ALA Annual 2019

Bystander Intervention at #alscmm19 #alaac19

At the ALSC Membership Meeting on Monday morning, fellow ALSC Board member Elisa Gall and I gave an introductory presentation on the topic of bystander intervention. The topic of bystander intervention is important for all library workers, both in the context of the spaces in which we work and serve our communities and also in the context of our participation in professional spaces like a conference. Elisa and I focused our content on how to apply bystander intervention principles in a professional space—a particular need given past and continued harassment of colleagues in these conference spaces.

What is bystander intervention? “Bystander intervention” refers to the actions we take in order to keep spaces free from harassment and hate—something we all have a responsibility to do. Harassment is purposeful and repeated conduct that is unwanted and known to be offensive. Harassment, in the context of this introductory training, is different from microaggressions. Both are unquestionably harmful and offensive, but there is a distinction in terms of intent of the perpetrator; harassment is purposefully and explicitly meant to threaten, intimidate, and/or denigrate another person, while microaggressions do not carry the same explicit intent. Bystander intervention is about making sure people are safe from harassment and hate—not about educating the perpetrators.

Each of us has an explicit responsibility to use bystander intervention techniques in order to keep others safe from harassment and hate. This responsibility is laid out for us in the ALSC Strategic Plan, in our Competencies for Librarians Serving Children in Public Libraries, and in our Statement of Appropriate Conduct at conferences.

It is also important to recognize the ways in which power, authority, and privilege impact bystander intervention as well. Based on the Diversity Within the Children’s Library Services Profession report, our profession and our association is overwhelmingly comprised of non-disabled, straight, cis-gendered, White women. Because of these demographic realities, those in our work who identify in this way—in particular White women—have additional power and privilege than those who do not. The responsibility to intervene as a bystander is greater when you have power and privilege on your side.

So what are some steps you can take as a bystander to intervene when you see/hear harassment taking place? According to the national training and resource provider on bystander intervention Hollaback!, we can consider the 5 Ds of bystander intervention:

  • Distract – Take an indirect approach to de-escalate a situation. This could look like starting up a conversation with the person being harassed, or it could look like creating a physical distraction (like dropping what you’re carrying).
  • Delegate – Get help from another person. This could look like asking a person in a position of authority to intervene (“This person is being harassed; please help them.”). It could also look like intervening through strength in numbers, asking for assistance from fellow bystanders to collectively end the harassment.
  • Delay – After the incident, check in with the person who experienced harassment. Ask them if they are okay and what they want to do. Their consent is important, so if they say they want to be left alone, leave them alone.
  • Document – It can be useful to have a recording of the harassment. Once again, the recipient of the harassment’s consent is vital here. Even if you record the harassment, you should never make the recording public without the express consent of the person being harassed.
  • Direct – Speak up about the harassment, being firm and clear. This may look like saying “This behavior is inappropriate. Stop it now.” Direct intervention can also look like physically inserting yourself between the harasser and the person they are attacking (if it is physically safe to do so).

A few words on bystander intervention, safety, and discomfort. Whenever you witness an act of harassment, the question of safety comes into play. Of primary concern is the safety of the person being harassed—intervention is about removing any threat to safety, whether explicit or implied, from the person experiencing harassment. Bystander safety is also at play. Since harassment plays on power dynamics related to authority and privilege, however, it is important for bystanders to understand that there is a major difference between being unsafe and being uncomfortable. If you, as a bystander, are made unsafe because of an act of harassment, you should get yourself to safety and immediately seek assistance from someone who can help (Delegate). If you are safe but uncomfortable because of an act of harassment, it is still your responsibility to intervene and help the person being harassed to get to a state of safety. I look to my colleagues to hold me accountable in my responsibility to intervene, and I will pay you the same respect.

Elisa and I concluded this introduction to bystander intervention with an opportunity for those present to practice saying out loud two statements they can use to intervene as bystanders. Research shows that we’re more likely to intervene if we have practiced what we would say, and so I encourage you to try these techniques aloud so that you are confident in using them when you need them:

  • To the person being harassed, practice saying: “Where are you headed next? I’ll walk with you.”
  • To the harasser, practice saying: “What you’re doing is inappropriate. Leave this person alone.”

You can access our full slide deck here, including more information on the 5 D techniques for bystander intervention from the work of Hollaback!

ALA, including ALSC, is in the process of developing trainings on bystander intervention to support all those who work in and around libraries to intervene when a person is being harassed. Stay tuned for more information forthcoming through ALSC and ALA channels.


  1. Erica Ruscio

    I’m so glad you posted this in a blog! It’s so much prettier than the notes I took in my conference notebook. Also, the links are appreciated too. Thanks for the great work!

  2. Kathy Jarombek

    Thanks for posting, Amy! I had to check out of my hotel room and wasn’t able to stay for this but this is very helpful information.

  3. Jac

    Absolutely great post – thank you!

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