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Following Up: Library launches new approach to security

Safer spaces technicians shift focus from enforcement to supports at Thunder Bay's public library.
Dwayne1 (1)
Dwayne McNish works at the Brodie Library as the TBPL's first safer and equitable spaces technician. (Leigh Nunan, TBT News)

THUNDER BAY – The Thunder Bay Public Library is reimagining its approach to security at its two downtown branches.

Two “safer and equitable spaces technicians” will now take the lead on safety and security issues at the TBPL’s Waverley and Brodie branches.

The techs are intended to serve as a friendly presence able to intervene with support in the form of food packages, referrals to social services, or assistance accessing library services.

Although the technicians haven’t outright replaced contracted security guards, the library says that’s a distinct possibility moving forward, as they measure the success of the new program.

It’s an approach the TBPL previewed earlier this year during the municipal budget process, arguing the program will cost more upfront but pay off in the form of enhanced safety and averted calls to police and EMS.

“If someone is having some kind of negative reaction in the library, it’s often for a reason,” said Jenna Johns, a community hub librarian responsible for anti-racism, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

“We try to take a human approach where we have a conversation with that person, we offer them a snack. And sometimes – often – it’s able to deescalate a lot of the things we would otherwise have to employ security for, or sometimes call for intervention from police, fire, or ambulance.”

Incidents security guards and library staff respond to range from simple searches for information to those seeking shelter to mental health crises to physical assault. Incidents involving physical violence do happen at the library, though rarely, Johns said.

Dwayne McNish started as the first safer spaces technician at Brodie in mid-March. He sees his job as ensuring everyone feels welcome and gets what they need at the library, he said.

McNish, who has also worked at the Shelter House, said the traditional approach to security too often leaves people – particularly the homeless – feeling dehumanized and unwelcome. He’s excited to be part of a new approach.

“I think it’s a good model,” he said. “It kind of softens the tone. Rather than a security guard who’s basically trained to do one thing, you have someone who can fill many roles and make patrons feel more comfortable, more human.”

McNish spends his time roaming around the library meeting and greeting patrons, keeping an eye out for anyone who needs help or appears to be in distress. He’s also helping to roll out a new program offering food packages to patrons in need, and can refer patrons to outside services.

Leaders at the library are hopeful the new program can expand to eventually replace security, but said that transition needs to happen slowly enough to prove it’s working, and win buy-in from staff.

“Part of what we’ve had to acknowledge… is that we can’t implement change without support,” said Johns. “If our staff don’t feel safe, they can’t do their job… So we’ve tried to work in supports.”

That includes an expanded incident debriefing process, and training on topics including emotional intelligence, critical incidents, and de-escalation training, she said.

Ultimately, Johns believes the more proactive approach will benefit staff as well as patrons.

“People have reacted really well to having him there, because it takes a lot of stress off,” she said. “It allows people to focus on the core tasks of their job, because they don’t have to walk around and make sure people are okay all of the time, because there’s someone focused on doing that.”

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