Let the Librarian Be
January 31, 2018 9:36 PM   Subscribe

Public librarians are deeply committed to access. We believe the library should be open to all and we want patrons to feel comfortable asking for information about almost anything.... But this also makes our jobs a fertile ground for sexual harassment.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris (48 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
It's interesting how the whole sexual harassment and abuse of women is an entirely different pitch of screaming in my head from the politics screaming in my head. They aren't in harmony at all, but they they are relentless.

I entirely welcome this whole #MeToo and #TimesUp moment. For literally generations some of what has been going on has been basically an open secret. A lot of what has been going on has not been open at all. It's time all of it should end.

Peel back the onion layer by layer. I wish these stories didn't have to be discovered but instead were being actively pursued.
posted by hippybear at 9:53 PM on January 31, 2018 [16 favorites]


My very first desk shift as a fully-fledged librarian featured a man drunkenly asking me out on a date. I feel embarrassed to tell that story as an example, because really, it was not that bad. It's hard to pick a "worst" story, because in addition to the sexual harassment there's also plenty of misogyny, garden variety bullying and verbal abuse, plus the peachy-keen task of having to professionally put yourself into situations you just know are not going to be great because it is your duty to, for example, tell the man masturbating in the corner while looking at the children participating in storytime that he really has to stop. Right. Now. Explain to the men watching porn on the internet that you really don't care what they do in the privacy of their own homes, but this is not an appropriate behaviour for a public space.

It is perhaps telling that the stories which stick out the most in my memory are those where the offenders were women rather than men, simply because men behaving like this was just so common as to be unremarkable.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:23 PM on January 31, 2018 [53 favorites]

to, for example, tell the man masturbating in the corner while looking at the children participating in storytime

glglglgl rrrrrglr khkh
posted by away for regrooving at 1:11 AM on February 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

Over on the "neverending politics anxiety bullshit" thread(s), it seems that a recurring theme of the racist/nationalist/assholes is "The end of Civilization as we know it".

Seriously, the fact that libraries AND LIBRARIANS aren't treated with the proper respect IS the end of Civilization as we know it.
posted by mikelieman at 2:00 AM on February 1, 2018 [8 favorites]

Also, "glglglgl rrrrrglr khkh"!!!!!!
posted by mikelieman at 2:02 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

"glglglgl rrrrrglr khkh"

posted by jonathanhughes at 4:06 AM on February 1, 2018

Asking because I genuinely do not know - do libraries have some kind of code of behavior thing, whereby if you do something shitty you can get thrown out?

I mean, that wouldn't stop the "can you help me print this picture of this sexaaaaay actress that by the way you look just lik her" guy, but it would help with the "i'm jerking off in the corner during kids' story time" guy, right?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:24 AM on February 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I should note that the stories involving women are not on the order of watching porn or masturbating in public. One was verbal abuse and the other was a lecherous comment which was pretty gross, but yeah. (There was also a strange woman who appeared to be on some really amazing drugs, but that's a different kettle of fish.)

Mind you I am surprised there aren't more librarians sharing stories about the crap we put up with. Reminds me of the time I proposed doing a paper on stories from the trenches, basically as a way of encouraging new librarians to talk about their experiences so we could learn from each other and maybe not feel so powerless. My senior manager scotched the idea pretty quickly. Apparently telling stories about our unsavoury patrons might make us seem less welcoming.

Many people who use libraries are absolutely lovely and I have had some amazing experiences as a librarian as well. But I agree with the author of the article that there are things we need to start talking about within the profession.

On my way out of work today I got distracted by a new book which had arrived, about libraries and their history. I skimmed the table of contents, leafed through a few chapters. The book was written by a man, and the libraries he writes about are men's libraries. Most of the librarians he identifies also seem to be male. Never mind that it's an industry nearly as female-dominated as nursing. History, as they say, is written by the victors and obviously writing about the male-dominated history of libraries is a story more worth telling than writing about the awesome librarians of recent history and today, most of whom are female. No Beverly Clearly or Madeleine L'Engle or Joanna Cole or Andre Norton or Anne Tyler. No Golda Meir or Laura Bush (no, I don't like her either but still). No Nancy Pearl. No Jessamyn.

