BCLA Perspectives

Sexual Harassment by Library Patrons: #TimesUp

A patron at circulation asks a staff member to go out for a drink with him, coming back throughout the day to insist she share her phone number even after she politely declines. A much older man calls a library worker “beautiful,” then tells her that her “next husband will be very lucky” while leering at her crotch as she helps him on a public computer. An intoxicated man in his 40’s hits on several young women in the library, including a teenaged library assistant. A patron prints pornography from the public computers and shows it to a librarian, saying “This looks a lot like you.” These are true stories from British Columbia library workers, and it’s time for it to stop.

Sexual and gendered harassment of library staff by patrons is not only a feminist and human rights issue, but a health and safety concern as well. With the cresting of the #MeToo movement, and workplace harassment in the spotlight, it’s time for libraries to say #TimesUp.

It’s not uncommon for library staff to encounter inappropriate comments, demeaning nicknames, unwelcome touch, or worse on the job. A survey done as part of an American Library Association Annual Conference session (Civitello, 2017) found that 63 per cent of respondents, primarily female public library workers, had encountered sexual harassment on the job. Another informal survey, conducted by BookRiot writer Kelly Jensen (2017), received 250 responses in only a few days. Her article “The State of Sexual Harassment in the Library” links to over 200 personal stories she collected from respondents, ranging from shiver-inducing to horrifying.

My own encounters with sexual harassment from patrons have ranged from microaggressions to downright scary. I’m called inappropriate nicknames on a weekly basis. Leering or staring is common as well. There was one man much older than me who stared at my chest every time he asked for a computer, and another who sat in the magazine section and watched me work several times a day, for weeks.  I had a group of patrons whistle and jeer at me as I walked by. One patron insisted on dealing only with me at front desk; he then followed me for four blocks after work.

I’ve heard of worse from other paralibrarians. One was harassed over a period of a year by a patron who asked her to marry him six times. She was clear with him that she wasn’t interested, and he wouldn’t stop. She says, “one time, he asked me how old I was. I was 26 at the time, and he said, ‘Oh good, you’re young. We can start having kids in a couple years’…I didn’t even know his name and he’s asking me to have his kids.” Another, a library supervisor said, “The pages get it the most…some of them are teenagers or young students. They’ll get cornered in the stacks by men.”

There is a lack of academic study specific to harassment in libraries. Studies of a broad range of professions indicate that sexual harassment on the job is not uncommon. An Employment and Social Development Canada (2017) survey had 60 per cent of respondents indicate that they’d experienced harassment at work, and 30 per cent had experienced sexual harassment. 94 per cent of those who reported experiencing sexual harassment were women.  A Quebec study (Lippel, 2016) found that those working with the public are more likely to be exposed to harassment.

Library culture and environments open staff up to harassment in ways unique to our profession. For service industry staff, interactions with a bad customer are limited by the money the customer has to spend or the length of a meal. Front line library staff are available to be targeted by anyone who walks through the door, and patrons may visit an unlimited number of times, staying all day if they choose. Our commitment to freedom of information means we are there to answer every question no matter how offensive we may find it. The high value we put on equal access makes us reluctant to stop uncomfortable interactions or refuse service to anyone, however repugnant their behaviour: even creeps have the right to access the library. Libraries need to find a balance between the values we hold dear, and the psychological safety of staff. We’ve worked so hard to make libraries safe spaces for our patrons, now it’s time to make them safe spaces for staff too.

Sexual harassment on the job isn’t just an annoyance; it’s a health and safety concern. The impact of workplace harassment on mental health is well-known. Consequences can include fight-or-flight response to the trigger event (like increased heart rate and sweating), chronic physical symptoms (such as headaches, digestive problems and sleep disturbance), low morale, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. (For example: Butterworth, 2016; Lippel, 2016; Kendrick, 2017)

According to the BC Human Rights Code, sexual harassment is a form of discrimination. It includes treatment by a customer or client, co-worker, supervisor, or employer. BC government factsheets (British Columbia, 2016) say sexual harassment can include:

  • unwelcome touching
  • offensive jokes or remarks about women or men
  • sexual requests or suggestions
  • leering or staring
  • unwelcome comments about a person’s body
  • showing sexual images
  • comments not sexual in nature, but directed at a person because of their gender

A duty to accommodate is prescribed, meaning employers must take all reasonable steps, short of undue hardship, to eliminate discrimination based on gender. Fulfilling the duty to accommodate can include providing additional training, or changes to policy, practice, or services. (British Columbia, 2016) The Worker’s Compensation Act requires employers to have policies and procedures for bullying and harassment and to respond appropriately to incidents. (WorkSafe BC, 2013) For unionized employees, collective agreements may have additional language on harassment.

It’s time to start constructive discussions about sexual harassment in the library community and in our workplaces. Let’s start talking about:

  • Creating workplace cultures that value employee health and psychological safety in balance with entrenched library values;
  • Developing harassment-of-staff policies, procedures, and signage;
  • Providing all levels of staff with training on security, harassment, and self-care;
  • Ensuring counselling is available and compensated by the employer for staff affected by harassment or violence at work;
  • Including security and harassment training in librarian and library technician programs;
  • Adding harassment clauses to union collective agreements, which refer specifically to harassment and violence by patrons, and providing training for stewards to advocate for affected employees.

