Working Toward Wellness: Exploring Trauma-Informed Librarianship

As awareness increases about the need to address personal challenges both inside and out of the library, staff and practitioners—from leaders to frontline workers—are sharing their experiences, observations, and views around trauma-informed librarianship.

As awareness increases about the need to address personal challenges both inside and out of the library, staff and practitioners—from leaders to frontline workers—are sharing their experiences, observations, and views around trauma-informed librarianship

Recent years have seen multiple forms of trauma affecting people of all walks of life and experiences, from the COVID-19 pandemic to racially motivated conflict, steep inflation, and gun crime, compounded by a growing lack of infrastructure to address issues of mental health, poverty, and systemic inequities. Even as they step up for their communities, library workers have found themselves in the crosshairs of censorship battles and funding shortfalls, not to mention incidents of violence, harassment, and microaggressions in the workplace, compounding their own emotional stress. 

Whether through institutional policy or individual efforts, a growing number of libraries are incorporating the principles of trauma-informed librarianship into their practices. At the same time, they are paying increased attention to how myriad challenges—in the library and the wider world—adversely impact the mental and emotional wellness of those who are doing the work. Studies such as Urban Librarians Unite’s Urban Library Trauma Study ( and Kaetrena Davis Kendrick’s research into low morale among public and academic librarians reinforce the need for trauma-informed care on both sides of the desk. While trauma-informed librarianship is still an emerging practice, an understanding of its foundations is a good place to start.



What is trauma-informed care, and why is it important to libraries? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as a common human response to harmful situations—or those perceived as harmful—that can be either physical and/or emotional, and that leaves lasting effects on a person’s ability to function, as well as on their social, emotional, physical, and/or spiritual well-being. 

Trauma-informed practice is part of the context of care for those who have experienced trauma. It is not, in itself, an intervention. Rather, it can support other interventions. A decision to align library work with trauma-informed care does not mean staff should take on social work roles, try to fix someone, or solve their problems. Instead, it offers a framework for library workers who seek to provide a place and space for healing and growth to continue. 

“Trauma-informed librarianship, for me, is about an ongoing commitment and this daily practice of applying the principles of trauma-informed care to our everyday work as librarians and library workers,” says librarian, trauma-informed-librarianship educator, and survivor Karina Hagelin. The practice applies not only to the outward-facing work library staff does with the community, Hagelin adds, “but also with each other and with ourselves. We’re all part of this library ecosystem, and we’re all impacted by trauma in different ways.” 

Andrea Lemoins, culinary instruction and programming librarian at the Philadelphia Free Library, says, “Personally, it’s about thinking about how—especially working in a public library—our services are community facing, community driven. For me, a lot of it’s being not just personally but culturally aware of trauma that people may have faced.”

Additionally, trauma-informed care looks different in different professions; for example, it will look more involved and engaged in the medical field than in librarianship. In libraries, the main goal is to be anticipatory and move the discussion from “What is wrong with you?” to “What do you need?” Trauma-informed librarianship is a philosophy of care, understanding, community building, and service. It is “not one more initiative, but woven through everything that we do,” notes Bryce Kozla, youth services librarian II at Washington County Cooperative Library Services, OR, and trauma-informed-care educator. However, centering trauma-informed care at an institutional level takes time, money, space, and support.



According to SAMHSA, the trauma-informed approach is guided by four main assumptions: realization, recognition, response, and resisting re-traumatization. 

Realization is about understanding, on an individual and organizational level, what trauma is and how it can affect individuals and communities. Trauma happens not only in the context of health, but affects all parts of an individual’s life and the organizations they interact with. 

Recognition requires spotting the signs of trauma, in the communities we serve as well as in ourselves and others. These signs may include a quick temper, a disassociated affect, difficulty planning, difficulty following directions, poor self-management, mental health or substance abuse problems, physical symptoms, and more.

Response is how the organization and the individual react to those who have experienced trauma. Finally, resisting re-traumatization actively works to prevent further harm or perpetuation of the original trauma. “We are all already working with survivors, whether we’re aware of this basic fact or not,” says Hagelin. “Our actions, every single one of them…have the potential to be healing or re-traumatizing.”



