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