Staff Harassment by Patrons: Why Administrators Flinch
Supervisors are trying to duck the issue of increased abuse of their staff.
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Will Manley's columns in the July/August through October 1993 American Libraries on sexual harassment of staff by patrons, as well as my observations of what my staff suffers in this area, have led me to take a hard look at the environment in which public library service must now be carried out and what effect it is having on library staff and leadership.
Although Manley's survey is admittedly not a scientific one, the responses it provoked indicate clearly that public service staff in many libraries cannot rely on their administrators to protect them from harassment. In fact, many respondents reported that their supervisors gave strong signals that they do not even want such harassment reported to them. When I read about these attitudes, I was both appalled and filled with wonder (in both meanings of the word) that so many administrators are reluctant to try to protect their employees.
In his September column (p. 756), Manley posits several reasons for this reluctance to act, from isolation from reality to fear of publicity, but I think he gets at the crux of the problem when he says, "There is a natural tendency for people to endure a difficult problem rather than face the pain and trouble of solving it." However, I believe that the problem is more complex than the cliched "ignore it and it will go away" reaction.
When I started to work as a reference librarian in a public library in 1976, there was an occasional "odd person" hanging around, and the "peeper" has been with us since the first library door opened. Even so, I did not feel threatened when I was at the reference desk. I believe that as our society has turned increasingly dysfunctional the situation of the reference librarian has changed to a marked degree. The "problem patron" who in the mid-70s was a mere annoyance is now often perceived as a real threat. Many of the people who walk through the doors of public libraries today are frightening in aspect and behavior and appear to be deranged. They are victims of homelessness, hopelessness, unemployment, or a mental health system that has abandoned them. Following them across the threshold are twisted men from all walks of life who apparently believe that any woman in a public place is offering herself for their delectation.
Threats of all kinds
In addition, public service staff must also endure people who believe they have the right to be verbally abusive if they are simply not pleased. It must not be forgotten that harassment is not only sexual in nature -- the perception of a possible threat to one's life is more distressing to most people than a threat to one's virtue, and foul language is an assault weapon in its effect on some people. Both physical and psychological well-being are impinged upon. Reference staff (and other public service staff), who are harassed and feel threatened frequently, are all too aware of random acts of violence against librarians that have occurred in recent years. Most administrators know this; so why do they turn their backs on this knowledge?
Perhaps many administrators do not want specific incidences of the problem reported to them because they do not know how to solve the problem. Their impotence makes them feel frustrated and vulnerable as managers; thus they would rather not be reminded of the problem they cannot solve.
I do not shrink from confronting the harassment problems that are reported to me, and I am willing to use all legal means available to thwart harassment of my staff, but I cannot provide a completely comfortable or truly safe environment in which to work. I cannot make the majority of people walking through the doors kind, gentle, and in possession of all their faculties: and I cannot, until they commit some illegal act, keep out those who are not. And I know that therefore I cannot alleviate the state of anxiety that my public service staff functions in. This realization causes me to have constant anxiety and even feelings of guilt. Guilt is perhaps the most difficult human emotion to cope with, and thus we all try to avoid situations that bring it on. I particularly hate contemplating a scenario in which things get worse in our society and thus in our libraries, but I see no indications that they are going to improve.
If things do get worse -- if the guns begin to be toted by preschoolers and no adult stranger is to be trusted within an arm's reach -- what will public libraries be like? Will we deliver reference materials and information from behind bullet-proof screens? Will pages have to be accompanied by armed guards while they put books, videos, and CDs back on the shelves? Will the reluctance of librarians to be in the physical presence of patrons spur the move to delivery of information by electronic means? I can envision librarians sitting at terminals in a locked room, with the public service areas of libraries occupied by banks of other terminals, reminiscent of the TV ad in which the poor bank customer inquiring about a loan finds that the only communication available to him is video images.
This may be scoffed at by some as a science fiction scenario, but I do not believe that's necessarily the case. Many of those librarians who responded to Manley's survey would be happy, right now, today, to have a protective screen between them and the patrons they serve. Administrators cannot presently provide any type of screen, except that of whatever security system is in place -- and even that is nonexistent in many libraries.
I do not know what administrators may eventually be forced to do to protect their employees from an increasingly threatening environment; but along with TQM and surfing the Internet, it is something we must think about. We cannot hide from it by refusing to acknowledge the problem. That is not a satisfactory response and those who resort to it need to be made to know that. This issue needs to be placed at the top of the agenda of concerns to be discussed by the profession at its gatherings, and it has to become part of the management milieu.
Nancy Milnor Smith is executive director of the Rosenberg Library in Galveston, Tex. She has served as a public library administrator for 12 years in four different states and has dealt repeatedly with sexual harassment of staff by patrons.
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