Moving Towards Healing: A Trauma-Informed Librarianship Primer

Art by @gabriellarosie

I recently had the opportunity to teach several webinars for the Southeast Florida Library Information Network. One of the topics they asked me to speak about was trauma-informed librarianship, something I have been teaching on, incorporating into my practices and pedagogy, and continuing to learn about. Today, I’d like to share a primer on trauma-informed librarianship to help us move towards healing.

Trauma, as defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” 

There are many types of traumatic events and circumstances that lead to trauma. Trauma can happen to anyone. You can’t tell by looking at someone if they’re a trauma survivor or not. Unless someone discloses to you that they are a survivor, there isn’t anyway to tell. This is one of the reasons why trauma-informed care is so important when it comes to librarianship. You are interacting with survivors already, whether you know it or not, and knowing how to make positive and supportive changes in your library is part of providing equitable service.

Trauma’s impact is broad, deep, and life-shaping. It affects how people approach services. 

Trauma does not occur in a vacuum. Trauma occurs in the context of community. How a community responds to trauma sets the foundation for the impact of the traumatic event, experience, and effect. Communities that provide a context of empathy, self-determination, and compassion may facilitate the recovery and healing process for the survivor. However, communities that avoid, overlook, or misunderstand trauma can often be retraumatizing and interfere with the healing process. Survivors can actually be retraumatized by the people whose intent is to be helpful. This is one of the reasons why being trauma-informed as librarians and library workers is so important.

Trauma also can impact communities as a whole. Similarly how individual survivors experience trauma, a community may be subjected to a community threatening event, have a shared experience of the event, and an adverse, prolonged, effect. This could be a result of a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina, or that of structural violence, such as colonization, white supremacy, slavery, or mass incareceration. The resulting trauma is often transmitted from one generation to the next in a pattern referred to as historical, community, or intergenerational trauma.

Not only are trauma-informed services critical for individual survivors and communities who have experienced trauma but they also benefit those without trauma histories. A trauma-informed approach to our work realizes every choice we make, every interaction we have, every policy we create… they all have the potential to be retraumatizing or healing for our patrons and each other. Let’s be intentional about creating cultural shifts in our work and our libraries to choose healing.

Part of trauma-informed librarianship is unlearning ableism to shift our thinking. We need to move from thinking “What’s wrong with you?” when we encounter a “difficult” patron or even, a difficult coworker, to asking “What do you need?” 

Symptoms and difficult behaviors are strategies developed to cope with trauma. While these behaviors and symptoms may no longer be adaptive, the important thing to remember is at one point, they were. They may have even been the difference between life and death. We can’t know everyone’s situation nor should we attempt to diagnose but we can work to grow our own capacity for empathy and compassion when we’re confronted with symptoms or behaviors that are difficult for us or we don’t understand. 

We don’t need to know why someone is reacting the way they’re reacting but we do need to understand that every person deserves empathy, compassion, and healing, which is why staying calm, warm, and informative is so important – and can even potentially keep difficult interactions from escalating. 

Trauma-informed care is a term that originated from the healthcare field but is now being applied to a wide range of other professions – like librarianship! Trauma-informed care has four goals, known as the four R’s.

The first is that trauma-informed care realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery. Realization means that all people,  at all levels of the library, have a basic realization about trauma and understand how trauma can affect patrons, families, groups, organizations, and communities. This means that we understand people’s experience and behavior in the context of coping strategies designed to survive adversity and overwhelming circumstances.

Secondly, trauma-informed care recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in patrons, families, staff, and others involved with the library. Recognizing means that people in the library are able to recognize the signs of trauma, which may be gender, age, or setting-specific and may be manifested by individuals seeking or providing services in these settings, for example, both patrons and library workers and librarians.

Next, trauma-informed care responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices. This means that the library responds by applying the principles of a trauma-informed approach to all areas of functioning. The library integrates an understanding that the experience of traumatic events impacts all people involved, whether directly or indirectly. It also means that staff in every part of the library have changed their language, behaviors and policies to take into consideration the experiences of trauma among patrons and staff.

Finally, trauma-informed care resists re-traumatization, meaning that the library seeks to resist retraumatization of patrons, as well as staff. Libraries often unintentionally create stressful or toxic environments that interfere with the recovery of patrons, the well-being of staff and the fulfillment of our mission. So, staff are taught to recognize how organizational practices may trigger painful memories and retraumatize patorons with trauma histories.

