New Hampshire Public Library Services for Survivors of Domestic and Sexual Violence

In Brief

Domestic violence and sexual assault survivors experience unique information needs that can be answered through formal avenues such as a crisis center or police/court proceedings, but many survivors do not take a formal route to recovery. This survey seeks to identify what services and policies guide New Hampshire public libraries in providing services to survivors to assist them in navigating the experience and recovery from domestic or sexual violence.

by Miranda Dube

New Hampshire, photo credit Wanda Dube
New Hampshire, photo credit Wanda Dube


Ongoing and widespread discussion within our culture is shedding light on the issue of sexual assault and domestic violence. Sexual assault and domestic violence do not discriminate and can impact anyone of any race, gender, ability, age, or sexual orientation. In the state of New Hampshire, roughly one in four women and one in twenty men have been sexually assaulted (NHCADSV, n.d.), which means there is the potential for almost 200,000 sexual assault survivors in the state, making up 15% of the population (United States Census Bureau, n.d.). Concrete statistics on domestic violence in New Hampshire are difficult to find, but would undoubtedly increase the number of survivors of violence. According to the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, 13,505 adults and children who experienced domestic or sexual violence in 2016 received formal services from one of the thirteen Member Programs in the state (NHCADSV, n.d.). There is a large difference between how many people the crisis centers serve in a year and the total number of survivors in our state, but it is an important discrepancy to discuss in order to understand the role public libraries could play in providing services and information to survivors of domestic and sexual violence ((Throughout this article I have used the term “domestic and sexual violence survivor” as an umbrella term for any person who has experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking (including cyber), and intimate partner violence (IPV). My deepest apologies go out to anyone who identifies with other terminology and feels unrepresented. I promise I see you, and your experience and voice matter.)) throughout the recovery process.

It is likely that the people seeking formal services from the crisis centers are either currently or have recently experienced violence, making the desire for crisis center support such as court advocates, hospital accompaniment, relocation, support services, and safety planning a current need. Survivors who are not currently experiencing violence still need supportive services, but their needs may not align with the services offered by formal organizations. Dr. Judith Herman’s (1992) book Trauma and Recovery outlines three stages that survivors of trauma experience, beginning with safety and stabilization, followed by remembrance and mourning, and concluding with reconnection and integration. Not every survivor will go through formal channels, such as the police or crisis center, to assist them in the recovery process, so what options are left for survivors?

Research Purpose and Questions

This research uses qualitative and quantitative data from New Hampshire public libraries to identify what services are offered to survivors of domestic and sexual violence in order to theorize on potential barriers and improvements that could be made. While the study focuses on New Hampshire public libraries, the barriers and services discussed henceforth could be applied to any library implementing similar programming, policies, and attitudes. This study seeks to answer:

  • How do public libraries in the state of New Hampshire provide information for survivors of domestic and sexual violence?
  • What are the potential barriers to information seeking at public libraries for survivors of domestic and sexual violence?

It is difficult to answer these questions without survivor input, for they are the experts on what they may want or need from the library. The original study design consisted of an additional survey for survivors of domestic and sexual violence who reside in the state of New Hampshire, with the hopes that information from both groups could be compared against one another. However, the response rate was extremely low (n=3) and that part of the study was closed. In place of first-hand knowledge of what survivors want or need from their library, information on survivors’ process of recovery and barriers to library access for a myriad of marginalized groups has been used to hypothesize on potential problems and solutions.

Research Design

A survey consisting of 34 questions was sent to 203 public libraries in New Hampshire. While 231 public libraries were identified, 28 of them lacked a website, email address, phone number, or a combination of these communication methods, creating a barrier to delivering the electronic survey. Where possible, emails were sent to the director of the library, but if no email was provided for the director, the library’s general email was utilized. Of the 203 emails sent, 29 were returned, for a response rate of 14%.

Results and Discussion

The survey asked respondents to report information in six categories: collection development, staff training/awareness, library policy, safety concerns, library programming, and assistance in the five information seeking stages of survivors. The importance and implications of each section are discussed with the data.

