The endless complications of smut in the library

I’ve seen this story pop up a few times over the last few days, about Barbara Ann Wilson, the librarian who is suing her library, the Birmingham Public Library, for tolerating a sexually hostile work environment. Wilson says that patrons view sexually explicit materials and sexually harass her, and that the Library management and the City of Birmingham have done nothing to stop it. This story encapsulates a lot of the complex issues around access and censorship in libraries these days: There are filters on the computers to protect children from viewing obscene materials, but they must be disabled if an adult requests it. (Not to mention the fact that filters are generally useless.) Libraries aren’t meant to be in the business of telling patrons what they can and cannot access, but general human decency tells me, at least, that viewing hard-core porn in public is kind of skeevy and wrong. However, I don’t think it should be illegal, and I don’t think librarians should be able to determine what is right and wrong in terms of access to materials. The employee feels she’s working in a hostile environment (and frankly, if I were being groped at work, I would, too!). But I can’t help by feel initially skeptical and a bit irked by Wilson’s case.

It seems off to me that the Library wouldn’t work with employees to eliminate the kinds of seriously abusive behaviors Wilson has experienced. I want more information about how Wilson tried to work with her employers to fix this situation. How was it brought to their attention? What kinds of plans were put in place to try to deal with it? If the library management were completely indifferent, well, perhaps they deserve to be sued. But I’d be surprised to find that the library didn’t try to work with her at all to solve the problem. Libraries are in a tough position around these issues: We have to preserve access while protecting our employees and other patrons. I guess I want to know what steps were taken before Wilson decided she had no other option than to sue the library. I realize that I probably sound like a victim-blaming asshole, and I want to be very clear that I don’t think it’s at all acceptable for Wilson to be asked to put up with a work environment that includes physical and verbal assault. I’m just saying I want to know what the library did before she sued to try to fix the problem.

I also can’t help but be put off by the language, at least in the article I linked to above, about these porn-viewing patrons. Wilson’s lawyer is quoted as saying, “The downtown library is located near a big city park and near a bus station…For whatever reason, they get these people in the library—they don’t have other places to be.” First, the euphemistic way of talking about the homeless population is just annoying. Second, I hate the way this lawyer makes this unspoken connection between the homeless patrons and those who are harassing Wilson. Nowhere do they explicitly say, “Yes, these are the people causing problems.” Instead, the lawyer preys on people’s discomfort with homelessness and broadens homelessness to include all kinds of socially unacceptable behaviors, saying, ‘oh, these people are here, you should keep your kids away.’ I don’t know who the people are who have groped and made lewd comments to Wilson, but I’m vastly uncomfortable with the casual way this article connects the homeless population with the patrons who are harassing Wilson.

I don’t want to be irked by this story. If someone is being sexually harassed at work, it is the responsibility of the employer to put a stop to it. Period. Is a patron’s viewing of pornography in the library considered sexual harassment? I don’t know. I feel instinctively that no, it’s not. I might not like it but according to my librarian code of ethics, patrons are entitled to view whatever they want. Is a patron grabbing a librarian considered sexual harassment? Saying sexually explicit things to her/him? Absolutely, and it should not be tolerated. So, I guess what I really want to know is whether Wilson’s case is primarily about patrons viewing porn, or about patrons physically and verbally abusing her. Because that makes a difference to me, and in how irked I feel about the case.

And maybe it’s just my stupid idealism shining through when I feel annoyed by this story. I like to think that, as librarians, we’re all in this ship together, employees and employers both. We all have to deal with these kinds of issues, and I want to believe that good librarians will work together to try to solve the problems instead of dismissing employees fears and concerns, or resorting to legal action to make our employers hear us. Naive? Yes, yes I am. But I still want more information before I can jump on Wilson’s side wholeheartedly.

One thought on “The endless complications of smut in the library

  1. goblinbox

    I love how you point out the lawyer’s use of language; how he causes us to make assumptions without actually saying anything, like, “Oh, you know, we got street people in here,” so we assume we’ve got drunken homeless junkie perverts lookin’ at hardcore porn and grabbing the lady when in fact he never says that.

    On the subject of opinion only: I don’t understand why people wanna consume teh pr0n in public anyway. I feel that’s a highly private pursuit, or that at least it SHOULD be! 😉

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