I am pleased to present another guest post this week at librarianburnout.com. This story comes from Elle, who completed her MLIS in 2012.
When I reflect upon the way I felt during my first year as an instruction librarian, I realize that during that year, I felt a lot of the same feelings that function as signals that a relationship is not healthy. I started out enthusiastic, happy, and passionate, and ended up emotionally drained, confused, and alone. As is often the case when a relationship ends, it’s taken me some time to be able to begin untangling the various aspects of the situation in order to make sense of what went wrong.
At some point during the past several years, I started thinking of my work as a kind of relationship. Work, like a relationship or partnership, requires a mutual commitment, along with a significant investment of effort and energy from both sides. As is the case in a partnership (intimate or otherwise), in order for a relationship between an employee and an organization to be successful, both parties must feel that they benefit or are enriched in some way in order for the arrangement to be worthwhile. Healthy relationships and partnerships involve giving and receiving; we may give freely and happily, but in order to sustain our ability to give, we must receive something in return. Likewise, for people who genuinely care about the work that they do and the quality their work, work involves a great deal of emotional energy, and if that energy does not elicit results that allow that energy to be recharged and strengthened, our ability to care about our work slowly, inevitably burns out.
My first job as a professional librarian was a part-time position in a learning commons at a local not-for-profit career college. My official title was Academic Resource Coordinator, which meant that I had some role in all of the services that the learning commons offered, which included writing center services, tutoring services, and library services, among other things. Library instruction was just one thing on a long list of learning support services that the learning commons was responsible for providing to the campus. I was aware that the learning commons model presents a set of challenges for academic libraries, but having heard the message of “embrace change” that seemed to be the rallying cry of academic librarians throughout my time as a student in library school, I was prepared to do just that. Thus, I entered my new role with a mindset similar to what I think lays the foundation of a successful relationship: I was unreservedly committed, optimistic, aware of the challenges and opportunities the situation presented, and I genuinely wanted it to be successful.
Sadly, it turned out that making a commitment to the job and genuinely wanting to be successful in the job was not enough. At first, I felt like something was just…missing. I didn’t feel great about my instruction sessions, for a number of reasons. Instruction sessions were routinely scheduled just a few hours ahead of time, which meant that I got very little time to prepare, and practically no opportunity to communicate with instructors regarding their expectations for the session. Even more problematic was the fact that the instructors’ expectations for library instruction sessions were beyond reasonable for the 30 minutes that was the standard amount of time that a session was scheduled for. In addition to talking about locating and evaluating sources, I was expected to discuss not just citing sources, but the actual formatting of in-text citations and references, along with things like paraphrasing, avoiding plagiarism, and so on.
I slowly began to realize that I was pouring my emotional and intellectual energy into a service—library instruction—that appeared to be little more than an afterthought to the college. I didn’t feel confident that I could really provide a very high quality instruction session for which I had little notice, little time to prepare, and so on. Early on, I saw these issues as process-related things that could be and should be remedied at the department level. But as time went on, I began to get the sense that there was a culture of indifference towards library instruction that went beyond the ways that the learning commons managed its workflow. Instructors expected a lot from the sessions (e.g., searching strategies, citing sources, avoiding plagiarism, APA formatting) but didn’t see any need to contact the learning commons within a reasonable amount of time to schedule a session ahead of time, and these attitudes had apparently been unchallenged by the administration. The head of the learning commons, who had previously served as dean of general education at this same college, seemed generally unconcerned about scheduling sessions on extremely short notice, as though it hadn’t really occurred to her that inadequate time to prepare might compromise the quality of library instruction sessions.
And then, there was the worst part of all: A significant number of the students were woefully underprepared to use computers independently, so teaching anything about locating, evaluating, and synthesizing sources was, for the most part, out of the question. Once, toward the beginning of one of my sessions, a student asked a question about accessing library resources off-campus, which is a reasonable technical question for a library instruction session. After answering this, without giving much thought to what kinds of responses I might get, I asked the class if anyone else had any similar questions. One student raised her hand, and asked if I could show them how to email an assignment to the instructor, which turned into an overview of saving and uploading documents. On a different occasion, I spent an entire session answering questions about Microsoft Word and discussing workarounds that students could use if they did not have access to Microsoft Word off-campus.
Basic computer literacy and technological readiness for college-level coursework are issues that I think should probably get more attention from the field of academic librarianship broadly; at the very least, these issues are deserving of a separate blog post. Suffice it to say that for me, as an instruction librarian, it was disorienting and disheartening that the college seemed either unaware or unconcerned about this. It seemed like the college was okay with treating library instruction as a kind of catch-all service that would, in theory, fill in the gaps in students’ computer skills, information skills, critical thinking skills, and communication skills (e.g., what does it mean to paraphrase another person’s words?). Paradoxically, even though library instruction seemed to be viewed as a one-stop shop service, it was treated inconsiderately and with little respect, as evidenced by the fact that instructors wanted sessions on extremely short notice, with the expectation that sessions would be not much more than 30 minutes long. (I was once told, off the record, that the 30 minute thing had been put in place by the administration, which wanted to hold instructors accountable for making appropriate use of their classroom time with their students.)
