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News & Opinion, Social Workers in Public Libraries

Supporting Autonomy while Setting Clear Boundaries

by on February 19, 2019

by Jean Badalamenti, is MSW,  Health and Human Services, DC Public Library and Elissa Hardy, is LCSW, Community Resource Manager, Denver Public Library in Colorado

As library social workers, we are often asked how to address behaviors in the public library setting. Sometimes this is framed in the question, “How do we address homelessness (insert other social issues) in our libraries?” Despite the fact that people would like an easy answer to that question, there isn’t one, because wrapped up in the question itself are human beings — individuals, people with personal histories they’ve brought to the place they are now, inside your public library.

What we can offer are approaches, based on clinical best practices and research that can help you work with customers in a way that maintains individual autonomy and dignity, while creating a safe and healthy public library for all your patrons. Through a series of articles in PL Online, public library social workers are discussing some of these approaches, all of which come form a social work framework that can be adapted to the library setting.

So, back to the initial question, “How do we address homelessness (insert other social issues) in our libraries?” Essentially, when we ask this question we are already categorizing groups of people into behaviors we associate with those groups. By doing this we stigmatize, generalize, and marginalize people. What we should be addressing is behavior alone, while recognizing the resiliency and humanity of the customer. Successfully addressing behavioral challenges is based on a framework that maintains dignity and respect, yet sets clear boundaries and expectations.

Basically, we should be separating people from their behavior. One’s behavior does not define who one is, nor does one’s life circumstances. Nonetheless, people bring their circumstances and experiences with them into the library. A person may be experiencing job difficulties, relationship issues, housing challenges, and other adverse life experiences. People respond to situations with all of their past experiences in tow, informing behavior. A lens through which to view this is a ‘trauma-informed approach.”

A trauma-informed approach is a clinical social work approach that provides a framework for addressing behaviors. In social work, we practice with the understanding that anyone who seeks services has experienced trauma. Accepting this allows us to understand that a person has experienced adverse life challenges, and as a result views their world through the lends of their trauma experience. The may manifest in what can be viewed as a “behavior issue” or “defiance,” or “disruptive behavior.” By accepting a trauma-informed approach in libraries, we come to the understanding that what may be viewed as “defiance” etc., is a trauma response for this person, and how this person has learned to cope in their environment.

So, then the question becomes, what are some strategies for addressing behavior through a trauma-informed lens so that we are supporting customers as individuals with agency (the capacity for people to act independently and to make their own free choices), and an understanding that trauma is a part of people’s life experience. Let’s start with the basics: be clear and educate people about library-use policies in an affirming way.

We operate within a set of social norms (informal understandings that govern the behavior of people within society). In libraries this is especially true, we believe that people understand our library-use policies or rules (and even know they exist), and that everyone should operate in accordance. In reality, everyone’s social norms are on a spectrum (note that trauma experiences inform this), and we must be transparent about what our expectations are in the library. By setting clear and consistent boundaries we are creating an environment where everyone can feel safer. We can educate customers about the policies/rules and then, if the boundaries are pushed in relation to this, we can lay out expectations that allow for success in the library. (Note: Oftentimes boundaries are pushed as a trauma response. A person may have had experiences where boundaries were not always clear; so pushing is how the boundaries are defined.)

In summary, setting clear boundaries and being transparent is how we can best address behavior. Make your library welcoming. Know your customers and their names. It’s easier to address behavior when you have a relationship with someone. Compassionately inform people of the library use policy/rules before assuming that social norms are actually “norms.” View everything you do through a trauma-informed lens, remember that behavior is a person’s response to their experiences and environment. Give two options when addressing behavior: “As we discussed, it’s against the library use policy to take your shoes off, please wear your shoes or you can’t stay in the library today.” Always use person-first language — never use terms that define a person by their experience, as it is dehumanizing and separates us from the community we are serving. For example, use the phrase, “people experiencing homelessness” rather than “homeless people.” Person-first language creates connection. Most importantly, remember when you take these approaches, you’ll feel more confident in addressing behavior, the customer will feel seen and hear, and you can build stronger relationships with your community.


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