Clearly I need to write a book in all my copious free time.
posted by Athanassiel at 4:28 AM on February 1, 2018 [35 favorites]

Empress Callipygos sure. It might be called a code of conduct, or rules of membership, or bylaws or some such. But guess who mostly does the enforcing of these rules? Most public libraries do not have security guards on site, and calling the police is fine but they take time to get there. In many cases you need something to happen sooner than that.
posted by Athanassiel at 4:33 AM on February 1, 2018 [8 favorites]

Has the level of weirdness in libraries gone up since libraries started offering computer access? (Are computers particular attractors or causes of customers behaving badly?)
posted by pracowity at 4:53 AM on February 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

Has the level of weirdness in libraries gone up since libraries started offering computer access? (Are computers particular attractors or causes of customers behaving badly?)

Well, people using computers for porn is definitely an issue, but libraries have always had problems with stalkers, creepers, penis exposers, public masturbators, book ejaculators, and so on. I don't know why.
posted by thelonius at 5:37 AM on February 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

The public library in the next town is suffering a penis exposer scandal. Apparently the dude exposed himself to a 13 year old. It was not his first offense, the library had sanctioned him previously. They called the cops and had him arrested. His case is winding through the courts and he has been suspended from the library for a year, pending review after the court case. Some parents are raising hell in the community because they feel the library should do something worse to the guy, right away, and not wait for his court case to complete. I don't know what they can do to the guy, beyond throwing him out and calling the cops.
posted by elizilla at 5:53 AM on February 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Asking because I genuinely do not know - do libraries have some kind of code of behavior thing, whereby if you do something shitty you can get thrown out?

I mean, that wouldn't stop the "can you help me print this picture of this sexaaaaay actress that by the way you look just lik her" guy, but it would help with the "i'm jerking off in the corner during kids' story time" guy, right?

This depends both on the library's willingness to enforce any rules and the politics of the situation. A librarian friend of mine had to deal with a man who watched porn and masturbated at her community college library. One of the security guards was very understanding and helped her to enforce a ban on this patron even entering the library, but the other security guard only said, "Well, he's a student, we can't ban students from using school property." This is blatantly untrue, and my friend complained several times to administration, who were initially sympathetic and supportive. Until the day that she called the police on the masturbating student, since Mr. I-Won't-Help Security Guard was on duty.

Suddenly, everything was a Big Deal, now that the school had a police incident on its record. My friend was asked several times to drop it, not make a statement to police, not press charges, and just have everything go away. She didn't have any faith that the administration would address the problem since it had been several months now of them making sympathetic noises and then doing nothing. So she continued with the police. Soon she was removed from her student-facing position and made to do filing work in the archives - this was framed as an attempt to help shield her from unpleasant student interactions. Then her hours were cut. The last straw was when she lost it at a staff meeting and called out all the administrators who had turned a blind eye to the situation and decided, you know what, I don't need this shit in my life.

So now she's an ESL teacher.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:58 AM on February 1, 2018 [31 favorites]

I've worked in libraries since I was legally of the age allowed to work. Every one of them has had "squeaky stair" patrons, but it's always been a delicate balance because "my tax dollars pay your salary damn it." So yeah, I can tell you tales. Of being a sixteen year old escorted to her car after every night shift, because of the fully grown adult men who'd ask me out. Relentlessly. And even though I've made the leap to special libraries, it's not stopped.

I'm a _powerful_ introvert. Every bit of my customer service role requires me to be "on." And there are just a lot of people out there who can't tell the difference between service and flirting. I really wish I knew the answer to it.
posted by librarianamy at 6:05 AM on February 1, 2018 [21 favorites]

do libraries have some kind of code of behavior thing, whereby if you do something shitty you can get thrown out?

My experience in Public Libraries is the teen girls working alone as shelvers are the most frequent targets. Who are also the people that have been socialized to be nice to men regardless of men's behaviour. And then the staff are not supported when they complain to admin. A big problem is that Public Libraries are understaffed and too many staff are working alone/distant from other staff. In rural Ontario there have been several cases of men going into the isolated public library that is staffed by one person, locking the door behind them and then sexually assaulting the staff person for hours. So, yeah. I know of at least one library that proposed getting rid of adult staff on evenings and weekends and just leaving two 14 year old girls to work until 9 at night at isolated, rural branches in order to save money. And the refrain I have heard from *several* higher management is that staff don't have anything to worry about because if a staff person is attacked then other members of the public will come to their defense. I know a few Librarians with PTSD from surviving assaults from the public.
posted by saucysault at 6:11 AM on February 1, 2018 [20 favorites]

Asking because I genuinely do not know - do libraries have some kind of code of behavior thing, whereby if you do something shitty you can get thrown out?

