Librarians are dealing with death threats, trolling and intimidation at increasing levels, as protesters try to block drag-themed story time events and ban certain books on shelves.
This escalation in abuse – which has sparked a string of drag-themed children’s events being cancelled across Victoria – has prompted a new wave of training for librarians, aimed at teaching them how to protect themselves and the public and defuse potentially dangerous situations.
In May, a number of drag queens were invited to present drag story time at Victoria’s Parliament House.Credit: Luis Ascui
The endgame, says State Library Victoria chief executive Paul Duldig, is never having to cancel a rainbow story time at the library again.
“There’s been a lot of anger directed towards librarians, who by their nature are absolutely there for the public good,” Duldig said.
“The principles that librarians are trained and live by means they’re very brave. In some ways, this is the awful flip side of libraries being so important to culture. Culture is contested.”
State Library Victoria has decided to take a stand, hosting a symposium on Wednesday for library staff from across the state led by police, LGBTIQ+ commissioner Todd Fernando, academics and legal experts, examining the growing challenges faced by libraries.
There have been rising numbers of protests at Victoria’s public libraries over the last nine months. Demonstrators have also stormed council meetings over plans to hold drag themed story times or events around gender and sexuality.
Drag story time events involve drag performers reading books to children, often in libraries, and are aimed at presenting diverse role models.
“One of the reasons it’s so popular is that the performances are incredibly engaging [and] that’s what we need for engaging young people with literacy,” Duldig said.
“Rainbow families find it so affirming to be in that story time. They can see their community.”
State Library Victoria chief executive Paul Duldig never wants to cancel a rainbow story time again.Credit: Joe Armao
Duldig said each time a rainbow story time event is cancelled, or a book is stolen from a library shelf by a protester, it had a “chilling effect” on democracy and intellectual freedom.
He has been closely watching the situation unfolding in libraries in the US and the UK, where there had been a deluge of harassment and violence aimed at librarians. Some tactics, including protesters calling government bodies and demanding audits of libraries, were now being used in Australia.
Duldig said he knew of cases where WorkSafe had been called in at the eleventh hour and led to events being cancelled.
As part of the push to keep Victorian libraries safe, Duldig said librarians from across the state would soon be trained on how to safely respond to abuse and intimidation. This included training from experts, such as police, on the words and body language to use.
“It sounds common sense, but it’s essentially training on how to not inflame a situation, and also not to accept anything that’s abusive or violent,” he said.
He said the purpose of symposium was to help draft a statewide program of protocols to protect those at risk, including librarians and drag performers.
“There’s no one magic thing that is going to solve it,” he said. “But what we need to make sure is where we’re aligned, we’re trained, we’ve got the right policies. We’ve done the scenario planning, and we’ve got backup plans.”
Duldig said there had been a concerning rise in incidents, including threats made by extremist groups.
“We are facing a situation that has never happened before in living memory,” he said.
In May, a drag story time event to raise awareness for LGBTIQ rights was cancelled at Oakleigh Library in the city’s south-east after repeated threats were aimed at harming the drag performer, families intending to attend the event and Monash City Council staff.
A drag queen story-time event scheduled to be held at Eltham Library was also moved online following serious concerns of threats of violence by protesters on May 15. It came after a Monash Council meeting was temporarily suspended after 100 protesters showed up to express their anger at the scheduled drag event.
A 23-year-old Melbourne drag queen, who goes by the stage name Millie-Anne Problems, was also targeted by activists prompting the cancellation of the event in Chelsea in April, promoting calls for a greater response from authorities.
A drag show was also cancelled by Casey council, and last year, neo-Nazis crashed a drag event in Moonee Valley in the city’s north-west.
“We need to make sure we are building the institutional resilience so that can continue to do the work that needs to be done,” Duldig said.
“Everyone’s got a story about someone who the library was the only place they could actually be themselves while they were growing up or find themselves reflected in some way that really gave them hope.”
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