Library Workers Need Support for their Emotional Labor | Editorial

Self-care does not replace institutional care. Leaders must address the toll that stress can take on staff.

The instruction to don one’s own oxygen mask in an airplane before helping others has been used as a metaphor to inspire those doing public service to look after themselves so they can be ready to help someone else. Urging self-care, it implies the need to find personal strategies to help avoid burnout and support professional engagement. Easier said than done, and the gap is one organizational leadership should be addressing.

This thought cooked under the surface as I read about the rich and challenging work of supporting students who are experiencing homelessness (Kara Yorio’s “In Plain Sight: Supporting Students Who Are Homeless”); realizing the library role as a safe space for black and Latinx students (Maisy Card’s “Schools Are Vital to Black and Latinx Students”), and digging in with teens to help them address social concerns via teen advisory boards (Marlaina Cockroft’s “­Teen Advisory Boards Work To Impact Libraries—And Communities”).

Each piece is inspiring and instructive, providing key models and philosophical underpinning to put to work. Each of them also carries an intense emotional component—no doubt demanding and even distressing for the librarians involved, who are called upon to step in and serve with compassion. The emotional labor involved is uncalculated but omnipresent.

It got me thinking more about Amanda Oliver’s personal account of librarian burnout in the Los Angeles Times. It also recalled ­Katie McLain’s recognition of the stressors inherent in many facets of library work in “I’m not a ­Superhero,” inspired by Fobazi ­Ettarh’s challenge to look deeply at the assumptions in the field that she argues lead to functional traps in “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves.” All three ­articles are worth your time.

Too often, we cast burnout in terms that place the onus of avoiding it on the individual. Get more sleep, down time, exercise—and eat well. That advice is a bit too pat even in the best of circumstances. Each of us, at any level of an organization, knows about the trade-offs of balancing workload, life responsibilities, and ­self-care. Just today, for instance, I failed to go for that morning run, having devoted that time to write this before waking my kids for their day. I could have planned ahead better perhaps, but, like you, I bet, something else would have had to give. At a certain point, the work of carving out time for stress relief itself becomes a stressor—and even more so, the internalized guilt and blame that can come with not having successfully managed to fit it in.

Such a balancing act is even more complex when the work at hand brings the significant emotional burden that comes with serving those in need in times of escalating social disparity and conflict, ­especially when you feel that the pressure of ­public engagement requires a constant game face. ­Library workers who are members of marginalized groups—people of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals, people with disabilities, and others—often carry an additional load of emotional labor, balancing the need to deliver compassionate service while navigating microaggressions and challenges from patrons, ­colleagues, and the workplace alike.

When the core of the work requires radical kindness and connection as it exposes workers to pain and suffering—as it does in our libraries—leaders must recognize the toll that takes and provide ­support. Self-care does not replace institutional care.

As the field grapples with these questions, I’ll be eager to hear about examples of institutional change to better support librarians in their evolving work. Let’s move the needle.


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Rebecca Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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Elizabeth Elizabeth

thank you SO MUCH for this. Beautifully articulated, and very necessary. I don't know what the solution is, when asking for institutional change at the library systemwide level, or the institution of librarianship as a culture... that seems big, when our reality is that the day-to-day job forces us to focus on the small details just to get through without catastrophic overwhelm. But yes, thank you.

Posted : Aug 31, 2019 02:11



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