Creating Cultures of Radical Vulnerability and Empathy: 5 Ways to Support Colleagues Who Are Survivors

Today, I thought I’d share a little bit about how we can do just that – supporting survivors who are colleagues by cultivating a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability in our libraries. These recommendations are based upon my personal experiences as a survivor who is also an academic librarian, my final project, and my upcoming book chapter in LIS Interrupted: The Intersections of Mental Illness and Library Work, titled “Surviving to Thriving: Creating a Culture of Radical Vulnerability in Libraries.” Here are five ways we can support colleagues who are survivors in academic libraries…


Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash.

I recently had the opportunity to take a class on trauma-informed librarianship with S. Bryce Kozla. This course gave us the skills to describe the importance of trauma-informed care in library spaces and services, consider ways to keep an interaction from escalating (and to keep calm and present in a potentially stressful situation,) name some ways trauma-informed principles can be applied in libraries, identify the role of historical trauma and institutional oppression in trauma informed care, and reflect on the effects of trauma in the workplace and how a workplace can become trauma-informed. By the end of the course, we had developed a document, artifact, or action plan for the concepts learned in this course, going forward. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) “Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach”, an organization that is trauma-informed: “realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices, and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.” Based on this definition, I decided that my final project would be a presentation on “Supporting Survivors as Workers in the Academic Library,” which I will be presenting at Cornell University Library’s Engagement and Outreach Forum next month!

Today, I thought I’d share a little bit about how we can do just that – supporting survivors who are colleagues by cultivating a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability in our libraries. These recommendations are based upon my personal experiences as a survivor who is also an academic librarian, my final project, and my upcoming book chapter in LIS Interrupted: The Intersections of Mental Illness and Library Work, titled “Surviving to Thriving: Creating a Culture of Radical Vulnerability in Libraries.” Here are five ways we can support colleagues who are survivors in academic libraries:


1. Cultivating a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability

The expectation to perform sanity is stifling and isolating for those of us who are survivors. As librarians, we’re expected to put on a shining face for our patrons and colleagues rather than “cause discomfort” if they were actually faced with our real-life, human struggles (physically, emotionally, mentally, etc.) This prioritization of others’ potential discomfort with our very real anguish is dangerous, creating a culture of silencing, fear, and stigma. As a community, we need to foster a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability, without the fear of repercussions from colleagues, supervisors, and/or HR. This isn’t an easy task but it’s something to work toward. A little progress each day can add up to big changes in the lives of our peers and colleagues.

As librarians and library workers, we need to commit ourselves to creating a culture that radically celebrates vulnerability, compassion, and empathy – a culture that allows folks to bring their whole, authentic selves to work. 

We need to show up for each other. I think sometimes people are afraid of doing it “wrong” – but showing up is what’s important, letting your colleague know they’re not alone, that you see them, and that you’re someone they can go to and trust. Doing so from a genuine place of care and concern is essential. 

2. Participating in mental health first aid

We can also participate in trainings on Mental Health First Aid or speak to our local survivor support organization or counseling center about how to best support colleagues if we’re nervous. These trainings should be offered periodically and everyone should be encouraged to attend to improve the overall health of our workplaces.  

I’m incredibly grateful for the colleagues and comrades who have supported me in bringing my whole self to work. They’ve made it a possibility for me. I hope I can pay their kindness forward by cultivating a similar culture wherever I go.

3. Changing ableist language

Something that seems small, but that really affects me and many other survivors, is the usage of ableist slurs, such as crazy and insane, as descriptors – usually not in the positive sense, never in the reclaimed sense. 

People have used these slurs to discredit me and my experiences as a crazy, disabled, and sick/chronically ill queer femme. They are both harmful and hurtful. It’s important to learn new language, to question why we feel it’s necessary to use ableist slurs, and to interrupt ourselves and others when we slip up. 

There are many resources available to help us communicate more compassionately. Lydia X. Z. Brown of Austic Hoya has a fantastic resource on ableism and language. This living document they’ve created (with the help and input of many different disabled people,) is an ever-growing, expanding, and changing glossary that includes lists of ableist words and phrases (including slurs), as well as words which people can consider using instead. 

4. Knowing your resources

One of the simplest things we can do as librarians for each other, for our patrons, and our communities, with the potential for the greatest impact is to know our resources (such as those related to mental health and sexual and domestic violence) both locally and nationally: What is their phone number? Where are they located? What services do they offer? 

It’s absolutely crucial to be familiar with resources outside of the police (and forced/nonconsensual institutionalization) which can be violent and even deadly for marginalized communities such as disabled people, people of color, and queer and transgender folks. 

