“This report was birthed in trauma.” It’s a striking and heartbreaking opening statement for the groundbreaking 2022 Urban Library Trauma Study Report, released in late June at the 2022 American Library Association Annual Conference. While the beginnings of the study were rooted in library trauma before the COVID-19 pandemic, the initial grant application was written as the virus hit New York and days before many city libraries were closed. The two year long study was delayed and redesigned due to the pandemic, allowing researchers to capture some sense of the difficult working conditions urban library workers experienced pre-pandemic but possibly more importantly the increasing demands and disruptions because of the pandemic, resulting in extensive trauma, stress, and burnout for urban library workers.
The study and report were executed in a partnership between the New York Library Association, Urban Librarians Unite, and St John’s University. On the Urban Librarians Unite website, they introduce the report writing, “Almost every library worker has a story about one event at work that left them shaken. Sometimes it’s an abusive patron, sometimes it’s workplace bullying, and sometimes it’s that haunting feeling left behind when a patron needed more help than you could provide. The Urban Library Trauma Study looked to take these anecdotal stories, quantify them and build a pathway to practical solutions for the issue and move the library industry towards a culture of community care.”
The study included four stages including a comprehensive review of current literature on the topic, a survey of urban library workers, a series of virtual focus groups, and lastly a two-day forum of urban library workers to go over the research and create plans for the future.
Key Takeaways from the Urban Library Trauma Study
The survey was distributed between August 7, 2021 and September 29, 2021. The survey received 568 responses, of which 435 were from urban public staff. Responses from rural, suburban, academic, school and special library responses were filtered out to focus the scope of the study but the report does mention that library workers at all kind of libraries are dealing with many of the same issues raised in this report.
Overall, a majority of responses (68.5%) indicated that the library worker had
experienced violent or aggressive behavior at their libraries from patrons, but also a significant percentage of responses (22%) indicated that they experienced violent or aggressive behavior from their own coworkers.
Responses include a range of violent or aggressive behavior from patrons toward library workers, including verbal abuse, harassment, physical assault including having guns and other weapons brandished, situations relating to drugs or alcohol, sexual assault or harassment, and situations involving a person’s mental health.
The report also spends some time looking at Secondary Traumatic Stress and secondary trauma experiences and how regular interaction with patrons who are struggling with homelessness, poverty, mental illness, or addiction has a profound affect on library workers who are often not trained or have the resources or support for this work. The report encourages more recognition of how secondary stress leads to burnout and recommends that libraries look to the fields of social work and medicine for concrete solutions to support library workers.
The report noted surprise about one result from the survey, “What was surprising about the survey responses was that although many of the incidents of trauma in the library were directly related to larger culture issues that stem from outside of the library (e.g., racism, sexism, substance abuse, etc.), the trauma that was incurred by many respondents was often a result of how the situation was handled inside of the library.” Responses noted that they were not supported by library administration and felt forgotten, neglected, frustrated, or not believed. A majority (83%) of respondents did report receiving support from a colleague during a tough situation at work though.
In focus groups, library workers discussed issues worsened by the pandemic and felt across many service sectors, with one participant referring to “endemic incivility.” and another referring to a “culture of casual cruelty.” It was mentioned that the philosophy of “The customer is always right” causes a lot of damage to library workers who are unable to unable to to set appropriate and consistent boundaries because of institutional policies, culture, and support. This is particularly traumatic for library workers with marginalized identities who are expected to provide excellent customer service in the face of abuse, that is often racist, sexist, ableist, and/or homophobic in nature.
Recommendations from the Urban Library Trauma Study
The report ends with four recommendations for the future, based in their initial research and understanding of the issues facing urban library workers and rising from what appears to be an incredibly powerful and important two-day forum held in March 2022 in Brooklyn, New York. The study includes details about the model used for the forum, the participants, and posters generated from the forum.
- A National Library Worker Help Line where library workers can call for immediate support during mental health crises and burnout.
- A set of standards for healthy library work environments built by a coalition of worker-led library organizations. These standards will allow library workers to ask for better conditions and library administrators to point to organizational successes and commitments.
- A collection of policies & procedures written from the perspective of trauma-informed leadership. These policies will offer enough specificity and nuance to be usable but will be written with the intention of being “plug & play” for administrators and library leaders who want to incorporate them into their organizations.
- A series of peer-led support groups made up of library workers which allow workers at all levels to offer and receive support from colleagues at other institutions who can empathize and understand the unique challenges associated with library work. These will be online and workers will be able to opt into groups that match their interests, issues, and level of work (ie. workers of color, administrators, pages, etc.).
In the report’s moving conclusion, the organizers urge libraries to meet the moment and try to build new structures for trauma, safety, and trust for everyone working in libraries. “We welcome you to try our ideas. We welcome you to use our research to try ideas of your own. We ask that you just please try something.”