Emotional labor and library instruction

I’m having a complicated tangle of thoughts about library instruction burnout, and I’m hoping that a regular writing regimen, using this blog as a platform, will help me work through these thoughts. Right now, my thoughts involve the interconnectedness of things like the concept of emotional labor (work that requires an external display of positive emotions that may be in conflict with the worker’s real actual internal emotions, see Hochschild, 2003), the role of affect in the formation of teacher identity, the necessity of a self-care practice for those engaged in the emotional labor of teaching, and how peculiar it is to me that, as far as I am able to determine, hardly anyone really officially talks about this entanglement when talking about instruction librarianship.

For example: consider the ACRL Standards for Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators: A Practical Guide. I have consulted this document regularly since its 2007 publication to help guide my practice and professional development, as well as the professional development of the librarians who teach in the program I coordinate. As the document itself states, “This document is intended to help instruction librarians define and gain the skills needed to be excellent teachers in library instruction programs and to foster collaborations necessary to create and improve information literacy programs.” And it pretty much does just that. The Standards address things like administrative skills, curriculum knowledge, presentation skills, etc.

But it seems to me that an essential skill for being an instruction librarian or instruction coordinator is the ability to regulate the complicated emotions that are inevitably part of being a teacher. Julien and Genuis (2009) describe the results of a qualitative study of Canadian academic and public librarians involved in instructional work: “A full range of affective experiences were manifest in the diary and interview data” (p. 929). Study participants reported a wide range of emotions, ranging from pleasure and enthusiasm to more negative emotions, such as frustration and disappointment. As the authors note, “the teaching experience is not always a joyful one” (p. 930). Julien and Genuis conclude with the observation that “individuals and organizations will benefit from considering the influence of emotional labour on library staff with instructional duties” (p. 934).

So why aren’t skills related to negotiating the emotional labor of teaching just as essential as presentation skills or leadership skills? The absence of these skills in the Standards—indeed, the actual invisibility of the reality of affect in the Standards—seems to me to resonate with the anxiety Julien and Genuis’s study participants reported about the “visibility or invisibility of instructional outcomes” (p. 931). The participants struggled with the feeling that their teaching efforts didn’t matter, because the nature of the one-shot library instruction model means that you rarely have “tangible proof” that a student actually learned something. In short, instruction librarians battle the negative emotions of feeling invisible in many ways, and at the same time, the official professional document that purports to formalize the skills we need to be good instruction librarians further invisibilizes us by completely ignoring the central role of affect in instructional work.

However, I am ready to make visible the skills we need to negotiate the very real emotional labor of instruction librarianship. In the coming weeks, I want to explore my hunch that one way of coping with library instruction burnout is validating the reality of having complicated feelings about the work we do and identifying ways of negotiating these complicated feelings.


Julien, H., & Genuis, S. K. (2009). Emotional labour in librarians’ instructional work. Journal of Documentation, 65(6), 926-937.


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