Magazine article American Libraries

Combating Sexual Harassment: A Public Service Perspective

Magazine article American Libraries

Combating Sexual Harassment: A Public Service Perspective

Article excerpt


Colleagues at Iowa State University Library, Iowa City, Goodyear assistant director for public services, and Black, assistant director for administrative services and personnel, co-wrote the library's Policy on Harassment. The library implemented the policy in mid-1990.

Front-line staffers need help determining where to draw the line.

A library employee is working at the main circulation desk late in the evening. It is a slow night. When a patron reports that the copy machine, located across the room, is in need of paper, the employee walks to the cabinet to retrieve paper and replenish the copier. When she returns, a biology textbook is open on her desk to the chapter on female human reproductive systems. Written across the top of the page are the words "Sure like to see yours."

One circulation employee notices that a certain patron likes to "hang around" the public catalog terminals near the desk. Occasionally she is aware that he is staring at her. He often drops his pencil on the floor when women come up to the desk. For the last few days, she has noticed that he loiters around the circulation desk in the late evening, staring at her as she bends over to pick up date due slips with each check-out. Later in a department meeting she hears that a peeping tom has been caught in the stacks and wonders if it is the same patron.

An advanced chemistry student finds an isolated part of the library to study for her final. It is an important test for her. As she studies, she notices a classmate sniffing and waving at her. She waves back and goes quickly back to her studying, hoping that he will get the hint. He continues to wave and wink at her; she ignores him. Finally he approaches her table, offering small talk at first and then asking her for a date. She explains that she is trying to study for a final and is quite busy. He asks, "You mean a chemistry final is more important to you than me?" "Yeah, I guess so," she tentatively replies. "Well, I guess you will make a great frigid chemist. Hope your chemicals don't freeze," he responds and walks away. She tries to return to her studying but anger, frustration, and embarrassment keep her from concentrating. She asks herself over and over, "What can I do about this?"

Unfortunately, these three incidents are examples of common interactions in libraries today. Harassment of all kinds takes place within our walls and assumes many forms. While many library managers have taken action against sexual harassment between supervisors and subordinates, they have been strangely silent concerning such harassment between library employees and patrons, or between one patron and another.

Taking responsibility for library service functions brings with it responsibility for interactions that are not always pleasant between staff and/or among patrons. Some of these experiences can be termed harassment, the persistent irritation or torment of another. This could include physical or verbal abuse or coercion and may be subtle or overt. While actions can be termed harassment and still be considered legal, they are always unwanted acts. Examples include a professor who uses verbal intimidation toward a student worker at the circulation desk to coerce that person into bending a rule, or a patron who makes repeated advances toward an employee or who intimidates another patron over coveted study space.

While harassment has certain common characteristics and is broad in nature, the most well-known and frequently reported form of harassment is of a sexual nature. These are unwanted advances of one person toward another-attempts to coerce a person into a sexual relationship or to subject someone to unwanted sexual attention. Such behavior is all too common in our society and in our libraries.

The three examples of sexual harassment described earlier have certain commonalities. First, it is often difficult for staff members to determine if what they are experiencing is harassment or just annoyance. …

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