I normally enjoy Current Archaeology Magazine but was more than a little annoyed at a small piece in the November issue written by magazine editor Chris Cattling. To ensure that my readers fully understand my reaction to this I felt that I should put the full piece here so that you can judge for yourselves. This is verbatim…..
“Personality Problems In The Library
You might think that libraries and archives are the one place where you might find refuge from the kind of defiant behaviour that broke out on some of England’s streets earlier this year. And yet, clearing out the ‘spam’ folder recently, Sherd’s eye was caught by an unsolicited email from an organisation called ‘Excellence in the Classroom’, offering workshops on ‘Coping with Challenging Behaviour in the Library’.
The circular listed some of the types of behaviour that today’s librarians have to cope with in places that should be havens of quiet study: they include ‘arrogance, pack behaviour, people who won’t put away mobile phones or vacate computers when asked or act a little more quietly and those who decide it would be good fun to take out their frustrations on library staff’.
For £275 a go, the organisation promises a ‘fast-paced and exciting one-day workshop’, conjuring comic-book visions of meek and bespectacled librarians emerging from the course transformed into Supermen and Superwomen, ready to deal firmly with all the forms of anti-social behaviour that dog our society. Once they are trained, perhaps we can persuade some of those Superlibrarians to patrol our railway system and deal appropriately with the ill-mannered louts who choose to travel in the ‘quiet carriage’ but behave as if the rules apply to everyone but themselves.”
This incensed me for a number of reasons – meek and bespectacled I am not and this patronising and stereotypical view of librarians is so hackneyed that I can hardly even bring myself to challenge it. – but that is not the real issue here.
The main problem with this cheap and dismissive little piece is that it is so monumentally ignorant of the daily difficulties faced by librarians. Government and budgetary cuts and library closures have left librarians working largely alone in both schools and public libraries. This is a situation that is easily exploited and librarians daily face more than just the sort of people who are a little noisy in the quiet carriage.
I have worked in libraries in both the education and public sector for almost 25 years and in that time I have personally had to deal with violent threats against me and other staff I have worked with. I have cleared the shelves of needles after the methadone clinic nearby has had a drop-in session. I have faced down drunken and aggressive teens and adults and stood up to violenty abusive grown-men twice my size.
I know of a number of people who have been attacked or faced violent threats of physical assaults. To list just a few – a colleague who suffered broken nose and fractured cheekbone after being punched in the face, another who was stabbed in a row over fines and another who was stalked by an obsessive customer and who had to obtain a restraining order to prevent his access to the library.
Sadly is the tip of the iceberg in this type of incident connected to libraries. I teach school librarians and am consulted a great deal about how to tackle the behaviour of abusive and confrontational young people in school libraries – largely because School Librarians almost always work alone.
Libraries have always attracted both the right and the wrong sort of customer, but there was a time when staffing levels allowed librarians to feel more protected because they had other people do help them deal with it and the police were quicker to attend. Now they work predominantly alone in warm, free and open-access places and it is all too easy for the worst members of society to work that out and to take advantage of it.
I was stunned that an academic (such as Mr Cattling is assumed to be) should demean librarians in such a patronising fashion. I can only guess that Mr Cattling did all of his research in a private school academic library, or maybe on the internet, and has never used a public library and witnessed the issues that librarians have to deal with. All this piece does is show how little people understand the job that we do and the pressure that we are under.
Bespectacled some of us may be…. but none of us are meek, we can’t afford to be.