Libraries are safe places for people from all walks of life who have experienced many different types of trauma. Library staff, for the most part, receive no training on how to interact with patrons who may be homeless, mentally ill, or living with a substance use disorder in a manner that does not re-traumatize them. Additionally, the process of frequently interacting with patrons who have experienced trauma can cause significant stress and vicarious for library staff.
The purpose of this section of the toolkit is to provide training ideas and resources to help libraries provide services to patrons who have experienced trauma, as well as to provide training resources for encouraging staff resilience and wellness.
The stereotype of the quiet and shy librarian belies the stressful and dangerous incidents library employees actually may encounter. Employees have reported experiencing the following while working at a library:
Vicarious trauma may result from repeatedly hearing about others' traumatic stories and observing the survivors' pain and suffering. While vicarious trauma is typically associated affecting mental health counselors and first responders such as emergency medical professionals and law enforcement, it also affects clergy, journalists, health care providers, and even librarians.
A major indication of vicarious trauma is a change of a person's worldview, although that change can be positive as well as negative. Symptoms often reflect the symptoms of actual trauma suffered, but are typically less severe. They may include mood swings, aggression, social withdrawal, sleep problems, and a strain in relationships with others--particularly with issues concerning security, trust, esteem, intimacy, and control.
Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, founder and director of The Trauma Stewardship Institute, describes the signs of what she calls Trauma Exposure Response in her book;Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. She explains that this response occurs when the external trauma encountered by humanitarian workers, first responders, caregivers, and other workers becomes their internal reality.
Vicarious trauma is not the same as feeling "burnout" from a job. Burnout usually happens to everyone at some point in any profession. It can be described as the stress of feeling over-committed to a job while feeling under-rewarded by it. Vicarious trauma is feeling a traumatic response.
Staff should start learning about trauma-informed practices as soon as possible. It can be part of staff orientation. Acknowledging that library staff may potentially face something that might be upsetting, even if not traumatic, can be helpful. As shown in the Resilience video, 34% of the attendees at the Building Better Lives Conference in Columbus, OH had an ACEs scores of 4 or higher. Everyone, including library employees, has an ACEs score even if it is zero. Two questions to ask your new staff to reflect upon are, "How do I build a self-care plan for myself?" and "What is your trigger plan?" (I.E., What will you do if something "triggers" you or reminds you of a past trauma.) Acknowledging that trauma exists can better prepare staff for stressful situations.
While a trigger action plan may sound overwhelming, its purpose is simple. The goal is for employees to process their trauma in the moment so they can continue to be empathetic service providers. When employees recognize what provokes them and how it makes them feel, then they can create a plan for themselves that will help them cope and take action in the future.
Trigger action plans are for the employees to better empower and help themselves. After a serious incident supervisors should make themselves available for the employees and review what happened. Trauma is personal and everyone's response to it is different. Some employees might want to speak directly with their supervisors, while others may not. People should not be forced or coerced to talk about their trauma. Referring people to outside assistance or support can be useful.
Some public libraries have begun directly hiring social workers to help library patrons and staff handle issues not typically described as library work. Other libraries have begun to collaborate with college social work programs to recruit social worker student interns. Collaborations between public libraries and schools of social work and welfare can be ideal since both fields share similar values about social equity and access.
Social workers can bring trauma-informed practices into the library, help provide training to better prepare front-line staff with patrons' mental health issues and can directly work with patrons and assist with help finding housing, employment, or mental health and substance abuse treatment. Unlike other potential office settings, there is a lack of stigma associated with visiting the public library which makes it an ideal place to outreach people within the community.
The opioid epidemic has uniquely affected libraries. Libraries are free, open to the public, and can inadvertently provide space for drug use. Library workers are confronted with drug use, littered paraphernalia, and fatal overdoses. To combat the fatalities, some libraries began training their staff to administer naloxone (NARCAN®) an antidote to opioid overdose.
This is a controversial choice among many library professionals. Some see it as essential harm reduction for their communities, while others question if library staff intervening in medical issues is the right response. Public libraries in New York State can be authorized to administer naloxone by coordinating with a NYS Department of Health Registered Opioid Overdose Prevention Program organization. The New York State Library has many resources for libraries about the opioid crisis and naloxone.