Staff at Kingston libraries say they’re facing more incidents of violence and harassment at downtown library branches, and say it’s another reason to cancel the upcoming staffless library pilot.
Discussions around the pilot began in fall 2021, with a motion to cancel being shot down at 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 $100,000 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 that 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 2022 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 staff saying they’ve been subjected to increased violent and unpredictable behaviour at downtown branches – and seemingly in libraries countrywide – they believe the staffless library could open up more similar 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 2022 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, one such reported by the Kingston Whig Standard weeks before the letter.
“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 say 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 staffless 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 say 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 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 says 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,” Rothwell said.
“Housing, mental health shelter space… it’s a fallout of decades long disinvestment in our community.”