The libraries I've worked in and with in Western Massachusetts will issue an Notice of Trespass pursuant to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 266, section 120 for the more egregious offenses. A local library recently issued one against a man masturbating in the stacks while watching a woman. He was still there by the time the cops showed up. But, yeah, you have to have people in the library administration who are willing to support such actions.

One of the libraries I worked for had a parent call up and complain because the male head librarian cornered her teenage daughter in the stacks and told her her skirt was too short for the library. We had no men working for us at the time. I also had a drunken wedding proposal and was asked out more than once (because my super kind, helpful (female-presenting at the time) demeanor clearly meant I was interested in dating--or marriage!). I was told to smile because it made me prettier. I had a woman stroke my curly hair ('It's okay--I was a hairdresser.'). I had some guy ask for help with his computer only to have a porn video pop up while I was fixing something else (he followed me down the stairs to vociferously deny that it was his--he was on the step above me. Not threatening at all.) I had an older female coworker defend a patron who'd has his computer access limited due to watching porn ('He couldn't possibly! I know him! He's not that kind of person.')--she was higher up in the chain of command, so he got his unrestricted computer use back. When I tote them up, they feel like they add up to something bigger, but at the time, that's just how the world works.

The only time my boss got involved was when a convicted pedophile was overheard making plans to meet up with a middle school girl. Otherwise, it was handle it yourself--whether it was directed at you or at a patron. Sure, we wrote up reports about it, but those are one-way paper trails. A dozen different offenses by a dozen different people--if they were egregious enough to even warrant being written up.

I interviewed for a library job at one library and withdrew my application when they told me that the closing shifts (9 and 10 o'clock at night) were done alone from 6 o'clock on.
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:28 AM on February 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

The American Library Association doesn’t provide any guidelines or resources for dealing with sexual harassment, either from patrons or colleagues.

Wait -- what?

I'm speechless. I would have expected there to be some kind of guidelines or best-practices or 'here's a sample policy you can cut and paste' to have been in place long before now.

My (very limited) experience of the ALA is that it was a pretty comprehensive, outreaching group. Is there a reason why these resources aren't in place?
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:44 AM on February 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm a librarian who has worked exclusively in academia/private firms. My hat is off to you, public librarians. I don't know how you do it.
posted by orrnyereg at 7:01 AM on February 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure if public libraries or bookstores are worse - I've only worked in academic libraries. But good lord was the bookstore a magnet for surreptitious masturbators, loud talking harassers, and creeps of all kinds. I was spit at, screamed at, threatened, and harassed weekly if not daily.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:02 AM on February 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

One issue which intersects in a complicated way with the whole library-freaks-as-oppressors issue is that a lot of the people who egregiously abuse library resources are themselves in a pretty terrible place. Public libraries end up becoming gathering points for people who are homeless, some of whom have serious psychological problems or drug dependencies. They come to the library because the library is one of the few indoor places that will countenance them staying there for hours on end in the middle of the day without paying for anything.

That shouldn't be carte blanche to act badly towards the staff or the resources, of course. But at the same time it seems like a different sort of power dynamic than is in play with, say, people who abuse retail workers. That sort of behavior is pretty much always a sadistic show of power. There almost certainly are library patrons who are making a direct effort to degrade library staff, and those are, not bones about it, bad people. But at least some of the fraught interactions I've seen at the public library are people who are not coping at all well with the stuff inside of their own heads and in consequence navigating the social situation very, very poorly. (incidentally: the LFPL's main branch does have security guards, and they seem to spend a lot of their time ejecting patrons performing fairly low-key inappropriate behaviors. Napping in the study carrels is apparently a big no-no.)

And dealing with other people's bad head-spaces shouldn't be part of the job, sure. Most librarians want to help people, sure, but they didn't sign on to become direct-contact social workers. But that's what they end up being dragged into.
posted by jackbishop at 7:22 AM on February 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

I don't know why.

