My summer internship has got me thinking a lot about how libraries can help special and underserved populations. My internship site is a special library that supports an extremely underserved ethnic minority. It’s been a challenge finding resources focused on this group, and an even deeper challenge finding monolingual or bilingual resources in this minority’s language.
The process has got me thinking about how special populations are often hidden, making it even harder to help them. I have been reflecting on my own experience working in social services non-profits. My very first non-profit experience was interning in a domestic violence shelter back in college, and it occurred to me that victims of domestic violence must often fall through the cracks as a hidden constituency, yet their information needs are just as great as more visible groups.
It’s a very uncomfortable and sensitive subject, but one a librarian may encounter. I’m about to get a bit heavy on you. Chances are, someone you know may have been a victim – 1 in 3 women has experienced violence or stalking by a partner, and 1 in 14 men has been physically assaulted by a partner or spouse. I have two friends who have been victims of severe physical abuse over several years. One tried to commit suicide because of it (luckily, she survived) and the other is missing most of her teeth. Both had trouble getting help.
Domestic violence survivors have specific information needs that librarians must be aware of, yet which may cause discomfort. Oftentimes, these survivors have barriers to accessing information. As social services funding decreases, librarians can fill in the gaps and save lives by providing help to this population, which has significant health and law-related information needs.
Victims of domestic violence have different information needs throughout the various stages of abuse they experience. From recognizing the abuse to taking action to leaving the situation, they need access to confidential and appropriate resources on child care, employment, finances, housing, criminal law, and health care. Many survivors are not able to leave their abusers due to a lack of access to supports. Librarians can provide them with the resources they need, without becoming involved in legal or health matters, by having relevant information ready and available, similar to resources for the visually or hearing impaired, and other special populations.
Although it may be difficult for librarians to understand the complexity of people in crisis, knowing what resources are available will help reduce barriers for victims in accessing information and finding safety. Because many abuse victims fear judgment, librarians can offer a bias- and judgment-free place to seek information. Services that libraries can offer are digital or print pathfinders and resource guides on social services, and sensitive reference interviews. They can also help abuse victims develop information literacy skills so they can continue to search for more services on their own.
Although a core ethic of librarians is to respect and uphold patron privacy, abuse survivors have an even higher need for confidentiality. Quickly and privately supplying information can be essential to helping victims leave for safety. Chat and e-mail reference can be marketed and/or offered to those unable to visit the library for help, and give victims even more privacy and anonymity. As I have learned from my classwork, many patrons prefer email and chat reference, as they offer the best opportunities for confidentiality and asking sensitive questions.
This is a very complex topic and libraries certainly can’t fix it. However, librarians have the potential to offer a great deal of critical support to this vulnerable group. While many resources are already allocated toward other special populations, taking the time to create relevant pathfinders or promote library services at social service organizations could be the key to someone escaping an abusive environment.
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (n.d.). Male victims of violence [PDF]. Retrieved from http://www.ncadv.org/files/MaleVictims.pdf
National Network to End Domestic Violence. (n.d.). Domestic and sexual violence fact sheet [PDF]. Retrieved from http://nnedv.org/downloads/Stats/DV_SA_Fact_Sheet_2013.pdf
Westbrook, L., & Gonzalez, M. E. (2011). Information support for survivors of intimate partner violence: Public librarianship’s role. Public Library Quarterly, 30(2), 132-157. doi:10.1080/01616846.2011.575709
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