We Need to Talk About…

(Content warning: Gun violence)

Too early on a Sunday morning, when my library isn’t normally open, I watched a coworker pull a gun out of their waistband, aim it at my library’s director, and pull the trigger. Bang. Bang. Bang. The director screamed and tried to alert others that a library staff member was shooting them.

You may be wondering how this situation managed to avoid media attention. Thankfully, it’s because this was at a staff training and the gun was filled with airsoft pellets. The worst casualty was an open wound on the assistant director’s leg, closely followed by a large bruise on my elbow. This isn’t my first required staff training on active shooters and it probably won’t be the last. So, how is it that in less than four years, this library has experienced two active shooter training scenarios? 

While we haven’t experienced an actual incident at my library, other libraries have. From Columbine High School and Clovis-Carver Public Library, to Sacramento, almost Phoenix, and too many others, the threat of violence has challenged the safety of library staff and the communities they serve. The discussion around gun violence and 2nd Amendment rights won’t be discussed here, nor will I discuss the “good guy with a gun” idea; although libraries are definitely stakeholders in those conversations. This is just another article on what you probably won’t learn in library school.

Those in the LIS field know we do a lot more helping others than reading books all day. One of the questions brought up in my library’s active shooter training is how we help our patrons in an actual situation. Do we stay in harm’s way and help those we serve every single day? Or do we run and save ourselves? I’m not saying leave everyone behind, but I’m also not saying to put your life on the line if you have an opportunity to get out safely. This “Run. Hide. Fight.” video does an excellent job of explaining when each reaction is appropriate with the ultimate goal being preservation of (your) life. 

In addition to storing books, library shelves are great ways to escape an active shooter’s line of sight. My library’s shelves are over 6 feet tall and every shelf is basically at capacity, so I don’t even have to worry about crouching down to avoid gunfire! Those books our collection development librarians spend so much time finding and ordering? They make for amazing projectiles (as long as you throw it with the spine away from you). If you’ve never thrown a book before, snag a yucky discard and give it a whirl. As a last resort, fight for your life. The hefty tomes somehow still on the shelf after years of collecting dust can be quite handy. Check out how John Wick redefines Ranganathan’s first law here (contains graphic content).

Many library staff are confined to back offices to prepare for programs and work on projects where there is only one way to enter and leave the room. These spaces are great for when you need some peace and quiet, but you have no way to escape if cornered there. Again, look for things to throw to distract an active shooter. The mountain of DVDs on top of my desk waiting for a deaccession decision are the first to go, but I also have a pair of scissors and a glass jar ready to use, if needed. My library is in an outdated building and has too much asbestos in it to redesign staff work areas, but how can we use our knowledge of library organization and design to make these areas less dangerous?

This article may seem like I don’t care about this topic, but I do. The two reference desks are positioned so that neither one can see both entrances to my floor. Not only am I looking at the entrance to smile at every patron, I’m also looking to make sure I know who is there just in case something happens. The pen I always carry with me serves its primary purpose, but can act as a sharp object if needed.

One way to experience an active shooter training outside of your workplace is to see if there are organizations offering it to the public. Religious organizations, banks, and schools can all benefit from learning how to respond to an active shooter and sometimes open their trainings to the public. Law enforcement may be providing the training in your area as well. The goal of these trainings isn’t necessarily how to respond if it happens in that specific location; it’s to teach you how to react regardless of your setting because this is our reality

I have not taken a course specifically on academic, public, or school libraries, so I’ll admit I have no idea if this topic is covered in my program. Have any of your courses discussed these very real situations? Let me know down below. In the meantime, I’m going to continue reading the Department of Homeland Security Active Shooter posters located right in my line of sight in the staff bathrooms.

Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

Conrrado is an online MLIS student at the University of Washington iSchool and an Adult Services Specialist at the Natrona County Library.

2 replies

  1. Those trainings are tough work days, even knowing that while it isn’t “real”, your reactions are.

    During my library school days, our campus flooded. One of my professors and a dozen or so classmates were in the library and had to break out of a window. That experience turned into one-of-a-kind learning for our cohort on preservation, emergency response situations and reactions, and how to start over and move forward.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s