LIBRARY ON LOCKDOWN: thoughts & observations from Virginia Tech

December 9, 2011, 4:11 pm

Note: this might be a good time for everyone to dust off their emergency planning protocol.

Yesterday was a wild, scary, sad day. My brother is a police officer in Florida so whenever stories like this happen it hits a sensitive spot. My sympathy to the Crouse family. It’s very quiet on campus this morning, but I’ve seen most students wearing VT clothing (it’s actually like that everyday) —so it’s good to see the school pride on display after what happened.


Reflecting on the events yesterday there were three distinct phases:

  1. The “Probably A False Alarm” aka Waiting Stage
  2. The “Oh, It’s Real, People Are Shot, Manhunt Is On” aka Chaos Stage
  3. The “Now What?” aka Quietly, Waiting, Wondering Stage


The campus buildings went on lockdown shortly after the officer was shot. Our staff responded efficiently and professionally securing the library building. Hats off to them for managing a difficult situation. The campus administration and law enforcement were also on top of things. It’s really sad for Virginia Tech because Blacksburg is a great small town. The people here are the nicest I’ve ever met. I’ve been here less then a month but find it truly inspiring.


Anyway… the Chaos Stage was where things got scary—hence the term chaos.

There were (falsely) reported shots and suspect sightings in various places around campus. This resulted in a lot of action just outside the library. Several of our neighboring buildings had to be searched and/or evacuated. I saw numerous officers in combat gear with assault rifles—that was a wake up call.


I have to give a shot out to The Collegiate Times, our independent school newspaper. They did a great job of piecing together all the various reports and social media happenings from around campus. When their offices were evacuated they kept at it using Twitter. College papers catch a lot of flack, but I was impressed with their professionalism and determination.


Back to it— during the chaos stage we were told to be ready to evacuate. It was a heighted mood with rumors, photos, and videos being tweeted, facebooked, and YouTubed every few minutes.  After about an hour the police left our area and things gradually waned. The social media activity leveled off too—except from outsiders asking us what was happening and checking on our safety. There were no longer any cars or people outside. We were all just waiting and speculating.


During this time it was interesting to see how people reacted differently to chaos. There is probably a PhD thesis on this somewhere. I’m sure the literature of crisis management delves into this, but comparing it to learning/studying style and making a link to one’s personality type would be interesting.


On the open/social floors people bonded together. Many students pulled their laptops beside each other alternating between news feeds, facebook/twitter, and emails/messaging. Walking through the space there was a cacophony of blaring news reports for various channels. I’d estimate that about 75% of the people I saw were involved with media or social media in some manner. (Our wireless held up well, but I’m sure we took it to its threshold.) While the remaining 25% were doing academic work: editing papers, solving math problems, reviewing textbooks/notes. I also saw two girls playing Words With Friends, apparently against each other. [Note: stock up on recharging cords.] Many were also on their phones but conscious about battery life.


Juxtaposed with this was the behavior on the quiet floors. I did a quick pass on these floors (I have to admit I favor the high action spaces) and people remained quiet and kept to themselves more. A few were crying in the stacks and I was pleased to see some of our staff consoling and reassuring them. One of my colleagues said that a particular group actually moved study carrels in front of a door to barricade themselves in. It was a very closed and hunkered down mentality.


I find these contradicting behaviors fascinating from a sociological point of view.



Around 3pm or so it was announced that the campus would host a press conference at 4:30pm. This was a little odd because our understanding was that the manhunt was still ongoing. As the press conference started the lockdown was lifted. Half of the students took off while the other half watched the news on laptops. 50+ gathered around our big screen TV; witnesses were being interviewed by the media. It was somber and pin-drop-quiet.


Then a student had a seizure and it shocked us all into action. We didn’t know what to do next—twenty people simultaneously dialed 911. Luckily there were two students with medical training who handled the situation until the paramedics arrived. [Note to self: get basic medical training]


Initially we considered closing the library. At the time there was no direct confirmation that the killer was caught so we were concerned about the library becoming a target. It was decided, however, at a campus level that it would be “business as usual”—the buses resumed, dinning continued, and the library remained open. Finals were postponed for today but had been rescheduled for Saturday.


I’m proud of our staff who volunteered to stay on until 2am. They gave away free coffee and snacks including grill cheese sandwiches. I hear the library had steady traffic all night.


Professionally we talk about libraries being places for community and from what I’m being told that’s what it was like last night. People wanted to connect. They wanted to be around other people. The library being open provided an excellent, neutral, and natural place for this to happen. It gave them an environment suitable for their academic needs (finals still lingered) but also gave them an emotional and social space as well. We all love to talk about the number of books or journals or square footage or computers or gate counts or instruction sessions or whatever metric you want—but last night none of that really mattered. It’s been said before and I’ll echo it here: the best thing the library could be was open.

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