Q&A: Tony Ayala, head of Library Security at UC Berkeley, on protecting the libraries during a pandemic

Tony Ayala
Tony Ayala, seen in front of a closed Doe Library, leads the Library’s security team. The team has taken on new tasks to support Library employees working from home, and is working around the clock to protect the libraries during the closure. (Photo by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

If there’s one thing Tony Ayala is used to, it’s change.

“That’s kind of how security works,” says Ayala, head of Library Security at UC Berkeley. Say you’re eating lunch. A call comes in: Someone in the library is disturbing patrons.

“You have to put your lunch away and respond,” says Ayala, who began working in the security field in 2006 and became the head of Library Security in March, having started at the Library in 2016. “When there’s a change in your environment, you need to respond to it,” he says. “This is something we’re very used to.”

It’s hard to imagine a bigger change than the constellation of global disruptions set in motion by the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Berkeley, the coronavirus crisis has forced classes online. And it has shuttered Berkeley’s 24 libraries to the public.

But through it all, Library Security is still venturing to campus and faithfully keeping watch, even as most of the Library’s employees are dispersed, working from home.

Library Security, too, is adapting. With its student employees no longer working, the team of nearly 60 has shrunk to a team of just seven. They’ve taken on new tasks, lending a hand to members of the Library staff who aren’t in the office, helping people gather the belongings they need to work from home, and even going on a “little scavenger hunt” to collect personal protective equipment across the Library to be donated, bolstering the supply at critical University of California health care and medical facilities. (“They’ve been an awesome, excellent team,” Ayala says.)

And, of course, they’re providing around-the-clock security coverage, protecting the libraries and the countless treasures they hold.

We talked to Ayala about the work of Library Security during the pandemic, what he likes about the libraries, and the secret power of the words “Can I help you?”

What does your work look like now?

Basically, we’re doing the same stuff as usual, plus the additional little things, like making copies, scanning things — little stuff that Library employees would do normally but because of the shelter-in-place order they can’t do. Sometimes it’s just letting people in and giving them access to the building. We’ve turned on computers because people can get on those remotely, so we work with IT to help employees continue to work.

In terms of security, what is your team doing during this time?

We want to make sure everything is secure. We check doors, we want to make sure card reader doors are locked when they’re supposed to be locked, and any secure doors that are locked all the time during the day — we check those types of things.

When the Library is open, we’re looking for Library policy violations — food and those sorts of things. Now that it’s closed, we’re looking for anything unusual. That could be damage to the buildings, water leaks on the exterior, graffiti. It’s been a little bit different with social distancing, so we have to wear masks and gloves when we’re going out and remember to keep a 6-foot distance, which, interestingly enough, is kind of a standard in security as a safety precaution. If someone wants to get violent, you have to keep a 6-foot distance, so it’s almost like normal practice for us. We just have masks and gloves on.

You’re ahead of the curve.

Well, it falls in line. I don’t know if I’d say ahead (laughs).

We’ve checked for leaks in different libraries and have made sure they’re secure.

Us walking around and checking those things is a deterrent if someone’s trying to break in. We might catch somebody in the act and simply go, “Oh, can I help you?” and get them to move along.

How has your staff stepped up to the challenge?

They’ve definitely been the feet on the ground, the eyes and ears, and the physical presence. They’ve been very willing to help out, and that shows their excellent attitude and that they’re great team players. Having a staff that wants to do a good job makes it easy for a manager — like 100 times easier.

Were you here for the power outage? (Earlier this year, a power outage closed some Library buildings.)

I believe that the power outage actually helped us prepare for this a little bit. You learn through communication. Having a staff of more than 50 can be a lot, so it’s important to coordinate everything and make sure everyone knows what they need to be doing.

You work in Doe, but do you have a favorite library on campus?

I like libraries for different reasons. I like Moffitt. They just renovated the fourth and fifth floors — it reminds me of the tech companies I used to work for. It has that new feel.

Bancroft is a super friendly environment. If you sit at that desk over there at Bancroft, everyone is so welcoming, so friendly.

Doe Library is unique because on the outside you have the Memorial Glade, and if you’re looking from the north entrance, it’s really beautiful out there.

I’ve never thought about a favorite. I usually just come to work and just try to keep everyone safe. It’s not always easy, but it’s definitely an experience I enjoy.