Collection Development

Participants were asked to provide information about their collections, all data collected used the Dewey Decimal system as a reference point. During survey distribution, four libraries responded that they would be unable to participate due to not having an automated system, and one library responded that they did not use Dewey Decimal and the process of translating their collection system to Dewey would put undue stress on the librarian’s time. While it is unfortunate that the survey design prevented these five libraries from participating, it was imperative to have consistency in the reporting of information and to maintain a low level of impact on survey responders.

Participants were asked to report information in the broad categories of the call numbers 364 and 362, which house the majority of materials on sexual assault and domestic violence respectively. It is important to note that other subjects are held within these call numbers as well, so the reported numbers are not in direct relation to domestic and sexual violence materials, but they do provide a baseline for how domestic and sexual violence materials are used in the library.

The participating libraries housed a range of 0-569 books in the call number 364, with an average of 86 materials. These materials have an average publication date range of 1984-2017, and an average circulation range of 0-22 was reported (average circulation statistics were calculated based on how many times the material circulated for the length of time the library owned the item, not for a specified date range of circulations). When averaging out the reported data, the average publication date of materials in call number 364 is 2006, and the materials circulate an average of 6.5 times.

Call number 362 housed a range of 0-536 books, with an average of 49 materials. These materials have an average publication date range of 2000-2015, and an average circulation range of 0-29 was reported. When averaging out the reported data, the average publication date of materials in call number 362 is 2006, and the materials circulate an average of 6.37 times.

Without analyzing each library’s holdings on the subjects, it is impossible to hypothesize on why some materials circulate more than others, if certain publication dates are preferable, or if the collection should house more materials on the subject. However, utilizing CREW: A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries (2012) we can identify what criteria should go into maintaining these collections. According to the manual, materials housed in the call number range of 360-369 should be weeded based on age and popularity, and care should be taken to watch for “social welfare topics that are changing rapidly” (Larson, 2012, p. 67).

The conversation around sexual assault evolved rapidly through social networks in 2017 when actress Alyssa Milano sent a tweet that would soon go viral, even though the phrase “me too” had been coined in 2006 by the grassroots efforts of Tarana Burke (Alyssa_Milano, 2017; Me Too, 2018). With the heightened awareness on sexual assault, new books such as Chessy Prout’s memoir I Have the Right To were published, yet the average publication date for the respondents is 2006, long before many of the conversations we are having today took place. Similarly, terminology surrounding domestic violence has shifted from “battered woman syndrome” which was largely popular in the 1990’s to more inclusive language such as “intimate partner violence.” This change in terminology is another suggested criteria for weeding listed in the CREW manual (Larson, 2012, p. 67). Developing collections that house appropriate and culturally relevant materials on these subjects may not only help circulation statistics, but they may also assist survivors in locating applicable and timely material that is free from bias and judgement, and full of accurate resources.

Participants also reported the content of the physical books held in their collections. The categories included materials on empowerment (20%), information about abuse geared towards children/teens (16%), overview materials on domestic and sexual violence (11%), personal memoirs/biographies of survivors (27%), legal resources (24%), and fiction (1%). With a quarter of holdings on domestic violence and sexual assault relating to legal resources, it is even more imperative that the materials be current in order for survivors to make life-altering decisions with the best information.

In addition to physical books, participants reported the following materials as available in their libraries, listed in order of most to least reported: audiobooks, eBooks, DVDs, posters/pamphlets, and online journal articles. Nine libraries reported that they do not offer any other sources of information on domestic and sexual violence besides physical books. Further research with survivors would be necessary to determine if alternative methods of information delivery would be preferable.

Staff Training/Awareness

Participants were asked to rate statements regarding how often upper management conducts training with their staff that specifically discusses domestic and sexual violence on a scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” When asked to rate “Upper management conducts training with newly hired staff and volunteers” specific to domestic and sexual violence,” 69% (n=20) of participants responded “disagree” or “strongly disagree,” 3% (n=1) responded “agree,” and 27% (n=8) responded with “neutral.” Additionally, participants were asked to rate the following statement: “Upper management conducts training with staff and volunteers that specifically discusses domestic and sexual violence survivors yearly,” which was aimed at discovering other professional development training that may occur at the library post-employment. 65% (n=19) of participants responded “disagree” or “strongly disagree,” 3% (n=1) responded “agree,” and 31% (n=9) responded with “neutral.” In order to provide services to special populations such as survivors, there must be some component of training provided by upper-management, which would also require upper-management to be aware of the unique needs of the population. This will be further explored at the end of the paper.

