I have been a member of the American Library Association for 16 years, with membership and committee involvement in the Library and Information Technology Association and the Office of Intellectual Freedom. I also hold long-standing membership in LLAMA and PLA. I have authored several pieces published by ALA. I have presented at many ALA, LITA, and PLA conferences. I have been an ALA member since I was in library school, and have always considered my ALA membership to be a given. I have not always agreed with positions ALA has taken, or more often refused to take, on issues vital to our role as information professionals in this country. However, I have never before this week considered canceling my membership.

Kurt Vonnegut quote about libraries

In the first organization-wide press release addressing the outcome of the election, dated 11/15/16 [update: link edited to an archived copy as ALA chose to “rescind” (AKA take down) this press release as well], you, ALA President Julie Todaro, stated: “We are ready to work with President-elect Trump, his transition team, incoming administration and members of Congress to bring more economic opportunity to all Americans and advance other goals we have in common.” I understand the global goal–working with all incoming elected officials–but as an ALA member I am absolutely not ready to work with President-elect Trump. He has stood for racism, prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination for his entire life–including during his campaign. Those are all things ALA stands firmly against. Explain to me why we’re ready to work with a bigot? Because I’m not ready for that at all. The rest of this release went on to detail some of the things libraries do for communities–coming off as a weak and pandering missive begging for scraps and, in truth, coming from a place of fear.

But wait, there’s hope! In another press release dated 11/15/16 which was released shortly thereafter, you stated “ALA believes that the struggle against racism, prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination is central to our mission.” OK, ALA! Good for us! We’re speaking out against injustice. It doesn’t quite resonate with the last release, but OK. You’ve given me some hope. I was heartened by this statement and was ready to hear from our national library leaders how we, on the front lines, could continue the fight.

And then the bomb fell. The most recent release dated 11/17/16 says it all with its headline: “Libraries bolster opportunity — new briefs show how libraries support policy priorities of new administration.” The release was deleted but an archived copy can be found of course, because we’re librarians and nothing can ever really, truly be erased from the web. From the release: “Today the American Library Association (ALA) released three briefs highlighting how libraries can advance specific policy priorities of the incoming Trump administration in the areas of entrepreneurship, services to veterans and broadband adoption and use.” Things go downhill from there and the rest of the release reads like a plea to the new administration to not cut library funding, a childish whine of “please, please–we’re still relevant,” and above all, a backing away from the statements of the release that so firmly upheld the values of our profession to protect the most vulnerable in our populations.

This trajectory away from justice and toward collaboration with a fascist regime disturbs me greatly.  These comments are tone deaf and, not only do not represent my values as a librarian, but do not represent the shared values of the American Library Association and its membership.

There is a time to walk a middle road, to give voice to a moderate viewpoint of an organization’s membership. This is not that time. This is the time to stand tall and proud, and give voice to the fiery ethics and values that our profession has held dear for so long in the face of fascism and bigotry.

I have no intention of supporting this incoming administration in any way whatsoever. With the transition team and other appointments being floated in the press, President-elect Trump has made it clear that racism, sexism, bigotry, assault, discrimination of all kinds, and the destruction of basic civil liberties are foundational to his administration’s philosophy. I refuse to be complicit in the work of the Trump administration and cannot in good faith remain part of a professional organization that chooses to be complicit.

I read your apology about the 11/17 release, which states that this release was a draft only and that a revision will be posted Monday. I write drafts all the time and pieces of drafts change by the final version. But never in my life has the overarching message of a draft changed remarkably before final publication, and the overarching message of these statements is what I have a fundamental moral and ethical problem with. It remains to be seen whether this release was a colossal screw-up or just an unrefined version of what you and ALA were going to send out anyway. Weirdly, I find myself hoping for the colossal screw-up scenario.

As the Director of the San Rafael Public Library, I will continue to stand up for the rights of the people in my diverse community. As Sarah Houghton, resident of San Rafael, I will work every day to fight against the oppressive administration of President-elect Trump.  It appears that I can not count on ALA to help me do either of these things. If ALA continues its policy of pandering to a bigoted and dangerous administration, if not outright supporting it, I will cancel my ALA membership and resign from all of my existing committee appointments.

