Things They Don’t Teach You in Library School: Sexual Harassment? Yes, it can happen in the library
In my now almost 20 years as a librarian, I have either directly or indirectly been involved in numerous incidents of people viewing porn on the computer and, more disturbingly, 5 men being caught masturbating in the library. One of those times occurred in my YA area and the person in question left behind “physical evidence” that required us to remove the chair and store it until the case went to trial. This happened when I was in my very early twenties. At that time, there was this guy, around my age, that worked with me and we were pretty decent friends. Then one day, he jokingly asked me if I wanted to go down into the basement and sit in “that” chair with him. This made me pretty uncomfortable and forever changed our relationship, but it was years before I spoke to anyone about it.
Many years later, I would tell my mentor and friend that I kind of thought that maybe I was being sexually harassed by him and mentioned the incident and she said yes, that is what that was and she wished that I had come talk to her when it happened. The thing is, we don’t like to think bad things about people. And it seems kind of conceited to think that someone would be doing that to you; I mean, I’m nobody special or anything. But after that incident, I went out of my way to make sure I wasn’t alone with this man. My work environment and experience of work changed.
Fast forward to another time, another library.
We had a new library director and I was invigorated by all the new energy he brought and the fact that he was finally making some of the changes that I had been wanting to do for years. Things were happening and it was exciting. But as we all know, not everyone likes change and there was definitely some push back. So one day, while standing around talking to some employees, a male co-worker looked over me and said something like, “why don’t you just get your head out of the director’s lap.” Suddenly, the world stopped. You could have heard a pin drop.
This time, I went to a private place and called my friend and mentor and yes, she said, he was in fact saying what I thought he was saying. Now all I had to do was decide whether or not I would take the situation to the director. Except that a person involved in the conversation, another man, was so bothered by what happened that he felt he had to go say something. In the end, I believe a verbal warning was issued. I got to forever be embarrassed by the way I was treated in front of some of my co-workers. I got to worry about whether or not my passion for my job was being misinterpreted. I got to walk through the doors and wonder every day what my co-workers thought of me now that this black, inky accusation made out of anger hung in the air. That incident changed my work environment, it changed how safe I felt at work and it changed the way I interacted with my coworkers at all levels. It made me second guess who I was, what I did, and how I approached my job. In short, it sucked.
I have worked with some amazing men in my years at the library. Some I call friends. Some I admire for their passion, knowledge and dedication. But like a lot of women, I have been on the uncomfortable end of sexual innuendo and it can really change the dynamics of a work environment.
A lot of people misinterpret female passion at work as aggressiveness and many people, especially some men, take offense to it. They hate it even more if that means they lose control or have to make changes. While take charge men are applauded for their ability to get things done, the same traits in women are viewed radically different.
Part of what keeps much workplace sexual harassment hidden, is that it is in our nature, I believe, to explain it away in our minds. “Why would someone want to sexually harass me?” you think. “What makes me so special, so deserving?” Or we feel like it exhibits a conceitedness on our part to suggest that a man is talking to or approaching us in a way that is suggestive (or vice versa). Except that in a lot of cases, maybe most, it isn’t about desire or beauty or worth, it is about anger and control and wanting to demean; it’s about making sure a woman understands her place in the world and at the work place. And this applies to all sexual harassment; women can and do sexually harass men.
So here is what I have learned to do:
If something makes you uncomfortable, report it to a supervisor. It is their job to determine how to handle the situation and help make sure you have a completely safe and healthy work environment.
If there are witnesses, make a note of who they are and pass that information along as well.
I am a firm believer in written documentation. After you talk to your supervisor, type up an e-mail summarizing what happened, the discussion you just had with your supervisor, and any action points that may be mentioned. Send a copy to your supervisor and keep one for yourself. Print it out. Should the incident need further investigation or the behavior continue, you now have a paper trail. Don’t whitewash your documentation, use exact words and phrases to document as clearly as possible the picture of what happened.
It is sad to say, but watch for retaliation and malicious gossip. Report and document every single thing that happens.
Ask your library to have someone come in and do staff training. Make sure your library’s policy is clear and direct on what constitutes harassment, what to do in the event that it happens, and what the library’s response will be.
Know that despite the library’s policy, or lack thereof should that be the case, there are laws in place to protect you.
Keep in mind, sexual harassment can also come from patrons. In this event, you should follow all the same guidelines as above. And your library policy should also discuss this type of harassment.
The bottom line: Sexual harassment is wrong. The library should be a safe place for every employee that walks through its doors. We are all working towards the same goals, are all part of the same team, so everyone should be treated with professionalism and respect.
Disclaimer: This post is meant to talk generally about the issue of sexual harassment and is not intended to serve as a foundation for policy nor is it in any way a discussion of the legal issues. I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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