Facilitating Class Conversations: Learning to Listen

Last month, my institution hosted a workshop on facilitating discussions on difficult issues, specifically in the classroom. We discussed how to engage in constructive dialogue and practiced handling unanticipated remarks that fall outside of our comfort zone. 

The first half of the workshop focused on active listening. The facilitator acknowledged that listening is hard; it’s a low-incentive, low-reward task, but it’s important. She shared a few tips for being a better listener:

  • Slow down. Aim to contemplate ideas, not to come to agreement in one conversation. Tell yourself, “Nothing has to be settled tonight.”
  • Give your full attention. If it’s a controversial or personal subject, put your phone on silent and try to be present.
  • Work from the assumption that all voices have something valuable to contribute. Be sincerely curious about and even grateful for what they have to say.

She also shared tips for speaking to be heard:

  • Be transparent about your own positions.
  • Slow down. Again, aim to explain, not persuade or convince.
  • Use your own language and where possible, ground your ideas in stories about yourself, that connect your ideas to your underlying values.
  • Move away from media talking points.

We also discussed the characteristics of a Brave Space, as coined by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens. We want to foster a space of respect for one another, where students are listening to understand, and are willing to experience some discomfort so they can learn. 

But when someone says something problematic, either before class or as part of a class discussion, it can be easy to freeze and not know how to respond. I know my first instinct is to correct the record as quickly as possible, but that may shut the student down or make them feel ganged up on, which is not productive. 

The workshop suggested that in a moment of conflict, suggest to the whole class, “Let’s take a moment to breathe.” Inserting a moment to pause before responding is important, and gives us a chance to choose the best response.

If you’re like me and you devour advice columns like sugary cereal, you may be familiar with the idea of “scripts” for awkward social situations. What do I say when my neighbor makes a weird comment about my body? How do I ask my boss for a raise? This workshop shared strategies and scripts to address unpopular comments from students:

  • “I understand why you’d feel that way/That’s a common view. But what if…”
  • “Under what circumstances might you feel/act in the same way?”
  • “It can be tough bringing up an opposing view. It helps us better understand why this is such a difficult issue to discuss.”
  • “I’m sure this wasn’t the intent of that comment, but that stereotype is harmful because…”
  • Validate someone’s feelings even if their perspective is not based in fact.
  • Focus on what was problematic in a student’s comment, rather than calling someone racist or sexist.
  • Address your comments to the class as a whole, rather than zeroing in on the student who spoke.

There is clearly a difference between dissent and bigotry. The workshop emphasized that expressions of hatred or contempt are not to be tolerated in the classroom, and when a student uses slurs or other microaggressions, that should be interrupted. For example, you might remind the students of the established rules of engagement for the class: “Using a word like that is not showing respect to your classmates.”

Their final takeaways:

  • Accept that you can’t make everyone feel comfortable all the time.
  • Accept that you may not be able to change a student’s values.
  • If you offend someone, own it and do better next time.
  • Don’t expect to be a perfect facilitator all the time: We are all unlearning and growing!

And, We’re Back! Re-Opening Our Library

As a medical school library, we already have students beginning a new academic year. Between nurse, PA, and MD programs, residents, and the non-stop functioning of a hospital we support, we knew we would be among the early returners… the guinea pigs, if you will.

Some upsides: The majority of our user base is already accustomed to wearing surgical masks for long periods of time, so I imagine we’re correcting mask protocol less often than we would have to elsewhere. (The fact that we have to do it at all may be unsettling, but I still think we’re luckier than most in this regard.) The students seem to have settled into alternative study routines (or perhaps they have as much news update email burnout as I do, and therefore haven’t heard that we’re open) and didn’t swarm us immediately at 8am on Monday. We have procedures in place for everything that has come up so far, and things are running smoothly (knock on wood).

I’ll give you some details of what’s working for us that may come in handy as you prepare your own reopening plans, or may just be of interest.

  • The open stacks are no longer open; we hung caution tape and signs directing users to the desk to request items, rather than retrieving them on their own.
  • We are quarantining all checked-out items for 72 hours, using some file drawers we weren’t using for other purposes. We picked five, labelled each for a day of the week, and added the day of the week they should be emptied. (The first drawer says “Monday – open Thursday,” the second says “Tuesday – open Friday,” and the rest are opened Monday since we aren’t open on the weekends yet.)
  • All returned items must go directly into the book drop (as opposed to being handed to the person at the desk) so it all goes into quarantine together. (If they are checked out, exceptions will be made for bone boxes and board games, which still go into quarantine, but are too fragile/multi-part for the book drop.)
  • Reserve textbooks, which have a 2-hour checkout, can be checked out, but they must go into the book drop and follow 72-hour quarantine procedure. We’re also reaching out to our liaison departments to tell instructors that if they want any readings from those books, they ought to check them out and sort that out. (We’re also providing copyright information to keep them from making mistakes.)
  • We are not checking out headphones (we don’t feel they can be properly sanitized).
  • All of the spaces of the library are available, but at half capacity. A week before reopening, we stacked chairs, turned around soft seating that can’t be properly sanitized, and separated the tables in study rooms so they’re in each corner instead of clustered in the middle.
  • We still let users borrow packs of dry erase markers, but we have bins for “new” and “used” (depending on your area, you may have seen the same concept applied to pens for signing receipts at restaurants) and they get quarantined and wiped down
  • We ordered a great deal of signage, to cover the following:
    • New hours
    • All guidelines, posted at each entrance
    • Mask reminders
    • No eating/drinking (not a usual policy, but as you can’t eat/drink with a mask worn properly, a new necessity)
    • Small room capacity, posted on each door
    • “Sanitation station” identifiers (where users can find spray bottles and paper towels to clean tables, chairs, computers, etc. before and after use)
    • Reminders to follow specific procedures in relevant areas, like “please put all items in the book drop” (as opposed to handing them to the person at the desk)
  • We created an “incident form” for internal use. Since our ability to move to the next reopening phase depends on the number of incidents we experience in the library, this allows us to track them. There are two types of incident: “learning,” which is a friendly reminder to follow a procedure that goes heeded, and “defiant,” which is the type of event where the friendly reminder is given but the behavior is not corrected.
  • Everyone who can continue to work from home, does. We have two staff members who cover the service desk, all reference hours are covered on Zoom and via email, and three people (me, the Access Services Librarian; the Associate Director; and the Director) come in regularly to manage the library and make sure the staff get breaks. Others may come in occasionally to do a single task that can’t be done from home, but they don’t keep regular schedules in the library.

None of this is complex, nor should it be. We have easy-to-understand, easy-to-follow rules for the space, we’ve limited services and resources as little as possible, and we cut the capacity in half simply by moving furniture and hanging signs.

We’ve been open one week now, and so far – although it isn’t closing time yet – we’ve only had eleven “incidents” to report, and they’ve all been the “learning” type.

If you’re preparing to open your library, I wish you the best of luck, compliant users, and comfortable masks. If you’re holding off for a while longer, I support that decision and hope your pets enjoy having you and home a little longer. (My cat has been more upset about me being gone for the day than any of our users have been about being reminded to wear a mask and stay at or under study room capacity.)

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?