Blogger Chelsey Roos

Library Work Has a Trauma Problem – Can It Be Fixed?

The public might think of libraries as calm and gentle, but library workers know the truth: library work can cause trauma. Most of us have had at least one experience – if not many experiences – that broke our hearts, wore us out, or left us feeling alone and unsupported. A groundbreaking new study from Urban Libraries Unite has sought to dig deep into that trauma and explain why it’s happening. They also propose four changes to help mitigate library staff trauma and make sure that library staff do not feel alone in their experiences.

What Causes Trauma for Library Staff?

Urban Libraries Unite received survey responses from more than 500 library staff, the majority working in urban libraries. They found that the majority of responders (68.5%) had “experienced violent or aggressive behavior at their libraries from patrons.” Almost a quarter (22%) of responders “experienced violent or aggressive behavior from their coworkers.” Many respondents discussed experiences of racism and sexual harassment while working at the library.

As part of the study, they asked a focus group to define what trauma in the workplace meant to them. Some responses included:

  • “a whole jambalaya of stress and worry”
  • “dark jokes about a patron coming back with a gun”
  • “today is the day I will be assaulted”
  • “not being able to help”
  • “cops showed up the next day”
  • “disturbing that it doesn’t bother you over time”

It’s Not Just Confrontational Patrons

In addition to direct confrontations with patrons and other staff, many responders mentioned what the survey termed “secondary traumatic stress,” also known as compassion fatigue. Essentially, when we see our patrons’ struggles, we can take on a degree of that stress and can eventually become burnt out. As one respondent put it, “We witness our community members struggle through poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, mental illness, and oftentimes we do not have the resources to help them.” Another respondent said, “We are the only therapy they (patrons) can afford.” Library staff are not trained to be therapists, or social workers, or emergency responders – but sometimes we step into those roles by necessity, and that takes a toll.

One Surprising Source of Trauma

The survey also found something surprising – that the hardest part for many wasn’t actually the difficult interactions with patrons. According to the study, “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. Respondents frequently described situations where staff were not supported during or after an incident, where they were made to feel forgotten, neglected, were not believed by managers or administrators, where they were frustrated by the lack of communication and understanding, or the inconsistent or unequal application of policies and procedures.” This lack of administrative support was what many respondents said caused them the most harm.

Why Library Staff Struggle to Get Support

The study also looked at themes and beliefs in library culture that make it difficult for library staff to get the support they need. They found that while 64% of libraries offer some form of workplace mental health resource, like an EAP (employee assistance program), only 20 respondents indicated they had actually used it. Why? Many respondents worried that using these resources might somehow get back to their managers, and cause professional repercussions. And even using a service like EAP might not be enough help. These programs usually put a cap on the number of sessions provided (some as low as 3, others as many as 7), and the therapists are usually not library-specific, so they may have very little context for the kind of stress and trauma library staff experience.

“It’s Just Part of the Job”

There’s also a pervasive feeling in the library community that putting up with these things is just part of the job. The study discusses a common belief that “getting a full-time library job is often such a difficult and time consuming process that people are loath to speak up for themselves for fear of putting their hard won job at risk. Some library staff feel so lucky to have finally gotten a job that they will put up with anything.”

Still from the 2018 movie The Public, showing Emilio Estevez as a public librarian, standing defiantly with several library patrons.
In the 2018 movie The Public, some of the stress of public library staff is shown, including an interaction with a naked, mentally ill patron. Image still from The Public.

Dealing with problematic patron behavior is often seen as normal library work, even though in other workplaces, it would be considered extremely inappropriate. In a focus group, one member told her experience of “being a young woman and being expected to ask male patrons visibly watching porn to move to computers out of line of sight from the children’s program, and that she was then expected to help get the patron set up on the other computer.” The point is not necessarily to argue about whether porn, or problematic patrons, belong in the library, but to recognize how these experiences can be traumatizing.

4 Recommendations for Trauma Support

“You can’t self care your way out of a broken system,” the study states, and this is incredibly true. Individual library staff cannot cure their trauma with a bubble bath and a scented candle. And while the library cannot solve societal issues like racism, sexism, or homelessness, the study does propose solutions. They offer four fundamental pieces: 

  1. Starting a national library worker help line. As described in the study, this would be an anonymous service staff could call for mental health help and burnout support.
  2. A set of standards for healthy library work environments built by a coalition of worker-led library organizations.
  3. A collection of policies & procedures written from the perspective of trauma-informed leadership. 
  4. A series of peer-led support groups made up of library workers. The study likens these to recovery groups, where members could realize that they are not experiencing these problems alone.

“Library workers across the country are experiencing identical traumas and each believes themselves to be alone in their experiences,” the study states. Perhaps the first step we can take is to be honest about our difficult experiences, so that we know we are not alone.

Photo of bespectacled white author Chelsey Roos
Photo by author

Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is a children’s librarian for the Santa Clara County Library.

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of VII. Professionalism and Professional Development

4 comments

  1. Mika

    Chelsey! Thank you for this summary! I have had the report up on my computer for the past few weeks but have been too overwhelmed at work to read it, which feels… correct.

  2. Shawn M

    wow what a great article !! spot on well done !

  3. T. Ired

    We get these workshops about trauma informed care, trauma informed services, but I feel like it all centers on the patrons’ trauma. What about ours?

    Just in the past week, I’ve dealt with naked people, a guy with a knife, apathetic anti-maskers, a covid exposure notice, graffiti, smokers and drug use on the porch, questionable air conditioning, and a passed-out drunk. All while signing up people for summer reading, and performing usual library service. We’re short-staffed, people keep getting sick, and somehow we keep going in spite of it all.

    It’s THURSDAY.

    1. Patrick

      I’m a fellow library worker and I wanted you to know that I understand and empathize with your situation. It’s a bummer that library workers are expected to be abused and ‘just deal with’ a wide variety of terrible things; it’s kind of a messed up product of our society and not feeling supported in the matter is kind of awful. I hope things get better for you, whatever that looks like 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.