The State of Sexual Harassment in the Library

It was only a few years ago, but we’ve all seemed to have forgotten. nina de jesus and Lisa Rabey, known as Team Harpy, spoke out against a male colleague who had been making female colleagues uncomfortable for years at librarian conferences and events. His name emerged from personal experiences the women had, as well as the whisper network — something that, as more and more discussion of sexual harassment and misconduct have entered into public discourse, has become a more well-known tool used among victims.

In speaking out, Team Harpy did what it was people ask for in any situation of sexual assault and/or harassment: they talked.

Not only were they sued for doing so, a community turned against them, calling them little more than harpies looking for attention.

The viral #MeToo campaign began with a tweet from Alyssa Milano (with credit for the term being traced back to Tarana Burke, a black woman, ten years ago) as a way to show the magnitude of sexual harassment and assault. Those who experienced either were encouraged to post “Me, Too” as a status on their various social media. My feeds filled, followed with many urges for people to speak out and up and change the story.

Many of those statuses, as well as the urges to speak up, came from the same people who didn’t support victims who have come forward in the past in the same way. Because it’s a lot easier said than done, especially if it’s being done against someone who “doesn’t seem like the type.”

But the truth is this: there is no single “type.”

And the harder truth is this: there is no single “type” of victim.

It’s been impossible not to look at the #metoo campaign without feeling anger and frustration. Not because of its power in drawing attention to a widespread and horrifying phenomenon. But because it didn’t happen until celebrities began to come forward. We didn’t see anything like this when de jesus and Rabey spoke up; instead, they were spurned by a community — and those who did support them saw significant negative response for doing so — and they unfortunately served as an example of what happens when you speak out before it’s popular to do so. de jesus and Rabey ultimately settled the lawsuit, posting apologies and statement retractions.

While these women did what people have been asking victims to do, in the wake of the case, little to nothing has been done in terms of starting a dialog about the magnitude of sexual harassment and misconduct that occurs in the library. It’s easy to believe a library is an ideal place, but that’s not the case. Especially as it pertains to public libraries, with doors open to any and everyone in a community, that means any and everyone in a community is welcomed into the same shared space. And for an institution that is primarily staffed by women, even more so than education, it means opening up the possibility of women as targets of harassment and violence of the sexual sort.

I have experienced my fair share of sexual harassment. I’m lucky: verbal and light physical harassment are the extent of my experiences. Snapped bras, butt grabs, and countless comments about the size of my chest and games of “can successfully fling x-thing between her boobs” were part of my everyday experience growing up.

But nothing could equate to the sorts of sexual comments and advances I received working in the public library.

There are stories I could share about men who touched me without permission. Who commented on my appearance regularly without permission (and one man who liked to tell me how much he liked when I did my hair this way or that way and thought a new haircut made me look awful). Men who, when even told no, would still touch or hug or say things that were out of line.

But the worst one still lingers with me today, years later, because of what happened and how little in control of the situation I felt.

I was working alone at the reference desk on a weekday morning, when an older man came in and started using the copier. The copies were a few feet from the reference desk, close enough that if someone else were at the desk, they’d hear what was going on, but far enough away from any other staff points that it was otherwise cut off. As the man began using the copier, I saw he was getting frustrated and asked if he needed any help.He said he was getting a message that the paper was low, and could I refill it?

This was an easy problem with an easy solution. I left the reference desk and headed to the cabinet where we kept the paper. It sat right behind the printer, so the man met me by the cabinet. I kneeled down to unlock it and grab the ream of paper and in the process, he said “your husband must love it when you’re on your knees.”

I felt myself go red and hot with shame. I felt my stomach twist and drop. And I didn’t know how to respond. Do I yell? Do I laugh it off? Tell him to knock it off? Being there, by myself, I had no idea what the proper response was, so rather than saying anything, I shrugged my shoulders, shoved the paper in the printer, and asked if he needed anything else. He didn’t, and I immediately walked into the bathroom out of the public service area to collect myself.

