The Struggle Is Real

Session at Annual focuses on combating compassion fatigue

June 29, 2021

Amy Franco

“No one thinks about going into the field of libraries to become a nurse or a social worker without the training,” said Amy Franco, adult department assistant director at Glen Ellyn (Ill.) Public Library (GEPL), during an on-demand session at the American Library Association’s 2021 Annual Conference and Exhibition Virtual. But GEPL staff are prepared for emergencies that may come up when serving the public, she said. Staffers are taught CPR, how to use AEDs [automated external defibrillators], and how to dispense Narcan, a drug to reverse opioid overdoses.

“Nurses and social workers get the support that they need to recognize and cope with compassion fatigue, but in the world of libraries it’s a relative unknown,” she said. “We generally do not do a good job of promoting our own health and well-being.”

Franco introduced attendees to the body’s major stress chemicals—adrenaline and cortisol—and described the deleterious mental and physical effects of long-term stress. “We tend to think about overcoming stress in the same way that we think about learning,” she said. “The more you do it the better you become at it. But stress doesn’t work in the same way—the more stressed you are, you become less and less capable of fighting off the effects of that stress.”

Her session focused specifically on compassion fatigue, or a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others as result of emotional and physical exhaustion. For librarians, this can be the result of budgetary constraints, high workloads, experiencing or witnessing violence or trauma, ineffective management or administration, and demanding patrons. Compassion fatigue encompasses both burnout and secondary trauma—this is what happens when you see, witness, or otherwise experience someone else’s trauma—though it can be tricky for workers and supervisors to differentiate among these forms of workplace stress.

“In clinical settings, secondary trauma is an understudied and controversial phenomenon, but I think we can all agree that when you’re helping a vulnerable patron you feel the effects of their trauma,” Franco said. “It’s very difficult to walk away from a stressful day at work and not take that stress home with you.”

Though librarians aren’t always thought of as first responders, Franco said, those in the profession are often driven to serve, even at the expense of their own mental health. “We have to remind ourselves that librarians and library workers can’t be everything to everyone,” she said, encouraging workers and supervisors to be mindful of challenges and boundaries. “In libraries we talk a lot about the mental and emotional well-being of our patrons. I would challenge you to talk about the mental and emotional well-being of your staff as well.”


Toward a Trauma-Informed Model

Learn to ask “What happened?”—not “What’s wrong?”

Librarians from San Francisco Public Library working at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank.

Other (Pandemic) Duties as Assigned

During shutdowns, librarians take on additional tasks