The Trauma of Library Work

Study looks at how to better support mental health on the job

January 22, 2022

Karen Fisher, professor at University of Washington School of Information.
Karen Fisher, professor at University of Washington School of Information.

As attention on trauma-informed care for library patrons grew, Karen Fisher, professor at the University of Washington School of Information, began to wonder whether equal attention should be turned toward library workers. “We had a long list, pages and pages of incidents that we had been gathering from the media, all the types of stresses coming in library workplaces,” said Fisher during ALA’s LibLearnX Ideas Xchange session “Trauma in the Library” on January 22. “We really wanted to turn it more inward and ask: ‘What is the impact on staff?’”

Fisher is now the principal investigator for “Trauma in the Library: Symptoms of PTSD Among Staff and Methods for Ensuring Trauma-Informed Care,” an Institute of Museum and Library Services–funded study of the effects of workplace trauma exposure on library workers. She and Lauren Alexa Gambrill, research manager of the study, presented their preliminary findings during the Ideas Xchange session.

Through an online survey and Zoom interviews, Fisher and Gambrill sought to learn the extent to which library workers have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms due to incidents in the workplace and to find out the prevalence of PTSD symptoms and other mental health concerns in library staff. They hope this research will supplement and improve how libraries can support workers’ mental health by identifying trauma-informed care tools and procedures that libraries can implement, and by creating better interventions and options for library workers in the future.

The study’s hypothesis—that public library staff are experiencing high rates of trauma at their workplaces—was confirmed by the survey responses they received. The 650 survey participants whose data has been aggregated so far have logged over 2,000 incidents that have happened to them personally, and almost 90% of those incidents have happened in the last 5 years. Anecdotes include library workers who experienced verbal abuse, conflicts over COVID procedures, and physical aggression. “We do see that there is a definite increase in what people are experiencing as far as altercations in the library after COVID,” said Gambrill.

More than 20% of respondents reported that their experience of trauma in the workplace heightened the effects of an existing mental health condition or chronic stress. Over half of the survey respondents were involved in frontline service, and more than three quarters were from public libraries, with a relatively even spread among urban, suburban, and rural areas.

As the study moves into later phases, Fisher and Gambrill are looking to identify where people are most vulnerable. “We definitely need more representation from survey participants,” said Fisher. The study is particularly looking to identify how those who have corresponding or overlapping identities, such as LGBTQIA+ or minority status, are impacted by their experience of trauma and their rate of trauma, Gambrill added.

More information on the study and a link to the survey can be found on the Trauma in the Library website.


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