Rethinking LIS Curricula to Add Defense Training

Graduate schools and other programs design safety, self-defense, and de-escalation instruction for librarians.

When James Lowry saw the level of disruption at Queens (NY) Public Libraries’ Drag Queen Story Hours, he took action.

Specifically, Lowry, chair and director of the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at the Queens College of the City of New York, began rethinking the curriculum to prepare newly minted librarians for the confrontations and attacks they might face in the profession.

“We started developing a class called ‘Community Defense and Care’ after Drag Queen Story Hour readings across libraries in Queens started to attract increasingly vocal and aggressive opposition from right-wing extremists,” says Lowry.

Professionals, including Chelsey Roos, children’s librarian for the Alameda County (CA) Public Library, have been vocal that library school didn’t equip them to respond to online harassment, death threats, or volatile disruptions from protestors like the Proud Boys, as Roos wrote in an ALSC blog post.

At Queens College, the pilot course on defense may be offered to MLIS students in 2024. 

“Initially we were asking ourselves how self-defense could be incorporated into the library school curriculum,” Lowry says. “But the syllabus, which is still in development, is tending more towards de-escalation techniques, care practices, and community mobilization as a form of defense.”

Register for Library Journal course: De-escalation Training 

Lowry is not the only MLIS professor grappling with safety issues—and mapping out an appropriate teaching approach and curriculum.

“The current threats to librarians and the books they circulate are necessitating a shift in the content of graduate library education,” Nicole A. Cooke (left), professor and Baker Endowed Chair at the University of South Carolina’s Library and Information Science program, wrote in a July 2023 article for The Conversation.

Librarians obviously need to know the content of books,” Cooke wrote. “But educators like me now know we need to provide graduate students with information about how to physically and legally protect themselves and their organizations.”

When Cooke’s students learn about collection development, they also practice defending their book choices in case they are challenged. When they learn about planning story hours, they also develop safety plans in case they are threatened or receive a bomb threat because of their work.

While librarians need these tools, Cooke emphasizes that “the onus should not be on the workers” but on “institution and its leadership that are responsible for creating and maintaining a safe working environment,” she said in an email interview.

She also believes that this kind of training should always be a choice, not something a library position or graduate school should require.

“[Teaching] physical self-defense could be a slippery slope,” Cooke said via email. “It sets up non-regular and or already marginalized patrons to be automatically perceived as threats, and it could result in all kinds of liabilities and heartache for BIPOC library workers who already find themselves on the receiving end of patron and administrative abuse.”

Self-defense training
There’s an important distinction between physical empowerment and self-defense, according to Farah Fosse, a social worker and lead trainer with Defend Yourself, a program whose mission is to “help people claim their power, assert their boundaries, and protect themselves.”

In de-escalation and self-defense classes for librarians offered in Washington, DC, and online, Fosse (pictured at right, above, and with back to camera, top photo) emphasizes “empowerment self-defense,” or learning to “send a cohesive message with your voice, your face, and your body” posture. In the “Safer Libraries” training, participants build the confidence needed to respond efficiently to any number of tense situations so they can get back to their regular work.

Also read: Stress Tested: These School Librarians Hit the Breaking Point. Here’s How They Moved On.

Both Cooke and Fosse emphasize that planning, prevention, and de-escalation are key skills.

“Safety plans should include methods of identifying physical threats, de-escalation training, appropriate, timely, and enforceable policies, and a roster of resources to secure assistance (immediate, short-term, long-term, etc.),” Cooke writes.

When Fosse offers training, “we focus on preventing issues from escalating or being dangerous. A lot of times it starts with behavior that is annoying or bothersome or a red flag.”

By noticing and “setting boundaries early,” Fosse says, librarians can better maintain safety and order. When working with librarians—including those at DC Public Library—Fosse often invites clients to practice skills through role-playing. She maintains that you can’t learn these skills in a theoretical way; you need to act out the situation.

How should librarians respond to patrons asking inappropriately personal questions? Her students practice saying—and calmly repeating—“I’m not going to answer that. I will answer library-related questions.”

Fosse also offers trauma-informed training geared to interacting with patrons who may be highly vulnerable. The goal is to stay firm while responding to every patron with compassion.

And if librarians are faced with aggressive questionsfor example, about why a library carries LGBTQIA+ books for teensFosse recommends aiming to de-escalate the situation through listening and providing short responses.

During a de-escalation, it’s vital to listen more than engage in discussion or argument, Fosse advises. Asking questions like, “So what can I do for you?” or “Do you want to write that down?” can redirect the person’s emotion into action, such as filing a formal complaint according to library policy or writing a complaint to a manager instead of voicing it.

Defend Yourself also offers bystander intervention skills, imparting strategies to help librarians who find themselves witnessing bullying, racism, or other forms of discrimination and intimidation. Librarians can hone strategies in assertiveness and standing up for people being harassed.

The physical self-defense element of Fosse’s workshops for librarians—a much smaller piece—serves the purpose of giving the librarian a sense of preparedness for the worst-case scenario. Fosse underscores that librarians must never, ever try to break up a fight or get involved if there is a weapon.

As Lowry notes, “information workers are at the front line of an ideological battle that is being fought through disinformation and obfuscation."

But aggressions have expanded far beyond ideology now. "As we see time and time again, the right wing is very comfortable crossing over from spreading false information into intimidation and physical violence," Lowry says. "Librarians and others working in the information field need to know how to respond to keep themselves and others safeas well as having the more familiar technical skills for the creation, storage, retrieval, interrogation, dissemination, and use of trustworthy information.” 

Jess deCourcy Hinds is the librarian of the Sojourner Truth School in New York City, an adjunct lecturer in children’s literature at Queens College’s MLS program, and a PhD candidate at St. John’s University.

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