April 19, 2018

Campus Libraries See Increase in Discriminatory Incidents

Notes posted at Reed College's

Notes posted at Reed College’s Solidarity Gathering

Between Wednesday, November 9—the day after the U.S. presidential election—and Wednesday, November 16, the Southern Poverty Law Center collected reports of more than 700 incidents of hateful intimidation and harassment through submissions to its #ReportHate page, which launched the day after the election. More than 60 of these occurred on academic campuses, including in libraries, ranging from verbal attacks, fliers, and personal notes containing hate speech to postings on social media. Most of these have thus far been limited to graffiti and property defacement, but at least one student has been physically confronted.


At Reed College, Portland, OR, five bathrooms on the second and third floor of the library were vandalized on November 12 with racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic graffiti. The messages referenced the recent election, using racial slurs, abusive language, the acronym MAGA (Make America Great Again), and swastikas. The graffiti was reported to the student working the front desk just after 6 p.m., and was promptly covered in butcher paper until maintenance crews arrived to clean it off.

Campus security arrived immediately and examined the library and surrounding area. Some additional graffiti was found in a nearby classroom building, but the library seemed to be the main site. Students had packed the library that afternoon, finishing up papers for the popular Humanities 110 course, which were due at 5 p.m.

The building is also open to the community at large. There are no surveillance cameras in the library—when the question of installing them came up several years ago, college librarian Dena Hutto told LJ, “the students on the library board were pretty firm that they didn’t feel we needed [them]”—so it remains unclear whether the graffiti was the work of someone at the college or from outside. That Saturday marked the fifth straight night of local demonstrations following the election, with 71 anti­–Donald Trump protesters arrested in downtown Portland that evening.

The idea that this kind of hate speech could take place in the library at Reed, a small liberal arts college in a suburban area of Portland, was disturbing to many people on campus. “I think people really feel very unsettled about the fact that this happened in what they regard as their space,” said Hutto. “One of the really great things about Reed is the library is very central to this campus. It’s probably the most central facility…. So people take it very personally, and take it as a personal attack.”

In response to the incident, a reflection and Solidarity Gathering was organized by students in partnership with Reed’s Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) the following Monday. Students, faculty, and staff gathered in the lobby of the Hauser Library and wrote messages of love and support on sticky notes and posters. Dean of institutional diversity Mary James spoke, asking those present to look around and see who was there to support them. “The Reed Library is here for current students and for the alumni, faculty, and staff of the college,” Hutto stated in a Facebook post. “We respect and support you in good times and in difficult times. In that spirit, we welcome visitors to the library as well. In return, we ask for respect for the library and the community it serves. Expressions of hate toward anyone at Reed cannot be tolerated.”

Since the incident, Reed has increased security patrols on campus, and is offering escorts to students on campus 24 hours a day. Students at Reed have reported feeling “unsafe,” according to James, as quoted on a report by local station KOIN. Portland Police are currently investigating the crime.


Reed was not the only campus library to see post-election vandalism. Hate speech graffiti was discovered in the library of the University of North Florida, Jacksonville, by a maintenance worker early on the morning of November 10. A whiteboard in a study room had been covered with slurs, including the phrase, “Make America White Again” next to drawings of a wall showing Mexico on one side and the words “wall” and “Trump” on the other. Additional phrases and caricatures targeting a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds were written on the whiteboard as well.

A group of people had been reportedly using the room until 11 p.m. Wednesday, but library employees could not identify them and there was no video surveillance of the area. Dormitory walls were also tagged with racial slurs. The vandals used a dry-erase marker, and because there was no physical damage to buildings after the graffiti was erased, Jacksonville police were unable to prosecute it as a crime.

At Swarthmore College, PA, a swastika was drawn in a gender-neutral bathroom stall on the second floor of McCabe Library. The graffiti was discovered on the night of November 20, just after a college-wide vigil in honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance. An “out of order” sign was posted on the restroom door and the graffiti was subsequently removed.

The next day dean of students Liz Braun sent an email to staff and students denouncing the crime, referencing a similar incident on August 30, when two swastikas were spray-painted in the same bathroom. “[The incidents] strengthen and unify us in our fight against them,” she wrote. “I am thankful to belong to a community such as ours that does not tolerate such action, and has both the will and the ways to fight it.”

Library books have been targeted as well. At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a student discovered a racial slur written on the cover of a biography of President Barack Obama. The university’s Bias Response Team reported 16 separate bias incidents across campus in the week after the election; a total of five bias related reports were made in the month of November 2015, and 66 incidents reported from January 1 through June 30, 2016.


Not all of the recent racially charged library incidents have been confined to graffiti.

On November 8, while polls were still open, a Muslim woman studying in the University of New Mexico’s (UNM) Zimmerman Library reported that a man tried to pull off her hijab. Leena Aggad, a freshman engineering student, was studying in the Zimmerman Library on UNM’s main campus when a fellow student wearing a pro-Donald Trump t-shirt approached her from behind and tried to grab her head scarf. The two exchanged words, according to UNM’s newspaper, the Daily Lobo; the male student implied that Aggad was a terrorist. She replied, according to the article, “You can tell me anything you want and I probably won’t even respond. But as soon as you put your hands on me…you physically assault me. That’s when things become serious.”

Aggad was allegedly reluctant to report the incident, as she is in a class with the man. She first tweeted about the encounter, and eventually contacted the UNM Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO). She did not go to library administration, which first heard about the confrontation when the local paper called to ask for a comment.

