Equal access to menstrual hygiene products
When Rosalie Abbott began working as a Young Adult Services Librarian at the Sebastopol Regional Library in 2017, she learned something new.
“High school students, who knew me from my previous work at our local high schools, felt comfortable asking for menstrual supplies when they were in an emergency situation at the library... which turned out to be fairly often,” Abbott said.
“Immediately, I had the idea of creating a space where teens could access these supplies when needed — but the question was how.”
With a librarian’s thirst for knowledge, Abbott began to research the topic and found Sebastopol teens weren’t the only ones encountering these emergency situations without supplies.
Statistics from a national study for Free The Tampons, an organization promoting freely accessible menstrual items, show 86 percent of women start their period unexpectedly in public without the supplies they need.
“Once I began my research, it became more and more clear that our local libraries might be able to play a more significant role in providing necessary sanitary supplies, just as we provide toilet paper as a convenience for our patrons,” Abbott said.
Out of that concept, Abbott developed the Menstrual Equity Program. In July, with support from her Sebastopol colleagues, she sent the project to the Sonoma County Library management for approval.
With the green light, the pilot project was rolled out in September in five branches of the Sonoma County Library: Central Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Rincon Valley, Sebastopol, and Sonoma Valley.
The cost of the pilot program was a total of $114 for three months of supplies at the Sebastopol branch. From Sept. 1 to Dec. 1, patrons took 189 pads and 110 tampons.
Abbott said the feedback from library patrons has been surprising. According to their online survey feedback report, 47 out of 48 responses were in support of the program, and one responded they did not understand the effort.
“I knew that it would benefit a lot of people, but I didn’t know it would be almost 100 percent positive response,” she said.
Free tampons and pads were available not only in the women’s restroom, but also in the men’s restroom. Abbott said offering supplies in the men’s restrooms served two purposes.
“Allowing boys and men access to these supplies might satisfy curiosity and minimize mystery that surrounds periods,” she said. “The free supplies also provided access for transgender men who menstruate, particularly adolescents.”
Signage and book displays were placed in the libraries to help educate and raise awareness about menstruation as a normal and necessary human function.
Abbott said the signage in the library, including phrases like, “Keep calm and menstruate on,” has opened up a lot of conversation with library guests. Those discussions help to facilitate a better understanding of a topic that has often been considered taboo.
“If we talk about things in a matter of fact way, it’s just a matter of fact,” she said.
In a Free The Tampons national study, 57 percent of women ages 18-54 in the U.S. consider getting caught in public without the needed menstrual supplies embarrassing, emotional ordeal.
“People who menstruate... whether homeless, young, older or just caught by surprise — must stop everything until this need is met. This means that learning, studying, researching, reading, working, experiencing library programs or just 'being' in the library is not possible until this basic, normal human experience is taken care of,” she said.
Free hygiene supplies will continue to be available at the Sebastopol Library. Abbott said she is eagerly awaiting a response from the county library management team to know if the program will continue.
Before joining the Sonoma County Public Library, Abbott worked as a librarian for the West Sonoma County Union High School District serving both Analy and El Molino high schools. Abbott has worked at the Biomedical Library at University of California, San Diego; California State University at Monterey Bay Library; and San Diego State University Library.