Target: Librarians

What happens when our work leads to harassment—or worse

June 3, 2019

Illustration: David Michael Moore
Illustration: David Michael Moore

In 2017, Nicole A. Cooke, associate professor and MS/LIS program director at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s (UIUC) School of Information Sciences, and Miriam Sweeney, assistant professor at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alabama, received a diversity research grant from the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services to examine microaggressions directed at racial and ethnic minority students who used library spaces and services on campus. The project received an unexpected reception—even before its results were made public.

“All hell broke loose when just the title of the grant [‘Minority Student Experiences with Racial Microaggressions in the Academic Library’] was discovered,” Cooke said at “Defeating Bullies and Trolls in the Library: Developing Strategies to Protect our Rights and Personhood,” a workshop held at Skokie (Ill.) Public Library on March 8.

A harassment campaign targeting Cooke and Sweeney began after Campus Reform, a conservative news website known for its negative coverage of professors and university faculty whose viewpoints it deems liberal, ran a story on the grant. While Sweeney received her share of harassing emails and phone calls, Cooke bore the brunt of the abuse.

Cooke and Sweeney detailed the experience at “Bullying, Trolling, and Doxxing, Oh My! Protecting Our Advocacy and Public Discourse around Diversity and Social Justice,” a panel discussion at the 2018 ALA Annual Conference. They described how their personal information was circulated online after the Campus Reform story was published. It’s what’s known as doxxing—short for dropping dox [documents]—and it refers to the online practice of finding and disseminating an individual’s personally identifiable information to the public.

Sweeney, who is white, said she was challenged mainly for the presumed content of the research, while Cooke, who is African American, was harassed in a way that made it clear that her race was a factor. Cooke was bombarded with hate mail and threatening voicemails. Both researchers feared that Cooke’s photograph, email address, and phone number had been copied from UIUC’s website and distributed throughout racist communities online.

“Nicole was particularly made a target by these sites,” Sweeney said on the panel. “She received phone calls whereas I only received emails. Emails directed to me were directed to the project itself, not towards my person. Of course, race and identity shape how these attacks played out and who was targeted.”

When Cooke asked for her contact information to be removed from the university’s website, the request was not immediately met. William Bernhard, vice provost for academic affairs at UIUC, said in a statement that Cooke’s experience—and those of other staffers—has led to change at UIUC.

“The personal and professional challenges experienced by Professor Cooke and other faculty and staff led our university to develop new policies and resources to support victims of trolling attacks,” he said. “We are committed to protecting the academic freedom of our faculty members. We want to ensure that they are able to pursue their scholarship on important subjects, even if some might disagree with their work or conclusions.”

In a separate statement, UIUC’s public affairs office elaborated: “Faculty and staff have been able to request the removal of their information from public display previously. But the challenge has been that the processes for making those requests and the correct points of contact to do so can sometimes be unclear in a university of our size. And with many of our faculty and staff having appointments and affiliations in multiple units, it might mean having to work with several different units to hide or remove information, and various units might have different procedures. These [new procedures for handling trolling] now give our faculty and staff a single point of initial contact with the knowledge of our institutional processes to help facilitate the process.”

Illustration: David Michael Moore
Illustration: David Michael Moore

An ongoing issue

Cooke is not alone in her experiences. Hostility geared toward work on the topics of equity and oppression has been going on for decades. But Campus Reform, which was founded in 2009 and is owned by the conservative Leadership Institute, represents a concerted effort by well-funded individuals and organizations to target higher education. Meanwhile, the internet—and social media in particular—has made it easier for groups to find and target people they disagree with. The main targets for this online abuse? Women and members of marginalized communities.

A 2016 study by the nonprofit groups Data and Society and the Center for Innovative Public Health Research found that “women and racial/ethnic minorities—particularly women who also identify with a racial/ethnic minority group—are most frequently targeted for certain types of online harassment.” And a 2017 Pew Research Online Harassment report concluded that women are twice as likely as men to say that they have been targeted for online harassment because of their gender, and that one out of every four black people and one in 10 Hispanic people report being targeted for their race.

These findings are complemented by a December 2018 Amnesty International study that examined the scale of online abuse of women on Twitter. The project looked at tweets sent to women politicians and journalists in the UK and US in 2017. It found that 7.1% of these tweets were problematic or abusive—that’s 1.1 million tweets in one year, or one every 30 seconds. Black women were 84% more likely than white women to be mentioned in these tweets.

Discussing the problem

Cooke’s experiences led her to help organize two events—the Skokie Public Library workshop as well as the panel at the 2018 ALA Annual Conference—where librarians could share personal stories of being harassed, bullied, or doxxed, either at work or elsewhere. The forums also presented ways that institutions and individuals can help.

“I knew that other professionals were going through it. And you feel very isolated,” Cooke says. “I knew there were people who could possibly benefit from our experience. With that said, it was not easy, but [gathering people] needs to be done.”

Stacy Collins, research and instruction librarian at Simmons University in Boston, participated in both events. In 2016 she published LibGuides on Simmons’ website that provide information about anti-oppression, diversity, and inclusion as well as resources for social justice issues key to the academic community. The guides created a national uproar for, among other things, noting that “greeting someone with ‘Merry Christmas’ conveys one’s perception that everyone is Christian or similarly saying ‘God bless you’ after someone sneezes conveys one’s perception that everyone believes in God.” Conservative outlets like Campus Reform, National Review, and The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News published pieces and aired segments criticizing the guides, and the university library received scores of phone complaints, says Collins.

