October 26, 2014

Naming Names and What’s at Stake | From the Bell Tower

Academic librarians and their staff colleagues are typically at ease with sharing their names. How and when we do that can vary, and fear may influence our practices. Is that fear realistic, and how should it impact our sharing names?

Serving as the library’s complaint window is part of my portfolio. While every staff member is subject to the possibility of hearing and responding to a community member’s complaint, you might say my desk is where the thornier ones find a home. One situation with which all-academic library workers are familiar is the request – and sometimes the demand – to provide your name – as in “I want your name so I can report you to ________ “ (supervisor, library director, university president – take your pick). Based on my experience, refusing to provide a name when asked to do so is incendiary to a deteriorating service situation. Nothing seems to make a community member more irate then being denied when asking for a name – and you might feel the same way when on the receiving end of bad service. When it comes to giving out names, each library leader needs to work with staff to develop a sensible policy.

Giving a name

Most library workers, I believe, have no qualms about providing their names if asked, although it might be just a first name. In some situations, especially when the service experience goes well, library workers can be eager to offer their name. It’s hard to even imagine starting an instruction session without telling the attendees exactly who you are. It’s not unusual to encounter libraries where staff members, particularly in public service areas, wear nametags. Heated debates can break out over making nametags mandatory. You can argue that many service professionals in other fields, be it physicians, nurses, or bank tellers, wear identifying nametags. Library professionals will argue that nametags are demeaning. Wal-Mart greeters and fast food workers wear them, so when librarians do so it reduces them to clerks. Others insist that there is an inherent risk in publicly identifying oneself. A stranger, once in possession of a name, could possibly become obsessed with a particular staff member, with uncertain consequences. Such fears are mostly unfounded, but at a gathering of campus security officers, stalking was presented as a serious matter that requires institutional attention.

Rare but deadly

The majority of stalking incidents on college campuses involve student-to-student harassment. When it does happen, it is typically between two individuals involved in a relationship. It is much more rare for a total stranger to start stalking an employee of the institution. However, the majority of cases do involve a male stalking a female, and academic library staffs are overwhelmingly female, particularly in public service units. So a case could be made there is a greater possibility for it to happen in an academic library than organizations with a primarily male workforce. Because they make themselves available over multiple media, such as reference chat and text services, librarians might be more susceptible to harassment or stalking. As one security office at the meeting said, she never even gets reports of physical stalking anymore, just digital stalking. “It has a lot of the same characteristics of stalking as we once knew it but it seems more aggressive.” By its very nature stalking can be difficult to document. Is asking the same librarian several questions every day an act of stalking? Must it involve a specific threat of violence? Any of these things can happen without any staff names being divulged. The presence of staff directories on virtually all academic library websites, an important component of quality service, means that those who are truly determined to get names will find a way.

What about student workers

One of the statistics shared at the conference is that people under the age of 25 experience stalking at the highest rates. Most full and part-time library workers are over 25, which suggests they are less likely to be victimized. It also means that the library’s student staff, often found in public areas, are perhaps the workers most susceptible to stalking. Their stalkers may be total strangers, but more likely partners from a broken relationship. Just to be on the safe side, academic librarians may want to develop separate policies about giving names just for their student workers. For example, students could be directed, when asked for their name, to seek assistance from a full-time staff member, or, if there is no supervisor available, to provide only the contact information for their director supervisor. It is paramount that we create as safe a working environment as possible for our students.

To name or not to name

What to do about naming names is an organizational matter that each academic library should determine based on the local culture and situation. What works at a small, four-year liberal arts college in a suburban location may fit poorly at a large research university situated in the heart of the city. Is the library open to the public or just students, faculty, and staff? Checking with the local public library staff may be informative. Do they wear nametags or offer identifying information, and if so, have they ever had any stalking incidents involving staff and patrons? This column is not intended as a call for the naming of names, although I personally believe that all employees, other than student workers, should be willing to provide their name if asked, because not doing so exacerbates what may already be a developing conflict.

Whatever each academic library staff decides to do about naming names, it is perhaps most important to first have a conversation about this matter so staff can share their concerns, then establish a policy so that no matter what decision is made, there is a consistent application of practices, and finally, set clear procedures on how to act if there are any signs that a community member is acting strangely in interacting with any individual staff member, female or male, that might signal the potential for a stalking incident. As is always the case with security issues, seek out guidance and training from the campus police and other experts. In each library organization, the administration must, if it expects staff to provide names, be ready to take appropriate actions to support staff members in any situation where they may feel their personal safety is at risk. Done right, naming names should be a way to defuse difficult situations before they get out of hand.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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