Librarianship and Burnout

It was so unexpected that I didn’t even realize when it came – burnout. It may very well be the case that I need a vacation since this summer has been quite hectic. It wouldn’t hurt to prioritize all the tasks and projects on my to-do list to make my work plan more realistic and reasonable. But there is also this nagging feeling that seems to contribute to my burnout, which I suspect may not be easily cured by a vacation or a re-prioritized work-plan.

Despite my two years of experience as a professional librarian, I have doubts about what a librarian should be and questions about who I am as a librarian. The fact that librarians do so many different things and yet can be all called “a librarian” doesn’t help dispel my confusion. What do librarians share other than the fact that they all work at a library building and somehow contribute to a library’s daily operation and they all went through the MLS program at one point? What a cataloger does is so different from the daily work of an instruction librarian just as the work of a web services librarian doesn’t overlap at all with the everyday work of an inter-library loan librarian. What ties these individuals together as one group – a group of librarians?

Fire hose turned on the fire by Oregon State University Archives.

Fire hose turned on the fire by Oregon State University Archives on Flickr.

I know this is a trite answer. But it seems to me that the family resemblance of all librarians, to borrow Wittgenstein’s term, is not so much the nature of individual librarians’ work as a shared belief and faith: the belief that information and knowledge is to be treasured and someone must work to deliver and preserve this information and knowledge accumulated throughout human history to the public, the faith that access to information and knowledge is a basic human right and it should be equally provided to anyone who desires to learn. If someone asks what I do and asks again what that means when I reply that I am a librarian, this is the answer that I should give rather than enumerating all the mundane things like setting up e-resources for a trial, filling out the paperwork for my grant project, updating web pages, and going to lots of meetings.

The problem is that this belief and the faith that are at the core of librarianship are often lost to a librarian’s view who has to battle with bureaucracy, red tapes, indifference, and often the lack of understanding, support, and recognition, in order to get seemingly the most mundane things done. But at heart, librarians are ideologues and dreamers, ideologues who do their legwork, dreamers who do act upon their dreams, sometimes to the degree that leads to the loss of the sight of their collective identity.

I always loved librarianship because of its practicality. But making the practicality coexist with the belief, the faith, and the ideology of librarianship side by side is not an easy task at all.

I have turned to librarians on Twitter for advice and have received 17 amazingly wise and helpful answers ranging from the suggestion of a new author to read and the recommendation of a hearty portion of ice cream and chocolate to the quite sound advice that I could be digging the ditches instead (quite true!). I am sharing them here for other librarians suffering from burnout like mine.

What is a scientist after all? It is a curious man looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of nature, trying to know what's going on. by alicia rae.

depends on source of burnout;often reading profl lit recharges, other stuff (leadership lit 4 me) to reconnect. &convos w/ peeps.

change jobs/roles so that you’re not doing the same thing over & over (why I became a manager instead of continuing w reference)

part of it’s realizing burnout happens to all. accept it & put energy elsewhere, you’ll end up w/ new perspective

think about what u can let go of that isn’t interesting or v. important. Keep working on at least 1 thing that is exciting to u.

remember there is always another larger, more interesting problem to tackle, and don’t be distracted by the mundane

@ranti Vacation? What’s that? That’s the weekend, right?

@ ranti
vacation(s), do variety of stuff, go walk and eat a bowl of ice cream. 😉

examining the WHY I am doing something helps make the HOW I am doing it more relevant & energized

remember that it’s just a job. In 100 years from now, someone else will be doing it. Keep some distance & perspective. 😉

perspective, new challenges, great colleagues and working environment 🙂

Find someone with a diverging viewpoint about what I do or am passionate about (metadata). Gets the juices running again.

Talking to library school students helps sometimes – they still remember why they want to do this 🙂

take the vacation time you get and use it for non-work/library stuff. have hobbies & interests outside work.

Hang around positive people. Make our home a sanctuary. Also, I take responsibility for my choices. And Cats. And Chocolate.

I remind myself that I could be digging ditches…

I always try to keep looking a different things…If I spend too long on one thing I tend to get bored and tired!

Try to remain positive and passionate to the profession. Reading anything written by Alberto Manguel helps

About Bohyun (Library Hat)

Bohyun Kim is the Associate University Librarian for Library Information Technology at the University of Michigan Library. Formerly, she was the Chief Technology Officer and Professor at the University of Rhode Island Libraries.
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4 Responses to Librarianship and Burnout

  1. Emily says:

    Wow–are we all having the same burnout and crises at the same time? I blogged it a few weeks back, Kim reflected, and Char did, too. Thanks for posting these responses, they help me, too!

    Kim’s Post:

    My post:

    Char’s Post:

  2. Library Hat says:

    Hi Emily, Thanks for the links! These are some great write-ups. I hope you are getting your mojo back soon. I was amazed how so suddenly I felt completely exhausted. In my case, a lot of it had to do with administrative duties that were necessary for some of my projects to make progress but nevertheless still exhausting and time-consuming. I was not having enough time to work on the project that I really enjoy doing and was being frustrated everyday by the fact that I had to put it off over and over again. I am realizing that I will just have to discipline my schedule so that I can always have time to devote myself on librarian-y things that I most enjoy doing. This will hopefully help remind myself why I chose to be a librarian. Someone told me to think a career in librarianship as a marathon. I am glad the advice I got from other librarians helped you too!

  3. StevenB says:

    You might find that reading this article from a few years back will reinvigorate you by reminding you why it is so great to be an academic librarian:

    I would liken it not so much to a marathon but a series of hills and valleys. Sometimes you are going up the hill or at the top – and things are great – but other times, for whatever the reason, you are in the valley and it’s hard to see when things will be good again. I think just understanding that, being aware of it, confronting it, and being all right with it – is a good way to manage the long-term career (and I’ve been at this for 30+ years now.

    You can read more about the idea of hills and valleys here – plus the comments:

    Best wishes for getting back up the hill.

  4. Library Hat says:

    Steven, thank you so much for your thoughtful advice and for recommending your articles. They were such good readings for me. I think the valleys and the hills are the great metaphor for the librarian career. Thanks again! : )

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