Policing in the Library: A Case Study to Influence Library Policy and Practice

July 26, 2022

Formation of the LDC Subcommittee: Policing in the Library

The Library Diversity Council (LDC) charged a subcommittee to evaluate the way the University of Michigan Library (“the library”) interacts with or relies on police in the library. This was done as one response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the Summer of 2020 and the cultural evaluation of the history of police response and violence to Black people and other people of color in the United States. On campus there were also calls from Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) to demilitarize and disarm police on campus, and they wanted to evaluate the relationship with campus police and the Ann Arbor Police Department. The LDC wanted to assess how the library engages with and relies on campus police in library spaces, review library procedures, and interrogate security measures in the library. While public libraries provided some shared methodologies to consider, the subcommittee had to consider policing in an academic library, where policies and practices are not consistently documented or implemented, nor are they always relevant. 

The Policing in the Library subcommittee was formed by some members serving on LDC at the time, followed by a call for additional volunteers via an internal newsletter. After this call the final members were: Adam Boisvert, Marna Clowney-Robinson, Anne Elias, Samuel Hansen, Helen Koustova, Shannon Moreno, Ellen Mueller, Ariel Ojibway, Charles Ransom, Stephanie Rosen, Craig Smith, and Monica Tsuneishi. This group represents various divisions, shifts (such as weekend and overnight shifts), and campus buildings (e.g., Art, Architecture, and Engineering library, Hatcher Graduate Library, Shapiro Undergraduate Library, etc.). The Policing in the Library Public Report is available through Deep Blue Documents.


How to Make Decisions and What to Deliver

Early on, the subcommittee realized that the work would involve varied perspectives, some resulting in disagreements about decision-making; it was critical to establish how the subcommittee would work together and make decisions. After careful consideration and a few weeks of debate, the subcommittee decided to rely on a modified version of consensus based decision making that combined two existing decision making techniques: Fist to Five and N-Street Methods. This combined method involved subcommittee members rating their interest in making a decision from 0-5, where 0 means they wish to block the decision to 5 being very excited about it. This vote was then checked to see if it met the conditions for a decision passing, namely that no one voted 0 and most of the votes were 2 or higher. The subcommittee utilized this decision making method as it provided a mechanism to make sure there was real interest in the decisions being made instead of just decisions that no one disagreed with but no one was actually excited about, and because it provided a mechanism for continuing to move forward after a decision was blocked. How the subcommittee would work together and make decisions was captured in an operating agreement

The subcommittee began its work during the height of the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders; access to patrons was limited. In light of this limitation, we decided to interview library employees with the intent of gathering information about their experiences with policing in the library, and to solicit feedback about how the library should (re)frame its policies and procedures related to policing. The agreed upon deliverable was a report containing recommendations formed from two primary sources of information: 

  • research pertaining to how other academic libraries and some public libraries responded to policing in the library, and, 
  • interviews with Library employees conducted by members of the subcommittee. 

Methods and Findings

The subcommittee distributed work among two groups: one focused on an environmental scan, and the other focused on library employee interviews. The environmental scan was a report including a literature review, documented statements and/or policies from relevant organizations, and information about policing from peer institutions. In addition to being part of the Policing final report, this research informed the questions used in interviews. 

The subcommittee created interview questions that focused on three main topics:

  •  the context in which employees work (e.g., buildings, work hours), 
  •  the incident-response training and information that interviewees received, and
  •  the types of interactions interviewees saw when police were in the library. 

Additionally, the subcommittee aimed to create a process where employees felt comfortable and supported, where interviewees gave consent for their interviews, and where the subcommittee committed to principled stewardship of the gathered information. These values were reflected in the interview protocol, including:

  • A form email that participants received prior to the interview defining the intentions and questions. 
  • A script with standardized questions, which also encouraged participants to not answer, or, to stop the interview if they did not feel safe, with check-ins scheduled during the interview.
  • Anonymized interviews: interviews were not tracked, calendar invites were deleted after the interview, and summaries could not be attributed to interviewees, or other library employees. 

After developing and revising the interview protocol, subcommittee members practiced conducting interviews and taking notes. Once subcommittee members felt ready, two pilot interviews were conducted. The pilot interviews went well, and no major changes to the interview protocol or process were made.

A call for participants was sent via the library newsletter asking library employees to share their experiences, thoughts, and feelings about policing in library spaces. In response to the invitation, 34 employees participated (31 via Zoom-based interactive interviews, and 3 via written responses; the responses from the pilot interviews were retained and are part of the findings from the 34 participants). Study participants worked in a range of buildings and shifts and represented six library divisions. Most participants (24) were from Operations; other divisions represented were Collections, the Deans’ Office, Learning and Teaching, Library Information Technology, and Research. 

After all of the interviews were completed, subcommittee members developed a system for categorizing (coding) responses to each interview question by theme. The subcommittee employed a grounded approach to creating the themes used to categorize interview responses; this means that the themes were inspired by the interview data, and not by preconceived ideas or existing theory.