As a former bookseller and librarian for almost twenty years, I will tell you: books are magnets for crazy people.*

* Please note that I include myself among them, and not in a ha-ha way.

posted by ryanshepard at 7:23 AM on February 1, 2018 [6 favorites]

Public librarian here; I’m a man, but I’ve witnessed and heard about a lot of harassment sufferered by female colleagues (once a woman asked me to read out a list of her holds, all of which - and there were a lot - were sex manuals, which was weird but that’s my only personal story along those lines). It happens ALL THE TIME. Many, many thoughts on this, but for now I’ll just say that yes, the teenage pages get it the worst (because they’re often the youngest and are often relatively isolated out in the stacks), yes pretty much all public libraries have rules of conduct but enforcing them can be difficult without proper support from security and management (both of which are always lacking; managers will bend over backwards to accommodate all sorts of terrible behaviour in the name of being “welcoming” and I suspect that the incident reports in my library are designed to discourage us from filing them and just put up with shit; this dynamic is compounded by the fact that librarianship is a female-dominated profession), and yes, many of these issues are symptoms of a society that is failing its most vulnerable citizens, who wind up at the library because they have nowhere else to go.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:41 AM on February 1, 2018 [14 favorites]

I don't know why.

Toxic patriarchy?
posted by hippybear at 7:54 AM on February 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

This shit is a big part of why I'm not a public librarian anymore. It wasn't even the clearly-inappropriate harassment: the old guy who left creepy letters in returned books, the constant inquiries about my full name and work schedule, the red-faced guy staring at me through the study room window whose right hand seems to be...ugh, is he seriously doing that?..., the dude who waited beside my car after the library was closed after dark. Those were clear code of conduct violations and/or safety issues and management dealt with them, for the most part. It was the constant "smile, you're pretty when you smile," the men who whistled or snapped when they wanted my help as if I were a well-trained dog, the jizz I had to clean off the underside of the computer lab desks, the constant "sweetheart," "honey," "cupcake" when I'm wearing a bloody nametag, the "listen here, little lady" tone (and sometimes actual phrase!) or "let me talk to [male coworker]" any time I enforced any clearly-posted rule with an older male patron who wasn't about to let a young woman tell him no about anything.

Management could not possibly have addressed it all. The managers were getting harassed on the regular, too. It's endemic to any female-dominated service profession-- waitressing, nursing--and it's exhausting. Many women seem to handle it with grace and move on but it just pissed me off more and more every day.

I cannot express how much I love and care about libraries and librarianship--it's the only thing I ever really wanted to do and I did it from my teens to my late twenties--but I'm fed up and I'm not going back to it until the patriarchy is smashed to tiny sparkly bits.
posted by xylothek at 8:18 AM on February 1, 2018 [19 favorites]

One of the other complications is that it's often that you don't have a lot of identifying info - if someone's using a computer, you might have sign-in info (but a lot of libraries deliberately don't keep that, so your computer browsing can't be connected to you) but if someone's just in the stacks, all you have is a physical description. And if you have a library with a dozen or so staff people, people see different things at different times...

All of which can make dealing with 'that's really creepy but not actually illegal or a high priority thing for anyone else to deal with' harder.

My previous job was at a university library in a rural area that had a significant community patron use (and generally encouraged it: this was one of those places where if you lived outside of town, chances were good you had limited internet access at home at best.) Besides the students having sex in study rooms problem, we also had several patrons who kept just on the side of the line of us being able to do much.

Standing by the circ desk and insistently chatting to (always female) student workers in their late teens and early twenties was a 'staff member keeps an eye out and intervenes as needed with a "X needs to get back to [task] now". At least one of the people who did that was a convicted sex offender, though by that point quite elderly and using mobility devices.

