Beyond ALA’s Code of Conduct: What can we do to combat harassment at ALA Conferences?

This post has been a long time coming. I apologize for its tardiness, but the ideas percolating in my head regarding the results of my ALA Code of Conduct survey have been numerous and various and hard to pin down. And clearly, a couple of issues have come to light since I’ve started compiling numbers and stories. Several librarians whom I respect and admire have voiced their support (monetarily and otherwise) for the Ada Initiative, which, among other things, promotes anti-harassment policies for conferences. In addition, the circumstances surrounding #teamharpy cannot be ignored. I imagine that however Joe Murphy’s legal proceedings play out, it will shape how the library world, which claims to be in favor of free speech and freedom of information, deals with people who speak out against harassment. For whatever it is worth, I would like to state that I fully support the Ada Initiative and #teamharpy (speaking of which, please consider signing the petition asking Joe Murphy to drop his lawsuit). I have no illusions of grandeur that my opinion is some major win for either party, but we all have to add our voices of encouragement and approval.

After collecting over 300 survey results, I have been considering what ALA’s next steps should be. I believe I’ve learned something from reading the survey responses and I wanted to voice some concrete plans-of-attack for dealing with conference harassment. I will also share the ideas and concerns that survey respondents contributed.

Thus, this is how I think we should proceed to make our industry safer for conference attendees.

  • Realize that harassment at ALA conferences is a real concern and a major problem. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t witnessed it. It doesn’t matter if it’s never happened to you. Your colleagues are telling you that it’s a reality. If you are inclined to not believe your colleagues, consider finding a new profession where you do not exist in a constant state of mistrust. I often witness colleagues touting the idea that people are willy-nilly apt to make false accusations against their coworkers/peers for attention. I’m not sure where this idea started. Though my CoC survey dealt with harassment as a whole, I often recall the notion that a man is 32 times more likely to be struck by lightning than he is to be falsely accused of rape. Some of our peers are living in a fantasy world where people are out to make false accusations for attention or some sort of Movers and Shakers-type status. The ALA will not be able to move forward on these issues until we admit that there’s a problem.
  • In a similar vein to the above, let’s not dismiss ALA’s harassment problems because we think it’s just as bad or worse everywhere else. In a previous post, a commenter stated, “I wonder what percentage of reporting there is of sexual harassment in general. I suspect that there are just basically a lot of people, no matter where they are, who do not report sexual harassment.” To muse that it’s just horrible for women everywhere so we can’t expect much more from ALA is a terrible argument. Though harassment is felt by people of all genders, let’s never forget that librarianship is largely made up of a female workforce. The fact that women make up the majority of librarianship yet we’re still subject to this kind of nonsense is despicable. There is zero excuse to give up this fight.
  • Survey respondents discussed who should spearhead a task force that would deal with ALA harassment issues. The Committee on the Status of Women in Librarianship, SRRT’s Feminist Task Force and ACRL’S Women’s and Gender Studies Section were all mentioned as groups with the potential to take on this role. I, however, believe that there should be a separate task force specifically designated with overseeing this matter. First, women are not the only ones who face harassment, threats, unwanted touches, etc. Though common sense would bring you to the very same conclusion, the survey revealed that ALA attendees who identify themselves as persons of color, queer/genderqueer, trans*, and/or differently abled/disabled also faced harassment. Additionally, I am vehemently opposed to the idea that harassment is the problem of women (and/or the harassed) alone and that we must be the ones who organize and deliberate how best to not be harassed/threatened/demeaned/etc. ALA is still such a massive and complicated mystery to me, and I don’t always understand its politics, but I maintain that a CoC and harassment prevention task force should be created. It should reflect various factions of the ALA community, from the GLBTRT to the Black Caucus and beyond.
  • Nearly 23% of survey respondents believed that reporting harassment should be easier. Searching for the term “code of conduct” on the ALA website gets you a myriad unhelpful search results. “Harassment” garners similar links. The best I could find was a variety of phone numbers and email addresses at the bottom of pages regarding the Philadelphia and Vegas conferences.  The Philadelphia information is much more helpful, with concrete contact information. The Vegas page simply lets the reader know that contact information is forthcoming. Information regarding what you should do if you are harassed should not be this hard to find. Who should I call? What should I do? Where should I go? This information should be readily available and easy-to-access on the website and in conference signage. Speaking of signage…
  • A good portion of survey respondents mentioned the need for anti-harassment signage. One even mentioned the campaign of Emerald City Comic Con, which included this poster: 

This poster has a lot going for it: It’s eye-catching, clear, and it addresses both the harasser and the one harassed. I would, however, improve upon it by adding a contact number. If ALA conferences could feature some posters just like this, I firmly believe that little reminders posted in various locations can be an effective way to drive home certain talking points. Two in particular, really: 1. Don’t harass. Think twice about your behavior and the things you say to your fellow conference goers. 2. If something happens to you, there is a process in place to deal with it. There’s a number to call. There’s a person to talk to. Signage alone doesn’t fix all problems, obviously, but it can be a practical tool for spreading information.

