or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Pondering a Potential Paper Cutter Policy

   December 11th, 2014

papercutterSo this came up recently in my library: should we allow patrons to use the staff paper cutter?

We have a few of them in the library, including one in the Reference Office. Staff use it all the time, and occasionally a patron asks to use it. Initially I felt this was one of those, "oh, that seems too dangerous," but for years now have been allowing people to use it. However, these are my conditions:

  • They can't come into the Reference Office (since staff personal items are in there), so,
  • I carry it to a table for them
  • I ask if they know how to use it, and ask them to be careful
  • I tell them to let me know when they're finished so I can carry it back into the office
  • And I remind them again to be careful

Like I said, I've been doing this for years, and have never had an incident (other than satisfied patrons). However, some staff are uncomfortable with the whole paper cutter situation, so the question was raised: should we be letting patrons use it?

I think the main concern was safety and liability. I'm not a lawyer, but I don't see how this opens us up to any more liability than scissors (which we provide free access to at the desk along with pens, pencils, tape, stapler, staple remover, etc). Almost all the furniture in the library is wooden, which makes for a lot of hard sharp corners someone could fall and hit their head on. Not to mention the large heavy books we keep on shelves seven feet in the air, well above many peoples' heads.

So it seems to me there's plenty of "liability" potential just by allowing people into the building. So for me, as long as the paper cutter is in good working order, and staff offers to help and/or train patrons to use it, we're in the clear.

As a result of this coming up, I did put a big red sign on the paper cutter as a sort of "not our fault" disclaimer, although I doubt it would have much impact in a lawsuit. Here's what our paper cutter looks like:


And a closeup of the red sign:


Do you have a paper cutter in your library that you allow patrons to use? How about a shredder, or anything else slightly unusual and potentially dangerous? I'm really curious to hear what other people think, so please share your experience in the comments - thanks.

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15 Responses to “Pondering a Potential Paper Cutter Policy”

  1. calimae Says:

    We’ve got a paper cutter that lives on the table by the public printer (along with the stapler). We don’t have any sort of warning sign on it or anything like that. As far as I know, no one has cut off a finger or otherwise injured themselves.

  2. Amelia Says:

    We don’t have one out for people to use and rarely do we get asked. We have both a guillotine cutter and a rotary cutter and when someone asks for a paper cutter we give them the rotary cutter since there is a less likely chance for injury.

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @calimae: I’m happy to hear you guys are death-free too – the warning sign seems a bit unnecessary to me.

    @Amelia: I’ve never had good luck with rotary cutters, but it’s been awhile since I tried one. How heavy-duty is yours? Our paper cutter can easily go through 10-15 sheets, and is routinely used for that many. I think many people who use it in our library are more interested in volume than precision.

  4. Regina Renee Says:

    We have a paper cutter that stays in the staff room. In the past 2 years only one customer has asked to use the paper cutter. I brought it out for her, told her to be careful, and hovered until she was finished. She left the library satisfied and injury free.

  5. looloolooweez Says:

    Oh boy, I am one of those in the “Don’t even give them scissors” camp, simply due to a stupid experience I had a couple of years ago.

    A guy grabbed a pair of scissors (without even asking until he was actually walking off with them, a whole ‘nother issue) from the desk to cut open one of those plastic clam shell packages. Sure enough, he sliced his palm open and bled all over a cloth chair (actually wiping his hand on it). I gave him antibacterial wipes and a band-aid. He refused an ambulance but wanted me to promise him that his wound wasn’t serious and wouldn’t get infected, which I couldn’t do, and he got argumentative.

    I found out later when I was called into admin that he had threatened to sue the city. He never did, but I was also told that the only reason I wasn’t personally in trouble is because he took the scissors without asking and if I’d let him have them and the library got sued they’d essentially throw me under the bus. No, to heck that.

    I know this was a freak combo of idiot patron + unsupportive admin, but now the only ones I lend out are dinky little safety scissors like you’d give a kindergartner.

  6. Aisling Says:

    We have a paper cutter that we allow the public to use, but it’s a different model. Instead of the great blade arm, we have one that has a blade inside a circle, and you press down on the circle to cut the paper. I think it’s called a rotary or guillotine blade. There’s no way to touch the blade unless you flip the thing over, so we’ve never had any issues with it.

