School and Public Librarians Describe On-the-Job Harassment

A survey from SLJ revealed the extent to which individual librarians have faced hostility from community members, organizations, and in some cases, their administration.

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In another year when librarians battled censorship and personal attacks, SLJ asked school and public youth librarians about their harassment experiences, administrators’ responses, and how leadership could have responded better.

Most librarians reported harassment in person and online over books in the library. Some were targeted for their gender identity.

Respondents shared stories of harassment by public library patrons and stressed that more protections are needed for public-facing librarians.

Librarians reported varying levels of administrative support.

“I was criticized relentlessly by my supervisors because of parent complaints,” wrote a school librarian. “I was told not to read books about Native American boarding schools. I wasn't allowed to read books that dealt with queer children or families.”

The administration “never supported me,” the librarian reported. “I wish [they] had opened a conversation with parents about why all kinds of books should be read by children.”

A librarian who described harassment at the library added,  “I was also harassed by Dan Kleinman of Safe Libraries.”

That librarian’s supervisors responded with support: “My employer fields all calls before directing them to me. I have been directed to counseling and a leave to prioritize my health and safety.”

A school librarian described being doxed and falsely accused by an organized group. “A right-wing extremist group, published two articles about me. They mis-contextualized statements I made about defending students' right to read and made defamatory statements, calling me a peddler of pornography, and made public my name, school, and district. I felt threatened and scared for my safety.

My district did nothing to support me,” the respondent added. However, “My principal was sympathetic. My state library association and teachers’ union supported me.”

A public librarian who reported harassment by a trustee declined to describe what happened. “Can’t. Settlement forbids,” the librarian wrote.

Here are more takeaways from the survey.

 

Librarians described harassment for their own gender identity or their support of LGBTQIA+ people and books.

“Parents targeted me due to apparel I wore and things on my desk that signified I was queer,” reported a public librarian. “A member of the local government asked if I had a ‘gay agenda.’ On social media, my desk decor—rainbow trinkets—was deemed ‘inappropriate behavior.’

“City government issued me a formal letter saying my socks with the word ‘queer’ on them made a patron uncomfortable,” the librarian continued. “On social media, numerous threats were made toward we librarians as a group, including we ‘should all be shot’ and ‘all lose our jobs’ after we put up a Pride display. My boss was supportive and also queer, but not willing to publicly stand up to the city government.”

A different public librarian wrote, “I am LGBTQIA+ and have been given a hard time about my orientation from a co-worker who smirked and said, ‘Someday you’ll change your mind.’

The librarian reported the person to the director, who said they would speak with the coworker.

“People need to get over that not everyone is straight and be more accepting,” the librarian concluded. “I am so sick of having to work where my staff makes me uncomfortable just because I’m not straight!”

A school librarian described an encounter with parents after defending This Book Is Gay at a school committee meeting.

“They waited for me after the meeting and shouted at me to defend the book, asked if I had kids, demanded to know if I'd be OK with Hustler in my library,” the librarian reported. “I replied calmly and diplomatically at first and then stopped answering and let other parents engage.”

The librarian had previously defended All Boys Aren’t Blue when the administration pressured the librarian to remove it after a complaint from the same parents. “Union reps told me to email administration with the details of the incident, but I heard nothing back,” The librarian wrote. “The incident left me shaken and had me worried that I should not have spoken up in the town where I live, and my own child went to school.”

 

Detectives investigated one school librarian’s books.

A public librarian described how a politician’s campaign caused havoc in the library. “During local elections, one politician based her platform on saving youth from the perverted librarians who promoted porn in the teen room. We received numerous daily calls, and people came in to yell at us, take photos and videos of our collection, and disrupt and derail programs,” the librarian wrote. “Detectives reviewed our collection.”

The administrative response? “Nothing,” according to the respondent. “We all just got through it together.” Administration offered “paid time off to recoup after an incident, just the rest of the day; and mental health breaks during the day.”

 

Multiple librarians reported bullying online and in person, from groups and individuals.

A school librarian wrote, “Parents who unsuccessfully tried to ban books still post about me on social media, claiming I’m a groomer promoting an agenda. One accosted me on the street.

“I told the administration that I felt unsafe,” the librarian described. “Administration said there's nothing they can do. I would like the administration and board of education to issue a statement about harassment of staff stating that is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated.”

A different school librarian found some support from school leadership. “A community member mentioned me negatively in his blog multiple times since I am on a committee that discusses equity issues, sponsors inclusive clubs and am a school librarian. Last spring he directly attacked and slandered me,” according to the librarian.

In response, “My principal communicated with the disgruntled community member and fielded some of the follower emails that went to him. He was supportive, loyal, and encouraging. School districts should develop policies about harassment from the community.”

 

Public librarians reported behavior ranging from creepy to sexual harassment and felt the administration should have responded better.

