The Emotional Labor of Librarianship

Librarianship isn’t what you might call a physically demanding profession. Youth librarians do exert quite a bit of energy–I regularly hit 6000 steps during a day of book talks, and if I’m not sweating at the end of my toddler time then I feel like I’ve failed as a presenter–but compared to, say, my stint as a family farm hand or  my time as a motel housekeeper (tip your hotel housekeeping staff, please), it’s definitely on the lower end of physically demanding work.

But what about the mental and emotional work that librarians have to do? I’ve been thinking a lot lately (and always, honestly), about women’s work, emotional labor, and the mental load–that last being a fairly new way for me to consider a workload I’ve been managing for years.

When I was a preschool teacher, I remember being physically exhausted at the end of most days, but more than that, I remember being emotionally bereft. I had a dozen small children clinging to me physically and emotionally from 8 in the morning until 6 at night. They turned to me for comfort, reassurance, support, and I was happy to give it when they were in my care.

But then I would go home, and have very little left for myself. I’d given everything I had to these children, and had no one in my life who could do the same for me, other than my cat and my small group of friends. As someone who was already depleted from a childhood of living with abusive, alcoholic parents, this was not a good situation.

When I made the career change from early childhood education to librarianship, I expected that my emotional reserves would be better protected. This was true, to a certain extent, but as time has gone on and I’ve assessed my experiences, I realize my emotional workload is probably the same, if not more, because in my library work I often have to do emotional labor for management and administration as well as for my patrons.

Just being in a customer service position, and having to smile in the face of everything from indifference to hostility, can take a toll on employees, especially women. This expectation that when serving the public, or discussing important work issues with colleagues, or advocating for more staff or more money, that women will be pleasant, quiet, and calm, is damaging. This quote is about attorneys, but could easily apply to librarians:

Jennifer Pierce, a University of Minnesota sociologist, found that the expectations for emotional labor in the legal profession apply to women working in every part of the field. In other words, while male attorneys—generally speaking—are allowed and even expected to be aggressive and domineering, that does not extend to female attorneys, who are frequently penalized if they attempt to conform to these emotional norms.

To take this further, think about even the most innocuous seeming reader’s advisory interaction. Have you ever done a reader’s advisory interview with a parent who is trying to get a book for their child from a school list or list from some Educational Conglomerate, where all of the books are twenty years old and often out of print, and no other options will do because the parent has this list, and been promised that this list and this list alone is what will help their child be successful? Think on how stressful that is, for the parent, and you, and eventually the child who ultimately must read this book that is impossible to find.

Or simply helping someone with the printer, and they start telling you about how they really need to get these naturalization papers printed and submitted because they’re terrified that their spouse will be deported by the new administration.

Or having to console a school age child who is attending a library program independently, and makes a mistake on his project, and becomes inconsolable, and his parent is nowhere to be found.

Or as a storytime presenter, programmer, and outreach person, think about all of the time you must be ON and ON STAGE. It’s not just happy good fun times presenting a program or reading books. It’s 30-60 minutes of being the focal point of a group, having to shepherd kids and families from one task to another, transitioning from a song to a story to a fingerplay, getting and holding the attention of large groups of children. As an introvert, the hours I spend in front of audiences, giving of myself, needs to be balanced by enough time being on my own, and replenish my emotional well.

Think about this in terms of a profession that is made up primarily of women, but more often has men has managers and decision makers. Do they understand the toll that emotional labor is taking on their female reports? Are they even aware that it’s happening, and do they care? Is it possible to make your library’s leadership understand this issue?

I’m exhausted. Aren’t you?

edited to add: I’d be interested in hearing about this from the perspective of a librarian of color; I expect the workload there is even more intense.

 

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43 thoughts on “The Emotional Labor of Librarianship

    • I’m an asst librarian at a middle school and was at an elementary school before that. The director’s assistant said they were updating the job description for my position and asked for my input. My first point was to emphasize that the library patrons you will be serving are primarily children and teens. I am amazed by people working in school libraries who don’t like or understand children. It’s a very different environment than the “quiet room where you sit and read books all day” that people envision.