  7. Mary Ellen Says:

    We do not allow patrons to use our paper cutters. And the only scissors we lend out are the tiny kiddie safety scissors — at least we used to only do that, I think people have gotten lax about which scissors they give out. I shall use the cautionary tale of the clamshell packaging next time I’m at work.

  8. Colleen Says:

    We have a paper cutter with a shield on the blade, which makes me much more comfortable when teachers and older students want to use it.

    (Similar to this one: http://papercuttershop.com/item-41840.html)

    Of course, I’m also in Germany where they generally figure that if you hurt yourself, it’s probably your own fault, especially if you were doing something stupid to begin with.

  9. Erin Says:

    At my previous library, we had one on a table next to the public photocopier. Our biggest problem was that people would use it and not put the blade lock and the copier was next to the children’s area. So, we did put up a sign, but it was about locking the blade down. At my current library, we don’t have one anywhere near the public area.

  10. Jane Says:

    This comment is more about scissors than the paper cutter. We have recently completed Personal Safety, Threat Assessment and Active Shooter training. One point made in the training was to look at your public spaces for what could be thrown at you or used as a weapon, as well as what you could use as a weapon if you needed one. Scissors glared out at me for both scenarios after the training.

  11. Carol Says:

    One thing I’ve struggled with is whether to allow volunteers to use a paper cutter for work I need done. I agree, it’s probably the same liability as anything else the volunteer might do, but since one of our staff got injured with a paper cutter and had to have surgery, I’ve decided it makes life simpler to do the cutting myself, or have a staff member do it, and not to let volunteers use it.

  12. Cari Says:

    This is so interesting, because I remember once when a patron asked, and my boss specifically said not to let the person use it due to liability issues. Now, we make the cuts for them if they ask, although a few times, this has opened us up to perfection issues (patron doesn’t like the cuts we make!) Our paper cutter is awful, though. We could possibly get a new one and go your route.

  13. Brian Herzog Says:

    @looloolooweez & Mary Ellen: that sounds like worst-case scenario, but yeah, definitely possible. However with some patrons, tripping over a design in the carpet could produce the same reaction.

    @Colleen: I’ve never seen such a thing! Wow. And I find myself leaning towards that German way of thinking often.

    @Erin: we have that same problem with staff too, not pushing the blade back down when they’re finished. Of course, they also don’t always turn off the light when they leave a room.

    @Jane: we had the Blackbelt Librarian here earlier this year for a staff training day and he pointed out the same thing (along with many other security holes). We determined that for our community (relatively safe small suburb), the likelihood of that happening was miniscule compared to the convenience to our everyday patron. Other communities might require different decisions, so I think we’re very lucky in this regard.

    @Carol: man, sometimes I would so much prefer to just do everything myself – but that’s a slippery slope. I agree with treating volunteers a little differently than staff, but I still think adults should be able to safely use a paper cutter. Accidents happen, but that’s true anywhere (except apparently in Germany!). However, if I were faced with a bleeding coworker, I might reconsider access too.

  14. The Librarian With No Name Says:

    We have a system-wide rule against handing out pointed scissors. Patrons can use them at the reference desk, or they can take round-tip scissors with them to their work area.

    At my library, we have a guillotine cutter that patrons can use at the reference desk on request. It spends the rest of the time in the back workroom. No issues so far.

    At the library where I sub four hours a week, the guillotine cutter lives on a table next to the copier, where anyone can get at it but we can keep an eye on it and re-latch the safety catch as needed. Again, no issues within recent memory.

    At our main downtown branch, where we are more likely to run into patrons in states of altered consciousness, we’ve got a giant version of those slide-cutters that scrapbookers use. It’s bolted to a table near the copier. It cuts really well as long as you swap the blades out regularly, and you need a screwdriver to get at any of the sharp bits. And at that point, you might as well just menace someone with the screwdriver.

  15. Matthew Says:

    I love this thread! Our biggest issue in a community college library is that we have all sorts of equipment for student use, including a paper cutter, and students find new and innovative ways to break most of it. Staplers get manhandled, hole punchers, even metal ones wind up with broken handles. Fortunately, most things are used without injury or theft. We keep sharp, pointy scissors behind the desk and students use them frequently.

    Never really considered the liability factor, although I’m a grunt librarian and not the admin. If we can keep them from talking loudly on their cell phones, we’re pretty happy.