“An adult patron stares at female staff, sometimes tries to follow them to and from their cars. He tries to chat up the female staff,” wrote a public library employee. “Management insists that the patron is simply ‘socially awkward’ and that staff must interact with him, ‘as it is our job to be friendly.’ [They should] Make it clear to the patron that his behavior is not acceptable and empower staff to say something to the patron or leave the desk.”

A person who is now a children’s librarian wrote that in a former public library job, “a patron would call regularly and ask me and colleagues to read the descriptions of pornographic art films, titles the library did not own.” The administration did “nothing, though we reported it regularly.

“I was a 22-year-old library school student desperate to get into the field,” the librarian added. “So when my supervisor didn't address my concerns, I felt that I had to suck it up. As a supervisor myself now, I realize how wrong the situation was.”

Another public library employee described, “An adult male kept interrupting programs to ask female staff personal questions. Administration stated that the patron should not be spoken to about his behavior because he might leave a negative review for the program. Management should empower staff to call out bad behavior and ask patrons who are harassing staff to leave the program or the library.”

A public youth librarian reported experiencing “threats of sexual assault, stalking, misogynistic comments, threats of violence, public masturbation, and verbal abuse.”

“I was encouraged to go to therapy using FMLA but not to take time off,” the librarian explained. “I’d like to have safety protocol and staffing revaluated, additional safety measures implemented, and harsher consequences for perpetrators of violence and harassment toward women in customer service roles.”

Another respondent reported, “When I was in my late teens, I worked as a library clerk while going for my master's.” Colleagues had nicknamed one patron "the creeper."

“This man was known for harassing library staff; I was the third. While I was walking through the parking lot, he appeared and made inappropriate comments while I was backing away. He was banned from the library for a year.

“I felt punished for this encounter,” the librarian recalled. “[Others] treated the experience as a rite of passage. It took me months to feel comfortable walking to my car alone at night. I excelled in my master’s program and left that library for a trainee position elsewhere.”

 

Some teachers were targeted by their own administration.

A  teacher-librarian moved to a different school after being pressured by staff at his former one. “While I was defending a book during a challenge from my principal, the principal led teachers, staff, and community members to harass me. I received threatening emails and phone calls,” the librarian wrote. Community members and an unknown caller threatened me and my wife by name.

“At my union's request, the district allowed me to move to a different school,” the librarian reported. “I wish they had not let my working environment turn toxic or dangerous to my health.”

A different school librarian wrote, “An anonymous citizen complained that two district librarians, including me, were part of a private Facebook group that supports parents of LGBTQ children. We were placed on leave and investigated.

“We faced questions ranging from Facebook group issues to “sexually explicit” library books and sponsorship of the student-led GSA. It was clear we were targeted for publicly supporting LGBTQ personhood and having an age-appropriate collection geared to all students, including brown and LGBTQ.”

School leadership “recommended I be forced to resign or have my name read into public record at the next board meeting as ‘lacking professional judgment,’” the librarian reported. Instead, “He could have told the HR investigators about the ways a librarian benefits the school.”

At a public library, “One staff member frequently harasses staff with inappropriate comments/discussion topics, tampers with displays that don't align with their views, and criticizes books they consider sex-ed titles to be ‘grooming minors,’” a youth services librarian described.

The institutional response? “My administration did not to speak to them, despite multiple complaints Since it has gone un-checked, [the behavior] is ramping up in intensity.”

 

A few respondents left the profession.

“For three years at board meetings, a parent has said I discuss sexual topics, am anti-police and anti-American, and that I should be removed from my position by the board,” an school media specialist reported.

The parent also posted about the librarian on social media. “I have been instructed by my principal not to attend board meetings," the librarian wrote. "It causes me so much anxiety every month. I am leaving my job. I just don't feel supported.”

A high school district media specialist described how ongoing attacks have brought book purchases to a near standstill. “I have received emails telling me our library is ‘full of pornography,’ have been called into meetings with my union representative to hear parents accuse me of purchasing ‘how-to sex books for children as young as 14,’ and been told by my principal to change or destroy book displays.”

In short, the librarian wrote, “My library staff and coworkers have been intimidated and directed to suppress information, misdirect inquiries, and to self-censor, all to appease a vocal minority of the community.”

“The positive side of this is that we have more communal support,” the librarian concluded. “The downside is a devaluation of our professional experience, self-censoring, and a staggering slowdown of book purchases.”

A school librarian who has “been called woke, Marxist, groomer, and pedophile on social media by strangers” also faced verbal abuse by parents. “A parent told his child to take photos of LGBTQ library books and record my response to try to get me in trouble. Then they requested a parent meeting. The parent yelled at me, and my administrator dismissed me from the meeting. I'm a leader in our state organization, so book banners in other counties have tried to use FOIA requests to intimidate me from afar.”

School leadership should “Tell parents they will not tolerate threats toward employees,” the librarian wrote. “Publicly defend librarians instead of letting people spread lies.”

An administrator at a public library says book banners accuse the administration of being “pedophiles, groomers, and exposing children to sex.”

In that case, library leadership “are very supportive,” the respondent wrote. “They are facing the same harassment.”

 

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