Hateful Conduct in Libraries: Responding to an Incident

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Examples of submitted questions | Points for consideration | Supporting staff


Responding to an Incident

Encountering or being the target of hate speech or hateful conduct can have traumatic emotional and/or physical ramifications. This section addresses both the immediate actions that library personnel may take during and after an incident, as well as policy and protocol considerations that assist staff who address hateful incidents.

Incidents don’t happen in isolation; they are part of a much bigger systematic condition that may be reflective of the institution’s culture and social inequities at large. While the work the library’s workers do to foster in an inclusive environment is encouraged, there is no amount of preparation that can prevent a hateful incident.

While this section is organized in a rational sequence, responding to incidents often involve making split-second, simultaneous decisions and taking instinctive action. The more prepared the library is for handling these situations, the more staff can trust their gut reaction.


Examples of questions asked of ALA

These scenarios can help the library start conversations around hateful conduct in the process of shaping its policies and protocols. Colleagues can offer varying viewpoints and express themselves freely in conversation, so that care is taken before anything is classified as hate speech.

  • When is it appropriate to intervene when staff see that library computers are being used to communicate hate speech?
  • Is wearing a hate symbol on clothing disruptive behavior and within the scope of asking someone to leave the library?
  • Can library staff interrupt a private conversation among patrons if staff hear hate speech being used?
  • How should staff respond to hate speech directed at them as a POC, woman, LGBTQ+ individual, or religious minority?
  • What is the best way to respond to incidents of hate (such as racist graffiti or propaganda) found in the library or placed in library materials?
  • If a staff member sees a colleague post something on their own social media in their off time that may be hate speech, is there any recourse they can take?


Points for consideration

Encountering hate speech and hateful conduct can be an emotional and stressful experience. During an incident, policies — such as a library patron behavior policy or a school’s anti-bullying policy — may provide immediate guidance or best next steps.

After checking in with staff, library administrators and governing bodies should consider whether a public response is needed, as well as who drafts it, what format it is in, and who it is shared with, per existing policy. An external response may take many forms. A response will depend on a library’s crisis communications strategy, and whether a public response is helpful for the community most affected.

An incident can take an emotional toll on those who witness it, as well as the entire community. Consider whether the library will provide time and space for patrons and staff to have continued conversations about it. The ALA Public Programs Office offers multiple resources for hosting conversations.

There may be different emotional responses between those witnessing hate speech or hateful conduct, and those actively stepping in to defend a person or attempting to stop an incident from escalating. Libraries should consider and discuss these differences, as well as any expectations or responsibilities of staff when it comes to taking action in the moment. How and when library staff intervenes in matters of hate speech or hateful conduct should consider issues of free speech, privacy, and existing library policy.

Make sure that all library staff, trustees, and volunteers are aware of workplace speech policies and social media policies that may affect how their online conduct can influence their employment. ALA’s “Speech in the Workplace Q&A” is a valuable resource.


Supporting library staff

If physical safety of patrons or staff is threatened, management, security, and/or the police should be contacted immediately. Administrators should reaffirm with staff that this is not only acceptable, but also an encouraged practice and that safety is a priority. If a teammate is addressing hateful conduct, physically stand with them if possible to provide passive or active support. It’s okay to make mistakes or misspeak, but a true ally will stay in community with their colleagues when challenged.

Encountering hate speech and hateful conduct, even if not directed at you, can have an adverse emotional and mental impact. Talking about the experience with colleagues or supervisors may help you process the incident, and it may also help the next person that encounters a similar situation. Management and administration should model that self-care is a priority in the workplace and encourage staff to practice this, as well. In the short-term after an incident, this may include actions such as encouraging the staff member(s) to take a mental health day, granting them an extension on a project, or personally checking in with individuals in your unit.

Colleagues should give each other space to voice their concerns. It’s likely that colleagues will have varying emotional responses to an incident; these responses should be validated and acknowledged, as they are informed by each person’s life experiences.


HomeProactive Preparation | Responding to an Incident | Meeting Community Needs | Special Considerations & Resources


Updated January 2019