Friday 27 June 2014

Are librarians burning out or fading away?

So, this article has been doing the rounds lately, offering advice to librarians on how to avoid burning out. It suggests such pearls of wisdom as:

- Reduce your commitments to a manageable level
- Allow for some "me time" every day
- Have some "non-library social time" at least once or twice a month
- Remember to breathe
- Don't be afraid to say "no".

Whilst these are all excellent pieces of advice in themselves, these are all basic survival skills that we've learnt by the time we've become adults. I find this article at worst patronising, and at best quite ridiculous.

To a non-librarian reading the article, they must be wondering what it is about librarianship that is stressing their professionals to the point of "burning out". I mean it's not like they're performing life-threatening surgery, or preparing massive amounts of paperwork for parliamentary or court proceedings, or teaching overcrowded classrooms full of 15 year olds who don't want to be there.

I learnt a long time ago never to suggest to a non-librarian that I was stressed out by work. They tend to laugh.

Furthermore, this article reinforces an unfortunate stereotype of librarians - as overzealous, highly-strung workaholics who are stressed out by something as seemingly banal as working a library (I mean, gosh, all those books!), who don't have time to take a moment to themselves, but at the same time find it difficult to socialise outside the bubble of the library industry - even once or twice a month!

[edit: somebody's pointed out to me that most people don't actually think librarians are workaholics. Which indicates to me that it's possibly more a perception that I've noticed from within the industry that librarians are often obsessed with their work and libraries, to the detriment to their mental wellbeing and social life. My point is that it's an idea perpetuated by the original article that I don't necessarily agree with!]

Really, who are these people?

That said, I certainly think that there are plenty of people who are drawn to this profession, because they're intelligent and creative, and want a job that works to their strengths without necessarily having to do a lot of "hard work". I'll totally admit that I was one of them.

However, wherever you go, work is work. The work doesn't care if you've got a masters degree, and that you're overqualified to do X & Y when you'd rather be doing Z. The work needs to be done, and it's not about you. This can be a shock to some people, especially when they've done the hard yards at university to become a professional in their field.

One thing is true - librarians do burn out. There are plenty of bitter and burnt librarians out there, I don't believe it has anything to being too busy and overcommitted; it's something else. Librarians are wannabe change agents. They see the new ways that the world is changing, the innovations in technology, and the paradigm shifts in how people use information, and they want to be immersed in that world. Their library could be an embodiment of that information utopia.

But it isn't. There's an information glass ceiling in libraries. We see the future, but we can't grasp it, whether it's due to a shortage of funding and resources, or stagnant prevailing attitudes, or simply the lack of skills to effect sustainable change

And so, being a librarian becomes a sisyphean task that if, left unchecked, can burn us all out.

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