I hope that the staff and Executive Board of ALA, and you President Todaro, reverse course and find the strength within yourselves to stand firm and uphold the long-held values of our profession and this, our professional organization.


Sarah Houghton

(edit for clarification : this letter was also sent directly to Ms. Todaro)

Earlier this year I organized a training for library staff throughout our county from the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and a stellar local senior non-profit named Senior Access dedicated to serving residents with memory loss issues. This training was inspired by two things: in my year in the San Rafael Leadership Institute our class project was raising funds for Senior Access -and- a demographic study from the Association of Bay Area Governments that highlighted Marin County’s median age compared to regional, state, and national norms. In 2013, the median age was:

  • 37.5 in the United States
  • 35.7 in California
  • 45.5 in Marin County

Basically, where I live and work to provide library services, our population is ten years ahead in terms of age. As a result, library services here are slightly different to meet the needs of this older population. A significant part of serving this older population is seeing an increase in various memory disorders (Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, Lewy body disease, Frontotemporal dementia) among our neighbors and library users. Thus, the training.

Libraries are uniquely positioned to see changes in our regular users. We have people who come in all the time, and we can see changes in their behavior, mood, and appearance that others who see them less often would never recognize. Likewise, libraries and librarians are trusted entities–you may have people being more open and letting their guard down with you in a way that lets you observe what’s happening to them more directly. Finally, people who work in libraries generally really care a lot about other people–and that in-built sensitivity and care can help when seeing a change in someone’s mental health and abilities.

I’m going to do my best to sum up what I learned at the training as well as what we’ve seen here in our Library serving older adults with memory issues. I hope some of this can help you at your library too.

How do memory disorders usually make themselves visible?

As each of us ages, our memories get less and less reliable. Typical changes can include forgetting an occasional appointment or bill due date, forgetting words, and losing things. Changes that indicate something more progressed is happening in someone’s mind include disruptions to daily life, changes in personality, withdrawal from work or friends, poor judgment, misplacing things frequently, difficulty solving problems, confusion  about when and where you are, and trouble with spatial relationships or speaking and writing.

How might these memory disorders present in a library environment?

People will think they are in another library, another city, or another time period. They may confuse library staff for a relative of theirs. They may become upset, not remembering how they got to the library. They may repeatedly come to the library on the wrong day for an event. They may tell staff that their library card must have been stolen because they don’t remember checking out the items on their account. They may become angry and frustrated when you present them with the “correct” information. They may need to be shown the same basic procedures repeatedly, always as if for the first time. They may become uncharacteristically verbally abusive to staff or other library users when frustrated. They may pace or wander seemingly at random. They may repeatedly ask the same questions during the same short window of time. They may look and behave completely normal. One never knows for sure.

What are people with memory disorders experiencing?

Overall, in any stage of memory decline, people experience confusion, and then a resulting discomfort or uneasiness, which usually leads to an uncharacteristic behavior. Some people withdraw while others lash out. Most people experience severe fear during the latter stages of their memory loss, which makes sense if you think about it. How scary would it be to wake up with a functionally blank slate and try to “appear normal” to everyone as you go through your day? Showing up at a job that you haven’t had for 10 years, looking for a car that you don’t have any more, expecting to see a 22 year old friend who’s somehow now looking like she’s 62. How people with memory disorders behave has a lot to do with their personalities, as well as how the disease has progressed.

What is the most important thing to do when working with someone with a memory disorder?

Focus on communication. Be a good listener by expressing interest, being patient, and not interrupting. Use body language effectively by making eye contact, using a calm voice, and using gestures. Be mindful of the environment by moving to a quiet place, reducing distractions, and moving away from potential onlookers. Aim for simplicity by giving simple instructions one at a time, asking simple questions one at a time, and being mindful of the pace of your speech.

Communicating with someone with an impacted memory can be very frustrating. What should I do and not do?

Do: allow plenty of time for comprehension, repeat instructions using exactly the same words, agree with them even if what they’re saying is false, accept the blame when they feel something is wrong, be patient and cheerful, and forgive.

Don’t: reason, argue, remind them that they keep forgetting things, question their memory, or take it personally.

What should I do if I repeatedly see an adult alone in the library who seems to have some kind of memory disorder and who cannot take care of himself or herself?