A trauma-informed framework relies on six key principles, which are:

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness and Transparency
  3. Peer Support
  4. Collaboration and Mutuality
  5. Empowerment, Voice and Choice; and
  6. Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues

The first principle of trauma-informed care is safety. Safety means that our diverse staff and the many people we serve feel both physically and psychologically safe. We understand safety as defined by those we serve, which involves actively listening to people with less power and privilege than us and then taking action to repair the harm when it happens. 

In practice, safety might look like:

  • Clearly marked entrance and exit signs to ensure that the physical environment is safe in case of an emergency
  • Rethinking our relationship with the police due to the ways in which police brutalize, harm, and kill people of color, especially people of color who are disabled and/or queer and transgender. We need to think about what alternatives to police we can utilize because cops are never the solution.
  • Offering staff training on topics like implicit bias, trauma stewardship, mental health first aid, and so on, to better equip library workers and librarians with the skills we need to be culturally competent in order to provide unbiased and equitable services.

The second principle of trauma-informed care is trustworthiness and transparency. This means that all library operations and decisions are conducted with transparency with the goal of both building and maintaining trust with patrons and among staff, as well as others involved with our libraries. I want to emphasize that transparency is about what others want to know, not what we think they want to or should know.

In practice, trustworthiness and transparency might look like:

  • Patrons know and trust that staff members will treat personal information as confidential.
  • Library rules and policies are clearly communicated and equitably enforced.
  • Transparent decision-making processes at all levels of the library.

The third principle of trauma-informed care is peer support. Peer support, along with mutual self-help, are crucial vehicles for establishing safety and hope, building trust, enhancing collaboration, and utilizing survivor’s stories and lived experiences to promote recovery and healing. “Peers” refers to individuals with lived experiences of trauma because not everyone uses, identifies with, or prefers the term “survivor.” When talking with someone who has lived experiences of trauma, reflect the language they use to talk about and describe themselves.

Peer support in practice could look like:

  • Prioritizing #ownvoices titles in displays and on booklists.
  • Clearly communicating guidelines for sharing concerns and making them easily accessible.
  • Creating opportunities for community members to gather at our libraries around shared experiences to meet new people, build relationships, and access support.

The fourth principle of trauma-informed care is collaboration and mutuality. This principle places importance on partnering and the leveling of power differences between staff and patrons and among organizational staff, demonstrating that healing happens in relationships and in the meaningful sharing of power and decision-making. The library recognizes that everyone has a role to play in a trauma-informed approach as “one does not have to be a therapist to be therapeutic.”

In practice, collaboration and mutuality could look like:

  • Giving staff opportunities to collaborate within and among different teams, departments, and work groups.
  • Creating opportunities for both staff and patrons to contribute feedback on decisions that affect them.
  • Partnering with local community organizations to create community-relevant and culturally-responsive spaces, programs, and services.

The fifth principle of trauma-informed care is empowerment, voice, and choice. This means that throughout the library and among the patrons served, individuals’ strengths and experiences are recognized and built upon. The library fosters a belief in the primacy of the people served and in the ability of individuals, organizations, and communities to heal and promote recovery from trauma.

In practice, empowerment, voice, and choice might look like:

  • Providing reader’s advisory and reference interactions that offer a variety of choices.
  • Programming decisions that are led by what our communities want and need, not what we think they want and need.
  • Creating clear signage, displays, and discovery tools to help patrons find what they need and want, especially on sensitive topics.

Cultural, historical, and gender issues are the sixth and final principle of trauma-informed care. This principle means that the library actively moves past cultural stereotypes and biases, offers access to gender-responsive services, and leverages the healing value of cultural connections. The library recognizes and addresses historical trauma and incorporates policies, protocols, and processes that are responsive to the racial, ethnic, and cultural needs of their patrons.

In practice, cultural, historical, and gender issues might look like:

  • Having gender-inclusive bathrooms available with clear signage directing patrons to them and removing access barriers such as keys.
  • Using Universal Design principles informed by an intersectional lens. Without intersectionality, universal design is meaningless.
  • Consulting – and compensating – and/or partnering with culturally-specific organizations to serve different cultural groups in the community

Creating a trauma-informed library is a big goal but there are small things we can do everyday, that we can do today, to chip away at structural inequities, violences, and barriers created by trauma. As adrienne maree brown eloquently states, “The small is all.”

What’s one thing you will do today to move towards a more trauma-informed practice in your library?

Resources

Reading

Here. Still.

