Federation of Ontario Public Libraries

Are you struggling with patrons sharing racist, sexist, anti-mask, etc. viewpoints? 

I recently read a crowd-sourced discussion of appropriate responses from front line library staff about what t say while remaining professional.

Here are the best responses I saw (lightly edited for language and identity).

“Do you have a library question that I can assist you with?” This my passive aggressive way of saying this is not why I am behind this desk.”

“I say “do you have anything library-related that I can help you with?” It actually works remarkably well for me.”

“When people use slurs, etc., it’s our practice to say, “we don’t do that here,” and then follow up with the above.”

“Please use respectful language or you’ll be asked to leave.”’

“If someone is being racist in my presence while I work. I just straight up say something along the lines of “that is racist and not acceptable. Please leave.’””

“On the phone, I have employed “this conversation is over” and then hang up. In person, I have said “that language is unacceptable, and I cannot help you further.””

“I had a patron complaining that all people experiencing homelessness were lazy drug addicts and my response was “that has not been my experience.” I’ve also used “I’m not comfortable having this conversation while I’m on the clock and representing the library” when people try to pull me into politics discussions.” 

“I have gotten to the point that I’m out of patience, (this was true even before the pandemic), and just flatly tell them it’s inappropriate and they have to stop. I don’t care if they complain that I’m not being nice, people’s dignity and safety is more important than coddling the feelings of bigots.”

“It can be very difficult to set and hold healthy boundaries in this female-dominated helping profession. People will try to take advantage of that. Keep it short, direct, and professional.”

“You’re asking about this bleeding over into your non-work life, right? I see a lot of comments here about how to handle this at work. I would try to impose some mental distance between work and the rest of your life, and I would also try to set some boundaries. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be nice to people all the time, and that this is often an expectation that goes along with gender and not actually part of your job. At work we’re supposed to be polite and fair, which isn’t the same thing as “nice.” Do you work with any men who aren’t always “nice” in the way you feel is your job? That might be your answer right there.”

“Also: when patrons say something racist or make comments about the female staff, I very firmly say “that’s not appropriate. Is there something library-related that I can help you with?” I also will not hesitate to ask a patron to leave for the day if they say something racist or inappropriate.”

“I also sometimes say “the wonderful thing about libraries is that they welcome everybody. Which means they welcome EVERYBODY.” I’ve also said (in response to complaints about homeless patrons) “libraries reflect the communities they serve. There is a housing crisis in our community and the library is a safe place for folks to go.” Essentially, if you don’t like how many homeless patrons are in the library, fix your community.”

“The exact opposite unfortunately … or fortunately. I’m a lovely, cheery, upbeat person at the Library (especially during the time of Covid, because literally I might be the sunshine in someone’s horrid day, and honestly, I’ve got it pretty good), but man am I direct outside of work, outside my family and close friends, I have no patience anymore for non-believers, anti-maskers, people who are entitled, conspiracy theorists . . . ”

“Racist patrons — I have nothing. Fortunately. during the time of COVID. . . everyone is masked, and we are encouraged to not speak to each other:  Pleasant platitudes are everything.”

“I would start with trying to build awareness of what’s going on in interactions you have with others. Maybe script yourself some responses for common situations and decide in advance which topics or requests are your deal-breakers. It’s always OK to say, “I’d rather not discuss this with you” or to walk away from an interaction with a stranger that’s making you uncomfortable.”

Some library desks work in teams, have a safe word, or have a panic button (like a bank).  In all resects personal safety is your first priority.

And my favourite advice for small town librarians – tongue in cheek:

“Never drink in the town you work.”