If you can contact a family member or caregiver, do that first. Oftentimes our integrated library system databases have the capacity to add a second name to someone’s account or a note in the record to call a caregiver if there’s a problem. If you cannot find a family member or caregiver, call Adult Protective Services (here’s California’s APS website) or whatever the local agency equivalent is for you. It may feel like tattling or ratting someone out, but just as we would contact Child Protective Services if we feared for a child’s safety and well-being, so we should do for adults who have a diminished capacity to take care of themselves. It’s never fun, but these folks handle cases like this all day and approach their work with sensitivity, care, and kindness. Let them do their jobs.

What can I do in my library to support a community of people with memory issues?

Offer free and conveniently timed classes on memory retention, communication strategies, living with dementia, signs of memory loss. Local non-profits can definitely provide the expert trainers for these classes. Offer to be a site for a support group. Keep a handy resource list of local non-profits and governmental resources for people with memory disorders: adult day cares, advocacy groups, residentiail facilities, caregiver support, diagnosis programs, in-home care, legal and financial information, meal programs, and transportation options. Train your staff on the warning signs to look for and how to effectively communicate with people with memory issues. Collaborate with local non-profits on art programs, day field trips, and other activities to keep people with memory disorders active and engaged in their communities.


For more information, check out the Alzheimer’s Association website: look for a local chapter, resources for family care, caregiver support groups, classes, day programs, and training. And in a pinch you can definitely call the Alzheimer’s Association National Hotline: 1-800-272-3900.


I’m on my last day of conference here in Orlando at the American Library Association Annual Conference. I’ve been going to multiple conferences every year for the last decade and a half. Local, state, national, international, specialized, general, you name it. I have the conference packing down, the “airplane survival pack” perfected, and have a master plan for maximizing my schedule. I still stink at finding healthy, sustaining food in other cities. Meh, there’s always something new to learn, right?

This conference was a very different one for me. Sure–I came here to present and to help people get hired for jobs they want. But (this last bit is selfish) I also came to see if I could recapture the excitement and belief in libraries that got me into this profession in the first place.

I’ve had a hard few years professionally. I was looking for this conference to make me believe again–in what I do every day and in what I’ve dedicated my life to. Spoiler alert: It worked.

So…what did I learn?

Lesson 1: A sincere passion for service permeates everything librarians do.

Conversation after conversation over the last few days drove this point home. Presenters talking about projects–successful and not. Friends and colleagues discussed their current efforts, all user-focused and stimulating in them an exuberance usually reserved for Comic-Con or a Depeche Mode concert. I’ve been surrounded by people smiling, laughing, and fist pumping about the work they do every day. How do you beat that?

Lesson 2: Librarians are a powerful tribe.

Even with conference attendance significantly down this year, I was once again amazed at walking through the hallways and realizing every darn person I was seeing worked in or with libraries. There are so many of us and we’re all, in our own way, working our butts off to make our communities a better place. We talk a lot about feeling disenfranchised, unimportant to our parent institutions, or unrecognized. But there are *a lot* of us. With the efforts of groups like EveryLibrary and the ALA Committee on Legislation we can continue to leverage our numbers, our passion, and our ethics to effect positive change on local and national levels.

Lesson 3: Smart people do smart things every day and it doesn’t win them awards.

Of every 1,000 library staff doing amazing things at their job–innovative, caring, above-and-beyond types of things–maybe 1 gets recognition. Awards are nice, but they don’t catch all, or even necessarily the best, of the people kicking ass in libraries. Please remember to say thank you to the people you work with. Say thank you to the random people elsewhere you see doing astounding things. There aren’t enough certificates, trophies, or medals in the world to recognize the good and necessary work we all do.

Lesson 4: Librarians’ lives are often difficult due to factors out of our control.

No library job, budget, boss, institutional political structure, decision-making structure, population, support, or facility is going to be perfect for anyone. There is a lot that has the potential to cause immense amounts of stress. The reality is that these elements are part of the job, part of public service. There are jobs that will fit a person better or worse and communities that will fit a person better or worse. It’s our job to figure out where we can fit so we can keep doing good work.

Lesson 5: Librarians’ lives are often difficult due to factors completely within our control.