Here we are friends. Things are still weird, wrong, scary, annoying, infuriating, comforting, isolating, easy, difficult, slow-paced, and overwhelming. I’m sitting at the IKEA desk I hastily bought before Texas shut down all non-essential business in April. It’s positioned at a window that overlooks two dumpsters and a parking garage, but the light is good and I can close the door to the room while my partner homeschools our son in the morning. We trade off in the afternoon and again in the evening. He’s a good partner, but I still find myself being the preferred parent these days, a source of endless hugs and reassurances that remind me of what it was like to parent a toddler.

This is my week to write a post for ACRLog and I’ve been struggling to come up with ideas that I think are worth writing about. I solicited advice from the ACRLog blogging team and colleagues on Twitter. Suggestions were all good and helpful, and ranged from topics like what an instruction program would look like in the fall to staying motivated over a socially-distant summer to misinterpretations of vocational awe to discussions of imposter syndrome and the reopening of libraries. The problem is that I can’t bring myself to write about any of these topics well. The library world doesn’t need another Libraries + COVID-19 think piece, certainly not from someone like me, who is still employed, safely working from home with an immunocompromised partner who is able to do the same.

What works for me while I work from home won’t work for you. I work around homeschooling an 8 year old, our family’s various therapy appointments, dog-walking, exercise, grocery runs, and making food my son won’t think is “the grossest thing ever.” My work is easy. I’m not making decisions about furloughs or layoffs. I’m not having to don homemade PPE to reopen my library or gather books for faculty researchers. I get to create online instructional materials and work on interesting projects. I’m always worried, but my worries aren’t your worries. I worry about my partner getting sick and his compromised immune system not being able to fight off the infection. I worry about my ASD son being so socially isolated and not being able to practice valuable social interaction. I worry about my parents and in-laws. I worry about being a family whose income relies solely on the success of academia, and one academic institution in particular. I worry about the most vulnerable people in the world right now.

So what is there to write and share? I can share that things that get me through a day. They probably won’t be helpful to most people who read them, but maybe if we all share what gets us through a day (maybe not today, or yesterday, but a day that was a good day) there’s something there for each of us.

Here’s where I reach the part of writing where a little part of me gives up and I just start listing things, or, what my friend Jo and I call the “F**k it. Here’s a list.” portion of my post. We’re all here. Still. Some in better shape than others. Let’s support each other. Organize. Reach out. Offer help. We all need it.

Things getting me through a day:

Not-So-Empty Library Spaces

You probably, to some degree, miss the physical space of your library right around now. It’s been about eight weeks since you’ve seen each other, after all. Whether it’s a dual-monitor setup in your office or that weird stain on the carpet that you swear looks like an alligator from the right angle, there’s got to be something you miss about your library space.

I think physical library spaces and their many uses are fascinating, so knowing that so many libraries across the country are sitting empty and dark right now makes me a little sad. (To clarify: we should definitely be closed for safety, but empty libraries are still a sad thing to imagine.) Not all library spaces are going completely unused, though, and some are being used in new and unforeseen ways.

In the more traditional vein, some libraries are offering curbside service, which means there must be a skeleton crew inside the space, experiencing that “empty libraries are eerie” feeling we’ve all had when we forgot our phone on our desk and had to go back in after closing.

Another well-known use of library space is being continued in Seattle. They recognize that books and computers are not the only things people want from libraries, and reopened enough of their spaces to allow unsheltered people to use another highly popular library resource: the restrooms.

We know at least one library is buzzing with activity while the staff completely reshelves their collection after a well-meaning cleaner arranged all the books by size.

This American Libraries article discusses several ways libraries – and library staff – are being repurposed, like turning a library into a day shelter (with adequate space to allow necessary physical distancing) or deploying library employees to help out at shelters and helplines.

While most of these examples involve public libraries, academic libraries are also participating in popular pandemic-time activities, like 3D printing PPE in their maker-spaces.

But the most active use of library space right now is one I’m getting to witness firsthand at our own library. When I completed the NLM’s Disaster Health Information Specialist program earlier this year, I learned that libraries often serve as the Incident Command Center for disasters, because they have comfortable space (heat/air, restrooms, electricity, seating), internet access and phones, and “breakout” spaces like study rooms or meeting rooms. Our library is now serving in this capacity, and it is fascinating to see how that works, up close and in real time.

If your library space is not very lively right now without you, and you miss your plants and desk tchotchkes, try thinking of the funny things about returning to work, whenever that will happen for you: what outdated displays will still be up? The weather will have changed pretty drastically; what jacket or scarf did you forget you left in your office in March? And, now might not be the best time to remember… but did you leave leftovers in the break room fridge?

