Conversation with Unwanted Interactions: Patron-perpetrated Sexual Harassment in Libraries editors, Danielle Allard and Tami Oliphant with Jenny Cheng
This is the next installment of our Author Interview Series with Library Students where prospective information professionals meet with authors to discuss the research process and engage in a deep dive on important topics of the field from concept to publication. *Please be warned that this author interview describes incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Conversation with Unwanted Interactions: Patron-perpetrated Sexual Harassment in Libraries editors, Danielle Allard and Tami Oliphant with Jenny Cheng
This interview was conducted by Jenny Cheng, a dual degree student studying Archives and Public History at New York University and Library and Information Science at Long Island University.
How has your career background and research interests inspired you to write Unwanted Interactions Patron-perpetrated Sexual Harassment in Libraries?
Danielle Allard: I have been working with Dr. Tami Oliphant and Angela Lieu, who is also a part of this book project, on the Patron-perpetrated Sexual Harassment (PPSH) project. The project is bigger than this book, but the book is an important part of the project. I have been an Assistant Professor for about five years now. I arrived at SLIS as a new instructor with a background in Women’s and Gender Studies. I have a history of conducting research projects with a focus on intersectional feminisms and decolonizing anti-violence feminisms. I have done work with sex workers and sex work activists to create community-based archives and a part of that work was to imagine how community-based archives could perpetuate anti-violence activism.
I arrived at my new job with a sensitivity to anti-violence feminisms and the places and spaces that it was needed. It was obvious that in sex work activism there are strong ties between anti-violence work and sex work activism. When I arrived to SLIS, I was surprised when I was teaching my first course that there were so many stories being told by students in that class of their own experiences, of sexual harassment or assault when they were working as students in the library. It was shocking to me.
One of the students who was in that course was our other project partner Angela Lieu. Angela works at a public library and was working as a library assistant at the time. I talked to my colleague, Tami, about these student stories after class. I was really surprised by them, and I didn’t really know how to make sense of it. It was in long conversation with Tami and with other students in the class, especially Angela, that together we came to recognize a need in the field of LIS for a project on patron-perpetrated sexual harassment.
So, we began to imagine what a project on this topic looks like. One of the first things that we did was look around to see if there was research done on this project in library and information science (LIS) and there really was not. There was an old survey from 1993 and there was a growing body of people talking about this on the Internet and at library conferences. The topic was being discussed by library workers but there hadn’t been any research on it. We began to think about how we begin a project on a topic where there really isn’t any existing research. We came to the decision that it was necessary to do a large-scale survey on the topic to fully understand the breadth and scope of the issue. In fall 2021, we released a survey to library workers across Canada and we did get some American responses too. We had over 500 responses to this survey and the result of that survey is what the book, Unwanted Interactions, is about.
We have so much data and there were so many important things that came out of the survey. It is a book about the results of what is really the first comprehensive survey about patron-perpetrated sexual harassment in all types of libraries. I also want to make one distinction. We use the term patron-perpetrated sexual harassment and very specifically, we are talking sexual harassment committed by folks who don’t work in the library, who are the patrons or users of the library, against folks who do work at the library. We include all library workers in our survey, librarians as well as people who do all kinds of other work, often engaging closely with patrons in the course of their work.
Tami Oliphant: I am an Associate Professor at the School of Library and Information Studies. I have a long-standing research interest in public libraries. My research background also includes a focus on information practices. I’m particularly interested in how people form their beliefs, their worldviews, knowledge, knowledge production, publishing and the way that this intersects with epistemology and how people come to know. These research areas have led me to think about topics like epistemic injustice and feminist epistemology. Why are some people believed over others? How do we, in LIS, treat people as epistemic agents, as people who are knowers? Working with Danielle and Angela on patron-perpetrated sexual harassment and other work on feminisms in LIS, have been rich for thinking about these questions. Other research that I’ve done has examined women and heart disease, which is also a feminist issue and feminist problem. Many years ago I did a practicum at a large, urban public library and I worked as an academic library intern before I did my PhD. I also worked for years in the hospitality industry, so I’ve seen PPSH across the board in various sectors.