SAMHSA defines the six key principles of a trauma-informed approach as safety; trustworthiness and transparency; peer support; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment, voice, and choice; and recognizing cultural, historical, and gender issues. 

Safety encompasses both physical and psychological well-being for staff and the adults, teens, and children they serve, explains Kozla. This can include setting up clearly marked entrances and exits, as well as clear and easily accessible library policies. Employees’ schedules should incorporate time for physical and emotional self-care, and library leaders should encourage a culture where staff can feel safe and confident when speaking up about issues. Part of safety is the knowledge that feelings and concerns are being heard, even if they can’t be addressed immediately. Emma Karin Eriksson, senior young adult librarian at Brooklyn Public Library, NY, says, “We can never create a truly safe space, but we can make it safer.”

Trustworthiness and transparency build on the assurance that comes with safety. In trauma-informed care, “organizational operations and decisions are conducted with transparency, with the goal of building and maintaining trust with service users, patrons, staff, and with others involved in your organization, including community partners,” says Kozla, “Human transparency is about [addressing] what others want to know—not what we think they want to know, or what we think they should know.”

Peer support focuses on creating spaces for library staff and community to connect, learn, and find compassion. Such support “considers a person’s entire self, rather than focusing on real or perceived deficits,” Kozla says. 

Collaboration and mutuality encompass the interpersonal elements of library work, both within the organization and across its community. “Importance is placed on partnering and the leveling of power differences,” Kozla notes. “A lot of times, even if we don’t feel that way, staff can be in the position of power when we’re talking to patrons,” as well as in their interactions with each other.

Perhaps the most important set of principles, Kozla adds, is empowerment, voice, and choice. “If you start there, it can do a lot to further all of the rest.” For example, intuitive signage allows patrons to move around the library independently, giving them the choice to interact with staff only if they want to and offering different ways to use the library. Providing a variety of options for readers’ advisory allows readers greater choice and agency beyond the typically cis, white, bestseller canon, offering a starting point for further dialogue and providing more space for patrons to voice their wants and needs. Individual staff strengths and needs should be considered along with organizational library requirements, so that they can feel empowered and bring joy to their work. 

Cultural, historical, and gender issues—the intersection of identity and life experiences, and how this can contribute to both trauma and resiliency—must also be considered when working with or discussing trauma and creating trauma-informed spaces. In trauma-informed librarianship, bias, diversity, and equity must continuously be addressed and assessed—among library staff and administration and throughout the library’s community. “People try to enforce these weird morality rules that don’t make any sense and don’t fit the neighborhood [or] the community,” says Lemoins. No solution works for all communities, and awareness is a critical component of addressing trauma.



Taking on this work can be a tricky line to walk—emotional labor is expected, but too often is not given adequate space or support (see also LJ’s “Tackling Trauma in Frontline Workers,” Naming the work is vital in identifying it for what it is: work. 

As libraries create more spaces for community interaction, it is also crucial to keep in mind that library staff are usually not social workers or medical professionals. It is not their job to try and solve another person’s trauma, but it can feel like a fine distinction. 

One of the primary values of trauma-informed practices is that they are “inherently invested in social justice and other issues, because they’re all tied together,” says Hagelin. “I think of trauma-informed librarianship as a practice similar to universal design, where it benefits everyone but centers [those] most impacted by systemic issues and violence.” 

Respecting people where they are makes trauma-informed librarianship a commitment to transformative justice, equity, and doing no harm. Trauma-informed care means not only looking at present needs, but also the history of exclusion and damage perpetuated by libraries that still needs to be addressed. Trauma-informed care can be linked to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility initiatives to support actionable, needed change-making. 



How and where can libraries begin the work? Nisha Mody, a former medical librarian currently working as a life coach focused on feminist healing, advises to start small and low-stakes to ensure that trauma-informed practice is embedded and embodied in everyday work. “If we just go big, it’s going to overwhelm us and then we’re not going to do it. It’s going to feel like a lot of emotional labor,” she says. Basic practices, such as running library meetings in accordance with trauma-informed principles, can be a good place to start, she suggests.