When someone experiencing a mental health crisis is taken by police to the hospital, they may be forcibly stripped and injected with tranquilizers, as I have been before. This can be extremely traumatizing, especially if the person you’re “concerned” about is already a survivor. “What To Do Instead of Calling the Police: A Guide, A Syllabus, A Conversation, A Process” is a living document of resources on alternatives to policing, which range from the theoretical to practical, including best practices and guiding questions.

5. Practicing community care

During October, a month when my PTSD tends to worsen, my supervisor put together a community care shared document in which colleagues could sign up to assist me with various tasks to help make the month easier for me. Here’s an example of what one might look like:

Image via Karina Hagelin.

These are just a few examples of ways you can support colleagues who are survivors at work. Support looks different for each and every one of us and it never hurts to ask what that might look like.

How do you support survivors at your workplace?

Reflecting on contract work and precarity

Like many others, as the year is coming to an end, I’ve been in a reflective mood. Last year around this time, I was anxious about graduating, the job hunting process, and the potential for un/underemployment in the spring.  A lot has changed since then. I left the city I lived in for over a decade to start my first academic librarian job. There’s been lots to celebrate! But I’m still kind of feeling anxious about the future. 

My job is a “contractually limited appointment,” meaning it’s a fixed-term position with an end date. I still have many more months to go before my contract ends, but it’s something that’s frequently on my mind. In particular, whenever there’s discussions about long-term projects and planning or relationship building, I become aware of the temporality of my position. I think, will I be here next year?

While I was in school, I was warned that it may be several years before I find an ongoing permanent position, as lots of the jobs out there are part-time, or full-time contracts. According to Brons, Henninger, Riley, & Lin (2019), 46% of academic librarian jobs advertised on the Partnership job board (a Canadian library job board) were precarious. It seems like contract work is or becoming the norm for many early career librarians. When I was job hunting, I framed these positions in my mind as opportunities to get my foot in the door or a chance to try a new aspect of librarianship. But now that I have my foot in the door with my dream job(!), I am realizing that contract work is more challenging that I had thought.  

In their article “Job Precarity, Contract Work, and Self Care,” Lacey (2019) points to financial insecurity and the emotional and mental costs of precarious work. In particular, their discussion about the cyclical stress of acclimatizing to a new organizational culture and place, including establishing relationships, resonated with me. Being on a contract means, you’re constantly looking for work, trying to orient yourself to a new job, city, and leaving behind relationships. 

I’m very lucky in that I didn’t need to move far for my current position. It’s only a short bus or train ride away, although some days it feels very far.  I’m also very lucky in that I have super supportive colleagues who have gone out of their way to make me feel at home and a valued member of the library. I feel guilty about not focusing on the present and being fixated on the future, thinking about when I should start job hunting or where I’ll be living next year. 

What has been helpful is knowing that I’m not alone in feeling this way. I’m encouraged by the growing conversations about precarious work in libraries. For example, I’m excited about projects focused on contingent labour in libraries, archives, and museums like the Collective Responsibility: National Forum on Labor Practices for Grant-Funded Digital Positions, the Precarity in Libraries research project, or the @OrganizingLIS twitter account.

Looking at the current climate with the rise of the gig economy, it feels like part-time and contract work in librarianship is not going to go away. But, I’m also feeling very hopeful! I am looking forward to learning more about shared experiences of precarity and collectively working towards better conditions for library workers.

Five Healthy Coping Strategies for Dealing with Rejection in Academic Librarianship

Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash

“Do not fear failure but rather fear not trying.”

Roy T. Bennett

I put myself out there. A lot. I’ve lost count of the number of awards and scholarships I’ve applied to throughout my education and career. I do remember that I was rejected for every single one of them. I really love and recommend this free webinar by Dr. Kate Drabinski on dealing with rejection in academia. One of ACRLog’s former First-Year Academic Librarian bloggers, Quetzalli Barrientos, also wrote a fantastic post on getting rejected in the library world. While more and more of us are beginning to talk about rejection in academia, it’s still a fairly taboo topic that’s difficult and requires radical vulnerability to open up about. So this month, I want to discuss developing healthy coping strategies for getting comfortable with rejection. Here are five of my strategies for dealing with — and accepting — rejection in academic librarianship:

Keep an affirmations file

An affirmations file is a place to keep track of your successes: an e-mail congratulating you on a recent project from a colleague, an award you’ve won or been nominated for, and the positive things students and colleagues have said about you, for starters. Your affirmations file can be physical or digital; use whatever format you know you’ll return to when you need a quick hit of confidence and shot of self-esteem.

Be vulnerable and ask for help

I am a firm believer in the power of radical vulnerability. I think one of the bravest things we can do is ask for help. Whether you’re workshopping a potential journal article or writing a conference proposal, another person’s feedback can be invaluable as it lends a new lens to your work that can help you see things in new or different way and/or how you might improve your work. Find folks who are in your corner and are willing to help you with your work before you submit it – then return the favor when you’re able to, especially to new professionals!