Similar to Danielle, I came to this project because students were bringing this issue forward in my classes. Particularly, Angela Lieu, in our required research course, took up the issue of patron-perpetrated sexual harassment for her research proposal. What I particularly appreciate about this project is that as soon as we started talking about it, everybody recognized what we were talking about. By simply naming PPSH, suddenly we were able to have these conversations about it. That was a real eye opener–that gender-based violence as it manifests in PPSH is the water that we’re swimming in, an everyday occurrence, but we did not have a way to conceptualize it and talk about it. Similar to Danielle, as an LIS educator, I felt complicit in sending, most often, young women into the workforce without many tools, whether those are theoretical or practical tools, to deal with patron-perpetrated sexual harassment at work or to think about the structural forces that contribute to libraries as sites of gender-based violence such as patriarchy, heteronormativity, whiteness, and working in a female intensive profession. We soon realized PPSH can be addressed through multiple interventions and multiple sites such as LIS education, the workplace, and in our professional associations. We realized what a pervasive problem PPSH is and how it can be addressed when we made connections among LIS education, practice, structures, and theory.
How has your research and specialized areas of studies influenced the direction of this research?
Oliphant: As Danielle noted, Angela Lieu has engaged in this work for a number of years, and it was an area of focus when she was an MLIS student. She continues to contribute significantly by talking about her lived experiences working at a public library. My primary contributions consist of having experience performing large-scale surveys, conducting research alongside public librarians, and focusing on libraries as public institutions. My current projects have a feminist orientation and focus on epistemic injustice. I would like to note that we have built this project by being in conversation with library workers, libraries associations, academic librarians, and LIS educators by presenting at many different conferences, workshops, and webinars. A lot of progress in our thinking about PPSH happened during informal conversations with library workers including everyone from managers to frontline workers. I want to emphasize our grassroots approach is how we have been able to build on this project.
Allard: Angela has also recently completed another master’s degree at the University of Alberta in Gender and Social Justice. Through her studies and experiences working in the library, Angela brings an intersectional feminist lens to the project, which has been invaluable. We have really benefited from all the lenses that Angela brings to the project.
I also want to say that I’ve learned so much from my colleague Tami. Tami is deeply connected to the library community here and has a lot of experience working in an MLIS program. She really understands how the relationship between an MLIS program and this project needs to be scaffolded and designed because as LIS instructors, we sometimes walk a fine line on this project. We are casting a critical lens on some aspects of librarianship as we try to work with libraries and with students. We are also trying to do so with a lot of fairness and honesty, so it is a difficult place to be in sometimes. I always look to Tami to understand how to maneuver within this context.
I have a long background in Women’s and Gender Studies but not working in libraries, specifically. I bring a theoretical framework that looks at this problem as a gender-based violence problem and understands that gender-based and racialized violences are articulated on a continuum. One form of violence supports and reifies other forms of violence. Understanding the relationship between the white feminization of librarianship and forms of gender-based violence is a conversation that has been missing from LIS and librarianship. I have experience doing community-based and participatory research. Although this isn’t a community-based project, we certainly orient ourselves to be as community-based as possible. We’re analyzing the results of our survey right now and we’re trying to do so with a lens where we believe and support all the findings we’re analyzing.
How do library policies and practices shape your findings in the book and the larger PPSH research project? Were there any surprise findings from your survey?
Oliphant: There is variation in how organizations respond to sexual harassment. Sexual harassment itself is a human rights issue, so we must frame it within that context first and foremost. Then, as Danielle has already alluded to, we need to think about the issue in terms of gender-based violence. Patron-perpetrated sexual harassment is the type of harassment with the most variation in terms of policies, practices, and legislation compared to employee-to-employee harassment or patron-to-patron harassment.
When asked about library policies, 256 library workers said that their workplace had a policy that addressed sexual harassment by staff towards staff. 188 reported that there’s policy for sexual harassment by patrons towards staff and 116 said they have policy that addresses sexual harassment by patrons towards patrons. In terms of effectiveness, only 6% of our respondents said that they thought their policies were “very effective,” 32% reported “somewhat effective” and 18% of respondents reported “effective” policies. A significant number of library workers, almost 40%, thought that their library’s sexual harassment policies were “ineffective” or “very ineffective.” Some library workers weren’t aware of policies, and some were not sure if a policy existed. However, our participants reported receiving a lot of training such as dealing with difficult patrons or uncomfortable situations (57%), but only 24% of those had training specifically towards sexual harassment by patrons towards staff.
The next step in our broader research project is focusing on analyzing the policies that libraries have in place. What we are seeing so far is a mixed picture. People are receiving a lot of training, but that training isn’t necessarily on how to respond to sexual harassment. Sexual harassment training is often treated as a problem of “dealing with difficult patrons” and “uncomfortable situations,” and “setting boundaries” rather than naming it as sexual harassment and developing specific policy to address the issue. This research and project is unabashedly in support of library workers and that can sometimes put us in tension with inadequate policies that are enforced in libraries or with specific organizations where staff or members don’t feel like they’re protected.