After themes were created for each question, pairs of subcommittee members were assigned to each question in order to formally map interviewee responses to themes. The subcommittee did this in pairs to ensure that multiple people agreed on how interviewee responses were being translated into themes. This was especially valuable for complicated and nuanced interviewee responses.

Some of the central themes that emerged from the interviews were:

  • Documentation and communication relevant to police and/or policing in the library are lacking. The library has an inconsistent approach to sharing guidelines, practices, and procedures. This leaves individuals and whole work groups uninformed, leading to confusion and inconsistent responses to incidents in the library.
  • Clearer guidelines are needed regarding interacting with the Division of Public Safety and Security (DPSS). The subcommittee found wide variability in (a) reasons for contacting DPSS, (b) situations in which DPSS comes when not contacted by staff, and (c) the nature of interactions with DPSS. The library needs more clarity about when to call DPSS, how to manage DPSS visits, how to minimize the need to call DPSS, and how to handle negative experiences with DPSS (when they occur).
  • Interviewees had generally not observed biased behavior. There were very few accounts of bias by DPSS officers or among library employees who contacted DPSS. Interviewees also acknowledged that there is great potential for bias, and that there have been negative policing incidents in the past.
  • Some library practices and procedures can feel like policing behaviors. For example, certain facilities-related practices and space use metrics cause patrons to feel overly watched, and actions such as ID checks and waking sleeping patrons have led to negative feelings and interactions.

Recognizing Labor

In addition to the time and labor involved in researching, synthesizing, interviewing, coding, writing, and more, this project involved emotional labor. Emotional labor is unrecognized in most workplaces, and it is important that the library understands, notes, and makes room for when projects will require intense emotional labor.* In order to review and reflect on policing in the library, members of the subcommittee had to discuss their own personal views of policing, and then balance that with how the group responded to data from interviews. It was also emotionally taxing to interview colleagues that have experienced pain, stress, trauma, and anxiety because of (a lack of) library policies or police presence in the library. 

Another aspect of emotional labor is communicating "from below" to senior leadership and pressing administrators to have discussions and take action. This is often the case in work related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in libraries and higher education. The labor of communicating with and then waiting on expected accountability from administrators is labor that often goes unrecognized in the library. The subcommittee suffered a drop in energy and morale while waiting for an administrative response to the report that represented months of labor. It takes courage and tenacity to press administrators to have discussions and take action, particularly regarding organizational culture and process changes.

Because of ongoing conversations about library climate and culture, and due to limited bandwidth and capacity (e.g., a technology migration, staffing complexities due to COVID-19), subcommittee members took the opportunity to step away from the work and come back when they could give the project their full attention. While this consideration slowed down the process of our work, it was necessary to support colleagues humanely. 


Overall, the experience of investigating and evaluating the practices of policing in the library felt intense and demanding, but also necessary. The work of the subcommittee revealed that there is very little in the way of documentation, policies, and training around policing, resulting in individually-held beliefs and interpretations. That is, a lack of clear policy is the policy, leaving individual employees on their own to make decisions about policing needs and responses. Our recommendations include mechanisms for resolving this problem, including development of documentation, training, and communication mechanisms. 

An unexpected learning outcome of the subcommittee’s work was the different kinds of labor required when assessing and recommending change in the organization, as noted above. The members of our subcommittee had other duties not directly connected to issues of policing in the library, yet they came together because of their shared interests and motivations in the wake of tragedy. Here the subcommittee is choosing to recommend that sponsors and advisors of library groups leading culture and climate work should make sure that they are checking in with and listening to the employees doing this labor, while making room in the employee’s schedule to do the work and providing support. Systemic change in the library should be interconnected with societal change and respond to major events that inform and activate social justice work. But in order for that change to be successful, the labor of that work needs to be recognized, resourced, and supported. 

While the Policing in the Library subcommittee agreed to remain a group for purposes of following up with and being available to library administration, as well as to convene as the need arises, library administration charged a separate group of people (Administrative Coordination Team for Policing in the Library) to move forward with the recommendations made by the subcommittee. The larger Library Diversity Council has since had conversations with a member of that team regarding the library’s next steps. At the time of the publication of this blog post the new team has not been announced to the library community, and to our knowledge, none of the subcommittee’s recommendations have been acted upon.


Submitted by: Adam Boisvert, Marna Clowney-Robinson, Anne Elias, Samuel Hansen, Helen Koustova, Shannon Moreno, Ellen Mueller, Ariel Ojibway, Charles Ransom, Stephanie Rosen, Craig Smith, and Monica Tsuneishi.


*  Huang, J. L., Chiaburu, D. S., Zhang, X.-a., Li, N., & Grandey, A. A. (2015). Rising to the challenge: Deep acting is more beneficial when tasks are appraised as challenging. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(5), 1398–1408. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038976