?
Aggressive, often mentally ill, or substance-abusing homeless people. Their behaviors can range from obnoxious or threatening to sad and needy. They require help from more than library employees to get their lives out of the cycle of untreated mental illness, serious health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, crime and violence (both as victims and perpetrators), and feeling marginalized by society. The next most common security problem I see is what to do with patrons who monopolize the Internet or bring up inappropriate content.

How should public libraries work with community partners?
It’s often hard for library leadership to get the ball rolling when it comes to reaching out to the specialized communities that focus on homeless and mentally ill patrons. Everyone is busy and short-staffed on both sides of the table. Keep making phone calls, keep setting initial meetings and follow-up meetings, and enforcing hard deadlines for the group to come back with answers. Once they can get the stakeholders in a room and start those conversations, they can help each other with ideas, interventions, and actual concrete solutions that can be put to use right away. It takes perseverance to get the stakeholders in the room, but the results are worth it, as we switch from a library-only problem to a community concern.

One of your great appendixes features role-playing scenarios. How often do you recommend library staff undergo role-playing such as this? 
I always do role plays in my library training classes and always right at the end of my sessions, where participants have a chance to use some of the training tools we discussed. I find they are most successful in groups of about six to eight employees, since there is less peer pressure with this size and the staffs are very supportive of each other. They understand what I’m trying to get them to do in the role plays, and they always use good humor. It’s fun to watch their over-the-top acting skills when they play the patron roles.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

About Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula ( is an Associate Editor at Library Journal.


  1. This is an excellent piece on library safety. As he says, “The next most common security problem I see is what to do with patrons who … bring up inappropriate content.”

    And it is American Library Association policy that is usually the reason for that. That is why ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom advises librarians to basically do the opposite of what is being recommended and instead try to hide criminal activity in the library so the public will not learn of the true cause of that activity, namely, ALA’s own pro child p – r n policy as applied locally.

    Want to see the evidence? Ask OIF as the Deputy Director sent out a message to librarians to destroy all copies of the training and all notes taken at the training. OIF has the evidence. Get OIF to produce it. For example, Dr. Albrecht says, “they do have to be ready to report incidents to their boss or the police (without needing to ask permission through the library chain of command).” This is the exact opposite of ALA OIF training.

    ALA OIF is under new leadership, namely, Jamie LaRue. Let’s hope it’s under true new leadership and not new leadership in name only.