The researchers also sought to identify librarians’ knowledge of services in their area, hopeful that even without training, staff may know how to locate the resources individually. Participants were asked to report if all, most, some, or none of their staff members were aware of where the local crisis center is that serves their area. 55% (n=16) of libraries felt that less than half their staff knew this information. When asked how many staff members they felt could locate information about where the local crisis center was, 27% (n=8) felt that less than half of their staff could not locate this information, and 44% (n=13) felt that all their staff members could locate this information if needed. While it is great that staff could locate the information if necessary, Evans and Feder (2016) point out that informal disclosures to informal networks, such as a library staff member, only result in formal support if the person receiving the disclosure has prior knowledge or experience with domestic violence (p. 62). Therefore, it is necessary for all library staff to know this information prior to a disclosure or help-seeking question in order to be most successful in assisting the patron with locating formal resources.

Another important area of training in relation to domestic and sexual violence survivors is restraining orders. When asked if staff are trained on how to handle restraining orders, 76% (n=22) of participants responded “no,” 10% (n=3) did not respond, 3% (n=1) have met and talked amongst themselves, 3% (n=1) work directly with law enforcement, 6% (n=2) are unsure, and 3% (n=1) reported that restraining orders are not applicable at their library. Training on how to handle restraining orders as well as interacting with an abuser are imperative to survivor and library staff safety, as fleeing an abusive relationship results in a 500 times more likely chance of increased violence, including homicide (Mitchell, 2017).

Library Policy

As mentioned previously, some survivors of violence will seek formal services, such as safe shelter to live in, which may be at a homeless or crisis center, both of which present unique barriers to library card access. While not all survivors of domestic and sexual violence live in shelter, this study sought to identify barriers survivors may face, which includes barriers caused from living in shelter. Participants were asked to report a variety of library policies that relate to obtaining access to library materials for those residing in shelter. Proof of residence was required by 79% (n=23) libraries, 7% (n=2) did not provide an answer, 3% (n=1) have no requirement, and 10% (n=3) provided answers that were uncategorizable. Even though survivors may be living in a shelter similar to those experiencing homelessness, crisis centers are unique in not providing their address, which would provide safety issues for not only the person seeking the library card but everyone who lives or will live in the building. The researchers asked participants if there were any special rules or regulations that apply to survivors living in shelter who wish to obtain a library card. 24% (n=7) report not having a town shelter, 20% (n=6) require a letter from the shelter, 14% (n=4) require an ID with a town address, 10% (n=3) require verbally informing staff, 10% (n=3) reported no special rules or regulations, 17% (n=5) provided no answer or had no idea about special requirements, and 3% (n=1) would try to confirm residency by phone. While there is no ideal way for libraries to confirm residency for survivors living in shelter, as almost all would require a public disclosure, requiring an ID with a town address would require survivors to wait a longer period of time to obtain the card, and confirming residency by phone is only possible if the survivor gives consent, as residents’ names are never given for any reason (Anonymous, personal communication, December 28, 2018).

Safety Concerns

Participants were asked to report how sensitive information is monitored and kept safe within the library in regards to domestic and sexual violence survivors. When asked whether or not “staff is trained to never reveal the details of a patron’s account, especially to a spouse, as they could be a potential abuser,” 90% (n=26) of participants said yes, they were trained to follow the law regarding privacy, 3% (n=1) responded no, and 6% (n=2) did not answer. An area of concern is the additional responses from libraries that answered “yes” to this question. Additional information provided by the participants showcased ideologies that are not only of concern to survivors but the general public. Two participants expanded their answer of “yes” by adding the following statements: “Never is a strong word, there are occasions when it is appropriate to reveal a book title to a family member but generally speaking we respect privacy,” and “we abide by the law to the best of our ability.” In our profession, patron privacy is of the utmost importance and is one of the pillars of the public library and people’s freedom to read. The fact that some libraries do not feel compelled to uphold this, or to only uphold the law to the best of their ability (it is unclear where that line is drawn), creates a significant safety issue not only for survivors but for anyone utilizing those libraries. Only one participant responded with specific information about privacy training and intra-family privacy concerns, which include domestic and sexual violence. It is possible that if upper-management of libraries develop an understanding of the unique power and manipulation tactics used by abusers, it could shed light on and inform library training on patron privacy to reinforce how necessary this practice is.