At Fort St. John Public Library (FSJPL), Director Kerry France has employees’ backs. France says, “Collectively, FSJPL staff and management have begun the process of talking about harassment from patrons in an open and non-judgmental forum. From there, as an employer, we can identify steps needed to minimize the harassment and provide a framework of support that includes staff response training, procedures for reporting or documenting harassment, and a “buddy system” for identifying when one of our colleagues needs assistance during a patron interaction.” The library aims to develop a zero-tolerance policy. “Having policy on workplace harassment from coworkers or management is simply not enough anymore; library staff have a right to come to work knowing their employer has taken every reasonable effort to protect them from harassment and violence from the very people they are asked to serve daily.“

Are you dealing with inappropriate behaviour from patrons? Here are some tips:

  • Don’t be silent. Report incidents and start constructive discussions with your management and coworkers about the problem.
  • Keep a record of each incident. A paper trail can help convince reluctant management to address the issue and can protect you if the problem escalates.
  • Talk to your health and safety committee and/or union for help.
  • If you’re in a union, advocate for language in your collective agreement on harassment and violence by patrons.
  • Ask supervisors and management for training on harassment and violence by patrons, and on self-care and stress management.
  • Support your coworkers. Be aware that people have different levels of comfort with certain behaviours or may be triggered due to past traumas. Support coworkers even if you don’t find the incident as uncomfortable as they do. Be aware that younger workers, visible minorities, or LGBTQ+ staff face increased risk of harassment.
  • You can support a coworker by offering to help the patron instead, calling your coworker away or interjecting when you see a patron behaving inappropriately, helping a coworker report the incident or simply listening if they need to talk.

It can be difficult to deal with uncomfortable situations that can arise with no warning. Have some replies ready for patrons who are behaving inappropriately. Be clear and calm. Articles on stopping sexual harassment in libraries (Civitello, 2017; Civitello and McLain, 2017) offer these suggestions:

  • “That comment/behavior is inappropriate. Please stop.”
  • “Do you have a question about the library? If not, I need to return to my work.”
  • “I am happy to answer questions about the library, but I will not answer questions about my personal life.”
  • “Calling me sweetheart/honey/baby is demeaning to me as a professional. Please do not call me that again.”
  • “My marital status/appearance/personal life has no bearing on my ability to assist you in the library.”
  • “Would you care to speak to a manager/security officer about this?”
  • “If this behavior continues, I will have someone else finish assisting you.”
  • “If this behavior continues, I will ask you to leave the library.”

If a situation escalates, make sure you’re physically safe. Go to a safe location and inform other staff. Depending on the situation, call in a manager, security, or police.

I don’t want to be #MeToo anymore, and I’m betting there are plenty of library staff who are fed up too.  Let’s work together to let harassers know their time is up.

To participate in a survey on harassment and violence in British Columbia libraries, go to https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/JL73CBL


Civitello, A, & McLain, K 2017, ‘It’s Not Just Part of the Job: Speaking Out About Sexual Harassment’, ILA Reporter, 35, 6, pp. 4-7, Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text, EBSCOhost, viewed 13 February 2018.

Jensen, K 2017, “The state of sexual harassment in the library”, BookRiot. Available at https://bookriot.com/2017/10/24/sexual-harassment-library/, accessed 12 February 2018.

Employment and Social Development Canada (2017) Harassment and sexual violence in the workplace public consultations: what we heard. Available at https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/services/health-safety/reports/workplace-harassment-sexual-violence.html, accessed 12 February 2018.

Lippel, K, Vézina, M, Bourbonnais, R, & Funes, A 2016, ‘Workplace psychological harassment: Gendered exposures and implications for policy’, International Journal Of Law & Psychiatry, 46, pp. 74-87, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 13 February 2018.

Kendrick, KD 2017, ‘The Low Morale Experience of Academic Librarians: A Phenomenological Study’, Journal Of Library Administration, 57, 8, pp. 846-878, Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text, EBSCOhost, viewed 13 February 2018.

Butterworth, P, Leach, L, & Kiely, K 2016, ‘Why it’s important for it to stop: Examining the mental health correlates of bullying and ill-treatment at work in a cohort study’, Australian & New Zealand Journal Of Psychiatry, 50, 11, pp. 1085-1095, CINAHL Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 13 February 2018.

British Columbia 2016 “Human rights in British Columbia: sex discrimination and sexual harassment”, British Columbia. Available at: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/law-crime-and-justice/human-rights/human-rights-protection/sex-discrimination-harassment.pdf, accessed 12 February, 2018.

British Columbia 2016 “Human rights in British Columbia: what you need to know”, British Columbia. Available at: http://www.ubcp.com/wp-content/uploads/what-you-need-to-know.pdf, accessed 12 February, 2018.

WorkSafe BC 2013 “Employer Fact Sheet: workplace bullying and harassment”, WorkSafe BC. Available at: https://www.worksafebc.com/en/resources/health-safety/information-sheets/employer-fact-sheet-workplace-bullying-and-harassment?lang=en, accessed 12 February, 2018.

Civitello, A, McLain, K, 2017 “Harassing Behaviors Handout”, Waukegan Public Library. Available at https://www.waukeganpl.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Harassing-Behaviors-Handout.pdf, accessed 12 February 2018.

>Amy von Stackelberg is a Circulation Services Coordinator at Fort St. John Public Library, a student of Library and Information Technology at Langara College, and a steward and Bargaining Committee member within the BC Government Employees Union. The views expressed are her own and may not necessarily represent the views of any other person or organization.