How Libraries Can Support Survivors of Domestic Abuse

This is the first in a two-part interview with Holly Case, a Senior Team Officer for Surrey County Council Libraries in the UK. Beyond Access spoke with Holly about her libraries’ award-winning work to serve survivors of domestic abuse in their community, which goes far beyond reading material to include outreach programs, self-esteem workshops, and information sessions. 

How did you get the idea to start this program?

At first it was as simple as making sure publicity about domestic abuse and where to find help was available in libraries, which was difficult during a time when it was still considered to be more of a hidden problem. Particularly in a county like ours which has a perceived air of wealth, domestic abuse is something that people tend to assume doesn’t happen, which is nonsense!

When I joined the team in 2011 I had almost no knowledge of domestic abuse, apart from the same preconceptions about violence against women that most people had. I went away and did a lot of research and was shocked by the insidiousness of it, how many people it affect, how many different types of abuse there are and how often it was happening in my own county.

From here I started to look in to our book stock, I checked every title under the domestic abuse Dewey number to see if we had stock covering all aspects of domestic abuse. It became obvious that whilst we had some titles on relationship abuse, there was almost nothing on female genital mutilation, abuse in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender relationships, forced marriage, honour based violence, for men or for perpetrators of abuse. I also felt there were classic titles which needed to be restocked.

After buying new book stock I wanted to publicize what we were doing, which includes the new books bought together in reading lists and a page of web links to local and national help. I also wanted to promote the use of library computers as a free and safe way for survivors to find help, as so many perpetrators monitor online activity. The publicity is in the form of a poster and leaflet, and was produced with the help of our partners in the Community Safety Unit and the four domestic abuse outreach services in Surrey.

From here we’ve branched out to outreach programs specifically for survivors and providing self-esteem workshops, poetry writing sessions, bibliotherapy taster sessions, a reading group and multiple information and advice drop in sessions. From the poetry writing sessions we have produced two e-books and displayed an exhibition of the work at one of the libraries. The work has grown and expanded, including some recent work in one of our prison libraries. And there is more planned for 2014!

What are the main challenges you have faced in implementing it?

Expanding my own knowledge was my first challenge. It takes a lot of learning to understand exactly how survivors go through certain processes with the police and outreach services. Even language can be important! In the beginning I used the word “victim,” but have now learned that “survivor” is the preferred term.

Pushing partnership working was a significant and important challenge. You have to be quite determined to create partnerships with the domestic abuse outreach services, because they tend to be extremely busy. It didn’t really take long for the outreach services to see the benefits of working with the library service. We have been so lucky to have their support because without them we would never have direct interaction with survivors, but I have found that you can’t wait for the outreach services to come to you and ask for something. It’s best to take your own suggestions to them and be adaptable.

You can find out more about the libraries’ work and how libraries can help fight domestic abuse here. Read Part 2 of the interview on our blog.