December 2017 | Volume XXXV. Issue 6 »

It’s Not Just Part of the Job: Speaking Out About Sexual Harassment

November 17, 2017
Amanda Civitello and Katie McLain, Waukegan Public Library

Those of us fortunate enough to work in public libraries are well acquainted with the rewards of this profession, seeing firsthand the gratitude after a positive reference interaction and the excitement of a first library card. While working with the public often brings immense satisfaction, it can also be accompanied by challenging and uncomfortable situations, particularly with regard to unsolicited, inappropriate, sexually charged comments and behavior.
Last June, we presented a conversation starter session at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference titled “It’s Not Just Part of the Job.” In preparation, we conducted a survey of librarians to learn more about their experiences.
We thought that the scenarios we and our colleagues had encountered were not unique to our library—and we were right. Our anecdotal survey indicated that 63 percent of survey respondents, primarily female public library workers, had encountered sexual harassment on the job. And while we weren’t surprised, we were heartbroken by the stories of interactions that were physical and threatening in nature, showing that sexual harassment isn’t limited to sexually charged comments.
Staff safety should never come second to so-called good customer service, because it’s not good customer service to persevere through an interaction that makes a staff member feel unsafe or uncomfortable. In order to foster a safe work environment, it’s time to start talking about sexual harassment in the library. The conversation we initiated at ALA continued at the Illinois Library Association (ILA) Annual Conference in October, and in writing this piece, we hope to address some of the questions and concerns raised by the wonderful library workers, managers, and directors who attended our sessions, helping us refine and focus the conversation to best serve our profession. 

Sexual harassment, in its most basic definition, is uninvited and unwanted verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature. In a workplace, it may come from any number of internal and external sources; our focus is primarily on harassment by members of the public, since there is a unique relationship between the library employee and the patron. Most librarians take pains to be helpful and friendly toward the public, but our good intentions can be misinterpreted.
There are nuances that we as a profession need to consider, and we hope that this discussion will spark further conversations about the ways in which sexual harassment can manifest. The issue becomes even more complicated when we consider how people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ+, and underage workers experience harassment. In the survey we conducted, respondents reported a wide variety of behaviors that ranged from inquiries about a staff member’s marital status to sexual jokes to physical contact to stalking and threats of assault. Many respondents also reported that the unwelcome behavior continued even after the person was asked to stop.

One of the simplest and most powerful things a library can do is to assure employees that their personal safety is important. For example, if a staff member reports that a patron made an inappropriate comment about his or her outfit, that is not the time to talk about the dress code or whether or not his or her outfit is appropriate. Staff needs to understand that nothing they did warranted the harassing behavior and that they will not face disciplinary action for reporting it. The administration should take the lead in starting the conversation and creating an atmosphere of trust, asking staff about issues they’ve noticed and listening to their experiences. Discuss ways to address problematic behavior in the moment and role play situations to offer solutions.
If the library has a procedure for documenting problematic incidents, make sure employees know how to report this behavior and what happens to the report once it is submitted. If not, initiate a clearly defined process with consequences for harassing behavior and repeat offenders. These procedures and policies need to be actively employed to stay on top of any new situations that arise and keep the lines of communication open.


If you’re a library employee, you’ve probably encountered uncomfortable situations with the public, whether it’s someone enquiring about your personal life or following you into the shelving area uninvited. It can be difficult to know what to do in those situations, particularly if you feel unsafe, but there are some strategies to help you stay calm and take control of the situation. Some of these responses may feel unnatural or even rude at first, but practicing, whether alone or role playing with coworkers, will make them easier to use. And remember that setting boundaries is not rude or unprofessional, and does not go against a library’s service-oriented philosophy. By addressing problematic behavior, you are ultimately helping to create a more comfortable environment for yourself, your coworkers, and other patrons.
Keep your responses calm, simple, and direct.

  • “That’s inappropriate. Please stop.”
  •  “I keep my work life and my personal life separate.”
  •  “My name is not ‘sweetie’/‘baby’/‘honey’. Please do not call me that again.”

Redirect the conversation to library-related questions.

  • “Do you have a question about the library? If not, I need to return to my work.”
  • “That question has no bearing on my ability to assist you in the library.”

Bring in a third party if necessary, especially if the problematic behavior continues.

  • “I am going to have someone else continue assisting you.”
  • “Would you care to speak to a manager/security officer about this?”

End the interaction.

  • “If this does not stop, I will need you to leave the library.”

Document the incident and report it to a manager or safety officer.
Of course, even the most prepared person may find themselves at a loss in a particular situation, and that’s okay. If you find yourself uncomfortable addressing the situation in the moment, remove yourself to a safe location, inform someone, and document the incident. If possible, talk about the situation with a coworker. Talking about possible solutions may help you feel more comfortable addressing a similar situation in the future.


Developing a strong framework to address issues of harassment needs to be part of the work of the library’s governing board. An open process will ensure policies that are specific and effective, and that have the full support of the entire organization. Once developed, training staff to refer to them will be key to creating a safe and successful environment for employees and patrons alike.
Training on policies relevant to personnel, operations, and safety should be part of orienting all new hires by both human resources and department heads. Supervisors onboarding new team members should reiterate policies and connect them specifically to the kind of work that new hires will be responsible for. This is the time to make it clear that inappropriate behavior that makes an employee uncomfortable is not acceptable. Offer examples to illustrate how these policies support and empower them, using situations relevant to their positions.

Ongoing training should be provided to all staff, regardless of position or years of experience. A regular schedule of trainings on the major policies—such as personnel, operating, harassment-free workplace, collection development, media relations, photography and video policies—is the best way to keep these policies up-to-date and applicable.
Sexual harassment is only one of many issues such policies address, but in the current climate, it may make sense to make it a primary topic of discussion. It is one step among others to create a safer, more welcoming work environment, and it may be a particularly sensitive topic for a variety of reasons. Be open to feedback, gathering input that can strengthen both the formation and implementation of successful policies.


Without a change to a library’s culture, it will be difficult to move beyond a reactive approach to sexual harassment of library employees by members of the public. The first step might be a strategy session, an opportunity for senior leaders to speak frankly, making an honest assessment of the current situation. Articulate the kind of environment you want to foster, and incorporate feedback from the full library staff. Then, strategize: identify what steps you can take, short- and long-term, to get there. Communicate those action items back to all staff, and provide opportunities to hear their feedback.
Sexual harassment is a personal and uncomfortable experience—it’s important to make space for difficult conversations, and model open communication. Spark change by jumping in where you can and doing something differently from before. For example, you might reserve five minutes at each staff meeting to engage with issues around sexual harassment. One month, try role playing some new language at the desks. Another month, ask a staff member (in advance) to share an example of a successful interaction where she was able to address harassing behavior head on.
Any kind of change—even change in support of a safer workplace—can be intimidating or scary for some members
of your organization. Even though this isn’t like implementing new software or a change in your service delivery plan, some of the same tactics used to manage those changes can be helpful. Think about developing a messaging plan, a timeline for implementation and check-in, monitoring progress, setting milestones, involving other departments such as HR, etc. Culture change doesn’t happen overnight, but the investment in support of a more supportive, safer, shared work environment will be well worth the effort.

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