Sexual Assault Survivors and Libraries-Can We Do More?

I have been spending this semester writing research methods papers on how we can study the information seeking behavior/needs of sexual assault survivors and/or the experience of survivors in the library. I am excited that I get to turn one of these (and hopefully more than one) into an actual study this summer, but it’s made me very aware of how little there is out there dealing with this issue. There aren’t any studies that look at survivors’ needs or experiences, and only one that discusses the issue at all. Since I won’t be doing my research until this summer, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share a few thoughts I’ve been having about some simple ways we could improve library services now. I’ve taken these from my own experiences of looking for information and interacting with people during the earlier stages of my healing process, and from my understanding of research in social sciences as a whole. I would really love to hear from practitioners too–what are you doing at your library? What do you want to do? What barriers do you see to implementing changes (if any)? So here are my ideas, add your thoughts in the comments!

Non-Judgmental Staff: I know most folk in libraries are awesome and accepting, but I feel like encouraging sensitivity and respect is never a bad thing. Even just having staff members go over a few basic pointers can go a long way in helping survivors feel like the library is a safe space. There is some good guidance here, although most aren’t really applicable to brief interactions in a library setting. The big takeaways that are vital to our work are to avoid judging the person and allowing them to make their own decisions–don’t push them to do certain things or become offended when they say your advice isn’t in line with what they want to do. It’s nothing personal, just how that person chooses to approach their healing process. Also (obviously) respecting privacy is key–make sure to offer resources that they can contact if they decide to (local/national crisis lines, etc.) but don’t call someone unless asked or unless the person is in immediate danger. I am not sure what policies (if any) libraries have in place about working with patrons who have been victims of violence, so if anyone has any insight I’d be interested to know!

Stickers in Books: There are quite a few books and articles that talk about a person’s healing process or that use a self-help approach when discussing sexual assault. Many libraries have at least a few such books on their shelves which can be a great comfort and affirmation to someone who’s been assaulted. However, they can also be triggering and bring up painful emotions and memories. Most books in the library probably aren’t going to be triggering for someone who has been assaulted, and each person will be triggered by different things, making it impossible to figure out what materials are going to upset patrons (and no, I’m not saying you should remove materials that are upsetting). I’ve wondered if one easy way to discreetly offer another information resource to these patrons would be to put stickers in such books that have the phone numbers and websites for local and national crisis teams. That way, if the person feels upset they have the option to call someone or look for resources on a website without worrying about both being upset and revealing their identity as a rape survivor to library staff in order to request that information.

Compile Resources: If someone should come up to the desk asking for resources, we’re usually pretty good about at least getting them pointed in the right direction. For sexual assault survivors (as well as other identities that carry stigma–for a good example see Curry’s 2002 research with GLTB youth and reference) it may be tricky to ascertain what someone’s looking for or what resources are out there when you want to respect boundaries and maybe are not familiar with what kinds are resources are most helpful. I wonder if it wouldn’t be helpful for libraries to have a go-to guide, just like we have LibGuides for different subject areas, that staff and patrons can turn to and that lists materials available in the library and online. I created a very bare bones guide for one of my class papers on this topic that I am hoping I can turn into a good compilation of resources. The ultimate goal is to share the guide with libraries so that they can focus on compiling information about local content. There’s not much on there now, but I would love to hear any suggestions for content that could be added! I’m also curious if libraries have already created these sorts of guides.

What have been your experiences helping survivors in the library?

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