An Invisible Threat: Compassion Fatigue in Libraries

Continuously, libraries have been pushed to evolve for relevancy’s sake. Although access to information continues to be a primary function of the library, we now fill and try to fill a whole host of other needs. From making things like prom dresses and cake pans available to checkout to designing and holding language classes and beyond, libraries—and public libraries in particular—have done everything to prove their worth. These actions come from a place of broadening definition of “information” and a genuine and charitable desire to satisfy actual needs in a community that go unsatisfied by organizations better suited to address them. This frequently leads to a culture as well as individual interactions that spark what’s known as empathy or compassion fatigue in libraries.

After so many charged interactions, even the best of us can get overwhelmed with the volume and degree of compassion required to serve our communities. While it’s easy to imagine therapists running into the issue of compassion fatigue, it might not be so obvious that library workers, too, deal with it regularly. 

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Merriam-Webster defines the term as “the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who take care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time” (in a medical context) and “apathy or indifference toward the suffering of others as the result of overexposure to tragic news stories and images and the subsequent appeals for assistance.” While library workers are not necessarily serving only individuals who are sick or traumatized, we often interact with individuals who are experiencing (or cause) sickness or trauma. 

How Does Compassion Fatigue in Libraries Manifest?

If you haven’t been to a library recently, you may be scratching your head as we jump into compassion fatigue in libraries looks like. Isn’t library work relaxing? Simply put, no. Increasingly, for reasons listed above and more, libraries have evolved and are now considered “community hubs,” where activity is vibrant, energetic, and creative. Meanwhile, we’re making the case for our existence, managing the public space, navigating office politics, and defending library user rights, among other things that take significant mental and emotional capacity.

With the library ideal being access to all, this means we get all types through our doors. Kids and teens who are experiencing hard times at home and school visit the library as a safe space. People experiencing homelessness, who frequently deal with untreated mental illness, physical illness, drug dependency, and other challenges. Elderly individuals who have little in the way of social interaction visit the library or call in. And, of course, folks without any apparent additional struggles may visit the library to ask for assistance to find information regarding trauma. One library worker, Janelle Ortiz, wrote, “Public libraries have a unique role in that we aren’t social workers, but we encounter many people who need our help and come to us expecting relief. Feeling like we can only do so much becomes demoralizing when the experiences are more and more frequent.” We are neither equipped nor did we sign up for this kind of work, but engaging in it as a result of compassion leads to compassion fatigue.

Other times, we are in a position that requires us to put on our nicest front for angry customers. Another library worker who prefers to remain anonymous wrote about when a customer’s materials were inadvertently placed in a return bin while the customer browsed. When she returned and found the materials missing, “she shouted and cursed at [staff], threatening to call the cops, [and] the local newspaper…” Although staff rectified the situation immediately, “From that day forward, I have been terrified of her. I have a physical reaction to seeing her. So, I resolved never to give her a reason to shout at me again. When she comes in, I drop everything and give her my undivided attention, never letting her or her possessions out of my sight…” Since then, the library worker noted it’s a pattern: “Roughly every third month, she tells me a story of someone else not performing to her expectations in some way, a perceived slight, or some other incident. She’ll acknowledge that she lost her temper, but of course the other party was by far in the wrong.” Listening to these stories is an act of emotional labor and the anonymous worker has seen that instinct grow: “I have so much compassion for her. Her circumstances are extremely difficult, bordering on dire. When it snows badly, I think of her and wonder if it would be appropriate to go shovel her drive or dig out her car.”

This drive for library staff to go above and beyond is fueled by several things, but perhaps most strongly by what’s called “vocational awe.” Coined by academic librarian Fobazi Ettarh, the term “refers to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred and therefore beyond critique.” Circumstances like the anonymous worker described are part of upholding the idea that libraries are “good and sacred.” Why help the customer find information on local plow services when we can shovel their driveway ourselves? We’re here to serve and serving is good. 

An important line from Ettarh’s essay that warrants highlighting: “If libraries are sacred spaces, then it stands to reason that its workers are priests. …If librarians are priests then their primary job duty is to educate and to save.” She later adds, “All of these librarians set the expectation that the fulfillment of job duties requires sacrifice (whether that sacrifice is government intimidation or hot coals), and only through such dramatic sacrifice can librarians accomplish something “bigger than themselves.” This is especially true for women, especially for women of color, meaning these populations are potentially at additional risk of compassion fatigue.