  1. I’m a librarian of color. I’ve had people ask to touch my hair. People assume I came from a bad neighborhood when I say I’m from the South Side of Chicago. Once I was asked over the phone if the performers at an event were Black because the patron didn’t want to hear “those Negro spirituals”.

    But 85%-90% of my interactions with patrons are pleasant to neutral. One of the things I didn’t love about working in an academic library was that a lot of the patrons felt entitled. It’s great to see people come back and tell me that they got a job or they found that obituary or the book I told them about was on the shelf. That emotional labor I can handle!

    • Thanks for the added perspective that often, the emotional labor we perform can also be paid back when patrons tell us how they appreciated our help or loved our suggestions. That does happen to me, but I forgot about it because I’m so exhausted!

  2. Thank you for articulating everything I’ve been feeling, but didn’t know how to express. You nailed it. I’m an extrovert and this work still takes its toll.

  3. yes, it can be exhausting, and maybe our work is undervalued (I should say probably). But in general I think it has more rewards than problems….most of our patrons, young and old, are very appreciative.
    Administration, however, could be more supportive. In the past that was the case; now we are run more and more like a business, with little room for humanity.

  4. Wow um yes yes yes
    My Emotional labor has increased over my past 20 plus years as a children’s librarian
    Suicide
    Homelessness
    Neglect
    Abuse
    Pseudo therapist ( no I am not qualified)
    I am retiring in 2 months I am emotionally exhausted – I carry most of it home -bring work home like many
    However the fringe benefits of seeing the lives we touch of knowing and caring and hopefully
    having a small impact have made it a wonderful 2 plus decades

  5. I am academic librarian of color and I can say the opposite is true for my experience. I love when students comeback and tell me about their grade because I help them with research. I do come home needing time to unwind and decompress. I love the work, but it is emotional job being ON all the time.

  6. Thank you for articulating so well what, I think, many librarians feel on a regular basis. My staff is amazed that I’m actually an introvert, but after expending so much energy at work, I get home exhausted on a regular basis.

  7. I’m new to the administration side of librarianship. Was a Teen Services Librarian in a medium sized library for 9 years before becoming the director of a small, rural library.

    I feel like my emotional labor has increased dramatically since taking on this role.

    Now, instead of being responsible for my teens and my department, I’m responsible for all staff, all of our patrons, my building, my budget, my whole library!

    And couple that with the fact that everyone I meet knows who I am and what I do, so I’m only “off” when I’m at home or out of town.

    I’m not trying to minimize front line staff emotional labor, and I think one of the jobs of administration is to help front line staff lessen the tolls of direct service, but I wish front line staff understood my emotional labor better too.

    • I appreciate your point of view. I wonder if there’s a difference between male and female leadership, though, and how much of this work they take on, and how they experience it. Or if it’s just the difference between good leadership and bad? I think a certain amount of this labor is unavoidable, but I think good management recognizes that, and makes sure staff have time to recharge, and have adequate backup so they can take vacation time, sick time, etc.

    • I agree about admin being 24/7/365. Though, my staff do field questions in the grocery store too. 🙂 I’ve been in administration at a suburban/rural public library for 20 years. We first fought the city for funding, then a past a grueling and nasty public tax levy by 42 votes, next we moved on to a $8 million renovation project with grant writing and fundraising for 4 years, add in not enough staff, and service to a population who’s drama seems to increase daily with no filters or social etiquette or parenting skills. Last year I worked 400 extra hours and this year will be about the same. I am so tired that I sleep on my two days off and never feel refreshed.

    • If you check, a productive comment from a new administrator was just approved. If you have something to add to the conversation, please do.