There are some things that we can control. We can choose not to work insane hours and give up our time for free. We can take care of ourselves by actually taking our breaks (*gasp*) and walking out of the library for lunch.  We can prioritize professional development. We can choose not to allow the little dramas (and let’s be honest, they are little dramas) of the workplace become full blown crises that spin us into oblivion. We can choose to spend our time and energy on the team members we work with who share our goals and ethics and who are pleasant to be around, thereby minimizing the impact and influence of the few bad apples that can exist in any organization.

Lesson 6: Money, type of library, and type of position greatly affect a librarian’s reality.

A good number of comments I heard, both in formal sessions and informal conversations, reflected a personal bias and limited experience of the speaker. Not everyone has a smart phone. Maybe in your community but not mine. Not every library can have a maker space. Not every librarian can afford a fancy hotel. Not every library user can read. Not every library user feels safe in the library. Not every librarian has support to publish or pursue professional development. Not every school has a librarian in it. Remember that your own situation is just that–your own. Listen to the stories of others and broaden your understanding of the wide continuum of our jobs, libraries, and communities we serve.

Lesson 7: There is a whole new crew of newer librarians who are doing us mid-career folks proud.

I realized yesterday in one of those *zing* moments of clarity that I am not one of the new kids on the block anymore. I’ve been a librarian for 15 years and working in libraries for 19. All these new library staff, and definitely not just the librarians, are doing some truly astounding things. The energy, innovation, and perspective they bring to bear on their jobs brings me hope that our libraries have a bright future indeed!

Lesson 8: Social justice issues matter a lot to librarians.

I have seen humbling examples of people coming together to learn about, show solidarity for, and promote various social justice issues. The location of this conference in Orlando has lent a lot to awareness about gun violence, racism, and of course GLBTQ issues. Social inequity, racism, sexism, income disparity, bigotry, and hatred of all forms are not tolerated in libraries or by libraries. The ALA Resolution that just passed, the Resolution Calling Upon Libraries to Build More Inclusive Communities, is a fantastic example of this work. I pledge to do more in my own library and career going forward to uphold these essential values. It’s far too easy to be afraid of taking a political stance and putting your organization or your job at potential risk for community blow-back. I have certainly failed in this regard myself more than once. It’s much easier to be afraid and follow policies and procedures and toe the line of your institution while forgetting who you are and what your professional ethics are. I am thankful to my peers for reminding us all of this important element of our work.

Lesson 9: Our stories are more powerful than our statistics.

You can count your books, your program attendance, and your web visits. Or you can tell stories, you can impact lives, and share those stories with the people making budgetary and political decisions about your library. Everything I heard at this conference supports the latter.

Lesson 10: Helping people still brings me more joy than anything else.

This last point may seem self-evident, but going into this conference it wasn’t–at least not to me. The moments at this conference that made me smile, that energized and excited me, all had to do with either observing someone helping someone else or me helping someone. I am so jazzed by seeing a positive impact from the exchange of knowledge, a helping hand, a simple tip, or a shared experience.

So you all are stuck with me for a while longer. This whole “being a librarian” thing seems to be embedded deeply enough in my being to lead me to continue down this path. I promise to do my best and I know you will promise to do yours. Thank you all for being my tribe.

Annual Ehlers-Danlos Awareness Month obligatory post

May 18, 2016 | Comments Off on Annual Ehlers-Danlos Awareness Month obligatory post

It’s May, so I’m going to do what I do every May–remind you of a rare disorder that I suffer from–Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). May is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Awareness Month. May is also, incidentally, National Blood Pressure Month, National Hamburger Month, and National Salad Month (just ruminate on that for a moment until your head explodes).

You can read my posts from previous years (20092011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015) for details on what EDS is and how it has affected my life.

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is a connective tissue disorder. My body makes bad collagen–super stretchy, slow to bounce back, slow to heal. I was diagnosed in my late twenties. Diagnosis can take many forms–ultimately I had genetic testing. But the first tier of diagnosis is the Beighton Test. If you score 4-10, it’s likely that you have EDS. I scored a 9.

There is no cure for EDS. The first center for Ehlers-Danlos research has opened at Towson Hospital’s Genetics Program in Baltimore. Stem cell research holds the most promise for treating the disorder at the DNA level.

Like most EDS patients, I hurt every day but I personally made the choice years ago to not take any pain medication beyond the occasional ibuprofen.