Allard: What was really surprising to me was the frequency that people reported having experienced sexual harassment at work. Two recent surveys on PPSH in academic libraries find a much lower frequency of sexual harassment than we do in our study (Jill et al., 2020; Benjes-Small et al., 2021). This might be because academic library settings are different than public libraries, and people’s understanding of sexual harassment differs. We surveyed all folks who worked in any library in Canada and so our sample is quite a bit broader. What we found was that less than 7% of the 503 respondents that we spoke to had never been sexually harassed before. And then on the other side of that spectrum, 24% of folks said they have been 10 or more times, 33% of people who said that they don’t know how many times they’ve been sexually harassed, or they’ve lost count. We’ve got around 60% of people saying they have been harassed 10 or more times or they’ve lost count of how many times they’ve been harassed. That is an enormous amount of folks who have been sexual harassed in libraries at a very frequent rate.
What we know about workplace sexual harassment, particularly, and street harassment or sexual harassment outside of the workplace is that the most frequently occurring types of sexual harassment are what we might describe as everyday or low-level harassment. That’s harassment that includes telling a sexist or inappropriate joke, making a comment on somebody’s body, staring at them, or talking about people’s appearance. Our survey results matched other kinds of workplace harassment survey results in that everyday harassment is the most frequently occurring type of harassment. That is what I thought we would see so I’m not surprised by that, but I was surprised by the frequency of much more egregious types of sexual harassment and assault.
In our survey there are a number of folks who report being sexually assaulted. There is a lot of sexist, racist, homophobic, violent anger directed at folks who work in libraries that happens frequently. There is a lot of butt grabbing, unwanted touching and cornering in the stacks, and public porn looking and masturbation. I expected the reported incidents of sexual harassment to be mostly quite mild. I was surprised by the degree, the examples, and the experiences so many had. This was often compounded by difficulties reporting PPSH and then the aftermath of trying to deal with it within individual organizations.
Oliphant: The intensity of PPSH surprised me but one of the things that makes it different from other kinds of sexual harassment is that a perpetrator can go to the library every single day and harass. One of the surprising characteristics of patron-perpetrated sexual harassment is that it can be episodic or chronic. For example, we had reports of librarians who had to move branches or had to move their office because of someone harassing them. There’s a very complicated picture because on the one hand, library workers don’t want people, especially those who are marginalized, to be banned because the stakes are potentially much higher for this group of patrons. On the other hand, unclear policies that may not protect library workers along with professional values of universal access can place library workers at risk.
Are there resources for librarians who might feel like they are at risk or have experienced PPSH?
Allard: Unlike within other fields, there is very little that has been done, or as far as we know, resources that have been generated for folks experiencing PPSH at libraries. Most libraries have formal reporting systems for incidents that occur between patrons and staff. Reporting is an important piece of better understanding of this problem and generating resources to support staff so we would encourage people to tell their supervisors or to report the problem. But what we have learned is that incident reporting doesn’t always look supportive or feel supportive for folks who work in libraries. Telling somebody that you trust is one place you can get resources and support. Another place you might go is to your union if you have one. We have worked with library unions on this topic. As a field we really need to create more support resources on this topic.
Oliphant: At universities, there’s typically a sexual assault center and other on-campus resources one might access. For public or school library workers for example, resources may not be as evident. As for reporting, we recognize that there is value in reporting, but it can also be fraught and retraumatizing for people–they might not be believed, they might not get that support that they were looking for necessarily, and they might not get any take up on what they report. We must consider too, BIPOC folks, sexual minorities, and people who may be more vulnerable to PPSH in the workplace generally, that there are different considerations, different consequences, and different outcomes.
I was talking with a library worker outside of our survey results she said, “You know, I don’t want to be the person that’s known for reporting sexual harassment all the time.” We need to think about the resources that are readily accessible but also the ones that people can technically access but might experience a lot of barriers in accessing and using them. I’ve been thinking about the possibilities of allowing people to anonymously report so if they don’t want to have their name assigned to their report, that would be an option.
How can library workers and non-librarians help raise awareness against third-party sexual harassment in libraries? How can we help those at risk or who are victims of PPSH?