We were also very clear to our student workers that it was not their job to deal with that, that some people would try it, and if anyone made them uncomfortable, come tell us immediately. It was a multiple floor building, so it was common for student workers to be shelving or doing walkthroughs when there weren't full time staff immediately handy.
posted by modernhypatia at 8:29 AM on February 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

Today's cell phones have cameras which are quick and easy to access and so you take a photo of the offender and then you go and talk to your superiors about it, showing them the photo? Or am I misunderstanding a thing here?
posted by hippybear at 8:34 AM on February 1, 2018

I'm a guy and the librarian who tends to be the Hammer of Rules Enforcement for my library, so I rarely see patrons at their boundary testing micro-aggression worst. The jerks and bores know me and reign it in when I'm around - I only deal with them directly when they inevitably go nuclear. Still, I listen to what my female coworkers say when they talk about certain patrons and try my hardest to be present when they are about. Many of the older female librarians take little shit, but of course the jerks focus on the younger women, lingering at the Reference desk and encouraging them to "come to a prayer meeting" with them.

Part of me wishes we could just pull a Best Buy and "fire" all the devil customers - but the more sensible part of me realizes that's a huge slippery slope rolling on down to 'the library is just for ____' town. No Trespass Orders are surprisingly hard to obtain, but management needs to be diligent in records and following through on incidents. It's a lot of work, but necessary.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:45 AM on February 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

Hippybear, three problems with phones.

One, these are often precisely the kinds of situations where taking a picture can escalate someone nastily. Two, there's the problem of whether your clothes have pockets. I know a lot of people who leave their phone on their desk (if secure) or in their bag when wandering about the library. Three, how other patrons would perceive it, which gets a lot more complicated (plus things like 'would anyone else be in this shot, how would it get used if you do use it for reporting, how does that affect other people's privacy.)

There are some solutions to the last one on a policy level, but the first two are still complicated. The times I've seen it used have been a 'that's the patron we've had repeated issues with' and someone getting a photo to identify them to other staff, taken quietly at a time when there isn't a current issue and the person taking it can get an angle that avoids other library users, so usually after at least one or two significant incidents.
posted by modernhypatia at 9:01 AM on February 1, 2018 [8 favorites]

Hmm. Are meeting rooms in demand? I'm wondering, if I ran a dangerously understaffed library, whether I might try to arrange for library-friendly groups to meet at the library during dangerously understaffed hours. Even if club meetings attracted a couple more of the wrong sort, one librarian would have to be better off with a whole chess/knitting/book/programming club to scream for than with just one crazy-bad patron locking himself in all alone with her.
posted by pracowity at 9:20 AM on February 1, 2018

libraries have always had problems with stalkers, creepers, penis exposers, public masturbators, book ejaculators, and so on. I don't know why.

Not checking references?
posted by pracowity at 9:23 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I posted this because I have worked in libraries as a student, and later on, as a bookseller in big-box stores. In the library I was followed around by a man I nicknamed "Lonesome Liam." Lonesome Liam was desperate for a girlfriend. At one point he came over to the circulation desk where myself and a couple other students, all women, were working, propped himself on the counter, pulled up his extra-tight pants, grinned big and said, "hey ladies, wanna party?" Bleargh, no. He would wait until closing time for one of us to tell him he had to go home. When we realized he was watching porn while he waited for us, we went to tell him to leave in groups. My boss shrugged and rolled his eyes about it; nobody banned Lonesome Liam from the library. He was just a run-of-the-mill creep, to be tolerated, as it were.

In the bookstores, we had homeless who came in and hung out all day, and most of them didn't bother anybody. Others most certainly did, including the guy who hung out at the window facing the main road, exposing himself. Police were called, he was escorted out. Most customers didn't try to hit on me as I cultivated, and still do, a severe, no-bullshit manner that usually, but not always, fends off the "smile-you'd-be-so-pretty" remarks. When they do say it I look them calmly in the eye and ask, "is there anything else I can help you with?" The exceptions, the ones who tried hitting on me anyway, were the ones who were drunk. I had one guy, reeking of vodka, hanging over me as I located a book for him from the bottom shelf; I'm certain he was trying to look down my shirt. Bottom line, I have had less problems than many with being harrassed because I feel unsafe showing any kind of natural friendliness to men whatsoever. This translates to aggression, of a sort, and most of them back off. Most of them. But for women who are naturally friendly, they get harrassed a lot more.