How are you doing?

Photo: bradley pisney

Support from friends has helped me keep my chin up in the face of cabin fever and low-key panic, and I’ve been casting about for the same support at work. So I asked fellow ACRLoggers to share how things are going where they work:

What’s the situation at your institution, at the time of writing?

Maura Smale:
At my institution, the library and campus has been closed since mid-March, and with our Governor’s stay at home order currently scheduled through at least May 15th, and summer courses fully online, it’s not clear when we’ll go back to the physical library. Once closures were announced, my colleagues and I were able to get computers with remote desktop access distributed to all full-time library faculty and staff who need them to work remotely. I’m grateful that our library IT team was able to quickly set up laptops from our classroom with everything needed to enable folks to work from home, which has allowed us to continue to support the college community and move forward on many of the projects we had in progress before the pandemic.

Jennifer Jarson:
Currently, classes at all Penn State campuses are fully online and all library locations are physically closed and library faculty/staff have been working remotely since then. Much of our ongoing work has continued but with some adjustments. Like everyone, we’ve cancelled or postponed a number of programs and events, moved others online, and are working on new ideas about how to connect with our students and faculty in this new reality. University administration announced that all pre-tenure faculty will automatically have an extra year on the tenure clock (but can choose to stay on their original timeline if they wish). All librarians have faculty status at my institution and many are on the tenure track, so folks are evaluating the impact of the pandemic on their work and weighing their options.  

Emily Hampton Haynes (That’s me):
My community college campus has also been closed since mid-March, and my director worked hard to ensure that everyone on the library team would be able to work from home. We’ve been working out the kinks of Microsoft Teams meetings and entertaining different scenarios for how the summer and fall might look, based mostly on speculation and hope. I’ve seen a lot of photos of my coworkers’ pets!

What is your day-to-day look like on the job right now?

Jen:
I’m trying to stick to regular work hours right now in an effort to maintain some boundaries and to keep work from taking over the whole day every day. I’m not caring for small children and thankfully no one in my household is ill right now, so I have the luxury of being able to set and manage only my own routine. My daily agenda, though, varies widely just as it always has. I’m the head of a small branch library in an enormous library system, so my job is part administrative, part teaching and learning/public services, and part whatever else needs doing. Of course, all this work is taking place from home. As part of a large organization distributed across the state, Zoom meetings and virtual work were already a regular part of my daily life so the transition to 100% remote work hasn’t felt as jarring for me as it likely has for others.   

Emily:
Like most academic libraries, we were about to launch into the busiest weeks of info lit instruction for the semester. Instead of spending the last month in the classroom, busy but vibrant, I’ve found myself with more unstructured time than I was expecting. Rather than live instruction, most faculty who had library visits scheduled chose to have us create tip sheets (which we make using LibGuides) and database demo videos. I hope these asynchronous teaching materials will be helpful to students, but I miss sharing the same space. I didn’t realize how much physical presence mattered to my teaching. As we consider a hybrid online/f2f fall semester, I want to find more ways to be personable, maybe with video-chat reference appointments or standing office hours.

How have you kept communication going with students, faculty, or other users? 

Maura:
Another major difference since the move to remote work has been the increase in communication between all of the library directors at my university. Our directors’ council typically meets monthly during the academic year, but in the rush to close the physical campuses we convened an ad hoc Zoom meeting on the Friday of that first week of closures. We’ve ended up keeping that time each week since for us to get together less formally, and it’s been useful to share information about common questions and concerns about our budgets, book orders, remote work for our part-time staff, and the status of the consortial library systems platform migration we’re in the midst of (!), among other topics. With COVID-19 so prevalent in New York City we’re all hearing about cases in our campus communities, too, and I’ve been grateful for the support we’re offering each other in this group.

Jen:
Maintaining, or even growing, our relationships with our students, faculty, and staff feels just as important as ever, if not more so. We’ve done some general messaging to students via emails through our Student Affairs office and FAQs on our campus website, but connecting with students feels even more challenging as we don’t have much unmediated access to them right now. Faculty are our most direct route so we’ve tried to highlight to them the role they can play in helping students connect with us, particularly for research and reference consultations. We drafted a general message for students about how to get help and sent that out to faculty, hoping they might copy/paste it into an announcement in their courses on our LMS. We’re working on ways to shift some already scheduled student-centered programming/events online and also to create new online opportunities in collaboration with our Student Affairs colleagues. On a more general level, our campus advising department invited faculty/staff to help conduct wellness check phone calls to students in order to assess how they’re coping, connect them with campus resources and services, and generally offer support. Our library team is participating in this effort, as well.

