Monday, December 18, 2023

Trauma-Informed Librarianship for Survivors

As part of the Visible Minority Librarians of Canada Network (ViMLoC), I’ve participated in its mentorship program and have met many talented and eager early-career librarians over the years. I had recently caught up with a mentee who was going through a dark period in their life. We had lost touch over the years but the last time we had connected, they had found a dream job and were so ecstatic to begin their career at an academic library institution. I assumed they had been doing well and looking forward to meeting up for coffee. Until we met in person. I was sad to see this person share with me the experiences of microaggressions at the workplace and a toxic and dysfunctional relationship with superiors. As a racialized person, my mentee had faced racism since childhood and witnessed their parents facing discrimination and prejudice as new immigrants. They never thought that they would face this even into adulthood and at work.

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

This colleague looked like a shadow of the cheerful, upbeat, once-optimistic librarian I had once known.A casualty of workplace bullying and harassment, the daily stress of fighting with their organization, followed by the gaslighting they endured, and the confrontations with their boss had finally worn down my mentee. They even brought their own cushion to the restaurant where we were eating and had to stand up every few minutes to adjust their seat to lessen the pain. Unfortunately, this has become more common now that I’ve entered mid-career in my profession and librarians of colour often seek me out for advice and oftentimes, a shoulder to cry on.

I have been researching EDI and anti-racism in libraries for more than a decade now. I’ve felt that I had hit a bit of a roadblock recently, particularly after I completed my sabbatical and put the final touches for publication. But it all feels rather hollow, especially recently. Instead of celebrating, I am dissatisfied. I feel like I have done very little to move forward in the profession. What have I exactly accomplished with this research anyways? Those of us who push for change look at removing systemic barriers and biases through EDI initiatives, but what about those individuals who have been harmed already? What can we do for them in the meantime?

I have listened to many heart-wrenching stories from survivors of toxic workplaces. Bullying. Gas lighting. The list goes on. My interviews became counselling sessions. These very personal and challenging stories were often accompanied by one medical absence or another. There were so many signs of burnout. I felt helpless to do anything but listen and capture a pattern that I was noticing among interviewees. I now realize that these experiences are trauma.

The research literature indicates that there is a large correlation between chronic stress and health challenges. The trauma expert Dr. Elizabeth Stanley has suggested that chronic stress and trauma should be viewed as part of a continuum; stress over time has the same biopsychosocial effects on individuals as acute trauma. It’s very hard for those who haven’t experienced trauma to truly understand it. An event that is stressful for one person may be traumatizing to another.

When people don’t recover from trauma, the suppressed pain may manifest itself through physical and mental illnesses, and chronic pain. There’s an emerging science of mind-body medicine that suggests that emotional pain often manifests itself physically through the body. Studies show that chronic pain and emotional pain emanate from the same part of the brain. There are some in the medical community, such as Gabor Mate (When the Body Says No) and Bessel van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score) who are part of a movement that explores the mind-body connection. People whose nervous systems are caused by ongoing stress become stuck in a flight-or-fight mode. But this neuroplastic pain is not imaginary: it’s real.

It goes without saying that seeking medical and counselling support is vital in the healing journey. But beyond that, what can we do to help others? What can we do if we are in these untenable situations ourselves? Karina Hagelin, who identifies as a chronically ill and disabled queer femme librarian believes each one of us can help by taking care of ourselves and others with self-compassion. Karina argues that self-care isn’t being selfish. Instead, it’s a cultural shift in how we approach our work to move towards healing — not just for our patrons, but for each other, and for ourselves. We are all survivors. I highly recommend everyone watch the webinar Trauma-Informed Librarianship: Building Communities of Care which shares ten concrete self-care strategies.

Healing is the best revenge” is the name of Karina’s podcast. It’s such a moving and powerful phrase. One that’s so optimistic and hopeful, which is exactly what we need to turn to in times of despair. Libraries do an excellent job in devoting their mission to serving their communities, but often that community does not include their own staff. I recently shared this podcast with my mentee who I think about every day. I hope they know that their healing journey won’t be a lonely one because I will be here by their side.

This post was previously published on Notes Between Us.


Jean said...

It is not clear if your professional networking circles are primarily academic librarians or it also includes public librarians who are experiencing such problems. My career (which I recently retired just last yr. after 40 yrs. in special libraries (engineering, law and govn't) and electronic document and records management, never included working in any capacity in academic libraries.

Like any workplace, it is dependent on personalities and personal drivers of work colleagues that one often works with on a weekly or more frequent basis. Based on my own close friendship (who is Caucasian) with another MLS, who graduated same year as I and has worked academic libraries for over last 20 yrs. in management roles: I do sense the tenure structure and work environment of academic libraries places certain limitations and also real expectations on academic librarians who want to advance their career. There is a built-in competitiveness in the academic library world which is not quite the same as I have experienced in other types of non-academic organizations when I've worked with other parallel colleagues with same job rank and similar/same job description. And that competitiveness for academic library world includes proof of publishing, conference presentations, etc.

We need to be careful about the golden handcuff situation, whether it's a decent salary, benefits, forecasted pension that is keeping the person there when they may be happier elsewhere in a different type of library. I wish had an easy answer, because frankly I moved across several employers and industry areas which did keep me fresh. Sure, I did experience some incidents. The best takeways for my own well-being and to keep myself eager to learn ahead were: a) do not take things personally even if the person has something negative about self especially when you have done nothing wrong. b) focus on the client and client service delivery: that's what I'm there for and that's why chose our profession. Exercise your curiosity outward client-facing services, projects and push the background of workplace toxicity to the side. And please find some regular exercise to de-stress. I adopted cycling daily (except for snow,ice) for my work commutes for last 30 yrs. of my career since I don't have a car, before I retired. It probably saved me more than I realize --now, that I ready what others have conveyed to you. My best wishes to all.

Allan said...

Thanks, Jean, for your insight into this area. I absolutely think your approach to well-being and self-care is critical for managing physical and mental health during difficult times. That's exactly why I am so interested in learning more about trauma-informed librarianship.

The challenge is not so much about leaving a job or a situation. A lot of the time, the problem lies after the fact when the negative situation already happened, and the emotions (the post-trauma) manifest and catch the individual off guard.

How individuals process stressful experiences can vary, and one person's stress might or might not lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. I think that's where the insight of those who have experienced PTSD can be very helpful in guiding those who start to exhibit symptoms and need early intervention.

I find particularly that those who are racialized BIPOC tend to experience stronger emotions due to existing life experiences that can compound the current situation.