To learn more about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, check out the Ehlers-Danlos National Foundation and the Ehlers-Danlos Network. Or just ask me!


Library Ethics in the 21st Century

November 18, 2015 | Comments Off on Library Ethics in the 21st Century

Earlier this month I was honored to present at the LIANZA conference (national library conference of New Zealand). I was asked to talk about library ethics in the 21st century as the opening keynote. There were amazing presenters from around New Zealand and the world and I am so happy to have been a small part of this excellent conference. I’ve been asked to share my slides, so…here they are!

digital privacy - binaryHave you heard of the Library Digital Privacy Pledge? I’ve signed on as the Director of the San Rafael Public Library and I hope you will too.

Why am I even talking about digital privacy? Because it’s part of what librarians sign on to do when we become librarians. From the American Library Association Code of Ethics:

We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.

Code of Ethics, much like the ALA Library Bill of Rights, very seriously. And if, like me, you do believe in these  core tenets of our professional obligations and duties than I hope you will consider making this pledge part of your digital services planning for the next few months.

This is the first in a series of pledges to get libraries, vendors, and membership organizations to pay attention to libraries’ commitments to protect patrons’ privacy, particularly in the digital realm. There are different pledges for different types of agencies, and the pledge for libraries reads as follows:

1. We will make every effort to ensure that web services and information resources under direct control of our library will use HTTPS within six months.
2. Starting in 2016, our library will assure that any new or renewed contracts for web services or information resources will require support for HTTPS by the end of 2016.

Nothing too controversial in there, right? HTTPS is accessible and standard (or should be), and is essential at working toward that first step at building a foundation for digital privacy.

To read more about the project check out the Pledge FAQ which addresses many of the “why” and technical questions you might have about taking this pledge for your library.

Go forth and protect.

MjAxMy0wMWNkNmNkMzBmMGFiNzYxIt’s May, so I’m going to do what I do every May–remind you of a rare disorder that I suffer from–Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS).

May is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Awareness Month.

You can read my posts from previous years (20092011, 2012, 2013, 2014) for details on what EDS is and how it has affected my life.

The Cliffs Notes version is that Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is a connective tissue disorder. My body makes bad collagen–super stretchy, slow to bounce back, slow to heal. And collagen is all over your body–skin, internal organs, tendons, ligaments.

I was diagnosed in my late twenties. Diagnosis can take many forms–ultimately I had genetic testing. But the first tier of diagnosis is the Beighton Test. If you score 4-10, it’s likely that you have EDS. I scored a 9.

What is it like to live with EDS? It rather sucks most days, and on a really good day I forget about the pain and limitations. That’s my ultimate goal with EDS–to forget for an hour or two. Every day I am in pain. Every joint hurts–every one. I get dislocations regularly–mostly ribs, shoulders, knees, fingers, and wrists. What causes the dislocations? Moving…like getting out of a chair. I even dislocate joints in my sleep. Other symptoms include easy bruising, difficulty getting numb or knocked out with anesthesia, adrenaline spikes leading to difficulty sleeping, allergies to tons of stuff, slow healing from cuts and bruises, and really messed up digestion all the time. It’s all encompassing and very tiring.

There is no cure for EDS. The first center for Ehlers-Danlos research has opened at Towson Hospital’s Genetics Program in Baltimore. Stem cell research holds the most promise for treating the disorder at the DNA level, though today I read an article about spider venom being used for chronic pain treatment. Since chronic pain is a big part of EDS this is definitely of interest to me, but dang yo…spiders. *shudder*

I currently do not take any pain medication at all (beyond the occasional ibuprofen). In the past I have taken pretty much any opiate painkiller that exists…they all have horrendous side effects including making you incredibly stupid and unfocused (at least they did for me). As such, I’ve sworn off those things for good.

If you’ve been following me for a while, this is not the first time you’re hearing about EDS.  If you’re annoyed, you can stop reading now 🙂 But seriously…I do this every year to raise awareness, as trite as that might sound. The more people who know the symptoms to look out for (look below), the more EDS-sufferers who can get a timely diagnosis and treatment. It took me years of ER visits, specialist appointments, and genetic testing before all was finally revealed about what was wrong with my body.  I don’t want that scenario to happen to anyone else.