  8. Public library Reference Tech here. Maintaining a distance was easier with a desk setup, but now we just have a podium. Emotional, and physical boundaries have gone out the window. It’s soul-crushing. I like to help people. I can’t stand it when they help themselves to ME.

  9. Dazzlingurbanite’s point is spot-on, and I’d also add that one of the things that has helped me a lot is to have landed my first library job in a branch where everyone has each other’s backs like nobody’s business. It makes a huge difference.

  10. I’m relatively new to being a public librarian, but would say DazzlingUrbanite’s comment about patrons coming back to let us know how things worked out for them is very true but what also makes a difference is knowing you can absolutely count on your co-workers for support, and they you. In the branch where I work, we all have each other’s backs like nobody’s business and that is everything.

  11. Marion, that’s true – I think that the roving reference trend has had an impact on this too. (It’s awesome that we now approach patrons who are reluctant to ask for help, but it also facilitates the patron’s sense that this is a conversation, not a professional interaction, while we always have to be “on” professionally, even with patrons who have also over time become friends, and that’s a power imbalance that can become really uncomfortable at times.)

    The most draining for me, sometimes, are the patrons I adore the most – the person who had a big and emotionally fraught need that I connect with personally, and engage with, and have to rigorously police that fine personally-knowledgable-on-this-topic, sympathetic-yet-professional line. I would think that Julie’s example of immigration papers at the photocopier would be a very different experience for a librarian who is themself an immigrant or with close loved ones who are.

    And patrons know this, somehow., and gravitate to the staff they sense will be most sympathetic to their need, and that’s how it should be, that’s part of the job, but it’s also legitimately hard and exhausting, and we need to acknowledge and account for that, and I think part of why there’s so much burnout is that we often don’t, specially in small organizations.

    I’m a widow of a career military NCO-turned-librarian, and sometimes I think there’s a “SERVICE WIDOW” sign on me somewhere, because every single patron with a thorny VA question or a National Archives service records request or a preservation request around old service photos makes a beeline for me. And you know I love it. But sometimes I have to go in the bathroom and cry afterwards. And they no idea. I’m aware of their emotional burden and they are not aware of mine, and I manage both in the interaction: that is the literal definition of emotional labor right there, and it’s a pretty stark example, but do some degree, in some way, every single patron interaction is that interaction. It’s been very striking to me going from a two-librarian household to living alone, and now I have a weekly phone date with my daughter, who is an early childhood educator, just to talk to someone who gets it.

  12. I’m not a youth librarian, so I don’t constantly work with kids. But I do work in the circulation department (and sometimes the reference department), so I deal with the general public a lot. For me, the most stressful part is dealing with patrons who are mentally and/or physically ill, homeless, disabled, and computer illiterate. I work public libraries in South Florida, which also has a very large senior population, and this group can present lots of challenges as well. Some days are definitely more stressful than others, but I have seen a lot of crazy things. When I’m not working, I tend to sleep really long hours and also take naps, sometimes up to 3-4 hours long. I just feel so exhausted.

    • I think any high-need patron can definitely take an added toll; I’m most familiar with kids, but all of the patrons you mention definitely need a lot of help, and can require quite a lot of anyone working with them.

      I hope things stay manageable for you, and thank you for the work you do.

  13. As a male in the profession and an extrovert I would say I see much of what you are saying. I know I try to ease this as much as possible with those I work with and I will also point out that as a male in the profession I often feel attacked by some of my coworkers who have decided that I needed to be taught a lesson and put in my place. Even when I was just a page. As an extrovert in the field I feel the need to constantly hold back from being myself because of the way my coworkers will tell me I’m intimidating and I am not a big guy 5’8″. I understand what you are going through and only point out the other side of the coin so dialogue can continue to move.

