#metoo and libraries

Trigger warning – discussion of sexual harassment

I started thinking about writing this a few weeks ago when I saw a tweet about how we were waiting for the deluge of #metoo stories from GLAM. So far, we have been fortunate that at least from a staff-staff perspective there have been only a few (that we know of. Yet!). For those who missed it, this one appeared a few days ago.

When I started in libraries I assumed because we were a profession that employed a lot of women such things would not happen in libraries (or GLAM). Because we were all about the women in power and leadership. And now I would laugh about how naive that was if this wasn’t all so serious.

There are three issues that I feel #metoo covers in libraries.
1. Staff-staff interactions. Not what I want to focus on here.
2. Gender bias, men in leadership in libraries, which I feel deserves a blog all of its own.
3. Staff-community interactions – the focus of this post.

I’d like to acknowledge Katie MacBride’s post #TimesUp on Harassing Your Public Librarian. As well as this by Kelly Jensen. I wanted to thank both of them for writing on this important issue. My post possibly covers very similar ground but since there is a lack of Australian perspectives in libraries I thought I’d add my voice.

If you are a woman working in public libraries, you have “those stories” the ones we have either experienced ourselves or heard from colleagues. The creepy guy looking at pornography, the one who needs help with their photos and it’s full of pictures of naked women. The weird sexualised comments and looks.

And that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky it goes further. I heard one story about someone who was shelving, and a customer came up behind her and rubbed himself against her. When she told her colleagues about it she said he smelt of alcohol. Horrifying.

There is often a pattern with these stories. The common theme being that up until now this behaviour has been seen as just one of those things – a by-product of working with a diverse community with a range of behaviours. And when the members of community are clearly drunk or drug affected or mentally unwell, this is used to excuse the behaviour.

Some people can laugh these incidents off, they don’t take them personally. Or they have the confidence to call out this behaviour and set boundaries. To those people I say all power to you. But eventually everyone gets weary of it because as a colleague pointed out, this isn’t what we signed up for. And unfortunately the emotional cost of our jobs is often undervalued by supervisors and managers. If we talk about it, it’s met with a shrug or you are seen as lacking in resilience, frequently both.

Every library leader I have ever met is interested in the wellbeing of their staff. But being on the frontline of customer service is not their everyday experience. They hear stories of incidents in snippets; this thing happened here, this other thing at another branch but they never hear all the stuff that isn’t reported. So perhaps by being one step removed, they don’t understand quite how draining it is when this is the tenth time you have dealt with it.

There is also an acceptance that this is how it is – the people using the library are just a microcosm of the community, so yeah anti-social behaviours (of which sexual harassment is one) is just part of the deal. We look at making ourselves resilient as though this is the answer, rather than thinking about how we can change things. But we need to do more, stand up for ourselves and our community – say we want to make our spaces free from these sorts of behaviours.

Library staff are passionate about access for everyone and that means we are pretty liberal in what we are willing to tolerate to ensure this. But that should not make us beholden to people who make us feel unsafe. Their right to access information is not greater than our right to feel safe at work.

Considering ourselves a service industry may be part of the problem. I personally dislike the word customer service because of its connotations of being of service i.e. subservient, giving power to the “customer”. And given the mostly female workforce, it’s easy to see how the term alone creates a power imbalance if not in reality then at least unconsciously. I’ve been trying to think of a few other terms to describe customer service shifts but frankly they are a bit naff. But we need something more empowering and accurate to describe what it is we do.

While it might seem this is the impossible mountain, I think there are some things we can do to start to address these issues.

Firstly, everyone needs to understand what is sexual harassment. The emphasis here is on what the receiver considers to be sexual harassment not what your colleagues or manager thinks. What you think. If a customer’s behaviour makes you feel intimidated, insulted or offended then it’s harassment. Note that while I’m specifically referring to sexual harassment here, the policy equally refers to other forms of harassment as well.

As this article states employers are legally obliged to make our workplaces free from sexual harassment both from other staff and from the community. Although how you would manage this in a library is less clear. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t the job of leaders and managers to work towards creating policies that keep their staff safe.

Managers need to lean in, listen and take complaints about sexual harassment seriously. Sexual harassment is under-reported, so if someone is coming to you about this they are brave and awesome. You might think it is no big deal but to the person it might be the last straw or triggering of previous incidents. Or they might just feel it’s their right to go to work and not be sexually harassed. Please use all your best compassion to deal with it. Take action if the person wants you too. Sometimes just listening is enough, sometimes action is needed. Don’t put this off if it’s required, it will let them know you are supportive and don’t tolerate behaviour that makes your staff uncomfortable.

We are all about empowering the community, so let’s start in our own backyard and empower our staff to deal with this. Let’s stop this mentality that the customer is right, we are of service to them (we work with them, we don’t serve them) or that we need to be tougher to cope. No, just no. That’s not good enough anymore.

Get your staff together and collaborate to develop strategies to deal with the behaviour, let them direct this without preconceived ideas of what you want other than a safer workplace for your staff. Maybe having some phrases they could use when they encounter this behaviour “that’s really inappropriate, if you continue I’ll have to ask you to leave”. “I don’t feel this is really appropriate conversation,” “I’m going to speak to my manager about this” etc. and give permission to use it. Also make it safe for them to speak up and report the harassment.

For the library staff – if you experience behaviour from a customer that makes you feel offended, intimidated or insulted – IT’S NOT ALRIGHT and YOU DO NOT HAVE TO PUT UP WITH IT. Sorry for the shouty typing but I wanted to be clear that legally (and morally) there are no circumstances under which you are obliged to tolerate that behaviour.

If you are sexually harassed by a customer, please report it. I know it’s difficult for a million reasons. But please consider doing it because you have the right to come to work and not be harassed by anyone. I know it will require strength and vulnerability and trusting that your leader is going to do the right thing and that’s hard. But if we don’t speak up we can’t change things and to change it we need to work with our leaders and managers. And if you do speak up, please know there are millions of women standing with you going – hey that was awesome thank you.

If you’re not reporting because you don’t think you’ll get a positive response from your supervisor, this is a massive issue. I know this is getting repetitive, but I’ll say it again – the organisation you work for is legally obliged to make your workplace safe from harassment. So, they are legally obliged to care – if you report an incident and you get a brush off, your supervisor should be reported to their supervisor, HR, or the union rep. Also check your organisation’s sexual harassment and discrimination policy staff-customer interactions should be covered.

Libraries have never been places that accept the way things are. Our fundamental reason to exist is our dedication to working towards more informed and engaged communities. We model that behaviour through lifelong learning and a million other ways. By saying #timesup to harassment and creating spaces where we and our communities are free from these experiences, we are also modelling the behaviour we want in our community. And maybe that starts the process of change.

As part of writing this, I contacted Sue McKerracher, CEO of ALIA to find out how they would be responding to #metoo and #timesup. She responded by saying they would be reviewing all policies about this later this year. I thank them for taking a lead on this important issue, I look forward to seeing their response.

Personal note: I’d like to thank Pamela, Meg and Gareth with their assistance in writing this article. Your feedback and contribution has made writing on this difficult subject much easier.

Oh yeah and #metoo


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