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:
- Trustworthiness and Transparency
- Peer Support
- Collaboration and Mutuality
- Empowerment, Voice and Choice; and
- 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?
- Find a Mental Health First Aid Course
- The Fireweed Collective
- You Feel Like Sh*t: A Self-Care Game
- Everything is Awful and I’m Not Okay: Questions to Ask Before Giving Up
- Road Map to Trauma-Informed Care
- Trauma Lens Exercise: Reframing Difficult Behavior Through a Trauma-Informed Lens
- “Creating a Trauma-Informed Presentation” by S. Bryce Kozla.
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk.
- “SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach” by SAMHSA’s Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative.
- “Trauma Informed Care in the Classroom: A Resource Guide for Educators in Higher Learning” by Trauma Informed Oregon.
- Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky.
- “What To Do Instead of Calling the Police: A Syllabus, A Guide, a Conversation, a Process” by Aaron Rose.
- The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities edited by Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, & Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha