*Editor’s note: All librarian names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Alex* can pinpoint the day she knew she was done with library work. “I was doing a lot of extra emotional support for people who didn’t have anybody else,” says the public librarian, who is disabled and has been working near a large Midwestern city for almost 20 years. She says the last two years have been particularly difficult. “There was a day when I realized nothing was ever enough,” says Alex, who is in the process of leaving the field. “They always asked for more. I was so worn down by it all.”
The burnout began earlier for Chris. “Even before the pandemic started, I’d been feeling increasingly ambivalent,” says the Midwest-based academic librarian who left her associate director position in fall 2021. “Then we had the pandemic, which required libraries to make a ton of changes. I wanted to work with my community, and I didn’t have any energy for that.”
The Great Resignation, a term coined by organizational psychologist and management professor Anthony Klotz in a May 2021 Bloomberg Businessweek interview, describes the millions of people in the US who have quit their jobs at near-record levels since the start of the pandemic. It’s a phenomenon that has hit the library community hard, and COVID-19 is only part of the equation.
The pandemic “brought to light a bunch of problems that were there before,” says Klotz, now with the School of Management at University College London. “The pandemic just sort of turbocharged them.”
Common reasons for resignations include burnout, frustration, low pay, and low morale. Those factors are notably pervasive in the library world, says Beatrice Calvin, manager of professional development and editor of the Library Worklife e-newsletter at ALA’s Office for Human Resource Development and Recruitment and ALA–Allied Professional Association. “So many people have left,” she says. “They’ve either quit their jobs and gone to another one, or just totally quit the profession. Employers are having trouble replacing a lot of staff, so the ones who are left are overwhelmed and overworked. They’re having to pick up the slack and they’re not being compensated, so they get burned out.”
The pandemic compelled many people to reevaluate their priorities, says Tyler Dzuba, vice president for learning and development at DeEtta Jones and Associates, a management consulting and training firm that works with libraries. “For some people, [the pandemic] has reinforced their enthusiasm for libraries and the work that they do,” he says. “For other people, it led them to realize that this isn’t where they want to spend their time.” Dzuba, himself a former academic librarian, left libraries in 2017 to work in the health care sector and later took his current library-adjacent role.
COVID-19 certainly played a part in the overall sense of unease, says Rorie, a rural public librarian in the Northeast, who graduated from library school in 1996. But it wasn’t the only problem she had to process.
“I could see a lot of dissatisfaction that wasn’t the usual dissatisfaction,” she says of working during the pandemic. And it wasn’t just COVID-19: Public criticisms of critical race theory, LGBTQ books, and gender-affirming therapy contributed to “a lot of the terribleness,” she says. “It can be really hard when the community turns on you.”
Those feelings of career ambivalence were complicated, Rorie says, by vocational awe, a term coined in 2017 by academic librarian Fobazi Ettarh to describe the notion that librarians, the library profession, and the institution of libraries as a whole is inherently good and therefore above reproach. For Rorie, the idealized standard only made her feel worse. “I feel like I let down the community,” she says. “I feel like I should have tried harder. It’s hard to have to come face-to-face with that.”
Yet even librarians who spoke out say they were largely ignored. “I told my boss, my director, my team, the whole library on multiple occasions that I was really burned out and not doing okay,” says Jules, a queer, neurodivergent academic librarian at a Mountain-state community college who decided in late 2021 to leave libraries. “And it never changed.” Jules is currently looking for nonlibrarian jobs.
Similar experiences have led to low morale across the profession, according to Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, a researcher and library leader whose work on morale has been widely cited.
“Low morale is a traumatic experience for librarians that was happening before the pandemic,” she says. For the purposes of her research, Kendrick defines low morale as the result of “repeated, protracted exposure to workplace abuse and neglect” and says that the issue strikes at the heart of librarians’ identities. “We feel comfortable in libraries,” she says. “But we’re realizing that libraries are not places of comfort or refuge for librarians anymore. So how do we reconcile those feelings of nostalgia, those feelings of having a calling, when we go to work and we’re being abused and neglected?”