The one time, when I was 19, a man who looked to be around 40, wouldn't take the hint, kept coming around, asking me out, I told him point-blank that he was creeping me out and for him to please leave me alone. I never saw him again.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 9:35 AM on February 1, 2018 [6 favorites]

The ALA is in a weird organization. They're not technically a licencing organization (although an ALA-Accredited MLIS degree is the standard for librarians), and although they can recommend and encourage, they don't have the ability to revoke a licence or enforce their ideals. If I, in my past job as a Library Director, started talking smack about the ALA and actively going against some of their recommendations, there is a tiny chance they might write a strongly worded letter to my bosses (the Board of Trustees) but they're not going to revoke my MLIS. Odds are they wouldn't even KNOW if I started denying computer access to people I Just Don't Like, or stopped ordering books about Islam, or whatever. So: the ALA, even though it's the tops of the Librarian world, has a good deal of influence but no real power to enforce it.

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a relatively cute 24-year-old Librarian working at the Ref Desk, I dealt with all sorts of uncomfortable situations. Hell, as a much less cute 39-year-old Librarian I STILL deal with uncomfortable situations. At my first job, when I asked my boss what to do about Larry the Creeper hitting on me, she said that I should tell him - in no uncertain terms - that he was behaving inappropriately. Oh, okay, SURE, Jane. So the next time Larry the Creeper has cornered me by the Self-help books and is moving ever closer while telling me that he's seen me walking my dog, over by Lake George, I live over there, right? Over on 9th? And that he's seen me jogging around the lake, and that I look good - at that point when I'm trapped and alone and feeling gross as shit I'm supposed to go against every instinct of being nice and helpful and tell him (in a kind but no-nonsense way) that he's being inappropriate? This was not taught in Library School. Hell, this was not taught in ANY school.

I asked if she would speak to him. She said that this was something I had to do myself. I felt inadequate and that I was Bad Librarian. It was my first real Librarian job, after all.

Anyway, when I talked to the older Librarians they kind of chuckled and said "Oh Larry LOVES you!! Ha Ha!". One of the other young librarians (whom Larry also loved) and I worked out a plan that, if Larry came up to the desk, the other would hop in back and call her on the phone. "Important reference call!" and keep her on the phone until Larry lost interest and left.

I think it would have been so much easier if Jane had just come with me.
posted by Elly Vortex at 9:44 AM on February 1, 2018 [14 favorites]

Our library has strict rules against anyone taking photos of staff or other patrons for common-sense privacy reasons; I've never heard of a library employee here taking a photo of a patron for any reason and I would imagine it would be a very difficult thing to justify unless it were an extremely clear-cut case of documenting a criminal act as it occurred.

> 'staff member keeps an eye out and intervenes as needed with a "X needs to get back to [task] now"

This is standard operating procedure; another tactic is to call the staff member on desk so that she can pretend she's needed elsewhere and then take her place. Oddly enough, the endless chit-chat and questions tend to dry up as soon as a male staffer sits down.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:46 AM on February 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

Library of the Damned (cw: ableism, problematic language) opened my eyes to this special hell, years ago.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:06 AM on February 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

> I asked if she would speak to him. She said that this was something I had to do myself.

JFC, this is the sort of thing I mean when I saw support from management is so often lacking; dealing with shit like this is part of the reason branch heads and managers get paid the (relatively) big bucks and is literally one of their prescribed duties. Years ago I worked at a different branch where we had a group of young boys who over the course of 2-3 years progressed from regular pre-teen mostly-harmless nonsense to theft, lighting things on fire, regular bullying of other kids (and one assault of an older gentleman we couldn't prove) and, yes, sexual harassment of female staff. When the issue (which had been ongoing so long at that point that most of them had individual folders where we filed their incident reports) was brought to the attention of our district manager at a staff meeting called specifically to deal with this problem, she just sat there and basically ignored everything we said while going on about young minds and being understanding and "welcoming environments" and have you tried working with them, etc., etc.. We were gobsmacked, and it absolutely killed morale at the branch; one of the women being harassed took a job at a different branch just to get away from these kids and their harassment. Absolutely nothing was done about it until someone higher up the ladder than her got wind of it and then all of a sudden the decision was made to temporarily ban most of them for between two weeks and two months.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:08 AM on February 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

temporarily ban most of them for between two weeks and two months.