    • I think you make a good point. It’s exhausting to go in either direction. Whether it is extroverts having to “tone down” or introverts having to perform, we all end up exhausted. As a woman who is often loud and opinionated, I’ve been called intimidating more than once, and it can be exhausting (and infuriating) to constantly police myself to not be perceived as a bitch or a shrew. Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

  14. This made me think of one teen in particular who was a regular a few years back. Sweet, if troubled, girl new to the area because she was with a new foster family. Her basic needs were being met by this family, but she’d been through SO MUCH by this point (she was raped at least 3 times in foster care and was pregnant when I last saw her) that she broke my heart. My other teens and I threw her a party for her 13th birthday (the foster family were Jehovah’s witnesses), and I still have a picture she drew me up in my office. When she ran away the first time she was found with a group of adult men in Detroit. When she ran away from the shelter she was in after that, she was missing for weeks. I literally walked the streets looking for her. Eventually she was found and put in juvenile detention. I genuinely considered adopting her. I still think about her frequently–she must be out by now and I hope she’s doing phenomenally. Another regular teen a few years later was left behind when she and her mom were evicted from their apartment. Mom took her younger daughter and left the area, and the teen was living in her car. LUCKILY she knew she could come to me for help finding resources. I have seen her since and she’s doing great now 🙂 I’m good at my job BECAUSE I care so much, but it definitely takes a toll.

    • Oh, Sarah, I could write a whole post on this kind of thing alone. I left a job once and a mother actually gave me a framed photo of her children, because that was the best way she could think to say thank you. I think librarians who work with youth do become especially and deeply attached to those we serve, and it’s a beautiful act of love and service, but it can also be incredibly heart breaking.

  15. You’re onto something here with emotional work in libraries! I often go home feeling drained and physically tired for “no good reason.” I’m the (white 30-something male) director of a small academic library. This phenomenon is by no means exclusive to women and persons of color, though it gives me pause to imagine how much more intense it could be for these folks.
    As a middle manager, I have to attend to emotional needs of my staff, my own supervisor, and the good people we serve. I try to make sure my team gets credit for all the success, and I take responsibility for all the failure. All that takes an emotional toll! I suspect that part of the problem with unsupportive managers stems from their being overloaded themselves with problems from all sides. I work in an environment that is fairly healthy, all things considered. I also have outlets like exercise and meditation.

    • You sound like you’re a good manager, which I’m sure makes everything easier for your staff, which is the best thing a manager can do, actually. All staff will suffer these stresses at one time or another–it’s unavoidable–but when you have a manager who supports you, then it is easier to take adequate vacation time/sick time and keep yourself going.

      I worry most about staff who don’t have the kind of support you’re giving to your team. That’s when it gets really tiresome!

      Thanks for contributing, and thanks for working so hard for the people you manage.

  16. I work in a school library that is being dismantled little by little. We no longer have a teacher librarian, just me (who has no real qualifications but 12 years experience). I have had to fight for any sort of recognition by the school administration and even some staff. I field questions on a daily basis like, ‘does anyone still use these books?’ Now they have decided to renovate the space and it looks like I’m going to have to downsize the collection dramatically, in the space of a about 6 weeks, by myself, with no estimate as yet of how much shelving space I’ll have left! I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

    • I’m so sorry this is happening to you. Studies show, consistently, that a school library staffed by a professional librarian leads to student success. And I think as a teacher librarian (I’ll grant you that title, as someone who is doing the work and has the experience), you get the “best” of both worlds, enduring the stresses of both a teacher and a librarian. And the added stress of being alone, since it is recommended that all school libraries have an assistant!

      I hope things get better for you.

  17. Midman’s comment rings true. I’m also thinking about the emotional labor involved in working in the “back-room” areas. Technical services librarians rarely work with the public, yet they are also asked to do emotional labor, particularly because many of them are supervisors. They have to deal with the emotional needs, and sometimes the problems, of the people they supervise and the people they work with in the larger organization. Library information technology employees also have to do emotional labor because of the expectations that library employees and patrons have for the presence of consistently workable and accessible technological infrastructure with which to do their work.

    So, no library employee is immune to the kind of exhaustion that causes us to go home some nights, stare at the four walls, and pet whatever domesticated animal is nearest (if that’s an option). But what strategies can people use to stave off the exhaustion?

