I am excited to publish a co-written guest post today from a current LIS student and recent LIS graduate, Dylan Burns and Sarah Crissinger.
Dylan Burns is currently in his second year as a Library Science student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He works currently in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the Scholarly Commons, straddling both the new and the old in libraries. He shares his opinions on rare books, music and nostalgia at HackLibrarySchool.com as well as on Twitter @ForgetTheMaine.
In September 2015, we had a discussion on Twitter about how difficult it is to explain librarianship to our relatives and friends. We have titled this post the original tweet that started that conversation, as the discussion that day morphed into this piece. We hope our stories will resonate with other students and librarians who find burnout in not only explaining what they do but also in justifying why they do it.
“I felt really really tired of constantly trying to explain what we do, why we do it, and why it matters” ~Maria Accardi, “The Souls of Our Students, the Souls of Ourselves: Resisting Burnout through Radical Self-Care,” p. 15
I was a sophomore in college when I started working at my university’s library. I was an English major, already dreaming of a PhD in literature. The same fall I started staffing the reference desk, I somehow landed the opportunity to teach a semester-long class on adjusting to college life. There I was—a “peer instructor”—leading a class of twenty-five freshmen through study habits and career decisions. I found teaching unbelievably rewarding but also incredibly humbling. While I really connected with many of the students, I always felt like there were at least a few that I could not reach. At the same time, I was energized by my hectic reference shifts where I always learned something new without fail. I also noticed that the librarians I worked with held more in-depth consultations with students, which seemed to be the more one-on-one instruction that I so intensely craved in the course I was teaching.
After months of working through these feelings with my librarian-mentor, I decided to pursue librarianship. I must have sent her at least ten book-length e-mails about the MLS, the job market, and the work she did. I look back and I am still deeply grateful for her unwavering guidance and support.
The spring of my last year rolled around and I made the decision to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s LIS program. My news was accompanied by some news from my mentor; she was leaving librarianship. She had a second Master’s degree in another subject area that she wanted to pursue. I still remember asking her—this incredibly talented librarian whom I wanted so dearly to emulate—why. Why would she leave librarianship? I realize now that I was shielded from many of the behind-the-scenes events happening in my library and on my campus (as many of our undergraduate student assistants are). She looked at me squarely and said, “Sarah, it is unbelievably exhausting to have to continually explain what you do and why it has value.”
It has been three years and I think I finally know what she means.
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at noon I sit in a classroom with 15 undergrads in Latin class. For the first couple of days into the first few weeks I would get a similar question from the other students who are almost a decade younger than me, “you are in grad school…that is SO WEIRD.” It is weird. I did not come to library school thinking I would be a rare book librarian in training but it is more and more my calling and the thing that brings me to campus everyday.
Even in my classes, my interests and my skills are outside of the norm. I am brushing up on Latin, reading Western Theology books, listening to classical history podcasts while working exclusively with older patrons, PhD students and higher level scholars. The skills I was taught in my library graduate trainings courses hardly apply to the kinds of work I have been doing. Nowhere in “how to do reference interviews” are questions about the Koberger Bible troubleshot. As much as I feel like my focus is on the outside, conversations like this tell me that my concerns are closer to the norm rather than the outlier.
My friends and family have a really difficult time understanding the complexities of what contemporary librarianship is. Jokes like “Dylan is taking Shushing 101 in library school” got a little old.
A few months ago, I reflected on how difficult explaining my work to them was through a Hack Library School (HLS) post. After it was published, I got backlash from my family and friends. To them, pointing out how they “did not understand” what I do was calling them out. What I was really doing was showing how frustrating being a librarian, or a librarian in training, could be at times.
In talking with Sarah, and other librarians, I found that my frustrations were not narrowed only to my little subset of librarianship but to the field as a whole. Many do not know what a librarian does, even though they seem to need one on a daily basis.
Since then, I have explained to multiple family members and friends what librarianship is and why it matters. One of these conversations even devolved into me ranting about librarian stereotypes and the important work that Librarian Wardrobe and Nicole Pagowsky and Miriam Rigby have done to interrogate and disprove harmful assumptions about who librarians are and what they look like. I always find myself feeling markedly helpless in these conversations.
