nondenominational libraries


This last Saturday I was sitting at work, trying to find historical data on Alberta's unemployment rate for an im client(I was unsuccessful in the end, since StatsCan doesn't seem to want you to get free access to their Labour Force Survey. ugh.). To understand this story, you'll need to know that I work in an information commons (read, fancified computer lab). It's got one large room with loads of computers (200-something) and then a smaller room off one side that isn't really separate but it set off (imagine the shape of the state of Utah). From the desk, I cannot see into this smaller room. Also, the nature my work area means that people are allowed to talk (or as my boss would say "collaborate"), eat, play games or otherwise use the space as they see fit. All this background is essential to understanding what happens next.

This lady came up to the desk. I've seen her here before. She's what the politically correct would call a "nontraditional" or "returning" student. All my interactions with her have made me sense she's a bit off. Nothing serious, just slightly differently socialized than what I'm used to. At any rate, she comes up and says, "There's got to be a place on campus to pray. I mean, this area's meant to be nondenominational, right? I guess, what I mean is it appropriate for people to pray here?" I look up and her and try to figure out what she's getting at. Does she want me to give her the go-ahead to pray? directions to the on-campus chapel? I waited maybe five seconds. Fortunately, no immediate response caused her to state more clearly as she pointed to the smaller room, "there's a guy back there doing a Muslim prayer. Don't you think that's inappropriate? This isn't a church...or a Mosque. Will you come tell him to stop?"

At this point, my heart starts pounding. We have some crazies that frequent our area and spend all day wasting time online (or asking for help deleting the porn from their iPod*) and I initially thought one of these guys might be causing a problem. I get up and walk back to the area with her. I get back there and, of the fifteen computers, two are in use: hers and another guys. I don't see the guy she's complaining about at first because he's kneeling down. Then he stands up. He's being perfectly silent, and is way back up to one corner so as not to be near anybody else. It was here that I had to really, really refrain from bursting out with "are you serious?!" Because he was doing nothing that seemed inappropriate to me.

Here comes the uncomfortable part: how do you tell this woman that she's crazy without making it sound like that? Still a little flustered, I told her that it didn't seem inappropriate to me, that he'll probably be done in a moment anyway and that, if it really bothered her, she could move to another area (the place was not that crowded). She was displeased. She came back to "this isn't a mosque. I wouldn't go into a church and start using my computer." I repeated myself with a shrug and an apology. She countered, "I don't think I should have to move, I'm already booted up." Another noncommittal statement and shrug from me. Finally, she said, "fine, don't do anything. It's not right, though."

I went back to my desk, queasy and uncertain if I handled this patron correctly. I emailed my boss the situation and soon afterwards was off. On Monday, in class, my coworker who came after me told me that, as this lady was leaving, she returned to the desk. She again explained frustration with my response and asked, "are you going to bring this up at your next staff meeting? There ought to be a policy." She then proceeded to try and get my coworker (the daughter and sister of ministers) to agree that the guy was out of line. I guess this went on for a while, becoming increasingly racist. Her closing line was "Osama hasn't taken over yet, y'know."

This lady needs to chill out. He was well within his rights (note, he wasn't even Arab, he was Asian, so the anti-Arab comments are misguided at best and hopelessly ignorant at worst). I really think he chose the spot to be far away from others, to not draw attention to himself and to have a quieter venue for his brief religious devotion. It's sad that this lady didn't want to allow him his freedom. I wonder if there was another middle-aged woman with folded arms, bowed head and closed eyes in the area if she would have complained. Or if a young Jewish gentleman wearing a kipa and rocking rhythmically would have unsettled her so badly. I'm guessing not. But who knows, maybe she's rabidly opposed to invoking the almighty into any part of her computing experience.

*I'm not making this up. I was asked by one guy to help delete his iPorn, though he never mentioned that it was pornography...or acted uncomfortable when I saw what he had on his iPod.


Petra said...

Sometimes people do things in libraries that make others uncomfortable, I guess.

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