  18. OMG THIS! I sorely feel this with the added stress of worrying whether or not I will pass or how to respond adequately when a child comments about my height or my voice (deep no matter how much training I take) as their parent looks passively on. I have always and will continue to worry and stress that those fears and frustrations contribute to me being less of a librarian or failing my young patrons in some way.

  19. I am a librarian of color in a public library and I completely understand where you’re coming from. I have been lucky to have progressed quickly in my job but sometimes the emotional stress almost makes it not worth it. I’ve had patrons come into the reference room, look at me in confusion (or not at all), and proceed to ask my colleagues for help. I was once interviewed by a local radio station reporter and when we met (after only communicating through email) he literally stepped back and said “Wow, I thought you’d be different”. Little micro-aggressions like these happen often but the main stressor of my job (and I think most of yours) is that the patrons need so much more than I could ever give them. Whether it be a job, housing, medicine, therapy- there’s only so much we can do and for people who genuinely want to help people it’s disheartening and tiring.

  20. As a youth librarian of color my experience reflects dazzlingurbanite’s, I too have had people want to touch my hair and I love when patrons share with me that the work I’ve done or assistance I’ve given has made their life better in small and big ways.
    I have experienced explicit and implicit racism at the pu lic library setvice desk in more ways and more often than I can count. From the almost daily surprise that I’m the librarian as opposed to the white clerk at the shared desk to actually being called the n-word and having people refuse to let me assist them because I’m black. I have patrons that feel that they can unload their racism on me because I’m literally the only black person that they feel that they “know.” Sometimes this just brings the expectation that I will always be happy to educate them about my humanity.
    Truthfully, there have been many days when I have gone home with what I call “white fatigue.” There have also been affirmations like when my storytime littles have come in their BLM t-shirts to storytime and adult patrons have asked for resources for how to be better allies.
    Even with all of its emotional labor, I still feel blessed to do this work.

  21. Some days there is more emotional fatigue from “internal” people than from the general public. As several have mentioned, we somehow are responsible for those both up and down the chain. I wish there were some way to discuss this issue short of 360/upward evaluations. There is just too much conflict-avoidance and passive-aggression in this profession.

  22. Thanks for this! It rings so true. I feel like a lot of what I do is help people negotiate life now that they have been screwed by other parts of government, i.e. helping people who do not know how to use computers and are not strong readers or writers fill out endlessly long and complicated online job applications for low-paying jobs that they have been shunted into because of a lifetime of contact with our white supremecist sytem in the form of public education, contact with the judicial system, white supervisors, predatory lending, exclusionary housing policies , etc. Another part of the emotional labor is mitigating the impact of my coworkers’ microaggressions directed toward patrons and negotiating the expectation that I explain and enforce biased and willfully ignorant library policies. I am a white public librarian working at the main downtown branch in a major metropolitan area within a very large, suburban-centric library system.

    • Yes, I agree with Misserinthelibrarian’s comments. I work at a community college in a conservative, suburban area that is very segregated, socio-economically and racially. But the student population itself is increasingly becoming more diverse. I am one of two POC librarians among a department of mostly white female staff. A few times, I have experienced microaggressions from staff, faculty and students because of my race (ie: students giving me a look, then going towards a white colleague at the reference desk for help instead; another time, a White, non-Chinese speaking staff member questioned my own assessment of a problematic, racist patron and even my own Chinese language skills, etc.) I also agree the more emotionally taxing and frustrating part of my job is having to explain and advocate for services and resources that would obviously benefit the students based on their direct feedback and/or from my personal interactions with them.

