Blogger Nina Lindsay

Librarians & Labor

I’m heading to the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) conference in St. George UT this week.  I’m looking forward to listening, as I have always lived and worked in urban spaces.  In reaching out to members about this, I heard back privately from one who shared that “the most common experience shared by rural librarians is isolation: physically and professional.”  She went on to advocate for the value of peer mentorship, and pointed me to this guest post at Bryce Don’t Play, which highlights the stress of “solo” librarians.

This post in turn took me to Fobazi Ettarh’s post on Vocational Awe, which she explains as “the idea that libraries as institutions are inherently good. It assumes that some or all core aspects of the profession are beyond critique, and it, in turn, underpins many librarians’ sense of identity and emotional investment in the profession.”  (All of Ettarh’s posts here really worth reading; Dr. Nicole Cooke shared  Equality is Not Pie  with us at the recent ALSC Community Forum).

Linda Christian’s “A Passion Deficit: Occupational Burnout and the New Librarian: A Recommendation Report” (2015), referenced by Ettarh, is interesting as the recommendations helpfully suggest changes that institutions and organizations can make, but the language of the title (as Ettarh points out) and within the report focus the problem of burnout on librarians’ own individual emotional resources, rather than on the organization itself.

In the handout Ettarh and fellow panelists shared at their talk “I love being a librarian, but…” Reconciling Vocational Awe, Emotional Labor, and Social Change in Librarianship at the Identity, Agency, and Culture in Academic Libraries conference, May 2017, they ask “How does vocational awe affect the distribution of emotional labor? And at whose cost? …  How does vocational awe contribute to white supremacy culture?” (i.e., quantity over quality; progress is bigger, more; sense of urgency; more here).

It’s a hard time to be in the world; and a hard time to be a librarian. But: harder for many of us than for others, in ways that most of us (white women) in this profession will never fully understand.  And when white librarians understand our work to intersect with the work of dismantling racism, where do we risk falling into the trap of contributing to toxic vocational awe that can undercut this work by positioning our own comfort above it, through self-congratulatory self-care?

As I get myself ready to go back to work after Labor Day, and to give my attention this week to the distinct isolation felt by children’s librarian in small and rural libraries, I’m curious to know in what ways you’ve seen your institutions successfully support the emotional resources of librarians, in ways that take the responsibility upon the organization, rather than the individual.

Are there reflective practice techniques you’ve seen applied in your libraries that go beyond suggestions to journal on your own time or require you to use after hours or break time to talk between staff?  Mentoring programs that successfully match peers from isolated communities?  How can we hold our institutions accountable for getting our best work, in a way that is sustainable for a profession full of inequities?

As advocates we talk plenty about libraries being the communities who use them, rather than the buildings themselves; Ettarh reminds us they are also “the people who do the work.”  


  1. Dianne Connery

    I have thoughts! Through a grant we were able to contract with a library student to plan our summer reading program and include diverse books.

    Our area of NE Texas has an active Facebook group for rural library directors and meet quarterly. You’ll probably see some of us at the conference. I hope to meet you in St. George. ARSL is always wonderful.

  2. Nina Lindsay Post author

    Dianne, thank you! I’ll look for you in St. George. Would love to hear more about your quarterly meetings, and ways ALSC can support rural library directors and staff.

  3. Jin Han

    I am living and working in the place where with small Asian populations. Funny thing is there are two Asian (I am Korean, the other librarian’s family is from Thailand)children’s librarians working here. We do not look alike, but we often get confused to the other by patrons and even by coworkers. We often talked to each other we are lucky to have each other to talk about issues. Little venting to each other is so nice because “Don’t be sensitive” is always in my mind.. So sometimes… I am wondering about any librarians who are minority race and is working in ruler/small library…what she/he is going to do? Are there more barriers than the job supposed to have? Who they talk with?
    Thank you for thoughtful writing.

    1. Nina Lindsay Post author

      Jin, thanks for sharing this. How important it is to have peers to talk to.

  4. Pingback: Doing it All: "Small" - ALSC Blog

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