Magazine article American Libraries

When Crisis Calls

Magazine article American Libraries

When Crisis Calls

Article excerpt

I recently answered a call on ASK NYPL, the New York Public Library's telephonic and electronic reference line, from the New York City Police Department. A 16 - year - old girl was threatening to throw herself off the Verrazano - Narrows Bridge that links Brooklyn to Staten Island, and the only identification that she had in her effects was an NYPL library card--with its barcode on the back that could provide her identity, home address, and contact information for her parents.

After making absolutely sure that the policeman was who he said he was, I provided him with the necessary information. Fortunately, this child survived. But I dread ever facing another such call and having it end in the loss of a human life.

After I notified my supervisor (and her supervisor) of what had happened, I was given the job of researching and formulating a suicide response policy for approximately 2,500 NYPL employees.

A policy gap

I contacted reference librarians providing service via telephone, e-mail, IM, and text messages at the 12 largest public libraries in the United States, as well as a number of smaller libraries. Many have had experience with this disturbing type of call. But the most striking result of my research is that almost none of the largest public libraries in the United States have any specific policy with respect to response to threats of suicide by either their patrons or other persons. At best, most library systems have only a vaguely worded mandate about contacting the police if anyone threatens to commit a crime or to inflict bodily harm.

I also interviewed many psychiatrists, clinicians, and other authorities on suicide, directors of suicide hotlines as well as legal counsel to public libraries on how to handle this matter, with the best interests of the distressed person as well as the legal protection from liability of the public library in mind.

I was directed to create a policy that could fit on one side of an index card. Public service staff in libraries have varying levels of education and experience, and this particular policy must be immediately comprehensible to anyone.

Highlights of NYPL's policy are:

* If the person is in imminent danger of attempting to commit suicide or of causing harm to himself or others, the staff member should, as calmly as possible, attempt to obtain that person's name, location (address and nearby landmarks), and contact the police at 911. …

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