Some libraries have tried to assuage employee unhappiness by implementing programs aimed at reducing stress, but Alex says they fall short. “They don’t seem to understand that wellness programs are placing the problem with the individual library worker,” she says. “You can’t meditate your way out of systemic issues or terrible pay or horrible levels of stress.”
Cost of living, price of complacency
Poor compensation is a big problem, says Calvin, especially in library jobs that require advanced degrees. “The cost of everything has skyrocketed, and salaries within libraries are just not keeping up,” she says. “It’s kind of frustrating.” She adds that degree requirements are part of the issue. “We’re requiring folks to have a master’s to get their foot in the door,” Calvin says, “but the pay is not adequate.”
Yet it’s not just about money, says Elaina Norlin, professional development and diversity, equity, and inclusion program coordinator for the Association of Southeastern Research Libraries. “One of the mistakes most organizations—not just libraries—make is, they assume pay will resolve everything,” says Norlin, author of The Six-Step Guide to Library Worker Engagement (ALA Editions, 2021). “When you look at pay, it’s essential, but it’s not a guarantee of [being] engaged, excited, or interested. I’m not saying money isn’t important. But you can’t just say, ‘Here’s the money’ and expect all of this [other] stuff to go away.”
Norlin says that a library system with a diverse workforce will cultivate diversity of thought and different approaches. “We need libraries to invest internally as much as we invest externally,” she says. “And we need to take a really critical look at hierarchy. There is always a small percentage of people who are benefiting from status quo. They’re the gatekeepers, and that needs to be challenged for the [field] to turn around.”
Dylan, a former academic librarian at a public community college in the Northeast, says that even when librarians move up in the ranks, it can be challenging to make meaningful changes. “I became a library director because I was going to fix [things],” they say. But the problems ran deeper than expected. Dylan says the promotion and low morale were ultimately part of their reasons for leaving. “You can’t talk to your colleagues in the library because you’re the boss,” they say. “I couldn’t complain about my concerns.”
That’s because the issues are systemic, Kendrick explains. “There are systems at play that are engaged in hegemonic power structures,” she says. “The only way we get rid of low morale or reduce it significantly is to look at and destroy the enabling systems which are predicated by these power structures.”
She also says those systems affect marginalized library workers the most. “The people who don’t have degrees, or people who are working part time, or people who are marginalized in any way you can think of—but especially [those who are] Black, Indigenous, and people of color—they experience exacerbated forms of trauma,” says Kendrick. “And they are most likely the people who cannot leave.”
The grand question
While there are no easy solutions to the attrition problem, librarians who have left or who are on the brink of leaving say it’s critical to create workplace boundaries and establish a healthy work-life balance. “Use all your vacation days,” Jules says. “Use all your benefits. Take advantage of the institution that you’re a part of.”
Using the tools of self-care and self-preservation can also help offset the emotional burdens, at least temporarily, Kendrick says. “Self-care, like wellness programs and yoga, can temporarily offset emotional burdens, but they don’t impact abuse,” she says. “Self-preservation are the tools you access at the moment of abuse or neglect at work. Those tools are more likely to begin the deeper impacts on enabling systems of low morale.” She adds: “Self-preservation includes assertive communication, which librarians often have trouble with. We often don’t have the words to tell people what we need them to hear.”
Kendrick says another tool of self-preservation is cultivating moral courage. “A lot of times we tell ourselves stories about what someone might do to us,” she says. “And we err on the side of the story that diminishes our power, so we never know our power, because we never did the thing that showed the power.”
Dzuba says it’s also important to remember that not everyone who is critical of libraries wants to leave. “The question for organizations more than individuals is: ‘What makes people want to stay?’” he says. “What’s going to help people find fulfillment in the work we do? I think that’s really the grand question here.”
For some, it’s a question of perspective. “Somebody said that it was the American Library Association, not the American Librarian Association,” Dylan says. “That tells you a lot about the focus. That focus needs to change.”
In the end, some experts point out that there may be an upside to this period of upheaval. Says Klotz: “A lot of people, including me, are viewing [the Great Resignation] as an opportunity to improve the world of work, as opposed to saying it’s a giant indictment of the world of work.”
Updated June 2, 2022