The man was gone when I came back out, so I tried to resume my normal work. But I spent the entire rest of my shift wondering: what do I do about a comment like that? Who do I tell? Would anyone believe me? I didn’t even get the guy’s name, I hadn’t seen him around before so he wasn’t a regular, and what good would it do for me to say anything anyway? It was embarrassing and shameful. I didn’t want to repeat that comment to anyone, let alone acknowledge that it was made at me.

Now, five plus years later, I repeat that moment in my head over and over and wonder how many other people have had similar — or worse — experiences and carried it with them day after day in the name of public service. How many at my own workplace encountered him or individuals like him and didn’t say anything out of fear or shame or uncertainty.

Because that’s the thing of it: working in a public library means working with the public. Librarians are taught to deal with mental illness. Taught to deal with homelessness. Taught to deal with hard and personal reference issues with dignity and professionalism.

But librarians are not taught what to do when they become the victim of harassment.

So What?

This many years on, I should have let that experience go, as I’ve let go of so many of the others in the name of living my life. But I haven’t, and I can’t, knowing I didn’t say anything and knowing that I certainly am not alone in having had something like that happen. I beat myself up sometimes, knowing that I didn’t say anything, which only perpetuated the power of silence. That man didn’t learn from what he said, and I didn’t speak up, didn’t serve as a model of what to do in a situation where I was disempowered. Where I was made to feel shamed while simply doing my job. If someone who isn’t afraid to speak up doesn’t, then how does a cultural shift happen which encourages everyone to speak up begin?

It doesn’t, and it can’t.

I feel guilt. I feel sadness. And I feel shame for feeling both of those things. While this happened in the days before de jesus and Rabey spoke out, I think about my non-response in light of what they put at stake in speaking out; it would have been much easier and much less costly on every level.

I also feel tremendously lucky that this particular incident is the thing which haunts me. Because it could have been so much worse.

Because for many library employees, it is so much worse.

In the libraries where I worked, there was no policy or procedure in place for what to do about sexual harassment. If anything, it fell under the general “write a report” category of behavioral issues in the library. But how does one write a report when it comes to a comment or two from someone not known to the person reporting?

What the libraries I worked at did offer, though, were staff in-service training days. But not one of those days, across the many I sat through, explored gender dynamics in the library and not one highlighted the real problem of sexual harassment in the library space.

If we’re going to have active shooter training as library staff in the event of a potential violent incident, then we damn well also need sexual harassment and assault training because the likelihood of that happening is, presumably, much steeper given the statistics.

It’s everyday.

Likewise, there have been few regional or national conferences addressing the challenge of sexual harassment in the library. There have been workshops offered — one will be named later on, along with the resources discussed — but there hasn’t, to my knowledge, been a keynote speaker headlining a conference which directly addresses sexual harassment in the library. And certainly, as any librarian knows, accessibility for those conference is a challenge in and of itself. Money is tight, seniority often plays a role in travel opportunities, and those who do attend large conferences are often overwhelmed by choice and obligations, so attending each and every workshop of value is not possible.

Another issue complicating matters is one that’s quite simple and utterly frustrating in its simplicity: gender. Though librarianship is dominated by females, leadership in libraries doesn’t always look the same way. While 60% of directors in research libraries are female, that still leaves a whopping 40% of those libraries under the leadership of a man. In public libraries, the percentage isn’t as wide, though 35% of directors in public libraries are male. Looking at this another way, research libraries are 68% female employees and public libraries are 79% female employees.

We like to believe the gender of our leadership doesn’t matter, but we’ve seen even in libraries than male directors earn more than female directors. So it’s not a huge leap to suggest that, even in an institution that strives to serve and provide equal opportunities to all, that challenges which can easily fall under the poorly-named category of “women’s issues” aren’t at the forefront of administration. Men experience sexual harassment, but not at the level women do. And more, men who work behind closed doors in offices out of public spaces don’t even have the same potential to hear the sorts of comments or experience what their female colleagues do while working the public service desks.