Talk about it

Talking about rejection is crucial. Talking about the things we’re ashamed and fearful of or that are simply taboo is a way to take that power away from them while creating a space for others to share their stories and experiences as well. Ask your colleagues about how they deal with rejection.These conversations about rejections can also lend to new ideas and collaborative partnerships. You never know what might be born from a rejection!

Collaboration over competition

It’s easy to see our colleagues as our competition when we have a scarcity mindset (the belief that there will never be enough, thus our thoughts and actions stem from a place/fear of lack.) Capitalism encourages this. Academia does too, convincing us that our colleagues are our enemies, rather than potential allies and advocates, to keep us from building collective power. While not everyone has our best interests at heart, many of our colleagues could be fantastic co-conspirators, collaborators, and partners in projects, papers, or proposals. I would especially encourage more seasoned librarians to reach out to early-career librarians and ask them what their research interests and career goals are, with the end goal of partnering on a paper or project in mind. On our own, we can only do so much. Together, whether as collaborators, co-conspirators, and/or as a collective, we can create real change.

View rejection as a learning opportunity and keep going!

After being rejected for so, so, SO, many scholarships to attend conferences, I finally started asking for feedback on what would make my application stronger from the awards committee. Thanks to their generous feedback, I learned a lot about what I could do to not only write better statements but to make myself a stronger candidate for awards and scholarships. Finally, this year, I was awarded my first conference scholarship – the ACRL/NY 2019 Symposium Early-Career Librarian scholarship award! 

Discuss further

In the comments section, I encourage you to share what feelings rejection brings up for you, as well as your own tips for coping with rejection.

Karina Hagelin is an artist, community organizer, and Outreach and Instruction Librarian and Diversity Fellow at Cornell University Library. You can find them tweeting about critical librarianship and cats under @karinahagelin or more about their work at KarinaKilljoy.com. They can be reached at karina.hagelin@cornell.edu

Feeling my way as a teacher

This month, I’ve been participating in the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW), an intensive three-day program that involves presenting mini-lessons, peer feedback, and discussions on learner-centred teaching practices.  

My experience with teaching is not extensive. While I did have opportunities to assist with library instruction and co-teach some classes in library school, I had never designed or developed an information literacy (IL) lesson before starting my current position. While I had crammed as much as I could about learning outcomes, active learning techniques, frameworks and standards, and educational philosophies, the idea of creating an IL lesson on my own was daunting. 

When I first started my position in the summer, I had grand plans to explore and be creative in my teaching, and spent time perusing Project CORA, ACRL Framework for Information Literacy Sandbox, and various library instruction books and guides, particularly around critical approaches. But when September rolled around and my calendar started filling up, exploration and creativity went out the window! As a new librarian, lesson planning took longer than I had anticipated, filled with constant questions of “am I doing this right? Is this going to work?”

I was extremely grateful to my colleague who shared their detailed lesson plans with me, and I heavily relied on what they had already created and delivered. While it was amazing to not have to create lessons from scratch and approach faculty with IL lessons that they were already familiar with, I also felt that I wasn’t developing my own teaching style and philosophy. I was reluctant to take risks or try anything new.

While the ISW program isn’t focused on information literacy, it’s been a valuable opportunity for me to learn and to try out (and fail at!) new teaching techniques and learning activities in a relatively risk-free environment. For example, I’ve explored looking at evaluating sources and peer review through online recipes, which was a fun for me because I got to talk about my current obsession with Bon Appétit! Last week I tried designing a 10-minute lesson around mapping out research journeys and exploring research strategies based on everyone’s personal journey. I ran out of time and didn’t feel super great about how the lesson went, but it was a great opportunity to experiment with learning activities that involve giving over control to the learners.

I’m not entirely sure if I’m going to try to take any big risks in my IL classes next semester. In the ISW, I didn’t have to consider what faculty want, the pressures of an assignment, or even the challenges of teaching in a large classroom. The context of the one-shot class is another thing to consider when thinking about experimenting with new teaching techniques. As a new librarian, I’m still feeling my way. But I did gain a bit more confidence in my teaching while participating in the ISW, and the opportunity to try new things was invigorating. I’m hoping that confidence will encourage me to try new things, however small, in my IL classes. 

One of the small goals for my teaching next semester is a suggestion one of the ISW facilitators made: make the implicit explicit. I hope to make my teaching decisions (the why am I doing this) more transparent to the classroom and also for myself through written reflection. 

I have one more ISW session left this upcoming Friday. While I won’t miss watching recordings of myself teaching, I will miss the dedicated time spent on talking about teaching. I’m definitely going to try and find more opportunities to share teaching practices with my colleagues, other librarians, and other instructors.