After the incident in the library and an occurrence of hate graffiti elsewhere on campus, UNM president Robert G. Frank sent a campus-wide email stating that the university would not tolerate such actions. College of University Libraries & Learning Sciences (UL&LS) dean Richard W. Clement followed this up with a second notice, which the library access services department repurposed as a poster to be hung in the library. It stated, in part, “I want to take this opportunity to endorse what other campus leaders have already said: we are committed to providing a safe and inclusive working and studying environment in our libraries. We work closely with administration, OEO, and campus police on any issues in our buildings. I encourage you to report any unacceptable activities throughout the channels outlined in the president’s email or directly to any library service desk.”

Staff training for the more than 100 student supervisors who work in the libraries is currently in development, UL&LS associate dean of public services Mark Emmons told LJ. “I think [the library is] still seen as a safe space,” he said. “I don’t think this was seen as a ‘library’ incident…. I don’t think [it] has changed that perception.”

UNM Division for Equity and Inclusion vice president Jozi De León has spoken to various groups around campus to help them define the difference between hate acts—intended to inflict pain, grief and/or sorrow that can be motivated because of race, color, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age and/or disability—and hate crimes—physical assault, destruction of property, etc., designed to frighten or harm an individual, stemming from similar motivations—and how to report incidents.


Such incidents—as well as, in many cases, the election results themselves—have shaken up students, staff, faculty, and administrators alike. As Reed’s Hutto points out, college students came of age during Obama’s tenure, and now “don’t really know what to expect.”

Within the libraries, administrators have used these events to highlight ongoing issues such as how to spot and respond to fake news. On a wider scale, they have stepped up their mission to support various campus communities and interest groups, particularly when it comes to student welfare. Said Hutto, “We, like a lot of colleges, have been very proactive about increasing diversity on campus. I think especially for those students, they definitely… are thinking of Reed as being a safe place. And to find out that it’s kind of like any other place is not a pleasant thing for them. We’re really concerned about them.”

In a statement released by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), Chris Bourg, director of libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and ARL Diversity and Inclusion Committee chair, stated, “While ARL libraries and archives work hard to be inclusive in their hiring, collections, services, and environments, the Association and its members will not claim neutrality in the face of discrimination, sexism, ableism, racism, homophobia, religious persecution, or other forms of oppression. We support freedom of speech and the open exchange of ideas and opinions, but we will not tolerate hate speech, silencing, inflammatory rhetoric, or any other speech or action that threatens the safety or dignity of any member of our community.”

Addressing the proactive role campus libraries can play post-election, Bourg wrote in a statement from MIT Libraries, “This election has highlighted the urgent need for open, enduring, and equitable access to credible sources of news, data, and knowledge. At the MIT Libraries we will redouble our efforts to provide not only credible sources of information to our communities, but also the expertise, services, collections, tools, and spaces that facilitate and promote the critical assessment of information. We will also continue to document and provide access to the ideas, knowledge, and perspectives of our communities, as we did by archiving the post-election posters containing the immediate reactions of MIT students and community members.”

Most immediately, “We want to make sure that we maintain that our spaces are great for learning and they’re safe spaces for learning,” said Emmons. “That’s our ultimate goal.”


Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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  1. Harold Sizemore says:

    Intolerance for demonstrated bad behavior is always warranted!

    Lets do some math to place this article in perspective.

    There are approximately 180,000 school and academic libraries in the USA. Assuming 1 location per incident, 700 reported incidents indicates about 4 tenths of 1 percent of all locations reported an issue. The doesn’t seem to suggest mass intolerance as implied in this article when 99.6 % of all libraries are indeed the safe place we all expect.

    It seems inflammatory on the part of this writer to say there is a large undercurrent that requires action from all libraries to confront. Perhaps I am being too logical. Where is the ‘critical thinking’ on the part of this writer? or is she simply continuing a preference to a certain narrative?

    Harold Sizemore

    • librarianm says:

      She’s reporting exactly what is going on with no editorializing. Where is the basis for your claim?

    • anonymous coward says:

      I don’t think Harold has claimed editorializing so much as a misrepresentation of a molehill as being a mountain.

      I agree with Harold that this is NOT a large problem- but a series of isolated incidents. 700 incidents could be 700 individual nut jobs- out of a country of 330 million… we’re bound to have 700 nuts.

      Let’s also not forget some of these incidents are turning out to be hoaxes- which might actually be a sadder story than someone being a nut job.

      In addition- another SPLC report came out where basically they had asked teachers if they FELT there were these situations and a mood that negatively impacted children. How dumb of a survey question is that?!

    • They are not “isolated” incidents. They are a direct result of a future president who has emboldened a very dangerous element of society with inflammatory rhetoric.

  2. Cyndi Bloom says:

    In this day and age when bullying and hateful statements are being made, we should all be more watchful.

  3. The problem with multiculturalism in general is that as it increases, there will naturally be more tension and bad behavior on everyone’s part. This is a natural outcome of an unnatural idea: forcing many different and opposing peoples and cultures into close proximity and then putting legal and social restraints on all the populations to try to keep the lid on. It’s a recipe for disaster and it’s fairly safe to say that it’s never worked in the history of the world.

    • anonymous coward says:

      evidence doesn’t support this. There is actually LESS bad behavior than we’ve had in less integrated times.

    • Oh, multiculturalism works – but it requires an empire. Indeed, the two words are effectively synonymous. But the word empire tends to get a bad rap …

  4. Oberlin College hate crime hoax 2013:
    “Some of the racist incidents that led Oberlin College to cancel classes for a day in March are now being described as a “joke” by a student who was trying to get a reaction from the community, according to a police report obtained by The Huffington Post.”
    Indeed, sadder than a “nut job” scenario.