To learn more about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, check out the Ehlers-Danlos National Foundation and the Ehlers-Danlos Network. Or just ask me!


I finally finished reading Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library, written by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches. This is a killer manual for any library staff member to have at your desk, no matter what your job is. Disclaimer: I do know both Aaron and Amanda personally, but a disclaimer to that disclaimer…this book is fucking awesome regardless of who wrote it.

With a background in web design and a dabbling in user experience, I often take for granted the importance of thinking consciously about your user’s perspective, about the ease of use of every aspect of your services, and about re-evaluating user experiences on a regular basis. But I seem to be less talented at trying to explain these concepts to the staff who work for our library.

And that’s where this book will come in handy. I recently had staff do a Signage Secret Shopper exercise eat the end of our staff meeting. They would pick a common task our users need to complete when they come to the library, enter from both of our separate entrances, and note any wayfinding problems or distractions on either path. Sadly (but not surprisingly) staff found A LOT of problems. But…now what to do? Reading through this book’s section on signage and wayfinding, I now have key principles to hand to our soon-to-be-created signage taskforce. Better yet, these are principles that experts in user experience came up with, not me. Because we all know a message means more when it comes from someone outside your own workplace.

The book will continue to be useful to me as it offers a veritable checklist to follow as you inventory your own library’s wins and losses in the user experience arena. They even provide an actual scorecard to score your library overall. I’m tempted to have staff score us, and then take a field trip to score a nearby library who I know does better.

This book covers the gamut of library user experiences: your physical space, service points, policies and customer services, signage and wayfinding, online presence, and using the library. I could probably work for the next year on bringing our library into alignment with the principles outlined in this book, and I can honestly say it would be a year well-spent.

For some achievable ideas for how to make your community’s experience in your library better, try this book out. An investment that will keep paying you back every time you make an improvement.

SpyA story broke yesterday involving eBooks, libraries, and the privacy of user data. Reporter Nate Hoffelder exposed some serious privacy violations on the part of Adobe, specifically within their Digital Editions 4 product.

Adobe Digital Editions, which most eBook platforms in libraries use (including OverDrive, 3M Cloud Library, Axis 360, and Enki), has been secretly spying on users. No one hacked anything–this is the company itself collecting this data on the sly. Adobe is gathering data on the eBooks that have been opened, which pages were read, and in what order–including consumer-subscription eBooks and eBooks borrowed through a library. Equally disturbing, Adobe is also tracking user activity outside of Digital Editions—gathering metadata from non-Adobe eBooks on the user’s hard disk. All of this data is being kept and transmitted in clear text (plain text that is easily intercepted and duplicated by intermediaries, such as library eBook vendors).

The collection of such data is quite possibly a violation of the California Reader Privacy Act as well as the California Student Online Personal Information Protection Act. Working in California as a Library Director means I have to address this with my community.

As a library customer, I have contacted our eBook vendors and asked for information or comment. So far, nothing.

While not surprised that a big company that can make money off of user data is collecting that user data, I am outraged on behalf of my library users–whose data we strive to keep secure and safe. By offering eBooks platforms with Adobe Digital Rights Management software, we have been unknowingly violating our very own privacy policies.

I am hopeful that the American Library Association, state libraries, and other organizations will publicly decry this gross violation of user privacy.

Trigger Warning: This post includes discussions and descriptions of sexual harassment and assault, as well as descriptions of the mental state of someone suffering abuse.

On Halloween day of 2011, I wrote a blog post detailing the years of harassment I had experienced at the hands of fellow librarians. I did not include every incident. I did not talk about harassment that happened to me outside of the library world. And I did not name names. This post gained a lot of traction and I was pleased that it helped contribute in some small way to the conversations that ultimately resulted in the Statement of Appropriate Conduct at ALA Conferences.

In my 2011 post, I talked in vague terms about the emotional toll that such behavior has had on me. Re-reading that post nearly three years later I am struck by my fighter attitude. I hear a tone of “I can power through this bullshit idiotic behavior and all you harassers, you aren’t going to win.” The anger covers up the deeper emotions of fear, depression, self-doubt, and anxiety.