It’s the public service facing employees who see it, who hear it, and who experience it, from the teenage pages who shelve books up to those with double master’s degrees working academic reference desks.

 

What Does It Sound Like or Look Like Though?

On Monday, October 16, 2017, I put together a short Google Survey and distributed it across social media. The survey, which can be seen here, received 250 responses as of this writing days later, and it’s still receiving feedback.

That magnitude of response speaks for itself. But as much as the responses speak to the reality of sexual harassment in the library, so do the questions asked by potential participants. Many asked if x-experience “counted” as sexual harassment (in all cases, yes, it did). Many asked if it counted were it from someone they worked with (yes, it did). Still others asked if it counted were the harasser someone from whom they purchased various library supplies from (yes, it did).

The reality is this: those working in libraries have a hard time defining what sexual harassment is, and often, they have a hard time accepting that they, too, were a victim.

Because in the name of serving patrons, so often those comments are simply brushed off or accepted as “part of the job.” This isn’t true. Librarians, in all systems and across all levels, deserve to work in an environment free from harassment. But until there’s a comprehensive understanding of what harassment is and how to respond to it, until there are tools for employees to reach for when put into the situation, and until there’s support from administration for those employees to stand up for themselves in order to protect themselves and do their jobs well, we’ll keep hearing stories like these:

A patron started emailing me asking for sexual photos and videos. He also approached me in the library.

I was 8 months pregnant and working at the reference desk. A patron was touching my stomach and making sexual comments. I smacked his hand away. He called the police that I assaulted him. The police informed him I defended myself and him touching my pregnant belly and making lewd comments was sexual assault and sexual harassment. He was told not to interact with me again but was not banned from the library.   

I was regularly sexually harassed at my previous place of employment by multiple staff members, mostly security guards and maintenance staff members. They would routinely comment on my appearance and the way I dressed. In addition to staff, I was frequently harassed by customers. I have been asked out by numerous customers, who would then get angry that I refused their advances. I remember one customer ask me why I wasn’t married yet. I’ve received notes commenting on my appearance. I’ve been stared at while shelving library materials.

A teen patron would follow me around and tell me about how he was better than my boyfriend, he was going to beat him up, for me to tell him where he lived, all with his hand down his pants.

My male supervisor (50’s) got me a birthday present (single mom in 30’s). It was an apron, that stated “If I am what I cook… I’m fast, cheap, and easy”

Worked at the front desk as a circ asst. Custodian frequently flirted and asked if he could kiss him. Would ‘playfully’ hit and one time, strangle me. Eventually escalated to him grabbing my ass at the front desk during a shift.

Last February a patron quietly – so I could hear him, but no one else could – subjected me to a monologue about all the things he wanted to do to me. It amounted to threatening me with sexual assault.

As a student page, I was pulled into the washroom by a male coworker. As a librarian, a male manager repeatedly made sexual comments directed to me.

Former Male white boss who discussed to another male white coworker while all three of us were having a discussion how he hates those young girls doing car washes because “I mean they’re like 13 but they’re all wet and dressed like that and mmmmm”. Male white coworker who would only call me “girlie”. Having multiple male white patrons masterbate and having to approach them.

I went into an elevator with a patron. He mentioned that it was good I had a book cart between us so that he was forced to control himself.

Male faculty member asking me to “find the good sex scenes” in a YA book. Repeated comments over several months about/offers to “make sure I’m really a lesbian” and maybe “I just hadn’t had any good times with men” While I was a nursing/pumping mother, comments about being jealous of my baby “glad someone gets to enjoy those.”

I was 23 and worked in circulation. My boss worked there for many years and was an older man. Maybe in his late 40s earler 50’s. He had almost entirely female staff, many of us pretty young. He’d talk openly about what the students wore and what he could see, he’d share sex jokes, he even had a woman in lingerie as a screen saver. He also used a computer a lot that had autocomplete set up. One time I tried to help a researcher with that computer and the autocomplete filled it in with the suggestions “12 year olds nude, 13 year olds nude, etc.”

