Sexual harassment, intimidation, violence on the job worsened during pandemic, librarians report

Librarian are speaking out about the harassment, assaults and threats they face every day on the job, which they say have become more prevalent over the course of the pandemic as other public spaces closed.

84% of librarian respondents verbally assaulted, University of Toronto survey finds

Libraries have been open more than other public places over the course of the pandemic and are often one of the only places for vulnerable people to go. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Librarian Nancy Duncan has been shouted and sworn at and called names so many times on the job, she says she's lost count. 

She's been sexually harassed and routinely witnesses patrons refusing to wear masks and making racist remarks toward her colleagues.. She's intervened in an overdose, jabbing a patron with naloxone and saving their life. But sometimes she wonders how much longer she'll be able to cope.

"We brush it off, but as the weeks go by and these incidents keep repeating, it starts to weigh on your mental health," Duncan told CBC News.

"Libraries are like a microcosm of society. All of the problems you see at the larger level, we're experiencing at the local, individual level."

Duncan and librarians Cameron Ray and Eila McLeish are speaking out about the harassment, assaults and threats they face every day in Ontario libraries, which they say have become more prevalent over the course of the pandemic as other public spaces closed.

Libraries opened first at the end of the lockdowns and have emerged as a vital social safety net, a place for everyone free of charge, said Ray.

The University of Toronto study surveyed librarians working in four large cities across the province. (Katherine Holland/CBC)

However, he said he's been subjected to three death threats and three physical assaults. Often, he feels out of his depth responding to the growing number of patrons experiencing mental illness, homelessness or addictions.

"It is still a place I very much believe in and love," Ray said. "But at the same time we simply do not have the time to diagnose somebody and then be able to give them the appropriate attention that would be right for them."

McLeish said she has been physically assaulted at work multiple times, too.. Once she discovered the body of a deceased patron and has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

"I demoted myself to a lower level because I couldn't take the incidents I was going through again and again and again," McLeish said.

"And it hasn't been much better."

The 'invisible' front-line workers

Their accounts follow the results of a University of Toronto study that surveyed 527 librarians in four large Ontario cities from January 2020 to April 2021. CBC News has agreed not to disclose the cities to protect respondents' privacy and to align with the study's ethics.

The survey found almost all respondents, who are predominately female, have witnessed or experienced violence, intimidation and harassment while working in libraries. Just over two thirds stated they feel unsafe at work a minimum of a few times per month.

Siobhan Stevenson, a professor with U of T's faculty of information who led the project, said while incidents of abuse are not happening in every library branch, the survey results indicate many librarians are facing the same kinds of challenges as other front-line workers, but are often overlooked. 

"The main findings were stunning," said Stevenson. "It's very stressful for these workers and they're kind of invisible." 

The results show:

  • 97 per cent of respondents witnessed verbal intimidation like shouting, swearing and disrespectful name calling at least once — 84 per cent experienced it themselves.
  • 75 per cent experienced physical intimidation, such as when someone intentionally wanted to make them feel uncomfortable by getting in their way or standing too close.
  • 75 per cent had an unwelcome invasion of personal space, like a patron leaning over or touching them. 
  • 61 per cent reported receiving unwelcome suggestive looks or gestures.
  • 60 per cent said they've been insulted, mistreated, ignored or excluded because of their gender.

Librarians say they need more support

Sexual assaults were also reported.

Fourteen librarians said someone had tried to rape them at work. Eight said they'd been sexually assaulted. Twenty said they witnessed a sexual assault or rape of a colleague or patron. 

"It is a small number, but the fact it exists at all is concerning," Stevenson said.

Patrons watching pornography on library computers is also a problem, the research suggests. Seventy-one per cent of respondents reported seeing this sexually oriented material.

The three librarians CBC News interviewed all said they need more support from their municipalities, such as hiring public nurses to assist patrons in need, as well as more security guards, social workers and staff. 

What's often the hardest situation is not being able to help, said Ray. 

"You see someone arrive to the city and get involved in drugs and you see their body diminish, their mental capacity diminish and then you have to exclude them because they can no longer function," said Ray.

"It's really tragic that the library can't be more of a resource for them.

"We are the ones expected to pick up the pieces, but we simply can't."