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I’m Not a Superhero: The Stress of Library Work

Katie McLain

Contributing Editor

Katie's parents never told her "no" when she asked for a book, which was the start of most of her problems. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Lake Forest College and is working towards a master's degree in library science at U of I. She works full time at a public library reference desk in northern IL, specializing in readers’ advisory and general book enthusiasm, and she has a deep-rooted love of all things disturbing, twisted, and terrifying. (She takes enormous pleasure in creeping out her coworkers.) When she's not spending every waking hour at the library, she's at home watching Cubs baseball with her cats and her cardigan collection, and when she's not at home, she's spending too much money on concert tickets. Her hobbies include debating the finer points of Harry Potter canon, hitting people upside the head who haven’t read The Martian, and convincing her boyfriend that she can, in fact, fit more books onto her shelves. Twitter: @kt_librarylady

A few weeks ago, I saw an article floating around on Twitter called Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves by Fobazi Ettarh, and I urge you to read it. It’s a more academic article, but it talks about how we talk about libraries, librarians, and their roles within their respective communities. There’s a lot to unpack here about library history, lack of diversity, and the librarian’s perceived role in society, but the most poignant part for me was the section titled “Martyrdom is not a long-lasting career.” And as I read the article, I thought about my job, the stress of library work, and the image of the librarian as an unsung community superhero.

Other Duties as Assigned

Both within and outside of the profession, we expect a lot from our friendly neighborhood librarians. Not only are libraries tasked with providing more services for their communities using continually shrinking budgets, but librarians are being asked to take on responsibilities that far outweigh “Other Duties as Assigned.” To use an extreme example, library employees in cities from Philadelphia to Denver have become certified to administer life-saving medication to people who have overdosed on opioids. I can guarantee you that no librarian signs up for grad school thinking “Maybe I should get some life-saving emergency aid training under my belt.”

And even outside of this extreme example, librarians have to wear a towering stack of hats when they’re at work. In my own job, I provide technology assistance, research assistance, readers’ advisory, and notary services, and those are just the roles outlined in my job description. We also have a significant number of patrons who require social services that address issues such as homelessness, counseling, mental illness, unemployment, and drug dependency. Sometimes these people are just looking for resources, but sometimes they come to the library hoping that the library employees themselves can solve their problem.

On the one hand, I’m glad that they trust that they can go to their public library to have their needs taken care of, and if we can’t directly assist them, we have a list of resources and community organizations that can. On the other hand, when I first started library work, I had no idea how exhausting it can be to have so many people expect so much from you.

This may be the point where I start to lose some of the librarian readers who say that we have to wear these hats because we’re vital figures in our communities, and it’s our job to provide these services (and more) to the people who need them. I heartily agree. I believe in the values of librarianship with every fiber of my being, and even though I have written publicly about some of the problems I’ve seen within the library world, I still love my profession. I fully believe this was the job I was meant to have. It gives me purpose and direction and warm fuzzies. But it also can take a seriously negative toll on our mental health.

Library Burnout

As much as I want to be a helpful, prominent figure in my library’s community, I only have so much of myself that I can give every day before I start to feel exhausted, anxious, and overwhelmed. I’ve come home in tears after busy days because there were so many people who needed something from me, who needed my attention, my compassion, my ability to seemingly work miracles.

I like to think that I can successfully help people at least 95% of the time, but as more patrons leave with their needs fulfilled, I’m often stuck at the Reference Desk, exhausted, yet waiting for the next patron who needs a so-called “computer genius,” a smile, or a social worker. That’s not even taking into consideration the negative incidents that can crop up when I’m on desk, such as medical emergencies, fights, or varying degrees of sexual harassment. All of these situations require me to respond with promptness, and professionalism, often while still trying to simultaneously assist the person in front of me.

My job isn’t like this every day, but I do find myself spending a lot of time withdrawn from my friends, my fiancé, and my other responsibilities because I’ve given away so much of myself that I have nothing left for anyone else, least of all me.

And yet when I hear librarians talk about their work, or I hear people talking about the work of librarians in general, it’s with the language that librarians are the community superheroes. We’re expected to do more—be more—all while maintaining a perpetually engaged, enthusiastic appearance. Some librarians may draw energy and satisfaction from this role. If you are one of them, then more power to you. I wish I could be like that all the time. But I can’t.

And the worst part is that if you do start feeling personally overwhelmed, it’s extremely difficult to stand up and say “I’m sorry, I can’t give any more.” We can’t take a break when our communities need us and when there’s such an implied high bar that’s been set by our profession. Plus, if the librarian next to us is persevering through a similarly stressful situation, who are we to say that we need a break?

Superheroes Can Take Breaks Too

I don’t want librarians to start doing less, but what I want is honest discourse about what we as professionals need in order to keep doing our jobs well, and what changes we can advocate for so that librarians don’t have to become literal lifesavers to give their work more value. It’s okay to acknowledge our bad days, our profession’s persistent problems, or your need for some pre-planned time away from the library. On our best days, we can feel like superheroes, but we need to remind ourselves that we’re still human. We don’t have to be superheroes all the time.

*Editor’s Note: The author of “Vocational Awe and Librarianship” was named in this piece after its publication.