It didn’t take long before I became aware that I was expending a significant amount of energy attempting to mask the negative emotions that I was feeling about my work. I developed canned responses to use when people asked me how things were going, and if was I liking my job. I regularly took time before the start of my work day to “get in to character” so as to be able to present in an appropriate manner. I developed a cognitive protocol that I intentionally activated when I found myself in situations where, either during reference duty or during an instruction session, I felt unpleasant emotions welling up. It was exhausting. But I pressed on, until I couldn’t. For me, the tipping point came when I began to feel like my commitment to the quality of my work and the energy and passion that I had for it just simply did not matter: The fact that I cared about the quality and effectiveness of library instruction sessions was, at best, at odds with the college’s view of library instruction, and at worst, probably worked against me. I mean, if I hadn’t cared about the quality of my sessions, it probably would not have bothered me that I got little notice and virtually no time to prepare. If I didn’t view information literacy as essential to a valuable undergraduate education, it likely would not have mattered to me that I didn’t really get to teach it. The fact that I cared was my downfall.
Clearly, there were a number of different things going on in this situation, all of which worked together to create a situation that I ultimately felt that I could not stay in and care adequately for my emotional well-being. For me, I think these issues created a situation in which I did not feel needed: If what is needed for library instruction services is simply someone who will show up, answer computer-usage questions, and give very cursory overviews of basic information strategies, then all they really needed was someone with basic computer skills. They didn’t really need someone with an MLIS and an understanding of information literacy, and they certainly didn’t need me, an individual with a unique approach to teaching and a genuine passion for quality education. In this situation, it became clear to me that what was needed was someone who was willing to give a great deal and take on lots of responsibilities, but who would understand and accept that they shouldn’t ask for much of anything in return. One day, it suddenly hit me: If this were a relationship, I would be a complete fool to continue to invest my energy and my time into such a relationship.
I left the learning commons voluntarily after one year. I felt depleted and disillusioned; I felt like I just did not have very much left to give, and I had begun to question my goals of becoming a full-time academic librarian. So, for now, I’m unattached; I’m working on a number of academic-library related groups and projects, none of which involve a full-fledged relationship with any one institution.
That having been said, I have not abandoned hope of somehow finding my way back to a meaningful role in an academic library setting, although the thought of being responsible for a significant amount of in-person library instruction really does not appeal to me. My hope is that I can find a way to contribute to increased institutional awareness of the importance of information literacy and the value that academic libraries can add to the quality of education that students receive. I think that working as an instruction librarian—that is, delivering one-shot instruction sessions—is an important first step in joining the field-wide effort to enhance instruction librarians’ roles on college and university campuses. It could even be argued that conditions like those I experienced in my first library instruction position—being responsible for providing instruction sessions with little or no notice, not having an office to work in, or an opportunity to do any instruction-related work away from the reference desk—are to be expected and endured because these experiences are prerequisites to gaining better, more “academic” positions in the future. I am concerned, though, that the costs associated with positions like these outweigh the potential benefits that *might* accompany different roles that an instruction librarian *might* have the opportunity to pursue later on in his or her career. Unfortunately, as anyone who has been in the market for an academic library job knows, we mostly do not get to choose to go only to institutions where we can be reasonably confident that we will be valued. Many of us, especially those of us who are relatively new to the field, have to take whatever experience we can get and try to create a path towards securing our ideal roles and positions. But if, for whatever reason, we end up at institutions willing to treat master’s degree-level people as little more than matchsticks, to be burned through and discarded, then the process of getting the required experience can be extremely costly. As a relative newcomer to the field, I was not at all prepared for the harsh realities of the one library instruction position that I was able to secure as a recent graduate. I suspect that I am not alone in this. I think it would be appropriate for us, as a field of educators, to ask ourselves whether we are adequately preparing students in our field for the broad range of library instruction positions and responsibilities that they might encounter.
 This feeling was especially jarring given the job-search process and subsequent interview process that I experienced on my path towards securing this job, which is a topic that is deserving of far more discussion. For now, I will simply say that while there are many factors that impact the job market at any given time, and individual institutions do not control the job market, institutions can control the interview process that they subject applicants to. If what is needed for a library instruction position is someone who will show up, answer computer-usage questions, and give very cursory overviews of basic information strategies, then the interview process should reflect that. It is absurd for an institution to subject a candidate to an academic-esque interview process for a position that will not allow that employee to do anything academic whatsoever.