How-Tos at LibLearnX 2022 Tackle Cultural Change

Several sessions at the American Library Association's inaugural LibLearnX conference, which ran virtually January 21–24, offered practical, actionable approaches to complex situations. Two notables tackled issues of how to improve libraries’ internal culture to benefit their staff.

graphic of glowing light bulbSeveral sessions at the American Library Association's (ALA) inaugural LibLearnX conference, which ran virtually January 21–24, offered practical, actionable approaches to complex situations. Useful presentations included how to create information in-house classification systems for comics and graphic novels, use and understand U.S. Census Bureau data, implement a collection diversity audit, build teen-led programs, create Genius Hour research programming, and many more. Two notables tackled issues of how to improve libraries’ internal culture to benefit their staff.

"Let’s Talk About It: Developing Training Programs for Difficult Topics," presented by Senior Public Services Librarians Jaime Eastman and Meredith Del Monte of Plano Public Library, TX, proposed a start-to-finish model for staff training on sensitive issues. From de-escalating patron conflicts to dealing with book challenges, these multilayered situations come with built-in complications. Complex situations can be handled in a variety of ways, and giving staff the tools they need to navigate gray areas confidently requires a careful, intentional approach. In setting the topic and scope, they advised tailoring trainings for different staff levels, depending on who needs to be involved in a given situation. Questions they suggested those designing the trainings answer include, will trainings be mandatory or voluntary? Who will be responsible for each session? Make sure you include multiple perspectives, as library size allows, they advised, whether you draw on expertise from within the library or invite guidance from outside organizations—keeping in mind that participants need to feel safe about speaking openly; inviting a member of the local police department to weigh in on neighborhood needs might not be appropriate, for example.

Consider the model of training sessions themselves: small groups are nimble but will often be less diverse. Instead, Eastman suggested building in ongoing, regular smaller meetings that can incorporate discussions as well as large information-sharing sessions. When crafting content, remember that difficult situations are rooted in sensitive ideas, and be aware of problematic languages and approaches, as well as considering the culture of your workplace. Find tools and a format that fit the content—for example, sensitive material can be kept as living documents that change and grow over time, or locked, with access restricted or saved as PDFs. Allow plenty of time to review the training material, scheduling regular check-ins for planning team members, and get feedback at all levels—organizations have expectations, and you want to make sure you’re working within that framework rather than being faced with difficult conversations at the last minute.

After the sessions, gather feedback from participants: What worked, what was overlooked, what was unclear? Be ready to change your approach based on staff comments—at Plano, giving staff scripts to use turned out to be less effective than putting together a series of useful phrases or ideas as a guide to starting conversations. Identify other groups that might benefit from the training or an altered version. And be aware of your own knowledge gaps as well, noted Eastman—that can mean admitting you don’t have answers to a question, or that the problem is too big for the library alone to solve.



In "Bullying, Incivility, and You: Applying Strategies from Nursing to Library Work Environments," Jenessa McElfresh, senior research and learning services librarian at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center; and Science Librarian Maggie Albro and Assessment Librarian Megan Palmer, both of Clemson University, SC, highlighted workplace interventions that have been shown to work in another profession with high instances of bullying: nursing. As many as 46 percent of librarians across all types have experienced bullying, the presenters noted—springing from top-down power dynamics or interpersonal friction based on personality, background—with a greater impact on workers who are Black, Indigenous, or persons of color (BIPOC). Nursing has comparable workplace structures: It is a woman-led, majority white profession, and nurses have been writing about how to combat different types of bullying for more than 100 years.

The session focused mainly on lateral violence—physical, verbal, or emotional abuse between workers of the same rank or status—which includes excessive criticism, intimidation, blaming, fighting, withholding assistance, backstabbing, public humiliation, isolating. While there’s “no one-and-done Band-Aid we can offer,” said McElfresh, the issue can begin to be addressed by looking at the various forces influencing violence: individual, relationship, community, and societal. Interventions that have been shown to work include education, a combination of trainings or moderated discussions; policy changes, including a chain of command for reporting instances, that workers at every level have a hand in developing; and changes to shift perceptions in the workforce to establish an anti-bullying culture, where responsibility to speak up doesn’t lie solely on the victim.

Buy-in from leadership is critical, they noted; begin by “admitting there is a problem at your organization,” said Albro. Leaders should work to eliminate situational factors, such as work overload stress and fatigue, that exacerbate feelings of powerlessness that can lead to a bullying culture, and foster a respectful environment where people feel comfortable reporting incidents. Address behaviors as they happen, commit to a zero-tolerance policy for those unwilling to change (which should be named explicitly in library policy), train administration and managers in clear communication and collaboration skills, and encourage employees to hold each other accountable. If you’re unsure what’s happening in your workplace, they advise, find a trusted source who will give you honest feedback. And above all: lead by example, reflect on your own behavior, and do not suffer in silence if you are being bullied; know you are not alone, and take action for yourself and others.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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