In her influential 2018 article “Vocational Awe and Librarianship” Fobazi Ettargh explored how the veneration of libraries as institutions has led to many librarians and library workers enduring decidedly unhealthy working conditions. Now, a new study released during the 2022 American Library Association Annual Conference is shedding more light on the extent to which many urban librarians and library workers are experiencing “trauma, stress, and burnout” in the workplace.

The 2022 Urban Libraries Unite Trauma Study draws upon a wide-ranging literature review, survey responses from more than 435 urban library workers (conducted between August and September 2021), focus groups, and a two-day forum. The final report paints a vivid picture of the difficult working conditions facing many urban librarians and library workers, as well as a promising framework through which the library community can begin to address its needs.

“It is clear that there is a crisis of trauma in urban public libraries and the evidence for this is so overwhelmingly compelling that it seems likely that trauma impacts work in libraries of all types across the profession,” reads the report’s conclusion. “It is also clear from the literature search and the conversations that created this report’s conclusions that the library profession is starting to wake up to this deeply corrosive crisis.”

The report describes a range of violent or aggressive patron behavior toward library workers, including racist and sexist verbal abuse, harassment, physical assault including having guns and other weapons brandished, and drug and alcohol issues including overdoses. In addition, library workers reported significant instances of “secondary trauma” from constant interactions with community members (including children) struggling with poverty, homelessness, mental illness, or drug abuse.

Overall, some 68.5% of survey respondents said they have experienced violent or aggressive behavior from patrons at their libraries. Furthermore, a significant number of respondents (22%) said they have experienced violent or aggressive behavior from their co-workers.

The study also reveals the tacit professional acceptance of trauma as part of library work, and the outright failure of many library administrators to properly address incidents of workplace trauma. For example, the majority of respondents (64%) said their library does offer some sort of “workplace mental health resources,” yet only 20 of 435 respondents say they have actually utilized these services. And in many cases, the study found that the administration’s response (or lack thereof) to specific incidents actually made the situations worse.

“What was surprising about the survey responses was that although many of the incidents of trauma in the library were directly related to larger cultural 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,” the report states. “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.”

In the study’s focus groups, respondents called out the “societal failures encroaching on public libraries” for creating “a new level of stress,” including fiscal austerity, the shredding of the social safety net, and a rise in what one participant called “endemic incivility” and another called a “culture of casual cruelty.” Furthermore, the rise of “the customer is always right” service models in libraries, has contributed to an “inability to set consistent boundaries” in library work, leaving frontline library workers vulnerable to abuse.

In the study’s focus groups, respondents called out the “societal failures encroaching on public libraries” for creating “a new level of stress...”

“While the existence of libraries and the dedication of librarians alone will not be able to stop endemic cultural problems such as racism, sexism, and homelessness, it is clear from the survey responses that there is plenty that can be done internally within libraries to reduce the traumatic impact that library work has on library workers,” the report states. “If libraries were to choose to tackle any one of these predominant themes, it is very likely that the trauma experienced by public library workers would be greatly diminished, even if the root causes of the traumatic events themselves may be uncontrollable.”

Co-founded more than a decade ago, Urban Libraries Unite is a grassroots organization of library professionals and advocates working to support libraries and librarians in urban environments. The study and report were done in partnership with the New York Library Association and St John’s University, with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services via a grant from the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program.

In brief remarks at a release event at the 2022 ALA Annual Conference, the study’s organizers, Lauren Comito and Christian Zabriskie, (co-founders of Urban Libraries Unite) spoke about the importance of the study—and its potential to spark meaningful change.

“We really wanted to hear the voices of the people who are experiencing these things,” Comito, a Neighborhood Library Supervisor for the Brooklyn Public Library, said. “We wanted to do a research report that was done by working public library workers for us instead of about us. It was important to us that people be represented from all levels of frontline staff doing public facing work—that we had security officers and support staff and librarians all together at the forum and in the survey, to bring these issues to the forefront so we can start solving them. Because if you’re going to point out a problem you may as well be part of the solution. Pointing out a problem is easy. The hard part comes next. The hard part is how we create a culture of community care in libraries when we don’t have a culture of community care in our country. I think we have some really good solutions and good ideas for ways to do that.”

Zabriskie, Executive Director of the Onondaga County Public Libraries, also highlighted the report’s focus on solutions.

“There’s a lot that’s hard to read in the first half of the report, but get to the last half,” Zabriskie told attendees at the ALA event. “One of the things we heard people say is that trauma happens after. And we see throughout the survey that people can have really horrific experiences but if they have support and are shown kindness and are treated with civility and seriousness, those experiences do not become traumatic. They are just bad experiences."

Indeed, the second half of the report contains a number of ideas to confront the cycle of trauma that has become so pervasive in urban libraries. Ideas include the creation of “trauma-informed” strategic plans, an “online database of community services” and a “library trauma” strategic network.

“It will be important to have engagement with LIS education, professional organizations, and libraries of all types and sizes as we move forward towards healthier library work,” the report states, adding that “openly addressing this problem is new in library work and any efforts to move the needle on this will take time, effort, resources, and engagement beyond the working group of this study.”

As a starting point, the report recommends moving forward with four ideas: A National Library Worker Help Line where library workers can call for immediate support; A set of standards for healthy library work environments built by a coalition of worker-led library organizations; A collection of policies & procedures written from the perspective of trauma-informed leadership; And, a series of peer-led support groups. But whether these ideas or others, the report urges action.

“We welcome you to try our ideas. We welcome you to use our research to try ideas of your own. We ask that you just please try something,” the report's conclusion reads. "There are a lot of conversations about ‘what’s next’ and ‘returning to normal.’ We don’t know what’s next and that is normal now. COVID-19 disrupted everything. As we rebuild and recreate our profession there are things that shouldn’t come back or ever be normal. Trauma, safety, trust, these are things we need to build new structures for everyone working in libraries.”