The feeling starts as pure frustration. Frustration that I cannot articulate exactly what I do, even after studying LIS for two years. Frustration that my position does not fit in a box as neatly as other professions or that it is not automatically recognized as a valuable calling, as a doctor or lawyer might be. This frustration builds to oversimplification. I want so badly to provide an explanation that resonates with them, and that reaffirms my value, that I often oversimplify the complexities of what I do and why it matters to me. This explanation usually does a disservice to information literacy, open access, copyright, and all of the other important aspects of my job. I am left feeling unimportant and incapable and the person I am talking to walks away knowing nothing useful about librarianship.
This phenomenon is, of course, powerfully connected to burnout. In some ways, I can stomach explaining to my grandmother that I do not actually read books to children but it becomes unbearable to have similar conversations on my own campus. While I do not necessarily have to go back to drawing board, there are still moments that I feel need an explanation of information literacy and why it is important. There is also a significant faculty-staff divide at my institution. After three months, it has become increasingly clear to me that there are some faculty members that do not understand my role as an instructor and do not trust my competency as an expert in information literacy and as a colleague in instructional design and pedagogy. They– my colleagues–need a convincing explanation just as much as one of my family members do.
I have found refuge in my team and professional community.
What is it about library school that leads to this kind of uncertainty?
There has certainly been a move toward making librarianship professional. For the most part, the MLS (or MSLIS whatever) is a requirement for our professional field. Currently, the University of Illinois is planning to remove the word “library” from our school name. (You can read current U of I students Brenna Murphy and Hailley Fargo talk about the change). In some ways, the school-formerly-known-as GSLIS believes that focusing on “information” is a way to bring relevance to our field on an already technology and science heavy campus.
I wonder if I would have wanted to attend an “information school.” Given this change, seemingly present all across the country, it really makes me wonder: why does librarianship feel the need to justify its own existence? In other words, why is it that librarianship is not viewed on the same level as other professional fields? Is it the money, it could be the power, or it the influence (or lack thereof)?
What if it is the difficulty with which our jobs are explained?
Sarah and I do wildly different jobs, and while I believe there are commonalities between the day-to-day tasks we perform, rare books and informational literacy are different fields in a larger profession. My classmates might be interested in different things or read different books but we are all librarians and all are united in having difficulty explaining what we do, whether that is children’s librarianship, archives, data management, IR work, information literacy, public librarianship, etc. etc.
The problem with our field, especially as new professionals and students, is that the public has preconceived notions of librarianship. The important, imperative work that both Sarah and I do, while part of the larger field of librarianship, does not line up with how librarianship is presented through media and culture. In fact, a majority of LIS jobs probably do not line up with the spinster shusher common on television and film.
The other day my friend told me that he was sure my job involved “unsticking the pages in the fine arts section of the library.”
What I do and what my friends and colleagues do is much more important and essential to the University and the world as a whole than people comprehend.
That is where burnout begins for me. I am not troubled by job prospects, and I am not troubled by the future of libraries. I am, though, beginning to be burned out by constantly justifying why I chose libraries, what interests me in the field, and why I do more than “unstick pages.”
Sarah & Dylan
How do we move forward? How do we tell others that our jobs, our careers, our callings are much more than “unsticking pages”?
We will not pretend to have any easy fixes for changing the perception of librarians overnight. We know that we must recognize the larger historical context of librarian stereotypes. We must also continue to support initiatives, particularly public-facing efforts, that reject librarian stereotypes. Mentoring and retaining diverse librarians is also an important step in contesting these harmful manifestations of the librarian stereotype.
We know for sure that our professional communities and networks become even more important and salient in these moments. We started talking about this topic on Twitter which, for us, has been a welcoming place for conversations with everyone, from newbies in the field to the librarian rock stars we look up to. When these concerns are expressed in a community, there becomes a space for encouragement and growth. For us, those interactions have been some of the most energizing and encouraging dialogues that we have experienced in the library world. They reaffirm that we are not alone.