Incivility In The Academic Library

When Chuck E. Cheese gets more calls for police assistance than the neighborhood beer-and-a-shot bar you know that things are looking bad for civil behavior. But that’s exactly what’s happening according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. The problem, it seems, is that some parents have taken to odd ways of dealing with the actions of other parents and their children when some minor offense, such as playing too long on a game, occurs. For example, punching out the other parent. How is it that you can’t even expect parents and their children to get along anymore? And more importantly, what does this have to do with some of the bad behavior and general incivility we see in our libraries?

That was the question explored when library workers from Temple University, Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania gathered for one of their biannual joint professional development programs. When we all realized we’re dealing with problems related to noise, cell phone disturbances, food and beverage messes, inappropriate use of computers and more it seemed like a natural topic for our discussion. To facilitate our conversation we invited Dr. Frank Farley, Chair of the Psychology Department at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association, to share his observations and information from the research on what has happened to civilized behavior in American culture. How did it ever get this way?

I think our speaker approached his presentation in a clever way. He said he would describe the crime, name the suspects, identify the motive and MO and then suggest a treatment. The crime is one with which we are all familiar. It is the loss of our privacy, the interruption of our behavior and tasks, the emotional stress we suffer, the psychic damage we incur and perhaps worst of all for libraries, the interference with our learning and thinking. Increasing levels of incivility are stealing from us our dignity, humanity and empathy.

Farley traces the roots of incivility to several societal changes. The suspects he named come under the umbrella of what he called the “Age of Extreme.” Put simply, no one wants to be average and everyone wants to be associated with some extreme activity or accomplishment. The truth is that most of us are average. So in the pursuit of the extreme we see some fairly bad behavior. We are also in a period of self-revelation. Farley pointed to the influence of reality shows in which the “really good parts” are when contestants reveal secrets about themselves and their intentions. Add to this our culture of complaint. Rather than accept things as they are we are encouraged, primarily by the media to argue and complain at every opportunity. And we can do all of these things as a “global me”. That means everyone now has a worldwide platform, the Internet, from which to brag about themselves, and telegraph their complaints and self-revelations to the planet. And with people so self-absorbed we have what Farley calls the “dis-inhibition process”, in which controls of the past that inhibited bad behavior are so far expanded that almost anything goes. Farley referred to this list of social ills as “the crime”.

Then he proceeded to describe the motives and their modus operandus. In other words, who or what is responsible for this mess. Reality television is certainly a culprit since the whole point of these programs is to promote revelation, humiliation and distrust in a setting where it is all about beating everyone else. Farley mentioned that our students are already quite stressed after years of achievement pressure; what they don’t need are messages that suggest only winning matters. Perhaps the classic culprit is what Farley terms “The Springer Effect”. Jerry Springer’s genius, said Farley, is that he gets people to reveal and act out in ways previously unknown. Daytime television is by nature overwhelmingly negative. And this negativity spills out onto the Internet in scary and threatening ways. Farley spoke of well known episodes of flaming on discussion boards and other outrageously negative behaviors. The Internet also gives a platform to the anonymous (or psuedononymous) blogger and commentor. When you take away someone’s name you take away personal responsibility and then, says Farley, the dark side appears – rage, hatred, jealousy, bitterness and other qualities that most people would never reveal. Add to this a level of failing family influence the likes of which this country has never experienced. And the cherry on the sundae is the proliferation of mobile technologies that allow nearly everyone to instantly and endlessly share all of the above – and broadcast it to all in the immediate vicinity.

So how is all this manifesting itself in our students? Farley covered several dimensions to the student behavior challenge. First, we live in a culture that celebrates risk taking. People are encouraged to break the rules because this is a way in which we express our creativity. It’s one of the things that makes America a uniquely innovative society. But the spillover effect is that this becomes an internalized behavior and soon no one is paying any attention to rules that help keep a commons a place where all can co-exist. Farley shared his experiences as an educator. He described research into the decline of classroom civility and courtesy that is overflowing into our libraries. The transgressions fall into one of four categories: annoyances; classroom terrorism; intimidation; and physical threats or attacks. Most of us need look no further than the weekly crime reports for our institutions to find ample evidence of all four types.

No one really knows quite how to tame societal incivility. All we know is that it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a return to the academic library that Farley called “the Walden Pond of the university.” He commended us to read the article “Civility in the College Classroom“ by Jennifer L. Schroeder and Harvetta Robertson (Association for Psychological Science, Vol. 21, No. 10, Nov. 2008). The article summarizes their research into student incivility and suggests possible interventions that could be adapted to our libraries:
Be proactive – establish guidelines and work with students to see that they are respected.
Be specific – give students concrete examples of what behaviors are and are not acceptable in the library.
Be a model – They learn from you. Otherwise it’s self-explanatory.
Ask why – talk to students in small groups to better understand unacceptable behaviors in your library; you may not like it but you may learn why it is happening.
Have a plan – think in advance about what actions you will take when confronted with incivility or worse; some of these situations may be completely out of your range of experience. What would you do if a student threw something at you or intentionally poured a drink on the reference desk?
Follow through – when needed take immediate action on your plan or you may lose control of the situation.
Be judicious in responding – understand the difference between when talking will work and when campus security needs to get involved.
Document incidents – if it really offends you and others then make sure you can provide the evidence.

It was engaging and a good opportunity for all the library workers in attendance to commiserate and share their own stories (we later joined together in roundtable discussions with names like “share your morning surprise”, “they ate what in the library”, “what are you doing on that computer” and “where is a guard when I need one”). Libraries are traditionally spaces of structured quiet and courteousness. It has all changed. Farley ended by contemplating the organic and evolving nature of our language. Language is not fixed. The meanings grow and evolve over time. In the absence of any likely return to a more genteel past, it may be that we need to adjust our perspective of and standards for library civility. Perhaps for our own well being and sanity we should work to communicate to our students that we accept that they have different standards of civility, but that we expect and hope they will take some personal responsibility and accountability for demonstrating more empathy and caring for their fellow students in the library. They can be more self-policing, showing the ability to tolerate each other’s behavior, and we can support their efforts to co-exist in a shifting landscape of ambiguous rules and new experiences.