July 4, 2020

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Library should serve entire community

Editorial

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/9/2019 (295 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Even with their superb research skills, staff at the Millennium Library are unlikely to find a Manitoba precedent for their institution’s current plight.

Public libraries are usually considered sanctuaries of welcome and acceptance. When surveys ask which professions are respected and considered trustworthy, librarians are commonly near the top.

CARL DEGURSE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Security screening at the Millennium Library.</p>

CARL DEGURSE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Security screening at the Millennium Library.

But since the introduction of mandatory body and bag searches in February, the Millennium Library has been the target of wrath and social action that shows no signs of dissipating.

The latest display of patron unrest came Monday in a uniquely library-specific protest called a "shush-in." A new group called Advocacy For All attended a meeting of a city committee that eventually agreed to let the Millennium Library continue searching patrons and their belongings. Group members held up signs that read "Shhhame" when library services manager Ed Cuddy tried to justify the measures.

Previous protests have included a sit-in at the library foyer, lobbying of the library board and city councillors and public letters of protest, including one signed by 40 academics. Some patrons have chosen to boycott the facility; newly released attendance figures show visits to the library are down 270,000 since the searches were introduced.

The protesters have been clear about their motivation, calling the screening measures a thinly veiled strategy to repel homeless people and people with addictions and mental illnesses.

A report at Monday’s meeting showed visits to the Millennium Library through the first half of 2019 declined by a startling 25 per cent compared with the same period last year.

To put this plunge in patron visits into context, it should be understood that modern libraries aim to increase traffic. Unlike the Millennium, other libraries aim to serve the areas in which they’re situated, becoming more community-focused and more inclusive.

The Winnipeg Public Library also claims this as a goal, at least in words. The system’s stated mandate is "To enrich the lives of all Winnipeg citizens and their communities by providing high quality, responsive and innovative library services."

Many libraries in other locales are also in downtown cores with a large proportion of transients, new immigrants and people with low incomes. But there’s no indication those libraries have resorted to such extreme security measures.

Proprietors of the Millennium Library, please note: your mandate specifies being "responsive" to "all" Winnipeg citizens, not just those who are well-groomed and have a fixed address.

Many libraries in other locales are also in downtown cores with a large proportion of transients, new immigrants and people with low incomes. But there’s no indication those libraries have resorted to such extreme security measures.

It’s as if Millennium Library management chose the nuclear option first, rather than trying less-extreme measures successful in other institutions. The presence of security cameras, for example, has been proven to deter undesirables who don’t want their activities recorded when they are up to no good.

Other libraries have trained staff in non-violent crisis intervention, and have security personnel who are library staff rather than outsourcing the job to for-hire security companies unfamiliar with the library philosophy of providing an inclusive welcome.

Mr. Cuddy has stated repeatedly some Millennium staffers reported feeling intimidated and even endangered. That concern is understandable, and perhaps it’s possible to transfer employees with such concerns to some of the 20 library branches in other areas of Winnipeg.

As a cornerstone of its downtown community, as the gem of Winnipeg’s library system, the main branch needs library professionals who embrace the challenge of interacting with downtown’s eclectic blend of patrons.

The high calling of libraries is to serve the communities in which they’re planted. At the Millennium, that means taking down the barriers and letting the community back in.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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