I teach a course for San José (Calif.) State University’s School of Information on embedded librarianship in academic libraries. Some of the service models we explore in the class are very high-touch, and I was pleased this term that quite a few students expressed concerns about the labor implications of adding much more to a librarian’s already full workload.
When I was in library school 14 years ago, I didn’t hear anything about workload, emotional labor, self-care, or burnout. What I did hear a lot about was how librarians are creative, resilient, and good at doing more with less. My first job as a librarian was at a small library where we were constantly working to find inventive no-cost solutions designed to resemble what big, well-resourced libraries were doing. Our being able to do more with less felt like a badge of honor.
But that badge of honor also signals that you might keep getting less and doing more. In a presentation at the 2017 Association of College and Research Libraries conference, Jacob Berg, Angela Galvan, and Eamon Tewell argued that resilience narratives are bad for library workers, making “everything about our work our responsibility, regardless of our level of power within a given system.” Resilience promotes the idea that library staffers can overcome anything and that those who cannot are at fault for their situation.
At the Identity, Agency, and Culture in Academic Libraries conference last May, Fobazi Ettarh coined the term vocational awe, which is “the idea that libraries as institutions are inherently good. It assumes that some or all core aspects of the profession are beyond critique, and it, in turn, underpins many librarians’ sense of identity and emotional investment in the profession.” Vocational awe is common in the helping professions and can lead to people seeing overwork as a point of pride. When I look back at my early-career self, answering reference emails from home on Christmas Day, I see how little regard I had for my own time and well-being in the face of my commitment to the profession.
I believe vocational awe and resilience narratives make library staffers feel less comfortable expressing dissatisfaction with their work and advocating for themselves. They paint workers who feel burned out or frustrated as failures who couldn’t overcome adversity rather than as people who need support. I’m pleased to see conversations around emotional labor, workload, and burnout happening more in our profession, but little will change until administrators and managers see their role in perpetuating or preventing burnout.
Resilience narratives paint workers who feel burned out or frustrated as failures who couldn’t overcome adversity.
Library workers need to feel comfortable talking about the negative aspects of our work. We need to reject narratives in this profession that suggest we can do more with less, and we must feel safe advocating for our own well-being in the workplace. I remember once trying to tell a manager that I didn’t have the bandwidth to take on a new responsibility and feeling intense shame about it. We should never be embarrassed to advocate for ourselves.
Conversations about library staff well-being also need to go beyond work–life balance, as many elements of burnout are caused by factors within the organization that are beyond an employee’s control. It’s important for libraries to identify organizational factors that might lead to burnout and for managers to protect their employees’ time. In the face of enthusiasm for a new service that could greatly benefit patrons, worrying about how it will be staffed long term can feel like negativity. But these conversations protect employees who may not even realize they’re taking on too much.
In the end, library workers are the most important resource our libraries have. We should pay at least as much attention to their well-being as we do to our nonhuman resources.