Harassment in the Stacks: A non-review post on a review website, so sue me

I know that the entire premise of this blog is to post reviews, but I’ve been increasingly bothered by an issue lately and, frankly, this is the only place I can really rant about it. That being said, feel free to stop reading now that you know it isn’t a review.

Prior to making the jump to librarianship, I taught high school English for 5 years. Teaching public high school prepares you for an amazing number of things, including the ability to suffer abuse without flinching. In five years of teaching, I can’t count the number of times that I had parents and students alike heap abuse on me for all manner of things. I was too young to be teaching, I was racist, I was incompetent, I was mean, I gave too much work, my class wasn’t easy enough, blah blah blah. I spent most days of my first year of teaching going home, sitting on my couch, drinking most of a bottle of wine, and crying hysterically because I was so unhappy.

I was obviously much more of delicate flower my first year of teaching than I am now.

So after a year of this self-imposed misery, a friend from college asked me why I cared so much.  “You aren’t there to be their friend. It’s not your job to make them like you. Your job is to make them learn something. As long as you’re doing that, who cares what they say?” Lightbulb moment of my life. Teaching got much easier after that and some of the students who spit the most vitriol at me have later come back and told me how much of a difference I made in their lives. I spent the next four years becoming pretty much impervious to people hurting my feelings. I have to like you a whole lot for you to be able to hurt my feelings nowadays.

This skill has proven to be exceptionally helpful in the world of public libraries. When I first began working in a library three years ago, my building was under construction and many of our patrons were angry about a lot of things. Apparently, it is the library’s fault(and therefore mine by extension) that property taxes have gone up $400, that we live in a third world country, that the power goes out sometimes, that rats exist, and that the renovation of a two-story building cannot be accomplished in a weekend.  I have spent a lot of the past three years nodding calmly as people yell at me. I’ve gotten so good at this that when we get new employees, my first piece of advice is: “If you get a really nasty patron, just send them to me. It’s just easier to let them yell at me because it just doesn’t bother me.”

Now don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of wonderful things about working in a library. The sense of victory at figuring out a book title with a short three word description. The satisfaction of solving one of the many technical problems that patrons come by with. Having patrons stop by the desk just to say hello and tell us that we’re their favorite librarians. The excitement of recommending a book for someone and having them come back to tell me how much they loved it. By and large, we have way more kind and happy patrons than angry, embittered ones and I am grateful every day for them.

Then there’s the third set of patrons. And it’s this set that is becoming more and more problematic for me: Creeper patrons. I get that as a public librarian part of my job is going to entail busting people for watching porn. But I’m really tired of the BS excuse of, “Oh, I didn’t realize I couldn’t look at that here.” Seriously? You didn’t realize that it was inappropriate to look at a screen size picture of a vagina in the middle of a public library full of children, teens, and other adults? I do my best to joke about it to avoid thinking about exactly how much it creeps me out that this person is now smiling at me and trying to play dumb.

Additionally, I am not your best friend, or you future girlfriend, or your shrink. Please don’t stand at the reference desk and tell me all about your divorce and how you think your ex is such a crazy bitch, all the while smiling at me and telling me how nice you think I look today. I didn’t put on a dress to look nice for you; I did it because my boss would fire me if I showed up in jeans, a t-shirt, and a pair of Chucks.

Further, if you are over the age of 16, do not, under any circumstances whatsoever, follow around our high school aged pages while they shelve books and ask them their life story. You are not being friendly, you are scaring them to death. And so help you if you follow them out to the parking lot.

But see, that’s the problem. These types of patrons have no fear of getting kicked out of the library. We run interference as best we can, we explain to them, in the politest way possible that their behavior could be “misinterpreted” but I can’t actually do anything. We’re a public, tax-funded entity so apparently a little good old fashioned harassment just isn’t enough to ban someone. We can politely ask them not to do it again but inevitably run up against people(be they management, board members, Friends, etc.) who don’t understand why it’s a big deal. “You should be flattered.” “Oh, I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it.” “He’s just lonely and you’re such a lovely young woman.”

I’ve never realized how much it bothered until recently when a male patron, going through a divorce, kept coming up to the desk to ask questions about zip codes. Each question followed by a five minute ramble and then an effusive gushing of how much he appreciates my help and how friendly I am and how much he enjoys coming to the library. At which point I realized that every time he was coming to the desk I was starting to hunch my shoulders over and avoid eye contact. I desperately tried to appear too busy to talk to or tried to engage another patron or co-worker in the hopes that he would go talk to someone else. But instead he would wait patiently until I could no longer ignore him and it crushed a little bit of my soul every time.

I don’t like feeling uncomfortable in my work place and even more, I hate feeling powerless to do anything about it. I can handle people being mean to me, I can handle rowdy teens, possible fist fights, and people who pee in the study room. But apparently I don’t handle harassment as well as I thought and it is becoming increasingly frustrating. So that’s my non-review rant for the day.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Harassment in the Stacks: A non-review post on a review website, so sue me

  1. Candice LaRue

    I left publics for a special, after a patron (female) physically blocked my way so that I could not pass down the aisle. Mgmt didnt want to do anything, but finally decided to ban her for 3 mos. When she was allowed back, I was the one that had to hide.

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