 

These are the tip of the iceberg, of course, and but a small sampling of the incredible and horrifying breadth of experiences shared by librarians. You can access a partial list here to get a sense of the wheres and hows of sexual harassment in libraries of all stripes.

What Are We Doing About This?

 

I work in a customer service profession. I feel that it’s my responsibility to smile and be pleasant, even when dealing with total ogres.

That comment, in response to the question “did you report the incident,” wasn’t an uncommon response. A few other responses:

No of course not. The culture was such that male employees especially management were extremely well protected and insulated – women who reported them were blackballed or frozen out or treated badly until they quit or quieted down. And “the customer is always right” mantra extended particularly to male customers when it was a woman’s word as well.

No. It didn’t seem to be worth the hassle.

Yes, incident reports were written in some cases. Sometimes not, but once we got in the habit of writing them for incidents like this, It happened with more regularity.

Most incidents, yes. My coworkers are 90% women and deserve to know when these guys are around

No. I was raped before and my experience is that reporting is more traumatic than the incident itself..

Yes. I did on more than one occasion. But they didn’t really listen until the third time I reported it.

It was refreshing to see how many reported the incidents and experiences. A lot of those responses came with caveats — some felt they did it only to have a paper trail, even though they knew nothing would be done, and others did note that they knew their supervisors would “have their backs.” A few also noted that, even when they reported, they felt they weren’t being believed or heard, and as one mentioned above, it required getting into the habit of writing reports, even if those reports didn’t necessarily have a follow through action.

But even in reporting, there is no guarantee of a response or protection. Though many who responded to the survey noted that the incidents were discussed at meetings — a valuable tool for keeping staff informed but also an incredibly vulnerable position for a victim to be a part of — many more said that they weren’t believed, that they should accept the comments as “nice compliments,” and/or that these sorts of things simply come with the territory of working with the public.

I got called up to HR to talk about me being mean and abusive.

My supervisor is supportive. But no action taken against patrons.

She asked security to get footage of the guy so we could ban him . She wanted a one-year ban. Guardian Security, our contractor, overrode her (a flagrant violation of policy) because the ‘alleged’ conduct was verbal only, and there was no evidence that I had been threatened.  

I didn’t feel like they cared or took me seriously.

I was told as a student page that I shouldn’t dress provocatively if I don’t want the attention and that it was essentially my fault: boys will be boys. As a librarian I was questioned as to if I was making it up as there were no witnesses to the manager’s behaviour.

Boss took it seriously; we crafted responses, and I was allowed off desk/to avoid helping this patron if he came in. My boss and I agreed that if anything else happened [my boss] would talk to the man about it.

Initially, the response from my bosses was supportive because they wanted to fire him. Once they realized they couldn’t fire him, they made me feel bad for reporting it. I was told he was in counseling and to think about how he had a wife, kid and mortgage.

My supervisor cosigned an incident report and discussed it with my staff.

The first time I reported I was blamed for enticing the patron. I was friendly, as I am with all patrons, so I must’ve sent mixed signals. The second time I went to the director when a patron repeatedly made me uncomfortable and crossed the line into touching. The police were called and he was banned for a month. Everyone was annoyed, I was embarrassed.

The (female) director of my library asked why I didn’t make a sound, stand up (I was seated at the reference desk and he had reached across), or make a big enough scene to get someone’s attention.

My first director, a male did nothing. I called the police. Although once he let me take an unscheduled vacation to get me away from the guy.

The head Librarian immediately removed him, bodily, from the building and then formally banned him from returning, to any branch.

I was told the patron asked out all the female librarians and that he was “harmless.”

“Patrons are like that.”

They were very supportive, filed a report for future reference, and spoke to the patron in question.

They were worried about my safety while doing my job.

