Sexual Harassment in the Library: When Patrons are the Perpetrators

I’ve held customer service positions since my undergrad in college. I’ve worked in a call center, handled escalated customer service complaints for a food service franchise, and now staff reference service points in a library. I enjoy working with the public, helping people find answers to their questions, and providing a friendly and memorable customer service experience; however, though the vast majority of interactions with patrons/customers are positive, I cannot discount nor forget the negative, creepy, disgusting, or frightening encounters I’ve had while working in a service role. I’m talking about the fact that customers are frequently the perpetrators of sexual harassment, and that includes patrons who visit the library.

In food service, sexual harassment is a consistent problem. A survey found that 80% of women and 55% of men experienced sexual harassment from customers on a monthly basis. My own experience is consistent with those numbers. Customers would comment on how sexy my phone voice was, would make lewd remarks about my appearance, and one man figured out where my office was so that he could repeatedly visit and proposition me for a threesome (I became fearful of answering our office door). When I made the switch from the food industry to libraries, call me naive, but I didn’t anticipate that patrons would be a source of sexual harassment in the library when I started library school. It’s easy to find sources and information for sexual harassment statistics and anecdotes for food and hospitality service industries, but it appears that few library workplaces openly talk about sexual harassment policies. In fact, while researching articles for this blog post, I found very little discussion about sexual harassment in the library at all. It’s happening, so why aren’t we talking about it more?

Sexual harassment isn’t bound by gender, but it is estimated that 1 in 4 women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. Most do not report sexual harassment for a variety of reasons: there’s a fear of not being taken seriously by administrators or supervisors, that the sexual harassment is a woman’s fault, or that reporting harassment would cause problems or retaliation in the workplace. Women also make up  83% of librarianship, so there’s a good chance that women in libraries experience a disproportionate amount of harassment from library patrons.

Two librarians, Amanda Civitello and Katie McLain, held a discussion this year at ALA annual titled, It’s Not “Just Part of the Job”: Breaking the Silence on Sexual Harassment in the Library. I wasn’t able to attend the ALA conference this year, but I have been able to read write-ups and reports about their panel at ALA. They discussed their own experiences with sexual harassment, their fears that they would lose their jobs if they reported harassment to administration, and offered encouragement and resources for what to do next. Many other library workers shared their stories of harassment as well. Sexual harassment in the library happens, just as it does in other service positions, but that does not mean it’s okay and it definitely should not be considered a standard part of the job. As the description of their discussion states, “We need to change the narrative from accepting the inevitability of these interactions to exploring new ways to respond to patrons and support our co-workers, all across the organization.”

As future and current library workers, I think it’s important that we know our rights. It is legally up to our employers to prevent a hostile work environment, even if the source of harassment comes from a patron. There should be established policies and workplace training in place for reporting and understanding sexual harassment, and there should be open discussions in workplaces about what to do if harassment does occur. Patrons who view porn in the workplace are still a point of contention with the ALA, which staunchly defends a patron’s right to unfiltered internet access in the library. Lawsuits from librarians claim that forced and consistent exposure to pornography in the workplace creates a hostile environment. Whatever your beliefs on unfettered internet access, if you feel uncomfortable or that you are being sexually harassed, it should be reported and taken seriously by the workplace. If it’s not, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has guidelines and reporting procedures that are taken seriously.

We need to continue the conversation surrounding sexual harassment in libraries. For a service-oriented profession, there is inadequate research and discussion surrounding sexual harassment and the librarian-patron power dynamics involved when providing customer service. As students, incoming professionals, or current library workers, we need to know that harassment is not our fault. It might happen to us, but it should not be a dirty little secret in the library world.

What policies does your workplace have about customer sexual harassment? Have you experienced harassment in the workplace?

Many of the resources linked in my post come from the #critlib and #publibchat conversation about sexual harassment of library workers. You can find a full list of resources here, including hotlines and information for reporting sexual harassment in the workplace. A full storify of the Twitter chat can be found here.

Cover photo: “no!” by Hasin Hayder. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Melissa DeWitt is an MLIS student at the University of Denver. You can find her on Twitter

5 replies

  1. Many, many years ago when I was in library school, we were discussing what to do if a patron followed you into the stacks and whose behavior was mildly threatening and/or made you uncomfortable. My male professor was openly disdainful of those of us who advocated calling the police or reporting the patron to the library administration. It makes me extremely sad to read this and realize that attitude is still held by some library administrators.