If we are meant to be managers of information and “information” is “knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction,” and one can get information about anything, it becomes increasingly difficult to draw the line between pointing folks in the direction of the information they need and (with a number of steps between) simply completing the task for the patron (which some customers, particularly in computer assistance, will demand). 

We find ways to make whatever service we provide fall under the guise of “information,” often because we have compassion for customers who cannot or will not complete the task themselves. Some customers, unwilling to do things themselves, will become upset when we don’t do the thing for them (apply for a job, type up a document, etc.). People are unpredictable and since we cannot know who may become unreasonable in these scenarios, workers fall into this additional labor out of compassion or for fear of being verbally—or worse—abused, even at our own long-term detriment. The pressure to perform these tasks only gets worse while constantly under the threat of budget, hours of operation, and staff cuts. The anonymous worker closed out his story with, “So there it is. I feel responsible to have compassion for someone who terrifies me.” No wonder we’re fatigued.

I’ve heard stories of these from library workers and experienced many of these other events that can cause compassion fatigue myself, and more than once: drug overdoses, mental episodes, actual and arguable child abuse, fights, customer-to-staff abuse, children lining up for lunches provided in the summer (and denying those too old to qualify), customers struggling to pay fines, kids disclosing trauma, rude and entitled customers, customers of all prejudices, and one coworker told me about a regular library kid who was shot in a drive-by while sitting outside her apartment across the street and how the trauma of that event bled into the library. 

Consequences of Compassion Fatigue

The consequences of compassion fatigue in library workers is real. Burnout is an obvious one. Library workers may quit or do the minimum of actual/traditional duties to save their energy for compassion work. This means customers then experience subpar service. Janelle Ortiz noted: “If we have continuous negative reactions in certain circumstances we may become defensive or reluctant to help when faced with similar events in the future, instead of compassionate and inclined to help.” Meanwhile, along with burnout, we see mental and body health deterioration. When both the customers and the staff are suffering as a result of compassion fatigue, it is essential we do something about it. Now is the time. Yesterday was the time.

Potential Solutions

Note that this is not an exhaustive list, nor will every potential solution fit every scenario or library worker. 

Systemic Solutions Outside the Library

We need more funding for community services and programs, more people staffing them, more marketing and outreach around them, and to make them accessible. Library workers will not have to extend themselves unnecessarily if the needs as described above are more appropriately met by people trained and equipped to do so. Of course, the question is: where do we get the money to do this? Who knew that defunding the police could benefit both overworked and overextended library workers and police officers?

Systemic Solutions Within the Library Circle

Fobazi Ettarh started an excellent conversation on vocational awe, and we must continue it in the library “industry.” We must deconstruct and make an effort to eliminate that awe, both in ourselves and in our customers. 

Relatedly, we must stop trying to solve things that aren’t ours to solve. Too often, we fall into the trap of being social workers, babysitters, medics, therapists, lawyers, and whatever else the public needs. We are constantly giving all of ourselves and more because we have the skill to find information and feel that we must also apply the information we have to perform our compassion.

We must also educate on what a library does. Too often, I encounter people who are surprised that to use a public library in the United States is free (or, more accurately, funded by taxes and other sources and does not require a membership fee). If folks are not aware of this most simple and crucial fact, how can we expect them to understand our service boundaries? Effective education on the functions of the library is essential to curbing compassion fatigue.

Library Systems

Within library systems, administration can consider what they can offer their patrons—beyond meaningless stress balls and occasional yoga workshops—to help employees limit and manage compassion fatigue. There are plenty of materials about how to build morale, but a few ideas: ensure staff can count on their supervisors to back them up, encourage and model the use of time off, personally work with the public, proactively check in with your staff, and ensure staff safety (ahem, COVID-19 library responses).

Library Workers

While library staff work on getting supervisors, the field, and the community on board, they can also be proactive in gauging their managers’ willingness to back them up, take time off, do actual self-care, connect with their union if they have one, and keep a log of positive and energizing interactions or interactions (it takes five positive interactions to outweigh a single negative one).

Patrons

In normal times, there are other ways patrons can help—be kind, always; please be patient; consider what resources might better suit your needs (we’re happy to help you figure that out and research options!); and, ultimately, remember that library workers are human.

Moving Forward

Whether stemming from a stream of some kind of abuse or another or from a tendency to put too much heart into our work, compassion fatigue is a threat to libraries. We must recognize it and act to eliminate it to ensure staff wellbeing and the most excellent service we can offer to our communities. Some steps may seem obvious, but with more conversation on compassion fatigue in libraries, I’ve no doubt that we will continue to come up with innovative and effective solutions to this challenge.