 

What Needs To Be Done

One of the repeat comments throughout the survey was that, even in situations where management was sympathetic toward the victim, little was done that impacted the harasser. A number of responses said that the perpetrator was “well known” and a “harmless regular” and/or they were not given any punishment or response from the library.

Other responses, though, said that upon having a paper trail through incident reports, those patrons were banned from the library.

So what is the correct response? Do library employees need to continue on with their jobs and accept harassment as a part of working with people? Or does something more need to be done?

In an ideal world, there would be staff training offered not just in how to best serve a wide swath of people in the library and not just in how to protect oneself in the event of a violent incident. There should be training and opportunities to learn how to stand up for one’s self and respond to harassment in the library. There should be sensitivity training for administration in terms of listening to and responding to staff who report, as well as opportunities to build a team which encourages speaking out and up because of the built-in levels of trust and support within the system.

More, staff trainings and discussions about harassment need to be talked about with regularity. A one-off staff training day isn’t enough. Encouraging staff responses, developing constructive and powerful dialog, and finding solutions that protect staff members while being conscious of serving a unique and varied patronage requires providing regular opportunities to learn, to discuss, and to share.

Perhaps simply filing an incident report isn’t a solution. It might instead be part of the solution, with a form that goes to a staff member or committee of staff members who review the comments and offer solutions for the victim. Those solutions may range from giving them time off the service area to allowing them time to speak with a supervisor and follow through with next steps. Likewise, administration should step up and be braver in issuing consequences for perpetrators. At the library where the incident I experience happened, one of the levels of discipline we had for teenagers was, after three strikes for behavior issues, they and their parent/guardian met with the director to talk about following library behavior policy. Though this took time from the director’s schedule, it gave those teens (and their adults) a chance to hear what their problematic behavior was, allowed them a chance to talk through it and ask questions, and then they were allowed to use the library again, knowing that another incident would lead to a 30-day ban from the library.

We know many of the harassment incidents are from repeat offenders, those so often written off as “harmless weird people.” But those “harmless weird people” need to be subject to the same rules as other patrons of the library. Chances are, their inappropriate behavior doesn’t just impact staff. It’s likely they’re impacting other patrons as well.

Some other ideas and encouragement for better dialog and training from those working in libraries:

It’s very difficult to draw the line between serving patrons and putting up with harassment, especially when you don’t want patrons to lose library privileges. We know that they need us, but it’s not always possible to provide services when you’re afraid.

I work in an academic library now, and I’ve heard that student workers have had incidents in the past and either didn’t report, or only told another student worker. I think there is a feeling that working in public service, it’s just something you have to deal with. I think training on how to respond to those situations is needed, as well as reminding workers that it’s not something they need to put up with.  

Yes! Let us know easy scripts, ways to say no, have posted policies so we can throw the creeps out.

Library world isn’t any different than the rest of the world. Outside of the library building, but still on the clock, I’ve been physically and verbally harassed at ALA conferences. Including being picked up and carried around a bar by a library vendor during a library social event. The bar’s bouncer told the man to put me down, then he himself got really close to me and started saying how pretty I looked. This is one of the most frightening situations I’ve been in and now I avoid that vendor at every conference (and ignore online “networking” connections).

Yes. Too often librarians and other library staff have to be nice no matter what a patron, coworker or volunteer does to them. The expectation is that libraries are desperate for patrons and if we expect a high code of conduct and respect we’ll drive people away. Well, I think harassers and abusers should either get help or be driven away.

Our profession is made up of mostly women, however many times admin are men, who may not realize the extent of harassment faced daily. This needs to change. We can no longer boil down harassment to just a “quirk” of working with public.Good customer service is not an excuse for staff members to put up with abuse.  

I know there are many women who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace by their co-workers. I also feel as though there is a weird misogyny in libraryland. It’s almost as if male librarians are seen as more competent or capable than their female counterparts (which might explain why they are disproportionately in leadership positions.) The harassment from men in the public also needs to be better addressed. It should be clear to the public that there is zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior, and employees should be given better training so they know how to handle those situations as they occur.