      For example: more quiet study areas, better IT communication workflow to quickly resolve issues, to collaborate with other campus partners to enhance our instruction/services, to fight to have more budget to hire another librarian, etc. It’s extremely hard not to get angry when these suggestions fall on deaf ears from upper management and from other departments like IT that are headed by men who absolutely do not operate in a customer-service/education oriented mindset and are openly haughty/disdainful towards librarians most likely because we’re mostly women. And also, an issue is insubordinate staff who do not get reprimanded or dealt with by administrators appropriately. That’s on the top of the list for sure.

      Some of the tasks I’ve suggested above like interdepartmental collaboration, I’ve just done it on my own or teamed up with another colleague to develop ad hoc programs/spaces that serve our students better. Of course, having management’s support would be make a larger impact and reach a wider audience. But I’ve learned that I’ve had to make the most with the resources I have including the support and sympathy from my peers. And, despite the obstacles, we’ve managed to accomplish quite a bit and receive positive feedback from the faculty and students.

      But for the most part, I do enjoy working with our students and faculty. As I’ve established what I’m able to offer and how well I do it (student engagement, instruction, creative programming), the more positive feedback I’m getting from students/faculty alike.

      Thanks for writing this piece! I have been thinking a lot lately about whether the way I’ve been dealing with the dysfunctions at work can be sustainable emotionally for the long-term, particularly if there aren’t going to be major improvements in administration any time soon. Work/life balance has generally been fine (compared to my public school teaching days); but there a definitely some days I wonder…

  23. I’d say I get a lot of positive feedback from patrons as to how we’ve helped them or their children, but the community that my library serves views our branch as a community center where they can find the kind of assistance they don’t find from school or other government entities, so I find my role as a librarian is to ask how we can help with school work, immigration information, job search, homeless issues. Especially with the current administration. I use all those good feelings generated from helping those in need as a way to reenergize myself, but I do go home wanting a glass of white wine to just chill, not help anybody, not see any kids, and just be a selfish person for a bit. The issue I agree with in this article is how as a female I am labeled difficult by staff when I expect professional behavior (no cell phone or food on the desk, get off the chair and take the patron to the book, not just point), and certain levels of management view me as aggressive when I stand up for myself.

  24. I’m a librarian in a teaching hospital and I have both staff and patients come in to my library. I deal with death, dying, insurance problems, family disputes, you name it. Some of my favorite doctors will write a prescription for the patients to come and see me for more information. A lot of those patients will then tell me everything that’s wrong with them. I really have to distance myself from getting wrapped up in these conversations as a) it is none of my business, b) I can’t tell them anything I might know about the disease (I’m not a medical professional so I could get in trouble for telling them “have you tried x, y, or z?”) and c) it’s hard seeing some of my “regulars” get worse and then not at all. I was a research coordinator for 10 years before I went to library school (did oncology research) and while I loved the research part, I did not like my patients dying. I thought working in the library (research) aspect would put an end to that. Nope.

  25. So much yes here. I’m a public librarian also and sometimes at the reference desk, I feel like I’m a sitting duck, available for anyone to use and abuse. It is not acknowledged how emotionally draining this work can be. Just as friends say “I can’t believe that happened in the library!” when you tell stories, people (whether internal staff who don’t work with the public, or just the world in general) don’t comprehend just how much emotional baggage patrons unload on their librarians. I think if you don’t have a sense of humor or supportive coworkers/administration, you are in danger of burning out before too long. I appreciate you writing about this issue that really isn’t often discussed.

  26. I certainly hope this is my isolated experience, but the degree to which I’m expected to manage discriminatory comments towards myself and others is exhausting. Unfortunately, no one can control what patrons will say to us [see: dazzlingurbanite’s “negro spirituals” comment above], but between having to police coworkers comments against oneself and knowing that you’re the only one who will interrupt hateful comments or discriminatory behavior from patrons is too much to ask.

  27. LIbrarianship IS a physically demanding career. I had to quit due to this. We had one library page in the third busiest branch library in the city. I was sorting, scanning and shelving books sometimes up to 6 hours a day. Every joint in my body was screaming with pain. When I quit and went to teach in a secondary school, all of my physical pain disappeared.

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