Weekly Tea Discussion: Public Harassment

Librarians have to deal with a lot. Of course, there is this false perception that all we do is read at the desk all day. I wish that was the case. Librarians are teachers, caregivers and social workers. We are at the forefront of public interaction. And having to deal with the public on a daily basis attracts us to unwanted attention. Sexual harassment, unfortunately, is front and center in public service jobs.

And all I could do was give a nod and an uncomfortable laugh.

I follow the #TimesUp movement and for every victim who has called out their abuser. I applaud their courage and their perseverance. But it was not until I read a recently shared article, I didn’t truly see how this can and has affected me personally. This article discusses librarians, especially female librarians, facing sexual harassment everyday at the workplace from an unlikely source, the patrons:

Technically, there’s no reason a patron can’t sit at an empty table and stare at the librarian all day, ask for help setting up an online dating profile, or print out explicit material. In many cases there’s nothing wrong with the aforementioned behavior, and that’s what makes our situations tricky. Librarians fiendishly guard patrons’ right to do everything that makes sexual harassment so prevalent in public libraries — right up to the point where it becomes harassment.”

After reading this, my eyes were open.

I have been sexually harassed. I have received comments about appearance, on how I am dressed at that moment, on my looks and on my body figure. All of these comments are made by men.

And all I could do was give a nod and an uncomfortable laugh.

I never felt so low and so disgusted in my life.”

My reaction was not out of shock, it was because that is all I can do. Sexual harassment is about preying on a person’s vulnerability, removing their sense of security. The aforementioned article stated a common feeling that encouraged me to write this post: feeling trapped. In any public service job, the customer (or patron in this case) is always right. To speak out against any member of the public is blasphemous. Since they are needed to ensure libraries continuance in the future, patrons walk on water. They could do no wrong. So you say nothing. You fear that your won’t be heard, so what’s the point of saying anything at all? You feel trapped in your surroundings, no where for you to feel safe. It’s worse when the harassment comes from patrons who come to the library everyday. And the worst part…they never have to leave.

You are probably asking “Why doesn’t she report this to her manager or superior?”Actually, they can make matters worse, especially with a lack of response or lack of empathy. I reported a note that I received from a patron that I felt uncomfortable with to my manager. My manager’s first response: “What do you want me yo do about it?” I never felt so low and so disgusted in my life. Here I am, reporting an inappropriate incident and I can’t even receive an ounce of remorse. My manager did eventually report it to the library’s special investigator. It took a week for the investigator to respond to my complaint, come down to the branch I work at and talk to the patron. Yes, that’s right, just talk.

Who gives a damn if librarians feel uncomfortable in their work environment? As long as our reputation remains intact, that is all that matters.”

And that is a major problem with reporting these crimes. The lack of response from management shows a great lack of concern. We do have a sexual harassment policy, but it is a very vague and the core of it is directed towards any internal conflict, harassment from within the workplace instead from public. If it was between employees, it can be handled internally, private and quiet. If the harassment came from the public, it would be considered to be a mark on the institution. Libraries are now needed more than ever, however, anything that can ruin that image of importance would be best if it was pushed under the rug.

The #TimesUp and #MeToo movements shed a light on sexual harassment in the workplace. With all the press that these important movements are getting, you would think that library management would have some sort of response, reassurance that they are there for us and we can feel comfortable to talk to them. But the reluctance or lack of response on the matter concerns me. Why not encourage employees to speak up? Because once you overturn that rock, it can’t be turned back again. A floodgate would be released and it would show a side of the public library that people are not ready to face. All they see is that the institution is beneficial and helping the public. The fact that their workers might be getting harassed is an afterthought. Who gives a damn if librarians feel uncomfortable in their work environment? As long as our reputation remains intact, that is all that matters.

That is a dangerous thought. Librarians are dedicated to helping people. No matter what, we will always push our unconformability aside and do the job we work hard at. But that dedication is what is used is to others’ advantage. Inhospitable work environment can make anyone feel drained and disheartened about their job. You will start losing those dedicated workers. Then, what future do the libraries hold? Public libraries are dependent on the public valuing them, but libraries have no value without the strong workers who strengthen it.

The ALA (American Libraries Association) and library management pride themselves in caring about their librarians and other workers. But it is time for them to actually to show sincerity and provide them with safety. Librarians ensure the public has access to information for years to come. But libraries have no future when the happiness and safety of its workers cannot be granted.

3 thoughts on “Weekly Tea Discussion: Public Harassment

  1. I work in a bookstore and have had male patrons remark about how I dress and what I look like. Weird things like, “I see you are finally wearing short sleeves” — an odd remark that makes me feel watched. I agree there’s a sense we should say nothing lest we offend the customer. I’m lucky I work for a group who always immediately responds when I feel uncomfortable. At one point I began to cry because a repeat customer kept coming back, calling me by name (which somehow felt icky), pinning me in my department to chat. Another time I glanced up at the window to find a man standing at the glance watching me, with a leering grin. Absolutely icky. I don’t understand why we become targets — why they feel entitled to ownership of our bodies like that. I felt protected by the staff above me: they took my concerns seriously. I’m really, really sorry for anyone who works in an environment that belittles such concerns.

    Another time I was working as a writing tutor and the male student (middle-age college student) sat FAR too close. RIGHT next to me, with his chair tugged close. Anything wrong with it? I have no idea, but I was UNCOMFORTABLE. Most students sit opposite. I handled it myself, moving to the chair opposite, but it felt weird and icky. Mostly icky because I felt I should apologize for wanting to move seats. As if I was in the wrong somehow, and should compensate for potentially hurt feelings, when I have a right to expect to guard my space without question of explanation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sorry you had to go through that. It sounds like you had a good support system. But that still doesn’t excuse how you were treated. Unfortunately it is a power thing and trying take away our sense of security.

      Like

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