And then back to arson and sexual harassment? Were their parents shown the folders of incident reports?
posted by pracowity at 10:15 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another part of the problem is librarian utopianism--part of it comes naturally to people drawn to librarianship and part from library school itself. This idea that the library is the welcoming place for everyone, information wants to be free, we bend over backwards for our patrons. When I worked at a private university library, the public could use library facilities provided they showed some kind of ID when they entered. After 9 pm it was supposed to be students/staff only, but if you were already in the library by 9 you wouldn't be asked to leave. The AV section of the library became notorious for creepy, aggressive men who would intimidate students and staff and refuse to leave, and library security refused to get involved. Repeated complaints to admin were blown off, in part because of this utopian attitude. Meanwhile, tuition-paying students were afraid to use part of their own library. The obvious answer, to me, would be to have all non-university patrons leave at 9 pm, escorted by security if need be, but to my knowledge that never happened.
posted by orrnyereg at 10:22 AM on February 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

Thank you for posting this--this article is so validating. As a 15-year veteran of public libraries, I have so many stories I wouldn't know where to begin. I've had my ass pinched. I've been asked out or stalked by at least five different patrons. I'm not especially attractive--but my femme colleagues of all ages, sizes and levels of conventional attractiveness are subject to this behavior. Off the top of my head I can think of three incidents within the last few years where I was genuinely concerned for the safety of colleagues who were subject to intense attention from male patrons.

I've also been called over for a purported computer problem when the patron was clearly and intentionally looking at porn. Actually, I think that's happened a number of times. I've had an older male patron grab my left hand and demand to know why there was no wedding ring on it (ironic, because I wore a faux wedding ring even before I got married as a sort of shield, but forgot to wear it that day). Patrons snap their fingers, yell "miss" and call at me from across the room to come help them. This quote rang true for me: Sometimes it feels like men view librarians as the "Mad Men"-era secretaries they never had.

Some of my male colleagues are very helpful and recognize the issues we face that they don't. Others just seem oblivious, even when they witness this behavior themselves. And the reactions from managers vary as well. Some managers will bend over backwards to help even threatening patrons, at the expense of staff safety. My current manager does a wonderful job of protecting staff, even when it means putting herself on the front lines of this sort of behavior.

A lot of it is just the micro-aggressions that are too small to be called "harassment." That women are just supposed to put up with. Like, I would have felt like an asshole calling out the patron who grabbed my wedding-ringless hand and shouted about it (even though I would have been justified).

I wish all men were required to spend one day walking the earth as a female-presenting person.
posted by cat friend at 10:30 AM on February 1, 2018 [13 favorites]

> And then back to arson and sexual harassment? Were their parents shown the folders of incident reports?

They all basically stopped coming after that, which "solved" the problem. It seems to me that a better solution would have been to try and nip the misbehaviour in the bud before they internalized the message that their actions had no significant consequences beyond being kicked out for the remainder of the day and their actions escalated accordingly.

I wasn't there that day, but the father of two of the worst offenders showed up after the banning letters were sent out, asked to speak to the branch head and then proceeded to yell at her, call her a c***, etc.. until he too was kicked out and banned. It made me feel sorry for those two kids because as bad as they were, what hope did they have with a dad like that?
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:45 AM on February 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

Kelly Jensen has a good article on sexual harassment in the library.

Storytime: (Not the worst ones but the most WTF ones)

1) A (female) patron called me fat because I told her I couldn't help her with the thing she needed help with - I was assigned to a different section of the library, and there was another librarian assigned to the section where she needed help, and I really needed to stay in the children's section to prevent a mutiny or a riot or something. A male patron came up to me after witnessing that to tell me that actually, he liked my body. He was surprised that I did not find this comment helpful.

2) A male patron asked me if he could give me a kiss because it was Valentine's Day. I went into mild panic mode - because, as we have established, sexual harassment of librarians is a thing - and refused to be amused when he explained that it was a Hershey's Kiss and it was JUST A JOKE. JUST A JOKE. JUST A JOKE. (I threw away the chocolate.)

3) I had to be transferred for a couple of weeks because the guy who kept emailing me asking for videos and pictures of my feet showed up at the library where I worked. Fortunately, my superiors responded well and I kept getting harassed on email and social media for a while but I didn't see him in person again.

Good librarianship is learning to deal well with people who aren't people you want to deal with, and/or people whose bad behavior get slotted into the category of "very likely mental illness, it's not their fault, they need help like everybody else, they don't need to get excluded from one of the few places that actually will help you without charging for it," but it is hard to be kind and inclusive to everybody while setting reasonable boundaries, especially when a lot of supervisors won't stand up for their employees because they're either conflict-averse af or pushing an unreasonable "the customer is always right" kind of philosophy.