Diversity Fellowships: Finding Your Place in Academic Librarianship

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Karina Hagelin, Outreach and Instruction Librarian and Diversity Fellow at Cornell University Library.

Hello there, colleagues and comrades. I’m Karina and I’m one of your new First-Year Academic Librarian bloggers! I’m currently a Diversity Fellow and Outreach and Instruction Librarian at Cornell University Library (CUL). For my first post, I thought I’d introduce myself and share about what being a diversity fellow is like. 

Outside of my position as a librarian, I am also an artist and organizer. I create art, especially zines, centered around radical vulnerability, queer femme joy, and healing as resistance. I love cats; I adopted two kittens a day after I started working at Cornell and volunteer as a “feline friend” at the shelter I adopted them from. I think it’s extremely important to have a life and identity outside of librarianship. I enjoy writing snail mail to my penpals, collecting unicorns, reading, bullet journaling, and being crafty/crafting in general.

Many diversity fellows are structured around rotations, giving the fellow the opportunity to explore several departments. My fellowship at Cornell is similar, allowing me to learn more about academic libraries while building on core competencies and skills in instruction, scholarship, and research. My fellowship is supported through a mentoring program, continuing education, professional development, specialized training, and participation on library committees. Since I knew I wanted to be an academic librarian – but I didn’t know what I wanted to focus on just yet – this fellowship was an ideal fit for me. 

I spent my first rotation working in Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC) where I focused on working with our Human Sexuality Collection through archival processing and metadata creation, policy, and procedure. I was also trained on the reference desk with specific attention to the special collections and archives environment I was working in.

During this time, I processed my first archival collection – the James D. Merritt Collection – which includes the personal journals, correspondence, and other personal papers of Dr. Merritt. I utilized my knowledge of this collection (obtained through research and archival methodology) to arrange the materials from this collection (ranging from photographs to fifty years of journaling to bags of hair and dirt to social justice and activist papers) to facilitate research access and long-term preservation of the records. After I finished rearranging and rehousing the materials from this collection, I prepared a finding aid for use by scholars, using current technology, descriptive standards, and techniques (like Encoded Archival Description aka EAD). I also prepared scope and content notes for this collection. 

My primary focus was making digitized photographs from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Collection accessible by creating metadata for each of the 600+ images that had been digitized. Around the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, my hard work paid off and the photographs were finally available to the public via Cornell’s Digital Collections.

And of course, what is librarianship without committee and service work? I also was active on the Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DIB) Council, RMC’s DIB Task Force, as well as a few subcommittees dedicated to specific projects, like creating research and resource guides on diversity. With RMC’s DIB Task Force, we collaborated to create a 40+ page “best practices” guide for our department, covering topics from social media to events and programming and instruction. 

Eventually, it was time to move on from RMC, although I still collaborate with Brenda Marston, the curator of the Human Sexuality Collection, on a regular basis. My next rotation and current rotation is at Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University’s library that serves students in our College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, where I will be finishing my fellowship. I focus on instruction informed by queer and feminist pedagogies, outreach to marginalized campus communities, our Makerspace, and social justice advocacy.

In this time, along with two fellow colleagues, I co-founded the Equity and Empowerment Reading Group, a monthly social justice reading group focused on libraries for librarians and library workers. So far, we’ve read articles about and discussed topics such as recruiting and retaining marginalized librarians, salary transparency and wage equity, the invisibility of race in library and information studies, and sexism in women-majority workplaces. These sessions have proved valuable for cultivating rich discussions and building community at CUL.

I also founded the Women, Trans, Femme, and Nonbinary Makers Night: a biweekly meeting where all are welcome to come learn about making in our Makerspace. We recently collaborated with a LGBTQIA2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Two-Spirit, and the countless affirmative ways in which people choose to self-identify) student group, as well as Fiber Science and Apparel Design students, to host a gender-affirmative fashion night, where we shared our sewing skills and made, mended, and altered clothes together. It was a really fun and engaging evening!

This week, I’m reflecting on a First-Year Writing Seminar session I led on creating zines about Black feminist icons, activists, and organizations, focusing on organizing a disability justice event for the library system, working on coursework for a class on Trauma-Informed Care in Libraries, researching starting a zine collection at my library, and shadowing my colleagues as they lead instruction sessions. I appreciate the ability to explore and try out new things, learn from my brilliant colleagues, and do work on subjects I’m passionate about. 

If you’re interested in learning more about diversity fellowships, I recommend checking out the ACRL Residency Interest Group which “provides opportunities and a platform for current and former resident librarians and other interested parties to share their experiences, research, and availability of library residencies.”

Karina Hagelin is an artist, community organizer, and Outreach and Instruction Librarian and Diversity Fellow at Cornell University Library. You can find them tweeting about critical librarianship and cats under @karinahagelin or more about their work at KarinaKilljoy.com. They can be reached at karina.hagelin@cornell.edu