Blog Post 5: Choose Your Own Adventure–Public Libraries and Gender (and How a Possible Stalker Taught me to Value the Safety of the Library Space)

With my planning project and director’s brief in mind, I am interested in designing/planning a new service (or two) for a public library setting. So I thought it a good idea to choose my own adventure in…public libraries!

I am interested in public libraries as spaces of connection, and by connection, I understand it in two ways:

  1. the public library as a safe space where we connect with others (it is safe for me to connect with you)
  2. the public library as a safe space where we connect with the self (it is safe for me to connect with me)

Before I became an MLIS student, I viewed the public library as a space I could go to and find a book I needed or wanted. I did not see it as a space for connecting with people. My goal, in making my way through the library prior to the MLIS, was to avoid people. I wanted to avoid the circulation staff, some of whom did not seem very friendly (at my local branch library). I wanted to avoid other patrons, some of whom seemed a little scary to me. So I avoided people, in general. I kept avoiding people, and a few years ago, I stopped spending time at my local branch library–I only went there to pick up books I had put on hold or to quickly grab a book from the stacks and flee. Yes, I would flee from the library!

This need to flee from the library was not always my reality! I used to go to the library, sit and read, sometimes bring along my laptop. I used to love the chairs, the light, the green indoor plants, the fifty-cents-a-piece paperbacks for sale at the door, the benches outside for sitting and reading in sunlight. I used to love being there. And then one fine summer, all of that changed. Here is the story of why I stopped spending time at my branch library.

***

A fellow patron, who must have been visiting the library regularly, noticed my equally regular presence at the library. He came up to me and started a conversation, introducing himself and asking me for my name. Being the friendly person that I am, I chatted with him briefly, honoring his request, but I quickly realized he was not the safest person to talk to. He wanted to marry me! He had just met me, but he was pretty sure I was meant for him. That first interaction ended on an OK note, nothing too scary. I continued to visit the library and encounter this patron. Despite my efforts to avoid him, he would somehow find me, approach me, and ask me how I was doing. “Hi, beautiful! You still single?” He couldn’t find the right partner (wife) at his church, but he was pretty sure that I would make a great wife and could attend church with him. I told him that I don’t go to church at all, and I am happily single. I continued to refuse his invitations to eat or have coffee or attend church. He became insistent. Annoying. Beyond annoying. Stalker-ish. Because I wasn’t sure when he would be at the library and because whenever I went there, he seemed to materialize from the ether, I made a decision. I stopped spending time at the library. I stopped going to the library, for the most part.

It was one of the saddest decisions I have ever made. To this day, I do not spend any time at my branch library. And last summer, when I bravely decided to volunteer at my branch library for the summer (something I felt would help me become more familiar with library work, prior to starting the MLIS in the fall)…well, guess who showed up? The man who wants to marry me.

I was volunteering one day, sure that by now, years later, he would no longer be around. But there he was, one fine afternoon, as I sat at a table during my hours, hours devoted to providing job coaching to patrons. Because some years had passed, I had forgotten how badly this person had treated me. I actually smiled and tried to have a conversation with him. Very quickly, he began harrassing me about my marital status. I refused his offer to take me out (and/or marry me). He was not happy. I told him he needed to leave because I was there to offer people job coaching. As he rose from the table, he smiled at me and said, “You can be broken. I can break you.” I looked up at him, astounded, shocked that someone could actually utter these words to me. My firm response surprised even me. “No,” I said, “I cannot be broken. You cannot break me.” He simply smiled and nodded and said, “Yes, I can break you.”