Team Harpy and the continuing aftermath

Some months ago, the story of Team Harpy began (#teamharpy). You can read more on the Team Harpy website, but the brief version is that after two librarians called out (online) the negative behavior of another librarian at conferences, he decided to sue them for $1.25 million in a defamation lawsuit. I agreed to run their legal defense fund, the astounding response to which has humbled me, helped them, and restored in me a bit of faith in humanity.

Several days ago I started drafting a post talking more directly about my own experiences with harassment, to refute the claims of a few loud voices who are claiming that women complaining about harassment in the library world are just making things up to hurt the men in question, but also to address the many fence-sitters who may be swayed by these loud yet ill-informed voices.

But writing this post was really hard. My stomach hurt, my heart hurt…it was extremely difficult to do.

Much of the conversation about #teamharpy has disturbed me, particularly the people questioning people who speak up, or don’t speak up, about sexual harassment. The conversation on Twitter has stayed reasonably civil but the conversations went south quickly on reddit and the ALA Think Tank (which I have now joined and left twice because of cruel, uncivil conversations like this–and I am not rejoining). I then read Amanda Goodman’s post Wednesday morning about her own case of harassment at library conferences, and why she chose not to name names. She inspired me to try my best to write this post once more.

Laundry and Skeletons

This is about my laundry and my skeletons, neither dirty nor closeted.

When I was 14 years old I was sexually assaulted by a fellow student. I did manage to hurt him back, but not enough. Nothing would have been enough. I returned to my parents’ home, took the longest and hottest shower of my life, and did my best to pretend that everything was normal. What I remember is feeling numb–inexplicably numb–for weeks. I did not report the incident to the police, nor did I even tell my parents until I was in my 30s. I felt (probably wrongly) that my parents would blame me, that I should have known better than to be alone with this boy in his family’s home. I felt that the police would say it was not a crime and I would be putting myself through a lot of trauma with no positive end result. Even at 14 I knew the paltry success rates of assault and rape cases. Like many victims, I wanted to forget it ever happened, not that I ever could. Specifics from that assault still trigger severe reactions in me to this day.

When I was 16 years old I was repeatedly sexually harassed, including inappropriate touching, by the owner of the car dealership where I worked. I did not report the many incidents to the police or my parents because I did not want to lose my job, which I needed to pay for college. And who could I have reported it to at work? The general manager (his son) or the office manager (his daughter)?

When I was 17 years old I was sexually harassed by the senior class photographer, including inappropriate touching and solicitation. I reported the incident to the manager of the photo studio, and she and I together attempted to report the incident to the police–where the police officer refused to take our report (“It’s just your two ladies’ word against his.”). I told my parents. We contacted corporate headquarters and were bought off with a fancy photo package.

When I was in college and graduate school I experienced a number of physically inappropriate men at parties, bars, etc. I would not say any of it rose to the level of assault but a few times it was close. Harassment in college and graduate school seems to be par for the course, unfortunately.

The first time I was harassed as a librarian, at the age of 25, it was by another woman, my supervisor, over a series of months, with comments about my body, inappropriate touching, suggestions for how I could dress sexier, etc. I reported her to the Library Director and asked for help. I was transferred to another supervisor and my harasser stayed in her position for years until she retired.

A couple of years later, I was out at a fundraising event for the library presenting to a group of privileged wealthy males. I was with two colleagues, including a supervisor (not mine) and the Library Director. A man who I later learned was the husband of one of our Library Commissioners made numerous loud comments to his buddies about my body and what he wanted to do to it sexually as I was reaching up to set up the projection screen. I felt physically ill, but turned around and glared at them anyway, at which point they all laughed at me.  I walked out of the room and immediately sought the assistance of the supervisor on site, and together we went to the Library Director for help. I said I was uncomfortable and wanted to leave. I was told I had to stay and finish the presentation. The next day the Library Director apologized that she’d handled it poorly and then she actually did the right thing and directly called this guy out on his behavior. He tried to send me flowers, which I told him to shove up his ass.

It was about this point in my career that I started to be a public figure of sorts, at least within the small ecosystem that is the library world. And then all of the incidents I listed in the 2011 blog post occurred, from 2004 through 2011. Men harassed me at conferences, at home, and at work. I fell into a protective, reactive stance and was always on alert. I started to not want to speak publicly. I started to avoid social events at conferences. I was withdrawing to protect myself. I reported the worst offenders to conference organizers, supervisors, event liaisons, and law enforcement…whoever seemed appropriate given the situation. I only know of a couple of cases where what I would consider to be adequate consequences were meted out. Most of the time no action was taken.