An additional area of concern is sharing patron information amongst staff. While many libraries require survivors living in shelter to disclose their status, only 10% of the respondents train staff to not share this information with other staff members. Sharing this information with all staff members may provide minimal benefit to the patron, such as if an abuser were to show up at the library; however this outweighs the safety issues of a staff member sharing this information publicly and retraumatizing the victim through disclosing their story without their permission. Some potential solutions may be to develop a reporting plan in individual libraries that provides strict guidelines about whom information can be shared with, and what to do when shelter residents obtain a library card. Additionally, protocol must be developed for how letters from shelters providing proof of address are stored, if they are stored at all. Ideally, library staff would confirm residence through the letter and return the letter to the patron so there is no concern with the library holding such important and potentially deadly information.

Library Programming/Services

In addition to the questions on collection development, safety concerns, library card policies, and staff training, participants responded to questions regarding programming and services that relate to domestic and sexual violence survivors. One such service is a meeting space for a survivor to meet with a crisis center advocate. By creating space in a library for these meetings to take place, libraries allow for a safe and neutral place for survivors to meet with advocates who may not have otherwise had the opportunity due to safety issues with going to a crisis center office. Over half (55%, or n=16) of the participants stated they do provide meeting space for this purpose, 28% (n=8) could provide the service if needed, and 17% (n=5) do not or could not offer this service due to space constrictions. One thing that is unclear from this survey question is whether or not these libraries actively share that these rooms are available with their local crisis center, or if the space is just generally available. There is a possibility for community partnership if libraries share their available space opportunities with their local crisis center, and an opportunity for more active learning about domestic and sexual violence.

Participants were also asked about passive and active programming offered at their library. The majority of programming offered at New Hampshire libraries is passive, consisting of book displays, posters with crisis center information, and fact sheets about domestic and sexual violence. In comparison, only five participants reported active programming which consisted of a workshop on personal protection, a support group, a presentation from a local crisis center, and two partnerships with a local crisis center, although it is unclear what active programming came out of the latter.

This research does not seek to tell survivors what they do or do not need from their library in terms of services, so it is unwise to recommend types of programming that should be offered without input from survivors themselves. However, with that said, individual libraries could begin to branch out their programming options for survivors and do internal program evaluations to determine what offerings appear to be fulfilling a community need. Doing so eliminates the lengthy and challenging process of receiving survey feedback from survivors, and if done correctly could positively impact the survivors in the library’s area exponentially.

Information Seeking Stages of Survivors

In 2009, Lynn Westbrook published “Crisis Information Concerns: Information Needs of Domestic Violence Survivors.” In this study, Westbrook identified six main stages of information seeking that domestic violence survivors may experience. The six stages are as follows: initial consideration of a life change; during shelter and/or criminal justice engagement; post-shelter/post-police planning; legal concerns in making a life change; immigration-related information needs; and lastly, overlapping information needs from the previous five stages, which may occur at the same time (Westbrook, 2009, p. 104-109). Participants in the study were asked to rank all but the last stage (overlapping needs) on a scale of “1-do not provide information” to “5-provide above average information” on this information need. The breakdown for each information seeking stage is below:

Table 1. Initial consideration of a life change
Rank Percentage
1 – do not provide information 14% (n=4)
2 31% (n=9)
3 45% (n=13)
4 10% (n=3)
5 – provide above average information 0%
Table 2. During shelter and/or criminal justice engagement
Rank Percentage
1 – do not provide information 14% (n=4)
2 41% (n=12)
3 38% (n=11)
4 6% (n=2)
5 – provide above average information 0%
Table 3. Post-shelter, post-police planning
Rank Percentage
1 – do not provide information 38% (n=11)
2 31% (n=9)
3 27% (n=8)
4 10% (n=3)
5 – provide above average information 0%
Table 4. Legal concerns in making a life change
Rank Percentage
1 – do not provide information 21% (n=6)
2 27% (n=8)
3 34% (n=10)
4 17% (n=5)
5 – provide above average information 0%
Table 5. Immigration-related information needs
Rank Percentage
1 – do not provide information 34% (n=10)
2 28% (n=11)
3 24% (n=7)
4 10% (n=3)
5 – provide above average information 0%

