Culture of Care

Applying trauma-informed supervision in the library

May 1, 2024

Headshot of Brandy Sanchez

Public librarianship often resides at the intersection of public service, education, and social work. It allows us to support the unique needs of community members through innovative services, enriching programs, and responsive collections. Yet it is this very contact with the public that puts library workers at risk of experiencing primary or vicarious trauma.

According to the 2022 Urban Library Trauma Study from Urban Librarians Unite, nearly 70% of respondents shared that they had experienced violent or aggressive behavior from patrons, while 22% indicated that they experienced similar behavior from coworkers.

When working with patrons, many libraries employ trauma-informed care, a practice popular in health care and social work. It involves understanding common signs and symptoms of trauma to more effectively de-escalate conflict, deliver services with greater empathy, and reaffirm the library as a safe, inclusive space.

But it shouldn’t stop there. Library directors and managers can better support staffers by practicing trauma-informed supervision. This is when leaders nurture a healthy workplace culture and connect staffers with needed support and resources after a distressing incident with patrons or coworkers. This type of supervision is a significant protective factor in preventing an upsetting interaction from turning into a traumatic event.

Last year, the Center for Trauma-Informed Innovation at University Health, a hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, developed training on trauma-informed supervision. I helped translate these principles to library work and have facilitated discussions with managers so they could brainstorm how to incorporate them into their leadership styles.
The following are concepts and questions to consider when assessing supervisory strengths and gaps.

Safety. Physical and emotional safety form the foundation of a trauma-responsive library. This should be reflected in your institution’s code of conduct, security protocols, procedures for filing and following up on incident reports, and the way staffers interact. For example, can employees share ideas, experiences, and feedback without judgment, embarrassment, or punishment?

Trustworthiness. Library leaders foster trust when policies, procedures, and changes are communicated with transparency and implemented with consistency. Effective communication reduces confusion and frustration, making it easier to meet common goals. Consider these questions: What does accountability look like within your team and library? How are expectations communicated? How is conflict handled?

Choice. Having freedom of choice reminds employees that they have agency and some control over a given situation. Management can cultivate buy-in and ownership when they involve staffers in decision making, like goal setting, or integrate their solutions when problem solving.

Collaboration. Building cross-departmental partnerships can help generate awareness for important projects while equalizing the power differential between staffers and their managers. Collaboration also promotes the free flow of information and ideas. Ask yourself: How well do team members connect? What are the barriers to effective communication?

Empowerment. This can include delegating authority and asking for feedback. Managers can also support setting healthy workplace boundaries and offering opportunities for promotion or advanced training. Sharing power among team members can enhance performance and reduce employee turnover.

Incorporating trauma-informed supervision principles into library leadership can go a long way toward creating a thriving organizational culture. When staffers encounter potentially traumatic situations, they should have the social and emotional support to process and move past them. Ultimately, you can facilitate positive outcomes for all while fostering a safe, protective work environment.


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