  • If you are harassed at a conference, and you feel safe enough to do so, report it. This is especially important when dealing with serial harassers. A paper trail can be a powerful weapon. In addition, the research of Hollaback, an organization dedicated to ending street harassment, has found that reporting harassment, “can reduce the impact of trauma — a common side affect of street harassment.” More on that here. If you don’t feel comfortable reporting it, speak up in whatever manner you feel appropriate. Tweet about it. Document it (in whatever fashion you wish). Blog about it. Don’t feel like you have to bear the burden alone.
  • If you witness harassment, be a good bystander. It may not always feel safe to approach a harassment situation, but Hollaback (yes, I’m citing them a lot here. They’re a tremendous resource.) mentions some tactics you can use. Always opt for the one that keeps you out of harm’s way:
  1. Direct Intervention: Ask the harasser to stop it. Take a picture. Shoot them a nasty look. Ask the target if they need help.
  2. Delegated Intervention: Yell for help. Call the police. Report it.
  3. Distracting Intervention: My favorite example of this is Potato Chip Man. He doesn’t comment on the situation but simply uses his size to break up the situation. Similarly, you could pretend to know the target: “Hey! There you are! I’ve been looking for you!” or “You better hurry up! Your panel is starting.” Spill your coffee everywhere. Cause a commotion. Do what it takes to divert the harasser’s attention from the target.
  4. Delayed Intervention: After the incident occurs, ask the target of harassment if they are OK or if they need anything. Let them know that you can serve as a witness if the target wishes to report it. This reminds me of the hashtag #YouOKSis, which was created to center the conversation around WOC and harassment. After a man at ALA Vegas slobbered all over my hand and made a suggestive comment, two witnesses came over to ask me if I was alright. They offered me soap to clean the saliva off of my hands. They let me know that I wasn’t crazy: The incident was real, they saw it, and it wasn’t OK. This made a huge difference to me. Simple gestures like this can be empowering.
  • Make sensitivity/anti-harassment training available at conferences. Code of Conduct violations are everyone’s business, not just those of the targets of harassment and witnesses. It’s a shame that highly-educated professionals can’t figure out what is acceptable behavior and what is not, but there’s obviously a need for anti-harassment instruction. If you feel like you’re unclear about harassment and personal boundaries and appropriate behavior, take it upon yourself to educate yourself. We are in the business of information. Let’s open this dialogue.
  • So…what happens to those who violate the Code of Conduct? If I get harassed at work, and I have, I can report it. In fact, I have two ways to report it. I can go to a supervisor or someone from Human Resources and let them know what happened. In addition, if I feel unsafe naming myself for whatever reason, we have something in place where we can report incidents anonymously. After an investigation, the harasser is then dealt with in whatever way the powers-that-be feel is appropriate. Things are documented and added to files. People are reprimanded or put on probation or transferred or, in some cases, terminated. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s there. I know that I have recourse when harassment occurs. What happens to harassers at ALA conferences? What are the consequences for their actions? Are there any? Conferences are work. I am on work-time when I am a conference. I want the same protections at an ALA conference as I get when I’m in my library.

I’d like to see some real effort on the part of ALA when dealing with the issue of Code of Conduct violations and harassment. In the wake of #teamharpy and others coming forward about harassment, we owe it to ourselves and our colleagues to do better.

How would you prefer the ALA to proceed on this subject?

~Love and Libraries, Ingrid

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5 thoughts on “Beyond ALA’s Code of Conduct: What can we do to combat harassment at ALA Conferences?

  1. Diedre Conking

    By the way, many of the issues addressed by COSWL over the years affected both men and women, i.e. childcare at conferences, posting salaries in job ads, and really equal rights also affects everyone. I do think that COSWL is an important partner in this equation, if not the lead. COSWL members have been discussing ways to address making it clear how to report incidents and where. I was talking with someone recently who talked about posters or stickers in the conference restrooms and we were thinking about a design. Your design might be helpful in this process. GLBTRT has and is working on harassment that has occurred in restrooms at conferences. I think a working group that pulls together some of these groups is a reasonable idea but please don’t think that they aren’t already working on some aspect of the issues now but just haven’t reported it out yet on a general, all ALA level, yet. I am hoping that this occurs soon.

    1. I’ve had a lot of ALA people, on the Council and otherwise, explaining to me how these things are being worked on, and I find it really territorial and not conducive to discussion. Whatever is being worked on needs to be addressed with more urgency.

      1. Diedre Conkling

        I agree with the need for quick and immediate action. To be honest, I have been trying to get people moving more within the formal structure of ALA for at least the last 2 years (or maybe for the last 37 years – or however long I have been an ALA member) and have been extremely frustrated by the lack of response. I just want to keep reminding us that there is a formal ALA structure that can help, even though we may be pushing and pulling them into action. Yes, my comments have almost been shaming them into action, which I might regret if it wasn’t an urgent issue. The informal/outside of the structure actions need to occur as well. I am actually advocating for both, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

  2. Daniel Cornwall

    Reblogged this on Librarian From Alaska and commented:
    I think the Magpie Librarian makes good suggestions here on how to make reporting harassment easier. We’ve got a Code of Conduct. Now we need ways to implement it.

    At some point, I’d like to see a button for reporting harassment and offering the information promised under the Code of Conduct put into the ALA app. I think it’s probably too late for Midwinter 2015, but maybe it can be thought of for Annual 2015?

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