Our Research

The #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements have recently brought to popular consciousness the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace. Third-party workplace sexual harassment is an ongoing issue— particularly for women working in feminized and service- or care-oriented occupations who, because of the devalued social status of their jobs, are often subject to sexual harassment by their clients and customers. While women have been expected to shrug off these experiences as “part of the job,” research demonstrates that there are significant short- and long-term negative consequences for employees including anxiety, depression, fear, and risk of physical harm.[1]  This research project shines a spotlight on libraries as an overlooked site of sexual harassment directed by library patrons towards staff—what we call patron-perpetrated sexual harassment (PPSH). From people checking out materials and asking reference questions to those attending library programs and events, sexual harassment of library workers is often perpetrated by the very people that library workers endeavor to support.

The complex social locations in which library work is situated, along with values embedded within this work (e.g. customer service, commitment to universal access), result in working environments and power dynamics that allow PPSH to flourish—all within broader social structures of dominance including patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and neoliberalism. Experiences of PPSH are further complicated by the interconnected and layered aspects of individuals’ own identities such as race and gender.

Social Structure, Workplace Factors, and Identity Factors that Contribute to PPSH in Libraries:


Intersecting factors that contribute to sexual harassment in libraries–Graphic is slightly revised
and taken from Allard, D., Lieu, A., & Oliphant, T. (2020). Reading between the lines: An
environmental scan of writing about third-party sexual harassment in the LIS literature and
beyond. Library Quarterly, 90(4).

Although libraries are required to have personnel and health and safety policies in place to protect their employees, many of these policies do not explicitly address sexual harassment. Additionally, library workers may receive little to no training about how to deal with sexual harassment by patrons, what resources or recourse are available to assist them in addressing and reporting this issue, or how to protect and care for themselves during or after experiences of patron-perpetrated sexual harassment. More than this, despite growing calls from those working in libraries to address this important issue in libraries and library and information studies (LIS) programs, almost no research has been done on this topic.

The field of library work has traditionally been, and continues to be, dominated by white women—with 81% of library workers identifying as female and 87% identifying as white.[2] This has many implications on the ways that library work is perceived and embodied, including the pervasiveness of PPSH and the (in)ability to combat it. We recognize that workers who exist within marginalized identities – such as BIPOC, queer, and/or disabled folks – experience PPSH in ways that are complex and nuanced; research on sexual harassment must examine and address this. We also acknowledge that gender and race inform and affect all aspects of society; to this end, our work is situated broadly within intersectional feminist and anti-racist frameworks that make visible and interrogate the feminized and racialized nature of librarianship and the attendant implications of this for those working in libraries. Using and believing the many and varied experiences of women to frame theory and action, feminist theory is generated from women’s lived experiences and epistemological perspectives.

Our research initiates conversation amongst LIS students, educators, library workers, administrators, and patrons to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of patron-perpetrated sexual harassment in libraries and to destigmatize and combat what we argue is a harmful yet “everyday” form of gender-based violence.

This research project has 4 phases:

Phase 1 – Environmental scan: We conducted an environmental scan of the extant literature to develop a typology of the facets of third-party sexual harassment across related disciplines (women’s and gender studies, healthcare, retail and hospitality studies, and organizational studies.) Findings from this environmental scan will be published here. See also the graphic included above.

Phase 2 – Surveys and interviews: To gather and analyze the experiences of patron-perpetrated sexual harassment of library workers, we are conducting a national online survey of library workers’ experiences of PPSH. To take our survey on patron-perpetrated sexual harassment, click here.

Phase 3 – Policy review and analysis: We will identify and analyze best practices with respect to harassment-related public library policies, reporting procedures, and both library employee and patron codes of conduct.

Phase 4 – Dissemination of results:  We will disseminate our findings in a variety of forms (e.g. book, website, workshops. Our results will contribute to LIS and feminist consciousness raising, scholarship, and practice that opposes and undermines gendered power structures that endanger women workers and make them vulnerable to gender-based violence.

Our research has been funded by the Faculty of Education, University of Alberta and by Killam Operating Grant, University of Alberta.
[1] Alberta Human Rights Commission. (2017). Sexual Harassment. Retrieved from https://www.albertahumanrights.ab.ca/publications/bulletins_sheets_booklets/sheets/hr_and_employment/Pages/sexual_harassment.aspx; Chan, D. K. S., Lam, C. B., Chow, S. Y. and Cheung, S. F. (2008). Examining the job-related, psychological, and physical outcomes of workplace sexual harassment: A meta-analytic review. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32(4): 362–376. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2008.00451; Willness, C. R., Steel, P., & Lee, K. (2007). Hostile environment indeed: A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of workplace sexual harassment. Personnel Psychology, 60(1), 127–162.

[2] American Library Association. (2017). 2017 ALA Demographic Study. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/tools/sites/ala.org.tools/files/content/Draft%20of%20Member%20Demographics%20Survey%2001-11-2017.pdf