Since then I’ve experienced far less harassment at library conferences, perhaps because I spoke up.  I’d like to think so. But the harassment has not stopped completely.

More incidents have happened connected to my day job as a Library Director lately. Being featured in the local paper a few times and being visible at public meetings paints a much bigger target on me. I’ve experienced a few incidents of inappropriate touching, harassment, and assault–none of which were at work (but all of which were related to work). The most upsetting incident was an assault. A couple of years ago a young man followed me out of our branch library while I was taking a walk on my break, and in an isolated area tried to physically force himself on me repeatedly, placing his hands on me and kissing me, as he claimed we were meant for each other and proposed to me. Thankfully I fought hard, pinning his groin under my stiletto heel and managing to make him give me his ID so I could get his name and address and pursue protective measures.

The change in my personal response to harassment over the last twenty years is remarkable to me, a confidence and intolerance gained through age and, unfortunately, experience.

Assault and Harassment are Real

Sexual assault and harassment happen. You would be delusional to think it doesn’t, or that all of these people in all of these places are making up stories just for kicks about ill-advised and illegal behavior. 1 out of 6 American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (source: RAINN). 60% of assaults are not reported to the police and 97% of rapists never spend a day in jail (source: RAINN). Numerous surveys show that approximately 1 out of 4 women have been sexually harassed in the workplace along with 1 out of 10 men, and the majority of them never report it (source: ABC News/Washington Post).

If you haven’t experienced assault or harassment, or have not seen it happen to someone you love, you have zero idea of the long-term impact these events have. So please, for the love of all things good, stop talking out of your ass about your ill-informed opinions on how victims should respond and how following proper channels will always result in a just outcome.

I am still not naming names, as you’ve likely noticed. You have every right to ask why. I am choosing to not name names for two reasons. First, in the cases where I reported the behavior, I consider my due diligence done even if I did not get the outcome I wanted. Second, naming names in a forum like this can cause legal problems for myself (as evidenced by the Team Harpy case and countless cases before that one), and problems for those I name, even those who were just witnesses and the institutions where these incidents took place. I wish that wasn’t the case and I look forward to a day when victims aren’t afraid of the unfair consequences of speaking truth.

What I’ve Learned

When I think back to being a new librarian I was easily swayed by the librarians I perceived to be famous. Men and women who got to speak at conferences were, to me, gods and goddesses. I was scared to approach them until I did one day and found out that we’re all just people–you can have a conversation with a librarian about library stuff and be pretty much guaranteed they will be friendly, open, and generous most of the time. It’s who we are.

My recommendations to new librarians entering the field is to not let fame sway you (which really, let’s be honest, is more like “micro-fame” within our tiny sphere of the world). Just because someone speaks at a conference does not mean they have immunity regarding their behavior. Just because someone has a blog or a well-read Twitter account does not mean they are any smarter than you are, any better than you are, or any more protected than you are. If you are approached inappropriately by someone who you perceive to be in a position of power, fight back verbally, and physically if you absolutely must. Ask for help from those around you. Get witnesses. And tell someone. Above all, please tell someone.

The Lasting Impact of Assault and Harassment

I do not look smart and strong in the incidents I write about here. I look vulnerable, naive, and perhaps even a little stupid. I don’t particularly like exposing that side of myself to the greater world, but if it serves the purpose of raising awareness and sensitivity then I’m willing to do it. I can look back and think about how young I was, and that I did the best I could under the circumstances–but a big part of me thinks I should have done more each and every time.

These incidents of sexual harassment and assault happened to me. They are my laundry and my skeletons. I own them and they own me. But they are not me, are not who I am. Like each individual, I am a complex creation of heredity and experience. No one thing led me to where I am today. But I never forget about these incidents. Decades later, the memory of feeling helpless, not in control of my own space and body, makes me want to fight like hell whenever I can to prevent this from happening to others.

Assault and harassment change you for life. We’ve had enough lives changed in this way. It’s time for it to stop, and it’s time for us to support those who do speak up – in whatever form they chose to speak up.