Time to take down Millennium’s barriers
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/02/2020 (1120 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Feb. 25 marks the one-year anniversary of the “airport-style” screenings at Millennium Library. Since this date in 2019, all patrons visiting the library are screened with a hand-held metal detector, and their bags are searched.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the screenings have resulted in a massive drop in library usage. Visits to the library have dropped about 31 per cent in the 11 months since the screenings were introduced. From March 2019 to January 2020, a shocking 252,888 fewer visits to Millennium Library were recorded than from March 2018 to January 2019.
Millennium is the only library in Canada to have implemented airport-style screenings. Instead of raising barriers, other libraries have reduced them by focusing on relationships with patrons — for example, by providing snacks and supportive resources, and by training staff and security to de-escalate conflict in an empathetic manner.
Millennium’s extreme step of exclusionary screening is the opposite: it creates a barrier to entry to what should be a truly public space.
The screenings were prompted, library staff alleged, by a “huge increase” in aggressive incidents at Millennium Library over the previous few years. In September 2019, a report on the library security measures was presented to the city’s standing policy committee on protection, community services and parks (PCSP). It stated that there had been hundreds of serious incidents annually for the past few years.
However, a closer look at the library incident data recently released by the City of Winnipeg suggests the numbers do not align with the drastic picture put forward in the report.
The recently released dataset counts 43 serious incidents between 2013 and 2020, 24 of which took place between January 2015 and December 2019. By the time the security screenings were put in place, the number of serious incidents at Millennium Library from 2015 to 2020 had already dropped significantly — in 2015, there were eight incidents; the number dropped to two in 2018 and four in 2019 (one of which was a medical emergency, and three of which took place after screening measures were in place).
And 40 per cent of the incidents that have taken place at Millennium Library since 2015 actually occurred outside the screened areas (in the lobby and connecting skywalk, for example).
This is a radically different picture than library management presented to the PCSP when they were asked to justify the new security measures in September of last year.
The already lowered serious-incident count and the locations of the incidents suggest the security screenings are an enormous overreaction. The impact of the screenings on visits to the library — the massive drop in visits — reinforces the point made in past research, that security doesn’t make people safer.
In fact, it may make some people less safe, as it drives them outside and denies them access to life-enhancing information and safe spaces.
In putting up a barrier to entry, Millennium Library is excluding large numbers of people, and people who are marginalized are more likely to be excluded. This includes people whose daily lives are disproportionately affected by policing and criminal punishment (including those who are black, Indigenous or people of colour); those who have experienced violence from the state (including refugees); those who are queer, non-binary or otherwise non-conforming; and people with disabilities.
In other words, it includes many of the people who might be most likely to use the public library, and to benefit most from access to public libraries.
Until last year, Millennium Library was a busy, bustling place with significant levels of programming, a variety of resources and supports, and opportunities to participate in civic life. By excluding people from the library, Millennium pushes people outside, without the resources they might need and would otherwise have access to.
This is important, not just for the individuals who are excluded, but also for the library itself. The huge reduction in visits to the library puts Millennium at risk in this era of budget cuts. The upcoming municipal budget already proposes significant cuts to libraries, including reduced funds for accessibility and technological upgrades, reduced hours and services, and the closure of three branches. A 31 per cent drop in visits to the library might suggest a facility that is no longer valued by the community, rather than that it is the victim of policies that actively exclude people.
Millennium Library is located in downtown Winnipeg, a city at the heart of Turtle Island. It has the opportunity to be an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, welcoming space. To do so, it will need to take down the barriers to entry, and embrace being a public space in all of its complicated dimensions.
Sarah Cooper is an assistant professor of city planning at the University of Manitoba.