Magazine article American Libraries

Sexual Harassment by Patrons

Magazine article American Libraries

Sexual Harassment by Patrons

Article excerpt

Please don't use my name. I am afraid of retaliation from my supervisor."

Please don't use my comment. My director will recognize it."

"Please don't even camouflage the details of my story. My library's administrators will probably be able to figure out that I wrote it."

After reading a number of comments like these, I began to wonder whether I was surveying public services librarians on how much they had been sexually harassed by patrons or on how much they feared their supervisors, administrators, and directors.

Actually, it didn't take me long to figure out that I was, in effect, taking the measure of both problems when I began tallying the answers and recording the unsolicited comments on the 3,758 questionnaires that were returned to me. This survey, which ran in my January 1993 column (p. 68), revealed not only that harassment by patrons is a serious problem for people who work in libraries (the results were reported last month, p. 652) but also that administrators are often not much help in addressing the problem. In fact, there is a strong perception among public services librarians that administrators can actually be hostile to employees who report incidents of harassment by patrons.

At the bottom or on the back of the questionnaire, 47 respondents added comments that they would not report routine harassment because of fears that they would be blamed by their supervisor for "leading the patron on" either by dress, body language, or choice of words; 43 respondents indicated that they felt that their directors would be annoyed at being called upon to deal with this difficult and personally touchy issue; and 16 other respondents commented that their directors would take an unsympathetic "it comes with the territory of being a librarian" approach to the whole problem of sexual harassment by patrons.

Clearly, therefore, if any progress is to be made in combating abusive patron behavior, library administrators will have to begin to take the problem much more seriously than they have. But this begs the question: Why haven't directors and supervisors been more concerned about this issue in the past? Here are some possible reasons:

1. Since many administrators rarely get out of the office, they are simply not aware of the seriousness of the problem.

2. Many administrators pride themselves on being staunch First Amendment advocates and do not want to be perceived by their peers as being violators of the basic principles of intellectual freedom. They tend to place greater value, therefore, on the citizen's right to access than they do on the employee's right to safety.

3. After reading about the unpleasant litigation that occurred in the Kreimer v. Morristown case (AL, May 1992, p. 351-352), some administrators may not want to get themselves involved in a situation where disciplining a problem patron will result in a long, stressful, and expensive lawsuit.

4. Administrators may be concerned that a full and open airing of the harassment issue will cause a big public relations problem by creating the impression that their libraries are fundamentally unsafe places for patrons to spend time in.

5. There is a natural tendency for people to endure a difficult problem rather than face the pain and trouble of solving it. …

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