Renewing Your Love for Libraries, or Misery Loves Company

by Eleanor Wood

It has happened to you. Or it will happen to you. That shiny new-toy quality of your library job has worn off. You have joined the masses that now drag themselves to work in the morning. The job is now just a paycheck and no longer a proud profession. On the one hand, this has given you a new understanding and empathy toward those coworkers you were so disappointed in or pitied your first day on the job. You know, the ones who hate patrons and roll their eyes at administration and slog through their day’s work. Did you realize you were becoming one of them? Or did you just wake up one morning and suddenly you no longer enjoyed being a librarian? Whatever the case, you are not alone.

When I graduated with my MLS I joined my fellow classmates as we jumped into our new positions with bounding enthusiasm. My first position was everything I had hoped for, and I started each day brimming with new ideas. I refused to succumb to the dourness when, only a few months into the job, I was told by librarians from nearby districts that my library had a reputation for having the meanest staff in the state. It bothered me, of course; but I believed that I was not--and would never become--one of those bibliographic misanthropes. Well, I held out for two years. Now I find myself cringing and taking that preparatory deep breath before turning to the regular patron who sucks the life out of my morning. I make curt replies to the patrons who joke about my status as a “book babe” or “library lass.” I have to remind myself to get up from my chair and walk patrons to the shelf, instead of vaguely waving them in the sought-after direction.

My library has accepted certain behaviors and attitudes toward patrons--and toward each other--that they have deemed “necessary.” And I have finally fallen to that level; at least some of the time. I still strive toward library professionalism, even when faced with supervisors who recommend little to no participation in professional library groups because they find them a waste of time. I find it difficult to determine whether the terrible level of customer service we provide is due to a community-wide apathy, administration apathy, or the fact that our patrons are really so awful that they deserve it.

If you haven’t noticed, my current outlook is bleak. But my will is not yet broken, and, if you are reading this, chances are your enthusiasm for libraries is not yet beyond redemption. Many new graduates find positions where they work under an older generation of librarians who are burned out and ready to retire. Their attitude affects our own and paints our experiences. The intention of this article is to provide techniques to combat this negative outlook, not necessarily to give renewed inspiration. I interviewed several fellow librarians across the country in a variety of library types about their burnout experiences and what they do to shrug off melancholia. Here are some of their comments about sour feelings:

“While I was in library school and right after I graduated, I was working with a very burnt out senior librarian. I tried really hard to not let her attitude deflate mine, or for her perceptions of some regular patrons intrude on mine.”

“I was never jumping up and down specifically about librarianship, as much as I enjoy working in a library. It's not that I don't like being a librarian, but rather that I'm not a career-driven person; I'm a job-driven person. If I like my job, it doesn't matter whether it leads to a career in that particular field.”

“I didn't understand why there were so many political factions within the library and especially why we weren't all on the same team.” “I have also seen staff, both past and present, who were "coasting"; who were being compensated as well as or better than I was. And that is discouraging.”

“At most conferences you also run into the bad librarian. The one who butts in line, comments excessively in programs, and, overall, just has a bad attitude. When I see them it makes me want to be a better representative of librarians.”

The librarians interviewed were also asked how soon after graduating they lost their “Pollyanna” feelings about their jobs. For the most part, this occurred within eighteen months, although one was able to love her job for eight years before hitting a burnout point. Sometimes personal life issues are hard to separate from how you feel about what's going on at work. Take a step back and look at what is affecting you: see if it’s inside the workplace, or outside. Maybe realizing something is key – the first step is acknowledging that you have a problem. I remember once being told by a branch manager that “it’s just books.” I was shocked at the time by her nonchalance and seeming disregard for libraries, but it is true. They’re just books.

There is hope. Small or large things you can do to get through the day or rekindle that spark. Most of the following suggestions you have already heard, but some may be new to you. Try one, or try them all. There really is no “best way”; you just have to determine which method works best for you.

Some of these tips have been adapted from Dawn Foster's Yawn...Don't Let Boring Work Get You Down and Jeff Schmidt's 25 Tips to Avoid Career Burnout.

  • Visit other libraries-- But be aware that this may be a two-edged sword. I had a week of vacation--or rather, “staycation”--and only two days worth of books to read. I refused to go to my library on my time off, so I drove to the next nearest library in our reciprocal library system to check out books there. And I discovered some wonderful things. Smiling librarians, complimentary coffee, and a happy, peaceful ambiance. And in that moment, I realized that libraries are still wonderful places.
  • Read blogs/journals/magazines-- Although I have to agree with one of the librarians I interviewed in suggesting following blogs and articles from “regular Joe” librarians. Only reading inspiring stories from movers and shakers can be even more discouraging when your circumstances restrict your chances to do amazing things in your own library.

Some suggestions:

  • Join Publib listserv
  • Unshelved comic strip
  • A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language
  • The Society for Librarians' who say Motherf***er – LiveJournal
  • Sources outside the library: technology, popular culture, politics
  • Meditate, get a full night’s sleep, or exercise-- There are yoga moves you can do at your desk for a quick five-minute yoga routine.
  • Write down what bugs you or write down what inspires you-- Sit down and remember the reasons you got into this profession in the first place.
  • Discuss “standards of behavior” options with administration—Address standards for both for patrons and coworkers.
  • Hang out with other positive librarians-- In your library, in your system, or anywhere! I take my breaks in the children’s department, where they still enjoy working in libraries and are unaffected by the attitude of the rest of the library. Even though change is glacially slow, talking to similar-feeling people in other departments helps from feeling useless and isolated.
  • Find something to look forward to each day-- If I have to work on something that is less fun I make sure I also give myself time to work on something I like. And then there's chocolate.
  • Networking and doing public service and outreach activities-- These are key in keeping one's spirits up.
  • Does patron watching count?!-- Because it can be a great source of entertainment to get you through the day.
  • Attend conferences-- And remember that conference attendance can now often be digital. If you have computer savvy, attend the Second Life conference displays.
  • Be aware of your “External Voice”-- What you say and how you say it affects how others react to you. When you are at your angriest, say something nice or compliment others.
  • Find a new hobby or non-work related project-- Activities outside of work can help you unwind from a rough day at work.
  • Set improvement goals or pick up a new challenging project-- Try to refine the technical, computer-oriented side of what you do.
  • Change the way you do routine tasks-- You may discover a way that is more fun and more efficient!
  • Look for another job-- This gives you a chance to re-evaluate what you already have. And it may turn out that you like what you already have.

We all love to help patrons--remember to keep them in mind. Even in the course of interviewing other librarians for this article I found more kindred spirits--or at least others who share some of the same frustrations--and these little realizations help. Remember: you are not alone!

Works Cited

Eleanor Wood is a reference librarian in Illinois and has worked or volunteered in libraries most of her life. She loves to travel and always visits the libraries in far off-destinations.