Monday 3 June 2024

Occupational hazards

I spent 18 years working on the frontlines of library services. I started out as a casual at the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne, and most interactions involved helping students access online databases, connect to the wifi or use the printing system. At times, these systems would not operate as designed, and students would get a little grumpy, but more often then not I couldn't do anything about it, and so they'd go off to try their luck at another student computer lab. The other very mildly challenging thing was that at night time, usually during the winter over SWOTVAC when we were open until 1am, we'd have homeless people come in to escape the cold. They napped on the couches and didn't bother anyone. When we closed, they'd quietly leave without a fuss.

Then, after graduating, I got my first full-time job in a public library. I thought that, with five (casual) years of library customer service experience, I'd be all over that. I was wrong - this was next level. Public libraries, by their very nature, often attract people who are socially marginalised and often moved along from other public spaces. But as Neil Gaiman famously said (and I paraphrase), libraries are one of the few remaining public places where you can go and aren't expected to spend money. Unfortunately, this means that from time to time, as a frontline worker, you have to content with very challenging behaviour. I've witnessed people behaving physically and verbally aggressively - to me, to other staff, and getting in full-on brawls with other patrons over something as banal as a computer booking or wanting to sit in a particular chair. I've had to confront people who are viewing pornographic online material in a public space.

So, it was really no huge surprise to me when I viewed Jane Garner's recent presentation about her research into occupational violence experienced by frontline workers in public libraries:

In some ways, I was lucky. I worked in a 'nice' neighbourhood in Melbourne. Those who were struggling with mental health and associated antisocial behaviour were relatively straightforward to address and once we got to know them as regulars, we do what we can to make them feel welcome and comfortable during their visit. Part of the reason I wanted to work in public libraries was to try to make a difference in the community, and help bridge those social divides by providing free access to information and culture to those who wouldn't otherwise have it.

On the other hand, the kind of behaviour that I personally found most challenging was the kinds of attitude that come from residents in one of the most privileged suburbs of Melbourne. The defensive behaviour when somebody is "accused" of returning a book overdue, and declaring that they have "never been so insulted in all their life". Or the personal offense of not having the specific issue of Better Homes and Gardens magazine that they requested half an hour earlier ready to hand over to them, and being told that "My rates pay your salaries". Or the regular guy who is first to walk straight through the door every morning, and just taps expectantly at the counter for "his" copy of the newspaper, as though he owns the place.

This kind of behaviour wore me down far worse than the overtly aggressive behaviour. It felt abusive - not physically or verbally, but psychologically abusive.

Of course, I realise that this is nothing that anybody in the hospitality industry hasn't experienced day in, day out. But, at least as a new graduate, I had the (perhaps misguided) expectation that workers should be treated with professional respect. After all, there's a reason that most people who start out in hospitality eventually move on to something else (other than being underpaid). And there's also a reason why public library managers love to hire staff who have extensive experience in customer service.

In hindsight, I'm not certain that there are really any 'safe' work environments for frontline workers. I see jobs advertised with euphemisms along the lines of 'It's challenging work - no two days are the same - but it's incredibly rewarding'.

I'd like to think this is true - but perhaps this is all just a textbook case of 'vocational awe' at work. But if so, where do we draw the line in protecting our workers, whilst still ensuring that those who need library services and spaces can access them?

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