Oliphant: We advocate for multiple sites of intervention. For Danielle and I, it’s important that we are having these conversations in our classrooms, across the curriculum, and in LIS education more broadly. This is a topic that needs to be talked about throughout LIS education as well as technical and diploma library programs. To raise awareness, we need to talk about patron-perpetrated sexual harassment and gender-based violence in our professional associations, with the practitioner community, and in library workplaces. We need to develop training, workshops, discussion groups, and presentations on this issue.
This relates to a broader project that we’re working on about intersectional feminisms in LIS. My own opinion is that for our theoretical framework, we need to talk about patron-perpetrated sexual harassment and name it as gender-based violence. There are innumerable, accessible books and other publications and resources about gender-based violence and feminisms that can inform our discussions. Practical things that we can do is to attend one another’s presentations and work on understanding the field as feminized. As Danielle said, our field is feminized not feminist and there are implications and consequences of this such as library work being undervalued, for example, and we need to talk about this in our discussions of sexual harassment. The intention of this project is consciousness raising; good old-fashioned grassroots advocacy. This project has energy and has garnered attention because it’s grounded in grassroots work and connections. The work of consciousness raising is work that needs continual uptake–again and again–and people working in library organizations (of all kinds) need to spearhead these efforts.
Allard: When PPSH happens at the library it is part of a larger system of gender-based violence, of racialized violence, and workplace sexual harassment specifically. It has particularities, but it also lives on a spectrum and intersects with other forms of heteronormative, ableist, gendered, and racialized oppression. Broadly, this means that everything that you do to intervene against systems of oppression can impact PPSH in the library. That’s why as Tami outlined, we call for multiple sites of intervention. It also means that there are many ways to support the eradication of PPSH in libraries. It’s taking an anti-violence stance and orientation to the world. It’s being critical of systems of oppression, recognizing them, and opposing them. It is also understanding the specific issue of PPSH in the library more broadly.
One thing that libraries could do is to partner with anti-violence organizations. That could look like bringing shelters and other community-based anti-violence organizations more broadly, to have conversations, give presentations, and partner with libraries. This should be in addition to library-related interventions that Tami mentioned, including augmenting and making better reporting systems, better training that focuses specifically on PPSH, patron codes of conduct, policies around workplace health and safety such as no librarian worker works alone, especially at night or closing time. Those kinds of practices and policies would also support the opposition of PPSH in libraries.
What is the most important conclusion you would like readers to take away from this valuable book?
Oliphant: My comments are framed thinking about the broader, overall issue of patron-perpetrated sexual harassment. The first message is that sexual harassment is never the fault of the person being harassed. It doesn’t matter what they’re wearing, it doesn’t matter what their age is, this is a human rights issue. The second message is to believe what people tell you. If someone says that they feel uncomfortable about a situation and that situation wouldn’t bother you, that’s OK, support that person anyway. The third message is to keep talking about sexual harassment at every level, with each other, with your supervisors and professional associations, and in your classrooms. Make the connections between library work as feminized work, and anti-violence, anti-racist orientations.
Allard: For me, the main purpose of this book is to make it very clear that PPSH in libraries is a problem. It is a thing that’s happening very frequently to folks who work in libraries and the consequences are quite profound for individuals and for the institutions themselves. We asked people to tell us about specific incidents and they wrote pages and pages of stories. We have over 500 participant responses and over 400 detailed accounts of people’s experiences of PPSH. It is my hope that by sharing these accounts in this very detailed, explicit way, we will demonstrate once and for all that there can be no doubt that this is in fact a significant issue in libraries that needs the attention of all of us. This includes those of us who are LIS educators in a variety of different kinds of educational institutions, to folks who work in management, to people who are sitting on boards of libraries or in other oversight capacities, and it includes all the folks who work in libraries If we do nothing else, I hope that we make it really clear this is indeed a big problem that we can and should be addressing together.
Unwanted Interactions Patron-perpetrated Sexual Harassment in Libraries by Danielle Allard, Tami Oliphant, and Angela Lieu is expected to be released in the Fall of 2023. For more information and updates on the Patron-Perpetrated Sexual Harassment research project and its Twitter account, please visit https://shal.ualberta.ca/.
Benjes-Small, C., Knievel, J., Resor-Whicker J., Wisecup, A., & Hunter, J. (2021). #MeToo in the Academic Library: A Quantitative Measurement of the Prevalence of Sexual Harassment in Academic Libraries. College and Research Libraries, 82(5), 623-641. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.82.5.623
Jill, B., Hoffner, C., McMunn-Tetangco, E. & Mody, N. (2020). Sexual harassment at University of California Libraries: Understanding the experiences of library staff members. https://osf.io/preprints/lissa/g23pr/.