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Beyond Self-Care in Libraries: Supporting Ourselves Through Real Change
by
Posted On March 19, 2024
LET’S BE HONEST: AN INTRODUCTION

We cannot, and should not, sugarcoat what is glaringly apparent about the current state of working in libraries. With book banning, bomb threats, other threats, and harassment of library workers, it’s been a brutal time in libraries, particularly for public and school libraries.

In our everyday work, we are skilled at and experts on meeting the needs of our patrons and communities. In the LIS practitioner literature and scholarship, the focus is typically on the needs of our patrons, how to improve our patron services, and innovative approaches to assisting patrons. But it is critical that we give attention to the services we provide (or should provide) ourselves as information professionals. Whether working the circulation desk or planning and conducting children’s programming, we offer so much of ourselves, mentally and emotionally.

Compassion fatigue, excessive emotional labor, and burnout can cause librarians and library workers to leave the field for other careers. A striking number of librarians and library workers noticeably left libraries following the COVID-19 pandemic. The stress of the pandemic itself, changes in patron behavior, increasing demands from the public, and concerns over safety are a few common reasons for leaving the field.

RETHINKING OUR WORK THROUGH VOCATIONAL AWE

One approach to reflecting on our work and how we can take care of ourselves while serving our communities is through the concept of vocational awe. This term, created by Fobazi Ettarh, “describes the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good, sacred notions, and therefore beyond critique.” Ettarh argues that vocational awe contributes to a lack of work-life balance and inequitable pay.

This concept quickly gained traction within the LIS community to examine major issues in libraries, librarianship, and library work. By better understanding our view of the field, meaningful and essential conversations are occurring in libraries, among library colleagues, and in LIS scholarship. By using vocational awe as a starting point, we see areas in which librarians and library workers can be empowered to improve their workplaces and how they engage with their work. By taking off some of the pressure we place on ourselves, we can appreciate the helping and service natures of our profession while avoiding burnout, overwork, and intense self-criticism. We should provide ourselves and our colleagues with the same compassionate and empathetic service we give to our patrons.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

As librarians and library workers became unexpected frontline, essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, fear for their health and safety, increased demands from the public, and the pressure to be everything for everyone who walked into the library became too much for many. The existence of vocational awe became very apparent during the pandemic, with the need for those in libraries to be resilient and offer more social services than ever.

The research in LIS and collegial conversations among librarians and library workers regarding mental health and well-being are slowly but steadily emerging. Library-focused organizations such as ALA and state library associations are offering more conference presentations, webinars, and workshops on the mental health needs of library workers. Part of this growth in attention and recognition of mental health in the workplace has been an impact of living (and working) through the pandemic.

TAKING CARE OF OUR MENTAL HEALTH AND WELL-BEING

By taking care of ourselves, we are acknowledging that much of the work we do—in particular, customer service—can be detrimental to our mental health and well-being if we do not offer ourselves more support. Administrators and managers need training and education on how to create inclusive and empathetic workplaces that provide this type of assistance. Library associations, LIS educators, and related library-focused organizations could be helpful in offering more webinars, workshops, continuing education courses, and instruction during the library school program about compassion fatigue, balancing emotional labor, encouraging consistent self-compassion as part of the job, and more. Ideally, social workers, therapists, and other mental health professionals would be invited to library in-service days to further the conversation using their expertise.

Librarians and library workers are in dire need of guidance and support on how to take care of themselves while working with the public and providing services to their communities. Since the pandemic, libraries, library collections, and librarians and library workers themselves have been under intense scrutiny. Book banning, intellectual freedom battles, funding struggles, and a higher demand on library resources add pressure, stress, and uncertainty to an already challenging profession. With intentional support from administrators and managers, librarians and library workers can put themselves first and reflect on experiences they have while on the job.

Through continued training, education, self-awareness, and library procedures that focus on workplace socio-emotional care, librarians and library workers could have an improved and openly empathetic workplace. It all sounds quite idealistic. But that should not stop libraries from striving for innovation and hope. We can all make small yet consistent changes in our libraries, recognize the power of vocational awe, learn to engage in self-compassion, and continue to love our work but not at the expense of our own well-being. The future for libraries, librarians, and library workers, especially in a post-COVID environment, is one of meaningful growth and change in the way we take care of ourselves and our colleagues.


Dr. Abigail L. Phillips is an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She can be reached by email at abileigh@uwm.edu or on X (@abigailleigh).

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