While Westbrooks’ information seeking stages of survivors of domestic violence is not a formal evaluative tool, applying it in this context allows for a starting point in seeing what, if any, gaps exist in a library collection. From the responses of the New Hampshire participants it is clear that immigration-related information needs must be curated, and both post-police/post-shelter planning and during shelter and/or criminal engagement could use review and additions. Even though New Hampshire is 93% white, 6% of the state’s residents are immigrants, and Welcoming New Hampshire, a community building and bridging initiative for refugees, has office locations in four of the state’s cities (United States Census Bureau, n.d.; American Immigration Council, 2017; Welcoming New Hampshire, 2018). The cultural differences and language barriers faced by immigrants and refugees create extreme challenges for those facing domestic and sexual violence and their ability to navigate formal networks such as the police and court systems. Furthermore, disclosing or seeking help provides challenges based on English proficiency, the formal support networks’ language options, knowledge of policies, laws, resources, and larger cultural structures such as institutional racism (Lockhart & Danis, 2010, p. 161).

Lastly, participants were asked to use the space provided to inform the researchers of any other information they thought was pertinent to the study. Four comments were made explaining their community and the positive services they provided, five comments were made that express concern with the study format/questions, three comments were made that support the ideology that this is a problem for another organization to solve, and two comments were made informing the researchers that this is not a problem in their town. This means that at least 4% of New Hampshire public libraries are confident in sharing their lack of desire to bettering services for survivors. These comments are a significant area for concern since the respondents of the survey were mainly library directors. If the overarching attitude of those in the highest position of power is to dismiss and discredit survivors or the research being done to improve services to them, it will continue to shape how those libraries provide services and directly impact survivors in their area.

Areas for Future Research

As stated previously, researching library services to survivors without survivor input will have extremely limited impact. A nationwide survey for survivors of domestic and sexual violence specific to library services would shed light on where and how libraries can progress from where we are today. Conducting a nationwide survey could also allow for analysis of different geographic regions’ services to survivors, may allow for identification of areas where services to survivors are more successful than others, and could provide a road map for improvements. Additionally, this type of roadmap could be obtained by identifying libraries within the United States that offer explicit services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence and analyzing their challenges, successes, and community feedback. Furthermore, research into training, safety issues, collection development, and institutional bias in regards to survivors could provide more concrete answers to the questions that have risen from the current research.


While only a survey of one state, this research has allowed for a beginning exploration of what it may mean for libraries to provide great services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Those in charge of developing library collections should focus on increasing the appropriateness of materials relating to domestic and sexual violence, as well as expanding collections beyond physical books to include eBooks, DVD’s, and more. Training staff on domestic and sexual violence survivors’ needs can assist in bettering the library, including having the ability to refer informal disclosures to formal networks and increase library safety for everyone involved. While most survivors living in shelter are able to obtain a local library card, libraries should look for a non-disclosure method to obtain a card, increasing patrons’ and crisis centers’ safety.

The largest barrier to success in offering services to survivors lies within the implicit assumptions held by library workers, which trickles down through the organization creating an environment of barriers and lack of support. Although a difficult topic to discuss, domestic and sexual violence is one area librarians cannot afford to ignore, as the problem may never go away, and ignorance will only cause our patrons who have survived such violence more discomfort.


My deepest gratitude goes out to Christina Mendez, external reviewer, Bethany Messersmith, internal reviewer, and Amy Koester, publishing editor, for their labor and time. What started as a graduate school independent study is finally being published, and I would not have been able to do that without them. I also want to thank Dr. Melissa Villa-Nicholas for supervising my independent study, and Carrie, Karina, and Emily for reviewing early drafts of this work. I thank you all for reminding me every step of the way how necessary and important this research is.


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