I shook my head as if to say “No” in a way that would be clear enough to be heard, as he turned and walked away. I glanced at the circulation desk, which was just a few feet away from the table where I was sitting. I considered going to the desk and telling them what had just happened, what he had just said. But I chose not to. I knew that this was not something I wanted to blow up or even waste my time on. I finished my volunteer service that day, and promised myself that if he showed up again, I would report him to the staff at the desk or to the manager. A few weeks later, I completed my volunteer service for the summer, and the man did not show up again during those final weeks. I have seen him only once this year, when I stopped at the library to pick up some books I had placed on hold. He was in the parking lot, parked next to my car, but I did not see him. He honked, as I pulled out. I thought it was someone else I knew, so I actually waved at him, but it soon dawned upon me that it was him. Him again! I drove away, as fast as I could (at a safe speed), wishing that he would not follow me and that this would be my last encounter with him, wishing he would just find some other library to go to, thanking the cosmos that I work at libraries far from this one, libraries he hopefully will never ever visit. 

I realize that this patron, who openly and unabashedly harrassed me (often in front of other patrons), would have done so no matter what. If I sat outside the library and he saw me there, he would bother me–and he did just that! In fact, outside the library, in a space with benches for patrons, he bothered me even more, talking to me as if I had no choice but to marry him and go to his church. If I sat inside the library, at a desk with my laptop or in an armchair in a corner, he would spy me and try to talk to me or hover around me. And last summer, during my brief time as a volunteer, he openly harrassed me at a table not far from the circulation desk and in the presence of several other patrons who looked over at us and surely wondered what the heck was going on. Yes, this patron would surely have bothered me, no matter what steps I or anyone else might have taken to prevent this behavior.

Still, I would like to believe that certain things can be done to minimize or eliminate this kind of harrassment, perhaps through policies and the design of library spaces. Also, staff can be trained to identify when a patron is behaving inappropriately and keep an eye out for such behavior and intervene. There will probably always be that patron who goes to the library to seek out and bother people. Hopefully, through clear policies about this kind of harrassment and through spaces designed to be open and free of obstructions, these potential harrassers will receice the clear communication that their behavior is unacceptable and the library is absolutely not a place for harrassing single women and coercing them into unwanted marriages.

***

Having to deal with a potential stalker at the library is not the kind of adventure I would ever choose for myself or for anyone. My experience of being harrassed at the library has taught me the value of safety. Safety is the foundation for the successful operation and positive functioning of any public space (or private space, for that matter). And this experience of an unpleasant interaction with a fellow patron caused me to flee from my local branch library. The impact has been long-lasting, as well, since I have little or no desire to spend time there.

If I desire a “safe space” in my chosen public library, I am not alone in this desire. Up to 75% of Americans (and my guess is probably more than this number) desire and appreciate that their public libraries are “safe” and “quiet” spaces where they can read (Raine, 2014). Probably not a single one of us would want to go and read in a space where we could expect to be harrassed and pressured into any sort of unwanted interaction.

The most painful part about my not feeling comfortable about spending time at my branch library is that I am a “library lover”–I belong to the group of people who enjoy spending lots of time at the library, using the library space and services extensivley, and who tend to be students and highly educated, among other things (Zickuhr, 2014). Also, though I no longer spend time there, I remain deeply in love with my branch library; it truly saved my life. At a time when I felt a great need for information that could guide me through a personal crisis, I was able to go to the library and find (or request) books to read that brought me great comfort and insight. The library empowered me in a very beautiful way. The library met my needs at a time when I was desperate for information and a sense of possibility.

This statement is so true, for me: “Deeper connections with public libraries are often associated with key life moments such as having a child, seeking a job, being a student, and going through a situation in which research and data can help inform a decision”(Zickuhr, 2014). The library was my friend and companion during a time of personal transformation, and I will always remember the help I received there, specifically from all the wonderful books I was able to find and the time I was able to spend reading at the library. I will always love my branch library, even though I don’t spend time there these days. Fortunately, I work in two libraries, where I feel relatively safe and able to enjoy access to satisfying collections and services, and where I feel welcomed as a staff member, too. However, I think my life would be even richer if I felt safe enough to visit and spend time at the library right next to me, the one down the street and closest to where I live, the one I used to love spending time in. The library I miss. But do not feel safe in.

