News & Opinion

Excuse Me, But I’m Afraid I Have To Ask You…

by on April 4, 2013

Recently news circulated through libraryland about a Wisconsin man banned from “all the libraries on the face of the earth” for the indecent acts he had been caught performing.[1] In the circles I travel in, the response to this ranged from those finding the ‘punishment’ ridiculous to those who were pleased.

I can see the ridiculous argument given the mission and purpose of a public library.  However I must admit, my personal sympathies fell to the latter category. Why? Because I have been the unfortunate librarian who had to put a stop to the behavior and approach men involved in lascivious behavior. It’s not fun. In fact, it is more than a little scary.  If the man, and sorry, not to be sexist, but it is almost always a man, is willing to break social conventions this way, what other norms would he disregard? Is this an act of defiance? Mental illness?

Granted there are libraries that do their best to dissuade such things:  block pornography websites, recording cameras, requiring ids, etc.  The sad truth is that the people who are willing to engage in this behavior publically don’t particularly care about these preventive measures and do not find them a deterrent.  Likewise, in my experience, this problem is also not limited to basements or dark corners. Nope. Those that I’ve encountered had no problem being right out in the open.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s what I thought, too, before having real life experience. Call the police! I did. And they came. But the reality was that someone had to ‘do something’ long before they could arrive, and that someone is always the librarian. For the public library, this seems to be a silent problem. I know of no library that hasn’t at one time or another dealt with the issue. Yet I have never seen this discussed at conferences or in training situations. Perhaps that is because what is there to say about this behavior? What can you do??

It is one of those things that you do at the time because you must and afterwards you joke about it, because how can you not?  Still, I find it reassuring to know that others are in the same boat.  Likewise, if anyone has  methods for dealing with this  situationI would love to hear them..

In writing this post I tried to find statistics about crimes in libraries but was not successful. I did discover a while ago there was a legal discussion about banning sex offenders from the public library building, if not the use of the library. This was decided to be unconstitutional in appeal.[2]  Fundamentally I support this. I know from my Criminologist days, not all registered sex offenders pose any threat to anyone in the community. I would venture a guess that those arrested for indecent behavior in public spaces, including the public library are not on the register.

But the problem remains: for those of us working in the public library how do we manage indecent behavior?


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