“As a result of the media coverage of the posting of the LibGuides, the university received dozens of calls, emails, and letters from individuals around the nation,” said Jeremy Solomon, associate vice president of communications and public affairs at Simmons, in a statement. “Nearly all of these correspondences were vitriolic and threatening in nature. As such, our abiding concern was for the safety of our community, and we therefore offered communications advice to quell what was an inflammatory situation. Simmons, then and now, strongly stands by the free-speech rights of our librarians and faculty.”

Collins says that while her library colleagues were supportive, the larger university administration focused on telling her and others to be cautious about not responding to certain messages or asking them to be hypervigilant. That’s indicative of a larger problem, she says.

“Within our professional space there’s a misunderstanding, and sometimes an intentional misunderstanding, about why this is—and has been—happening,” Collins says.

Difficult conversations

For every librarian willing to talk about their harassment experiences, there are more who are not. For this article, most of the potential sources contacted declined to be interviewed, and with good reason: The experience of being harassed, bullied, doxxed, threatened, or otherwise made to feel unsafe at work or at home is traumatic enough that many would rather not relive it through retelling. Then too, librarians have had difficulty finding effective support to safeguard them from this kind of threat, so many haven’t been able to find satisfying emotional or legal solutions.

“We have a problem with institutional denial and gaslighting,” says Alison Macrina, director and founder of Library Freedom Project, an initiative to turn library ethics into procedural and technical reality. “Which means we don’t even know how often it happens, because people are unwilling to come forward when it does. And it feels like a very isolating experience.”

The result is that librarians who go through the experience of harassment are then further alienated from institutions that are unable or unwilling to help them.

Says Cooke: “One of the things that’s come up—and I think people use this as an excuse—is that they don’t know what to do. People throw their hands up. I wound up doing legwork for three days trying to get my information removed [from the university website].

“I frequently have misunderstandings in the work I do in diversity and social justice. People say, ‘It doesn’t apply to us,’” Cooke continues. “I don’t know if people can understand the fear, and what comes along with being targeted and harassed. I think they think that because it hasn’t happened to them, it doesn’t matter to them.”

Sometimes she encountered outright callousness, she says: “Some people were being deliberately, willfully ignorant, and saying, ‘If you hadn’t been doing this work, this wouldn’t have happened.’”

Cooke says recognizing and acknowledging privilege is critical to the process of changing the conversation.

“We talk about privilege and marginalization, and sometimes people don’t understand they are experiencing great levels of privilege,” she says. “They don’t want to acknowledge that, because it brings on guilt. I can’t tell you how many times I have been interrupted and been corrected and have been told that my work is inflammatory. And there is even a willfulness about that. And I think this kind of willfulness and a lack of empathy is about protecting their own privilege and comfort, instead of saying, ‘You have been threatened and targeted, and I am willing to help you.’”

How to help

Macrina, who has been harassed online because of her work on racial and gender justice, says that helping librarians who have been targeted begins with self-reflection and ends with action.

“We can change the culture if those of us in some kind of position of privilege are willing to stand up for other people,” Macrina says. She notes that as a white woman, she has privilege not available to her nonwhite colleagues. Furthermore, the organization she runs has allotted her an additional level of social clout and influence. All of this protects her from harassment more than colleagues who lack that support, but it also compels her to use her position to create positive change. “The thing about privilege isn’t just that it shields you,” Macrina says, “It also gives you a platform.”

As part of the March 8 workshop at Skokie Public Library, attendees broke into groups to discuss hypothetical scenarios of librarians experiencing inappropriate behavior and how they and their institutions should react. The situations ranged from what to do if they witnessed coworkers being harassed by patrons on the library floor or by a colleague at an association function to how to handle online bullying and doxxing and support a coworker experiencing microaggressions on the job. The interactive sessions were designed to create understanding and to provide tools that librarians and institutions can use to better support their colleagues before incidents happen.

“We need to be proactive, not reactive,” Cooke said at the Skokie event. “If our profession is asking us to do this work, we need to be protected.”

Collins says she hopes these conversations will further the discussion regarding diversity and inclusion, beginning with what she calls “a culture of care,” and resulting in a space where marginalized people are not responsible for creating the necessary change. She added that allyship needs to be active rather than passive. “Allyship isn’t an identity,” Collins says. “It’s not something you are—it’s something you do. And racism is either something you’re doing or something you’re [actively] working against. There is no middle ground.”

Cooke says that supporting librarians who are working with issues of diversity and marginalization should go hand in hand with encouraging the work.

“We can’t crack that nut if we can’t get to the ethics of care. And we can’t get to the ethics of care until it’s naturalized, and until people do it without being told to, or being guilted into it,” she says. “You have to do it even when it’s not convenient for you. When it comes to rolling up your sleeves and being uncomfortable, you have to do it then.”


Bullying, Trolling, and Doxxing, Oh My!

Librarians tell stories of harassment by conservative groups

Nicole A. Cooke at Defeating the Bullies and Trolls in the Library event at Skokie (Ill.) Public Library. Photo: Max Herman.

Defeating Bullies and Trolls

Skokie (Ill.) Public Library event offers strategies to protect librarians from harassment