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  2. I’ve experienced sexual harassment, ranging from mildly annoying to downright terrifying, in a variety of environments, from jobs I held in my 20s waiting tables and other food service or retail jobs in my teens – 30s, to street harassment (having my breasts grabbed when I was wearing a summer dress, by a young man going by on a bicycle), to drunk and obnoxious people at concerts, to a very persistent man following me off a bus and trying to corner me in an alley (thank heavens for pepper spray) to yes, library patrons who made me extremely uncomfortable. One of the best things about aging is that it stopped completely by around age 45. Somehow, I never thought to report any of it – I dealt with it myself, ignored it when I could do nothing (like the guy on the bike, who took off too quickly), or told the perpetrator that if he didn’t leave me alone, my very large, Hell’s-Angel-look-alike husband would take them apart. It’s pathetic that the latter is still the only thing that seems to work – the threat of immediate and intense physical violence. And it bugs me, because it makes it feel as though the harasser only respects the “property claim” of another man. But yes, it worked. And my own experience made me determined to do my best to NOT have any of my staff go through this.

    Ever since I’ve been a library director, I have tried hard to publicize the harassment policies, invited Title IX coordinators to speak to staff, and advertised my support and my open door. Also, we were quite visible about the fact that when a staff member began harassing young female students, he was terminated after a warning when he repeated the behavior. As well, a patron who repeatedly laid down on the floor and tried to look up the shelver’s skirt was reported to the police and banned from the library. A patron who repeatedly hung around and who fantasized a relationship with a young female staff member was reported to the police. Still – when a male librarian began harassing young female librarians, the 2 he harassed were uncomfortable coming forward for several months. I’m not sure if they felt uncomfortable because he was a colleague, or felt like they had done something to invite his unacceptable behavior, or what the problem was. I was chagrined when they ultimately confided in me that they hadn’t done so sooner. We need to be clear and loud – no one invites sexual harassment, and such behavior is completely unacceptable, whether it’s a patron, a colleague, or anyone else.

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  3. FYI, Director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, and its Deputy Director, both said, spaced years apart, that sexual harassment of librarians by porn-viewing patrons never happened and never will, not even in the cases where librarians filed EEOC complaints and civil suits and won large settlements, and such cases are “dubious.” I can get the links if you want.

    The point here is librarians will never, ever solve the problem while their leadership denies the problem exists to protect themselves from the effects of their own policies.

    What’s more important? Stopping the sexual harassment of librarians or protecting the interests of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom?

    We all honestly know ALA OIF somehow intimidates so many into silence or worse. I’m not intimidated, not even after ALA assisted in two federal complaints filed against me to silence me per ALA OIF training. I plan to address this issue head on to try to give sexually harassed librarians some relief. And it’s sad that I have to address the issue instead of ALA. So if any librarians wish to contact me, confidentially of course, please do so. A few already have. They are frightened to do so and one (who contacted me publicly) was even intimidated into silence again by a male librarian who continues at his job with zero consequences whatsoever. The cycle has to end somewhere. I’m going to try to get the ball rolling that stops the harassment.

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  4. Reading through this article and the other comments breaks my heart. As a male Librarian, I am so sorry for those who have gone through these terrible situations. I cannot comprehend the rational of administrators and others who seem disinterested or hostile — it is disgusting. I’ve passed this along to a co-worker who has gotten some comments and will encourage her take this seriously.

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  5. This is such an important conversation. Thank you so much for writing this post. I’ve worked in retail, bookstores, and of course, libraries, and in every situation my colleagues and I always had coded ways of getting out of awkward and uncomfortable situations with customers and patrons. We didn’t want to appear outwardly rude (nevermind the fact that the patron/customer was himself being rude in his harassment and unwanted advancements) so we developed these complicated systems to keep things quiet. Call me in 5 minutes and say I need to leave the desk. Come with me to lunch with this one male faculty–I don’t want to be alone. If I see that customer again I’m going to pretend to have to fold t-shirts in the back. It’s exhausting, and it’s time we confronted this issue head on.

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