I think it’s an issue for many (if not all) service jobs. I feel like libraries may have it worse than other sectors because 1) those of us who are tax payer funded often hear “I pay your salary with my taxes” and patrons acts like this gives them extra entitlement to us 2) sexy librarian trope 3) we’re a mostly female work force.

As far as how/why we address this… Toxic masculinity and the the patriarchy are big factors that we alone can’t take on. They are big picture things to consider and address when and where we can (like I do with my teens). Male allies are important, and we’ll be hard pressed to do this without them. But. support from other women is vital. For example, the female supervisor I had who was skeptical to my reports. I felt her skepticism was due to my non traditionally attractive appearance and that I should be thankful for the attention. Now she never said this, but others have, and i have been made to feel that because of my appearance, I should be thankful when a man catcalls me, corners my, propositions me, etc. Then there’s also my another female supervisor I had to who told me I was flat wrong and being overly sensitive; she even made a comment about “stupid liberal millennials.” Women like this hurt us just as much as those who harass us in the first place.

So training not just to stop harassment, but to support those who have been harassed. In addition, supervisors, admin, etc. who have a zero tolerance policy and who will back their staff regardless of tax payer dollars.

All of this, of course, comes right back to where we started: why now? Why haven’t we had this discussion before? And why do we demand the work of doing better fall on the backs of victims, rather than start from the top?

Why is it we didn’t step up and support the women who have spoken up and out before? Are we lacking the tools or have we chosen being nice and quiet over lending a hand and speaking up and out?

It’s both.

The library world, despite how it’s depicted, is no different than the social world at large. If anything, it’s a microsocial world, featuring the best and the worst of culture at once. Knowing that and being empowered to work in and within that dynamic can and should be the start of building the skills and tools necessary to stay safe, stay strong, and stay connected to what’s going on.

And it can help ensure that those who do speak out find the support they deserve.

 

Resources

There are no universal resources about sexual harassment available. The American Library Association has no policies nor no guidelines available to members about protecting themselves from sexual harassment in the library, either in the form of experiencing it from patrons or colleagues.

Instead, the resources being shared are, much like the whisper network, happening much more quietly, privately, and in rare cases, at local and regional conferences with materials not readily accessible to those not in attendance.

At this year’s American Library Association meeting in Chicago, Waukegan Public Library (and Book Riot contributor) Katie McLain and coworker Amanda Civitello presented on sexual harassment, offering both a definition of what it is, how it plays out in the library, and they put together a series of resources for helping get the discussion fired up at the library. You can read their slides and handouts here.

Although it’s not related to sexual harassment, Katie McBride — Book Riot contributing editor — recently wrote about security and violence in the public library. This piece, in conjunction with McLain’s work above, provide insights to help get the work started.

It’s also worth reading Melissa DeWitt’s take on sexual harassment in the public library from Hack Library School, along with the resources cited therein.

 

Looking Ahead

Nothing will ever change how those who have spoken up against sexual harassment and assault have been treated in the past. Nothing will ever change how brave victims have been in doing what so few have had the power to do.

But we can use them as the spark that ignites the fire within the rest of us to do something and change the culture of sexual harassment in the library.

Because, as much as it shouldn’t be, the responsibility is upon each and every one of us to build a toolbox of responses and pull from it as necessary. To protect ourselves, to protect our colleagues, to protect other patrons, and to protect what it is that makes the library the special place that it is.

We can do better.

We can always do better.

 

+Women, of course, are not the only victims of sexual harassment. But for the sake of this piece, they are the focus, as they are so frequently the focus in society at large. For men and those of other genders who experience sexual harassment and violence, know that you are being heard, you are being seen, and you are being believed by me. You are not forgotten.

*Lisa Rabey shared the survey tied to this piece, and her tweets about it are well worth reading. I can only imagine what the recent discussions on such a broad level about sexual harassment and assault are bringing up for Rabey and de jesus.

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