Gender and Safety: Important Considerations for Library Spaces and Services

I love these words by Marie Østergård of the Aarhus Library: “We designed our libraries for people, not books” (see Michael Stephens, 2016). The Dokk1 library in Aarhus, Denmark, used a fascinating design model to encourage library engagement, innovation, and empowerment (Laerkes, 2016; Stephens, 2016). What interests me most about this “four spaces” design (Laerkes, 2016) is its potential impact on patrons’ ability to feel safe at the library. And by patrons I am most interested in female patrons, but I am also interested in the safety of children and families and youth and all patrons, in general.

  1. From the perspective of gender considerations, I am curious about how many women were involved in the design of the library (the project leader, Marie Østergård, no doubt had a big impact on the project, as a whole). Were women patrons and community members a part of those surveyed before the new library was built?
  2. Again from the perspective of gender, I am curious about how women/girls/boys feel at the Dokk1 library and how they would rate the design of the library, in terms of its ability to help them feel safe and free from the risk of potential harrassment. Are women and children able to feel safe at the library?

It was great to watch the videos accompanying the Public Libraries readings (for choosing our adventures), and I loved seeing and hearing Marie Østergård. I also enjoyed the article about the makerspace for the Johnson County Library (Voell, 2016)–the photos of the makerspace made me feel that this kind of space could be a model for a safe space in a library, an open space where people can be collaborative in a way that is visible to others, and ideally a space with staff present to ensure that participants are not harrassed or treated disrespectfully.

Libraries need to have and communicate clear policies that protect patrons from being harrassed. However, the spaces can be designed to also offer protection and a sense of safety for patrons who might feel vulnerable, and this might be especially meaningful for women and children and families with young children.

Redesign for Safety and Physical Transparency

I believe that many libraries, even some of the most beautiful and well-updated ones, can benefit from redesigns that incorporate the safety of patrons. For example, tall stacks and unnecessary walls and physical barriers (pillars, collumns, dividing walls, overly huge or giant indoor plants and sculptures, etc.) could be done away with. Here are some considerations I would suggest for many public libraries:

  1. Tall stacks that obscure views of the library space can be removed, because these are often too tall or high for some patrons (women, children) to reach, and they can hide from view other patrons who might choose to harrass or mistreat others.
  2. Walls and physical barriers that are not necessary can be done away with, and glass panels can be used instead. Even things like circulation desks and desks for public-use computers can be designed to be less of a barrier to the overall library space and flow of energy, using clear/transparent plastic panels or glass. (Yes, I realize the janitors maight have more work wiping down all that glass!)
  3. Separate wings of the the library could be dissolved or designed to NOT have a barrier between them, allowing parents to freely brows adult collections while keeping an eye on their kids in the children’s section.
  4. Terracing and staggering of library floors, along with clear panel walls, can be used to give patrons and staff unobstructed views of various parts of the library.
  5. Do away with big, clunky furniture and giant indoor plants and scultures and things like pillars of collumns. Design furniture and decorations so that people can see around desks, tables, stools, shelves, and even see through them, so that views of the space are not blocked off. If possible, use smaller furniture, instead of giant desks and tables and chairs and benches.

Cute but Disorienting: The Impact of Design Flaws

In the public library where I work, it is very common for staff to scurry around looking for a missing child. The reason for this is the very disorienting design of the children’s wing, and the fact that the stacks (lowered for kids but still) are too tall and block clear views of the wing. The separate room for picture books and storytimes is charming, a nice spacious playroom, but again it is obscured and blocked off by stacks in the middle of the room, big collumns, and walls around the room. This makes it easy for parents to lose sight of kids, and kids to lose sight of parents. And soon everyone is scurrying around trying to locate a child who wandered out of the room…or a child is screaming for a parent who has moved out of view and the poor kid feels lost and alone! All of this frequent fright and panic over separated family members can be attributed to the very cute but ultimatly very poor design of the children’s wing.

