It’s been a quiet few months at my branch, but not June, June wasn’t really quiet at all.

During June, I experienced two separate incidents in which men approached me aggressively at work, leading me to feel unsafe. In the first incident, a patron who was frustrated attempted to get past another staff member to get to me, then punched the plexiglass barrier at our desk and broke it in half before leaving. In the second, a different patron, angry at our mask mandate, knocked a box of masks out of my hand, shoved his phone into my face and yelled at me for a half hour insisting that I accommodate him without a mask.

I know now, looking back at the second incident, that I didn’t handle it as well as I might have had I not had the first experience a few weeks before. I was starting from a heightened stress level, not my baseline. I’m still not back at my baseline now. (the patron from incident #1 just walked into a branch I’m covering as I write this, so there’s that)

In its simplest form, these two incidents illustrate the Library Trauma Cycle. The different thing in these incidents was that for the first one, it coincided with me writing the trauma cycle portion of the final report. So as I was writing up the cycle, I was also living it. This didn’t stop the cycle entirely, but the self awareness that the coinciding of these two events helped me handle it better emotionally.

What Is the Library Trauma Cycle? 

The Library Trauma Cycle is a model for understanding how library staff experience traumatic situations in the workplace and how that trauma is perpetuated or resolved. The cycle was created based on an analysis of survey and focus group data. In our analysis of that data we identified a common set of experiences, feelings and responses existing across library and staff titles. 

The Library Trauma Cycle has three stages;

1- Outside stressor – An adverse event external to the staff member. This can be a variety of types of event, including, but not limited to, assault, sexual harassment verbal abuse, racialized abuse, witnessing violence, workplace bullying, witnessing or assisting with a health incident, and secondary trauma like being faced w/patrons who have intense needs the staff member is unable to meet.

2 – Professional Community Response – The response or lack of response from your coworkers, supervisor, administration, and professional community.

3- Internalization – Without support, many library workers begin to feel as though the events are their own fault, or that they are alone in their experiences. They then hold on to the stress and bring it into their next patron or coworker interactions.

So we have a model for how these events can progress. Now what? The thing about a cycle is that it can spin on forever, or it can be broken. Each of the three distinct stages in the Library Trauma Cycle are an inflection point at which the cycle can be broken. 

If the initial event doesn’t occur, then the cycle can’t start. As a facility that is radically open to the public, the public library will always have an inherent risk of stressful events. However, since much of the verbal or physical abuse stems from society’s failure to care for vulnerable people, if there were adequate community resources for mental health care, jobs, food access, and community to lessen loneliness,  perhaps there would be fewer such events. In the case of abuse or harassment from coworkers, if the institution creates an environment where that behavior isn’t tolerated it would be less likely to happen. Given the amount of societal influence here the outside stressor stage is the stage that the library as an institution has the least control over.

In the professional community response stage, the impact of that response can also either break or continue the cycle. The library field has a longstanding culture of pretending that things are ok, accepting abusive behavior in the name of public service, and staff “earning their stripes”. This culture leads to staff having their experiences dismissed or inappropriately normalized. This stage is the part of the cycle with the most opportunity for positive systemic impact. Study respondents indicated that when they received support from colleagues and supervisors, they didn’t have the same lingering effects. By implementing collective care practices, we can break the trauma cycle at this stage and avoid moving on into the next. 

The internalization stage provides another opportunity for interruption. While relying on the individual staff to engage in self care is not a substitute for a systemic approach, it can help. If affected staff have easy access to professional support, or engage in self care practices, hobbies, or other wellness activities they can resolve their stress and avoid bringing it into their next interactions. 

I was very lucky in my colleagues and support from our administration after the event with the plexiglass barrier. Having a mental model to understand how library workers experience traumatic events and vicarious trauma at work is vital to creating effective solutions. As we move forward with those solutions and tools, we can hold this cycle in our minds, looking for the places where we can best interrupt it. 

Lauren Comito – Adapted from the 2022 Urban Library Trauma Study Final Report