I am mad about a lot of stuff that happened in my previous library job, but when I was uncomfortable with the way an older man was talking to preteens he didn't know, and I told him so, and he flipped out on me, my supervisor backed me up and I was SO DAMN GRATEFUL. I shouldn't have to be that grateful.
posted by Jeanne at 10:56 AM on February 1, 2018 [15 favorites]

My personal choice would be a button that would bring down a hook on a chain and drag the offender out the door. That not being a valid possibility, at minimum, I would hope that librarians have a supervisor that backs them up and a brightly lit parking lot.

There was a major hassle getting lights put in in the shadowed side of the parking lot where the employee parking is. The city was only convinced to put the work order through, not with the appeal to librarian safety, but by concerned citizens using the ol' 'what about the children' argument. Which, while also important, had nothing to do with our head librarian's being accosted five times in the dark parking lot over a period of two years. Because after all, police finally caught him, so why should the city spend the money on lights?
posted by BlueHorse at 11:17 AM on February 1, 2018 [8 favorites]

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the pee. Entire study rooms at the University of Iowa were unusable because every couch and chair had been soaked through with urine from homeless people. I can't even begin to describe how these rooms smelled when the summer heat came on.
posted by jfwlucy at 3:08 PM on February 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

Asking because I genuinely do not know - do libraries have some kind of code of behavior thing, whereby if you do something shitty you can get thrown out?

Sure... if they get all their ducks precisely lined up in a row. Let's talk about Kreimer vs. Morristown, in which the library tried to get a man banned from the library because he'd sit and stare at young female librarians on the reference desk, for hours, every day, and do nothing else. Unfortunately for them, he sued, and the trial focused on the personal hygiene aspect of it and the subjective nature thereof, with people saying, well, what if I was out jogging and came in for the latest Danielle Steel on the way home or whatever. IIRC, the American Library Association even filed an amicus brief on behalf of Kreimer. This happened when I was in library school; a little while later, I attended a library conference at which the former head of Morristown Public spoke, and while she admitted that there were certain aspects of the case that she could have handled better, boy howdy was she bitter at ALA.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:24 PM on February 1, 2018 [6 favorites]

From that article:

She said the library would close at 7 P.M. Wednesday, two hours earlier than usual, so library officials, staff members and donors could hold a party.

"This case has cost us a lot in effort, time and money in the last year," Ms. Hammeke said. "We're going to celebrate a victory."

They certainly deserved it, even if things did not go entirely their way. But man, imagine living your life in such a way that people throw a party to celebrate a court ruling that they don't have to deal with you anymore.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:48 PM on February 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

I looked up case up, and as it turns out Richard Kreimer is or at least was a professional litigant. Another library I used to work at had a persistent problem patron who repeatedly violated the rules of conduct and went out of her way to cause a lot of often ugly conflict with staff and other patrons. I was baffled by how deferential and eager to overlook her transgressions the branch head and manager were until I found out that she had a decades-long history of suing various city agencies for violating her rights.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:55 PM on February 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

A public library that I went to was near a men's homeless shelter, so the library is also functioning as the daytime annex of the men's homeless shelter. It's a complex issue.
posted by ovvl at 6:14 PM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Judging by the stories here, it seems that public libraries are doomed.
posted by pracowity at 10:25 PM on February 1, 2018

In my first library job, my fellow library assistant and I used to team up if we had to go into the microfiche room, which was upstairs in the further-est corner of a library designed to have many nooks and crannies because one of the members of the private members/professional library would otherwise come "talk" to us, really close. The head librarian was going to take it to the board re: preventing him using the library but then he got arrested for exposing himself on a train and that problem was solved for us as he was then barred from the profession. We also got multiple coffee invites etc. from creepy-ass men who never pulled this shit when any of the male librarians were around.

I've had commercial law firm lawyers assume that I'd act as their secretary/get them coffee (ahahahano) and thankfully, now that I work in technical services, I don't have to deal with patrons in person but I know that we've had issues in all our campus libraries with students and the front-facing library staff.
posted by halcyonday at 3:56 AM on February 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

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