Shhhhhhhhhh No More!
Posted on May 22, 2015
Over the last year, I have had the privilege of doing three trauma trainings with the Denver Public Library, as well as a presentation at the 2014 Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy Conference in Denver. These trainings have opened my eyes to a critical piece of the care continuum in our communities and, unfortunately, one we often overlook. Growing up in a safe neighborhood and loving home, the library was a place for me to get books and attend certain events. What I have realized is that for many of our clients, libraries play a much bigger role in their lives.
Before moving on, I need to own my own guilt. When I ran programs for youth experiencing homelessness, I would often send my clients to the library to keep them out of trouble. If they got kicked out of school, fired from their jobs, or just didn’t have anything productive to do I would say, “Hey, why don’t you head down to the library for a while.” I had great intentions! I knew if they got bored they often got in trouble, and it seemed like my clients rarely had problems at the library, even though they really struggled to get along with bosses, teachers, me, and other authority figures.
I never thought about what I was doing until recently, when I have had the opportunity to work with some great library staff. (Note: Not everyone in a library is a librarian. Library staff include librarians, circulation staff, security, and other support professionals and administrators.) On my end, I was sending highly traumatized clients, often with mental health and substance abuse issues, into a setting where the staff have had little training on working with these complex issues. Since it seemed to work, I didn’t give it much thought, as there were plenty of things that weren’t working to focus on!
Library staff, far from the shhhhhing librarian stereotype, are a dynamic and compassionate group of people dedicated to creating a free, nonjudgmental, and open space where everyone in the community is welcome. Unfortunately, we still live in a society where many of our shelters have to kick people out every morning with nowhere to go. Many struggle with addiction and other self-destructive behaviors that have made the street both an unhealthy and dangerous place for them. Many, especially in bad weather, have one healthy alternative: the library.
I’ve come to see the library as a unique sanctuary where our communities come together in a way that does not happen anywhere else. My first training was with the Community Technology Center (CTC) team at Denver Public Library. This team manages a bank of 127 computers, as well as running innovative classes and programs for all ages. In one big open computer room, they manage a milieu that includes our clients, children and families doing homework, and people seeking resources ranging from job searches to drug rehab options. Spending some time in the CTC, you realize quickly that every age, race, ethnicity, and economic level is co-existing together in a beautiful harmony (at least most the time!).
Here is the message I want to relay from my experience with library staff: They care deeply about their community and want to create a safe and welcoming space. They are also keenly aware that they are dealing with a highly traumatized and struggling population, and at times can feel overwhelmed as to how they can best assist our clients, who often ask them for resources and help. They are also key advocates for our clients as well. In a world that sees many of our clients as “problems,” or ignores them altogether, library staff are dedicated to giving them the same services and opportunities as any other person that walks into the library.
With the knowledge I have now, I realize that I clearly missed an opportunity many times in my career. I never went down to the library where I sent clients and introduced myself. I never invited library staff to community meetings or collaborations, even though they were the default “day treatment center” for so many of my clients who had no other safe place to go. I never, until recently, shared my training and expertise or offered any support to the library staff that did such an amazing job in making my youth feel they were welcome and safe.
I have to recognize Denver Public Library’s openness to trauma informed services. They recently hired an amazing social worker, Elissa Hardy, to help connect their customers (i.e. our clients) to community resources. She is also supporting staff in looking at policies and procedures, especially around behavioral issues, to bring practices into alignment with trauma informed principles, and provide support when behavioral issues do occur. You can find a recent Colorado Public Radio interview with Elissa here.
In addition, DPL is also starting to train their staff on the impact of trauma on behavior, learning, and well-being, as well as the dangers of compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and secondary trauma for library staff. It has been an honor to be a small part of this innovative movement and to work with such a great group of people.
I know most of the members of this blog work with clients who utilize the library as a physically, socially, and emotionally safe sanctuary. I think it is on us, with our expertise on our populations, to reach out to the libraries in our communities. I’m convinced that many libraries would welcome partnerships and inclusion into community meetings and collaborations. I believe you to will find a passionate, brilliant, and active partner who can bring a tremendous amount of resources and experience to the table.