Library employees ask for pause on unstaffed library pilot

Fiction section at Kingston Frontenac Public Library. Photo by Jessica Foley/Kingstonist.

Staff at Kingston libraries say they’re facing more incidents of violence and harassment at downtown library branches — another reason to cancel the upcoming unstaffed library pilot, the library employees expressed. 

Discussions around the pilot began in fall 2021, with a motion to cancel the project shot down by Council last June.

The pilot project will be tried first at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library (KFPL) Pittsburgh Branch, expected to boost operational hours at that branch from 38 to 60-62 per week, with patrons accessing unstaffed hours able to call an employee at a downtown branch for assistance. Council approved the $250,000 budget increase needed for upgrades like security cameras, door keypads, and a video phone for customers to call staff.

KFPL Board Chair Alan Revill said the pilot has been adopted in response to a community survey, which showed the main desire from the public was for improved access to the library, especially in less populated areas of the city.

Library workers represented by CUPE Local 2202 and the Kingston District Labour Council have long pushed back against the pilot, saying it’s unsafe to allow people to use the library while unstaffed.

Now, with library staff saying they’ve been subjected to increased violent and unpredictable behaviour at downtown branches, they believe the unstaffed library could open up more such issues.

“We were concerned that the rise in incidents that we are experiencing at the library may occur at the Pittsburgh library branch when it is unstaffed,” said Jillann Rothwell, CUPE 2202 President.

“Staff members are concerned about patron safety for this project.”

In March, Kingston District Labour Council President Janet Heyman penned a letter to the library board asking them to reconsider the pilot in light of increases in incidents.

“We are concerned for the health and safety of patrons and staff members at the public library,” Heyman’s letter reads.  

“We are also concerned for the reputation of the public library should a patron get injured during the staffless hours. We believe the public library should be a trusted, vital and thriving public resource in our community, accessible to all and safe for all.”

For Library Board Chair Alan Revill, while the safety of staff and patrons is paramount, the violence and unpredictable behaviour isn’t expected to be a factor when it comes to running the staffless library pilot. The issues referenced have been isolated to downtown branches, and as such Revill doesn’t think the two points belong in the same conversation.

“When you talk about the risk factor, it is primarily in the two urban branches,” Revill said.

“We haven’t seen that kind of same sort of issues arise out in Pittsburgh or Rideau Heights for that matter… there’s a certain level of expectation that we will not have those same sorts of issues in the Pittsburgh branch… I don’t see the two go hand in hand, frankly.”

KFPL workers, on the other hand, said as more and more people struggle with rising costs, the same problems could arise at less central branches.

“We currently don’t have very many concerns at all occurring at the Pittsburgh library branch,” Rothwell said.

“But our concern is it may migrate there.”

Library staff have maintained their stance against unstaffed libraries since the idea crept into Kingston, following in the footsteps of a pilot in Hamilton that saw library usage increase in its wake. They said it could be used as a way to justify cutting staffed hours further and replacing them with unstaffed, 

“Our position, Local 2202, is that it’s a non-starter,” Rothwell said. 

“We must have trained and staffed library branches to make it welcoming and inclusive to all. If you start limiting attendance to those people that have been approved to go into the library, it’s taking away an essential aspect of public library space.”

Ultimately, the Labour Council thought that, in the wake of these incidents faced by library staff, it would be a good opportunity to echo some existing concerns for library workers. Staff at libraries are, at times, essentially dealing with the overflow of failure in the housing and mental health systems. While the library is inherently meant to be a welcoming, public space for everyone, staff are not trained crisis workers and are not equipped to handle some of the complex issues some patrons live with. 

Rothwell said workers are facing the brunt of long-term underinvestment from municipal, provincial and federal governments alike.

“We’re experiencing the fallout of a lack of supports for those critical pieces in the community,” she said.

“Housing, mental health shelter space… it’s a fallout of decades long disinvestment in our community.”

Owen Fullerton is a Kingston-based reporter with the Local Journalism Initiative (LJI).

One thought on “Library employees ask for pause on unstaffed library pilot

  • What utter nonsense: “…the library is inherently meant to be a welcoming, public space for everyone…”!

    Last May, I booked a meeting room at the Central Branch of the Kingston Frontenac Public Library for the express purpose of discussing accessibility issues. While checking its accessible washrooms, I discovered someone shooting up drugs in one of the stalls and notified the library staff at the main desk about it. I was told that they were aware of the situation, as was the security guard waiting nearby; but, they were waiting for the police to come to deal with that situation.

    It was explained to me that, as the library was a public space, they could not expel someone, who was causing a disturbance to other people. I’ve also run across the same situation at the Stauffer Library, at Queen’s, where some people use the microfilm reading area, (in a distant corner, out of sight to the library staff and security), where they could eat, sleep, and waste time, (not for any studying).

    City Hall, the courts, community centres, schools, recreation arenas, art museums, and visitor centres are also local “public” spaces; but, disruptive and homeless people have not been as welcome, in these venues nor in drop-in and warming shelters, as libraries. Some homeless feel safer in a library, and others have been kicked out of every other place. This is not a situation unique to Kingston, nor Ontario. Libraries across Canada are becoming problem spots, with abusive language, threats, and violence on the increase, from drug addicts and homeless people with disruptive behaviours.

    With little apparent concern for public safety, City Council, the Library Board, and Chief Librarian wish to open some library branches, (without any support staff), and to rely on cameras with a remote link for security. No money to pay a library worker to extend its hours of use, but City Council approves a budget of $250,000 for cameras, door locks, and a video phone?

    The Extended Hours Project is a potential disaster, and the Library Board and Chief Librarian should know it. Complaints are ignored, even when library staff are on site. To dismiss concerns about public safety, as a problem confined to a couple of downtown branches, is reckless.

    Would a camera with a remote link deter any wily fox from raiding a chicken coop? Not likely!

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