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‘It’s not our job to be censors’: Library staff facing alarming levels of aggression

Michael Devine, a library worker, currently feels the need to ignore calls to his door in the evening because he is concerned for his safety.

It is a temporary measure, he says, taken for the duration of the local and European election campaigns because he does not want one of the candidates to know where he lives.

This approach, Devine suggests, reflects the stress public-facing library employees have had to face because of targeting by elements of the far right and more general levels of aggression from other members of the public.

The library where he works in Cork city was, he says, “ground zero” for widely reported protests last year by a small group of right-wing activists seeking to have Juno Dawson’s This Book Is Gay removed from the shelves.

There have been sporadic incidents ever since, he adds, with a couple of them resulting in enforced closures for short spells. Though there has not been physical violence or explicit threats of it, Devine says many of the staff have been deeply affected by the fear and intimidation they feel they have been subjected to.

“I had a lengthy retail career so I’m very used to dealing with some pretty tough public interactions,” he told the Fórsa trade union conference in Killarney on Thursday.

“It really had a very distressing effect on some of the other staff – particularly, I’d say, some of the gentler staff, people who aren’t used to that sort of thing. They were seriously upset and we were very worried about the mental health of some of our colleagues at the time.”

Regarding the election candidate he does not want to meet at his door, Devine says: “He knows my face. And if he’s out canvassing, I’m not opening my door. If somebody wants to come to the house at the moment, they have to call me. I hate to be like this but I don’t want to be looking over my shoulder all the time.”

Devine’s colleague in the city’s library service Rose Smyth says staff initially sought to engage with the protesters, something they now feel was a mistake. “Most people who work in libraries are reasonable people who try to explain why we’re doing things but they weren’t interested in that, they were just in your face.”

The book, they had tried to explain, was legal and there were age restrictions for those seeking to borrow it.

“It’s not our job to be censors but there is a small section of the book that deals with gay sex in it and they took this totally out of context,” Smyth says. “They accused staff of being groomers, paedophiles, absolutely horrendous slurs. They’d start reading passages, explicit graphic passages from the book, and they didn’t care that there may have been children present.”

Staff, they say, were harassed, filmed and verbally abused. “I’ve been in a few of their home movies,” says Devine, who suggests the production of material for posting on social media seems to be the main goal of the protesters.

Abuse from the far right is just one of the challenges more regularly being faced by the library staff, says Devine, who adds that he had his life threatened by a member of the public with mental health issues and who has since spent time in prison.

“I hope he got the help he needed,” he says, “but if you talk to long-serving staff in the libraries, they all say this sort of thing has become much more common, particularly post-Covid.”

Sorcha O’Connor, who works with the mobile library service in Tallaght, Dublin, says people can end up approaching staff for help that they have tried to obtain elsewhere. The people are often unwell and vulnerable, she says, “but we are librarians, what help help can we give them?”

Róisín Cronin, a Fórsa branch secretary in Dún Laoghaire, says increased levels of aggression, particularly the sort of incidents witnessed at the library in Cork, have “created an absolute climate of fear”.

“It is that idea of libraries as a sanctuary, as a place of inclusivity of safety,” she says. “The fact that that has been invaded to such an extent, and in such a vile way, has had a real impact on people.”

A recent Fórsa survey of more than 2,000 members working in local government found that 80 per cent of those in public-facing roles had suffered abuse or aggression.

“Generally, people’s experience is that there’s been a deterioration in terms of how members of the public would engage with them,” says union official Richy Carrothers. “Employees, they’re entitled to an environment which is safe. We’re not looking for barricades but we are looking for proactive measures: engagement with community gardaí … we’re looking for CCTV and we’re looking for management to be more vigilant.”

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