What has surprised you most about library work during this crisis?

Maura:
One thing that’s surprised me is the amount of (digital) paperwork required for us to all work remotely. The college required all workers — full-time and part-time — to complete a flexible work scheduling form that documents the work to be done while telecommuting, plus additional documentation to complete for those who took library laptops home with them. With 24 full-time and 27 part-time faculty and staff it took a few weeks for us to get the paperwork sorted. At work we all have the same basic computer setup, but at home we do not, and it’s been far more complicated than I expected to address the issues many of us have encountered in digitally signing PDFs requiring signatures from library workers as well as me (as library director).

Emily:
I am reckoning with the diminished mental capacity I’ve had since I’ve started work from home. I’ve seen a few Twitter threads (like this one) that have been validating; underneath whatever we’re trying to make our brains do right now, we are going through collective trauma and processing a constant but invisible threat. I have research plans for this summer that I’m excited about, but I’m struggling to use this “newfound time” on them. This very post took me 2 weeks to write! I’m accustomed to being able to turn a product around quickly, be it teaching materials, a blog post, or an email, and am trying not to be disappointed in myself that tasks are taking me much longer than usual. Veronica’s post from a few weeks ago has been very encouraging to me. Her final sentence bears repeating: Our output may be messier, but it’s “the best work we can do during a global pandemic and that work is worth celebrating.” 

I hope you are all able to stay safe and healthy. Share your frustrations or triumphs with us in the comments, this is a space where we can lean on each other.

Work-From-Home: Part-Timers & Student Workers

Most academic library employees across the country have been working from home for the better part of two weeks now, and will be doing so for an unknown amount of time this spring (and summer?) due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What about our part-timers and student workers? In my library, I have two dozen part-time employees whose assigned job is exclusively working at the service desk when the rest of the staff has gone home for the evening/weekend. This is not work that can be done from home, or when the physical space of the library is not in use: checking in/out items, providing basic computer assistance to users, counting the cash drawer, etc. So what can they do?

I (like so many others) have been trying to think of work we can offer to these employees so we can justify paying them for tasks they can do from home. I realize that many of our institutions are taking a hard look at their budgets right now, and paying your part-timers and student workers for as many hours as you could before might not be feasible (or might not continue to be for the duration). But if you give them meaningful work to do now, they will look less expendable on paper.

A few days ago, our university libraries put out a call for student workers to start a project where they document their experiences during the pandemic/quarantine, in whatever medium they choose (print, video, art, etc.) and we can pay them for their contributions to the special collection these products will go into. (Take a moment to imagine the exhibit these will go into in a couple decades, perhaps alongside personal writings from the Spanish flu pandemic and the yellow fever outbreak! One second while I add a calendar reminder to check on that in, say, 2040?)

Because of the aforementioned potential budget changes, we can only offer so many hours per week to the student employees participating in this project, but I’ve been constantly vigilant for opportunities for my part-timers to work from home. A few ideas I’ve run across are:

  • Link-checking LibGuides
  • Contributing to new LibGuides of free online resources and COVID-19 resources
  • Assisting with responding to reference emails or participating in reference chat services
  • Plan displays/exhibits for when we return (book lists, graphic design, etc.)
  • Contribute to Library of Congress transcription projects
  • Relevant webinars/training (like Lynda/LinkedIn Learning)
  • Required or optional institutional training (compliance, cybersecurity, etc.)
  • Create a written guide on the tasks they normally perform, for future training purposes
  • Curate a list of the aforementioned trainings/readings for others to use
  • Weeding projects (based on booklists, not physical item’s condition, of course)
  • Manually extending interlibrary loan periods

Not all of these will work for us, but some are possibilities. Some would require getting access for them to systems they couldn’t normally access; most would require some degree of specialized training, and all would have to follow specific hours guidelines to ensure that we aren’t paying out more hours than we are budgeted for. If you’re worried about giving your employees something they aren’t prepared for, consider: you’ve heard about last-year medical and nursing students being called on to assist in the medical side of this crisis; surely your part-timers and student workers can be called upon to do more specialized tasks than they were doing before.

What tasks are you having your part-timers complete during this time, if any? What resources can you provide for them while they are essentially suspended from work? What other considerations do you have to incorporate (for example, do they need a VPN to get this work done, or can you provide laptops to them)?