This example from the library where I work could be resolved by moving the stacks from the middle spaces of the wing and children’s room and placing these stacks/books along the wall, opening up the middle spaces of both areas. Also, clear or glass panels for walls separating the storytime room from the rest of the children’s wing would help parents and kids see each other, even when they wander away from each other briefly to look at books or sit and read. Toddlers love to wander, older kids love to wander, adults love to wander. They could be allowed to do so freely and without fear, if their views of each other remain unobstructed.

I can personally attest to how much this could eliminate the terror of losing sight of a loved on. I brought my toddler nephew to the library where I work, so that we could attend a children’s toy-time, and he wandered off (just my luck!), and before I knew it we were separated. I began scurrying through the stacks in both the storytime room and the main children’s wing, looking for him, and he began wailing (which I couldn’t hear because there were many other kids around and again the stacks blocked the sound of his wails). I was so panicked. Fortunately, the staff are used to noticing children who wander away from guardians, and one staff member recognized my nephew and brought him to me. It was such an upsetting experience for me that it made me almost quit on the idea of bringing him to the library.

I love beautiful libraries, and I always will. But more and more, I realize that the spaces are not really designed to enhance a sense of safety for some patrons, especially women, children, and families with young ones. Quiet reading spaces and private corners seem cosy, but can quickly become spaces where potentially vulnerable patrons get harrassed. Perhaps there is some way to design quiet reading spaces within the library that are not shielded from the view of staff, so that patrons can summon help if needed or staff can notice trouble before it progresses toward trauma. This means, women and children have to be included in the design/planning process. And ultimately, as Marie Østergård says, we can think of libraries as spaces for people and not just spaces for books and computers or technology. The books and tech tools are things we can afford to wear out and abuse and even sometimes misplace, but we cannot afford to do this to people and to children, to misuse or abuse or lose them.

Connecting with Self and Others: Safety First!

Returning to my initial view of public libraries as spaces of connection, safety comes first and if safety is for the most part ensured, then:

  1. the public library becomes a safe space where we connect with others (it is safe for me to connect with you)
  2. the public library becomes a safe space where we connect with the self (it is safe for me to connect with me)

Public libraries can be spaces of collaboration, where we meet others and interact and create with others. They can also be spaces where we find what we need for our personal lives, where we find inspiration and self-empowerment and even self-transformation. But if we do not feel safe, then we are less likely to engage with others and collaborate; and if we do not feel protected, then we are less likely to return to the library and make use of the services, and we might even feel that we have to flee from the library because of the potential dangers and harrassment lurking there.

How can we make our public libraries safer spaces for women and children and families with young ones? This is something every library should consider, and this is something I will definitely keep in mind as I work on planning/designing a service for a public library. This will be my challenge. My own adventure in public libraries. I think it will make the process fun and interesting, thinking in terms of gender, as well as other influential factors. I will strive to design a service that can be meaningful to many patrons, but above all, I hope it will be one that puts safety first.

References

Laerkes, J.G. (2016). The four spaces of the public library.

Raine, L. (2014). 10 Facts about Americans and public libraries.

Stephens, M. (2016). Dream. Explore. Experiment.

Voell, B. (2016). The New Black and Veatch Makerspace at the Johnson Country Library

Zickuhr, K. (2014). A new way of looking at public library engagement in America. 

2 thoughts on “Blog Post 5: Choose Your Own Adventure–Public Libraries and Gender (and How a Possible Stalker Taught me to Value the Safety of the Library Space)

  1. Oh, so much great information to digest here. Your experience really resonated with me, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across similar situations while working by myself at the front desk. Libraries definitely should do more in safeguarding patrons’ safety and creating safe spaces. I know we have security guards on hand and sometimes even some have on body cameras or other web cams on site.

  2. Yes – so many thoughtful ideas to ponder. I appreciate your two goals – one points toward self-actualization and the other points to ward the value of connecting/collaborating with others. These are exactly what I think libraries are about.

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