Addressing an Elephant: Active Shooter in the Library

by Aimee Graham, Head Editor, INALJ Georgia

Addressing an Elephant: Active Shooter in the Library

aimeegrahamApril 20, 1999 started off like any normal school day at the end of an academic year; students joked in the hallways, attended classes, seniors discussed plans for after graduation, and friends met in common spaces such as the cafeteria. Little did the nation know that a hell fire would break loose in the quiet town of Littleton, Colorado when two students would wreak 20 minutes of per carnage, leaving 14 students (the shooters included) and one teacher dead, 24 injured and a nation forever changed.

The massacre at Columbine is not the only disaster at an academic institution in American history – many had happened before and it is becoming a sad reality that lately we are hearing of acts of extreme violence continuously on our televisions and in internet sources. What brings Columbine to the focal point in this discussion is that of the 12 students murdered that day, 10 of them were in the library; of the 24 injured, 12 were there. 52 students, two teachers, and two librarians were trying to barricade themselves that day in the library by hiding under desks. Patti Nelson, one of the teachers in the library, is the voice on a now famous 911 call to authorities in which you can hear her instructing the students to stay down while you can hear one of the gunmen in the background yelling.

It is not without apprehension that I write this blog posting, thinking of the lives lost in such a terrible tragedy and the lives of those whom have since perished in others. My intent is not to frighten anyone from joining our noble profession, or to plant a seed in which more wreckage can ensue. But with such a rise in violence, particularly in our schools, it is only realistic to look at the obvious – as libraries, gathering grounds for people of all walks of life and a place of knowledge and distraction, are “sitting ducks”. One professor during my graduate studies briefly discussed this reality after the massacre in Newton, Connecticut, but as the subject was still rather sensitive he didn’t know HOW to discuss it. How do we prepare ourselves, in a profession noted for its obedience and structure, for a scenario in which all poise is tossed out the window and we are feeling the worst anxiety and fear imaginable? How does one protect themselves and their patrons from a madman?

I do not have a solid answer to give, a sure fire way to make sure that everything would be hunky-dory. Since we are facing a possible reality in this post, look at the facts: Many libraries of all varieties have either security personnel in the library or on campus, but how many of them are capable of subduing or holding off someone with a plan for destruction? There are metal detectors but once again it is virtually powerless in such a situation. And police could take several minutes to reach a location and then have to survey the scene. But what I can give you are a few tips, based off of military training, on what to do in a crisis.

Have your cell phone on hand: In many libraries it is advised not to bring your cell phone to the reference desk or have it on the floor, but having access to contact emergency services is your biggest lifeline.

Breathe: Seems simple enough, but in moments of panic we as humans tense up and freeze. We lose recognition of procedures, directions, and go more off of instinct. This can be a good or bad thing, but making sure to keep breathing is the best thing you can do for yourself.

Have a game plan in place and practice it with your employees: Many places with extreme weather (such as frequent tornadoes and hurricanes) have evacuation and safety procedures they practice and follow if the need arises. All institutions have emergency exits and fire routes. Train your employees for a situation just as you would any other.

Get yourself and patrons to a room that can be locked: Whether it be a bathroom, an office, or a closet, get as many patrons into a safe location away from the shooter that can obstruct them in as short a period of time as possible. Not everyone will be able to fit in one location so do not give the intruder(s) an opportunity by holding the door open while waiting for others.

Turn off the lights, stay down and stay quiet: Especially if your door has a window, you want to hide yourself from view. If an intruder knows anyone is in that room, they will find means to get in.

Do not respond to any unfamiliar voices: Even if it sounds as though a patron is pleading to enter or says it is the police, DO NOT move or open the door. It could very well be the intruder and (s)he is trying to cox you into opening the door. As with a previous bullet, make sure someone is on the phone with emergency services and wait for them to confirm it is in fact rescuers.

As stated, this posting was not intended to frighten anyone nor plant a seed, nor was it meant to belittle the experiences and memories of those whom have gone through such terror; it is to educate those in this rather public profession of a grim reality hopefully none of us will ever face. Working in libraries, we have all met our share of shady characters and we never know who is going to be the next person to walk through the door. As with any protective procedures, the best that we can do for ourselves and our patrons is to be prepared if a situation arises.

  5 comments for “Addressing an Elephant: Active Shooter in the Library

  1. Mia
    June 25, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    I think you mean “were” in this bit here: “librarians where trying to barricade themselves.”

    • June 27, 2014 at 12:59 am

      Much better! Will fix shortly :)

    • June 27, 2014 at 12:59 am

      Much better! Will fix shortly :)

  2. Rachel
    May 5, 2014 at 10:20 am

    I did a Disaster Management Independent Study course last summer. Reviewing the different plans in place at public libraries across the US, I only found one with an active Shooter policy. This is an area (disasters in general) that I hope to dedicate some serious portion of my professional life to improving.

  3. Gretchen
    April 30, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    I am so glad you posted this article. This has long been a concern of mine. Libraries are very easy targets as many have little or no security. The one thing I always said I would do if I ever get a library director position (fingers crossed) is to tie in quickly with the local police dept. to develop a plan of action in the event the unthinkable happened.

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