It should also be acknowledged that despite the good work they do, libraries can be challenging spaces for both patrons and staff. Meghan Wakeman, resource sharing librarian for the Capital District Library Council, NY, and cocreator of a LibGuide on Trauma-Informed Care and Librarianship (, notes, “People are carrying a lot of baggage, and the library can be a stressful place.”

Instead of putting extra pressure on themselves to fix individual problems, staff can set a goal of weaving trauma-informed librarianship throughout their work. Can policies, reference practices, or meetings be more trauma-informed? How about dress codes? Bathrooms? Even if these are not things that can be accomplished now, write them down and save them for later. Engage in critical, reflective practice on how to challenge biases, racial stereotypes, and preconceived notions. While not everyone has the time or space for this in the workplace, reflection is essential to trauma-informed practices.



Turning those reflective practices inward and practicing grace with ourselves is equally important. While self-care became an overprescribed fix during the pandemic, trauma-informed care is not sustainable unless library workers care for themselves first. “What I hear in the culture of this work is that in order to be an empathetic person, in order to be a good person, you need to be willing to work with everyone and do all these things for everybody,” says Lemoins. “I’m willing to work with everyone. I’m not willing to do everything for everybody.”

Self-care needs to be sustainable. From leadership to volunteers, everyone should consider their capacity, their boundaries, and how to protect themselves. Staff should not hesitate to ask themselves if work they’re being requested to do is part of their job, and who—and what—they can rely on in times of need. Most important, all who take on trauma-informed work need to acknowledge that they are human, and will sometimes do harm, but can also minimize harm. Causing unintentional trauma is, perhaps, inevitable; finding people and peer support to debrief with is necessary. “One of the most important things that I can do for myself is to have people around me who I know I can reach out to,” advises Eriksson—to say “‘I just did this thing and I feel awful about it.’”

One size does not fit all, and it shouldn’t. “I think of the trauma-informed care principles and guiding points as a road map to start your journey,” Hagelin notes. “There are lots of different avenues, forms of work, activism, and organizing through which we can create impacts for folks.… I want to create an environment that is healing, that is holistic, and where there’s sustainable community care, whether that’s for patrons or for coworkers and colleagues. And for myself, too.”

Part of trauma-informed care is recognizing the wide range of lived experiences that influence how it can be approached. This applies to those doing the work as well as those benefiting from it. 

One way to get others on board with trauma-informed practice is to model it at every level of library work. It is especially important that leaders model this behavior from the top down, in everything from interactions with frontline staff to policymaking. 

Create modes for people to debrief to help create an atmosphere of transparency and recognition. This can be an opportunity within a department or group of colleagues where people can get together and share. It can also be a formalized process, however. Having a standardized policy for dealing with incident reports is critical, but so is something as simple as sending the individual who filed the report an email checking in or inviting them to talk. Patrons, staff members, and coworkers all need voice and agency. 

Approach trauma-informed librarianship the way the profession approaches lifelong learning, keeping in mind that it is not something that can ever be fully attained. The practice is a continual process of discovery about trauma, communities, others, and ourselves. As such, it needs to be undertaken with curiosity and the understanding that there is always more to learn. 

Where possible, hire more staff and put funding toward trauma-informed practice. Like many initiatives, trauma-informed librarianship can be practiced individually, but to make a larger impact, there needs to be time, space, and resources. Due to the continuous nature of trauma-informed librarianship, this cannot be a one-time training or investment. This is a long-term, continued commitment.

Serving communities and patrons is hard work and can be exhausting. While trauma-informed practices can be woven throughout library work, if they become an expectation, other responsibilities may have to be adjusted or salaries raised to account for the new roles library workers are taking on. The key thought to keep in mind, whether focusing on the needs of patrons or staff, is that emotional labor is labor. It must be treated as such, respected, and allotted the resources needed to succeed.

Leah Dudak ( is a PhD student at Syracuse University and a former librarian.

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