Making choices to keep burnout at bay

The spring semester is usually not as hectic for me, and this spring has seemed even calmer than usual. My mood is better; I feel consistently happier. This morning I was trying to figure out why this semester feels better than previous springs, and I realized: BECAUSE I AM DELIBERATELY MAKING CHOICES TO KEEP IT THAT WAY. I’m sorry/not sorry for the all caps, but it is important for me to realize, and to document, the ongoing impact of deliberate self-care: my life feels better. This isn’t an accident of fate or circumstance. It is, for the most part, ME.

Here are some things that I’ve been doing to care for myself and keep burnout at bay.

  1. Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). Originally designed for people with borderline personality disorder, which I do not have, this is an approach to therapy that involves learning and applying various skills, and the mindfulness skills have been especially invaluable to me. The realization that I don’t have to judge my feelings, or judge any kind of event, was liberating. You mean I don’t actually have to freak out and panic when something goes wrong, or when a stressor is getting me down, or when I can’t find a parking spot in front of my house, or when my wife emails me a grocery list to shop for on my way home and it has 79 items on it? I actually don’t! It’s amazing! These things that cause stress or worsen my mood are just things. I try to observe and describe them as though I were a scientist conducting a study instead of attaching myself to them and getting all worked up.
  2. Saying no to things. This something I’ve been working on continually, and I’m seeing the results. For example: for the past few years, I’ve taught as an adjunct in various departments on campus, in addition to my actual full-time job. This counts as overload pay, which is certainly very helpful, but it is very, very tiring and taxing on multiple levels. Last fall, I taught 200-level research writing, and the stress of this, on top of everything else, made me realize that the extra money was not worth the heartache and despair. I was fortunate that my domestic life was in a place where I could say no to extra teaching, and the extra income, in the future, and so that’s what I decided. The relief is amazing. I have more room in my life and in my head for other things, things that feed me more.
  3. Praying the Daily Office. I started doing this on Dec. 31 of last year, because you don’t actually have to wait until Jan. 1 to start a new habit, as it turns out. I use this little book, excerpted from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I do morning prayer and compline (bedtime) without fail daily. I do noonday prayer 95 percent of the time. Evening prayer is hit or miss, because it’s at a challenging time of day for me. Sometimes for noonday prayer I use the New Zealand version, because their Anglican prayer book is gorgeous. The Daily Office feels like this little nimbus of protection that follows me around and holds my day together.
  4. 30 minute daily walks, five days a week, weather permitting. The liberating stress-relief of walking cannot be understated. I do a lot of my walking during the day as a part of my lunch break. (Oh, yes, actually taking lunch breaks, prioritizing that time and protecting it, and not just scarfing down my lunch at my desk–this matters, too.). I listen to podcasts, and I know I’m probably the last person to realize this, but y’all, podcasts are SO COOL. I’m obsessed with Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast as of late. I’m also a big fan of The History Chicks. I feel purposeful and alive when I walk. I find myself unconsciously improving my posture when I walk, holding myself straighter, head held higher. I feel like I am a real person in the world and it is a fantastic feeling.
  5. Quiet time. In the morning, after waking up and saying morning prayer with my wife, I spend about 30 minutes writing in my journal, reading, or listening to music. To me, this is a self-care variation of the idea of paying yourself first; not only do I contribute to my retirement account, but I also contribute to my ME account. (Million dollar idea: put this on a bumper sticker and sell it.) Instead of jumping out of bed and rushing to begin my day and get to work, I move more slowly, deliberately. My time is mine, and I am going to feed myself before giving my time to work. I try to do quiet time in the evening, too, with dim lighting and soothing music and more journal writing (which includes gratitude journaling), to help me wind down and mentally prepare to end the day and sleep, although sometimes evening TV watching gets in the way of evening quiet time. Working on it!

These have been regular practices and habits since the beginning of the new year, and they are working. And I know that my life privileged enough so that I can do a lot of these things. I don’t have to figure out child care; my work-life is very flexible and I have a lot of freedom. I recognize the privilege I have that allows me to structure my life in this way. And I should note that my life isn’t perfect; I’m not super happy 100 percent of the time. I still have stress and worry and anxiety. But the difference is that these things don’t rule me as much as they used to. I feel more in charge of my life; I feel more steady and even. I find myself singing to myself one of my favorite lines from Hamilton, in “The Schuyler Sisters.” “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” I feel less dread; I feel more distant from burnout. I feel powerful, and this is a very, very good feeling indeed.

Here and Now: Buddhism, Mindfulness, and Burnout–A Guest Post from Jessica Olin

Mishka The Buddhist
source

Today’s guest post is from Jessica OlinJessica Olin is a Buddhist. She is also the Director of the Robert H. Parker Library at Wesley College in Dover, DE. Her professional interests include building communities at liberal arts college libraries, bringing the lessons of intersectional feminism to bear in professional settings, and helping others bridge the gap between library science graduate programs and professional practice. She blogs regularly at Letters to a Young Librarian and tweets (somewhat obsessively) at @olinj.


 

Last year, I wrote a post on my blog about the routines I’ve built to avoid burning out professionally. Shortly afterward, Maria approached me about writing a guest post. In her invitation, she said something that struck me as particularly apt:

“I would to love publish something by you on my burnout blog that is a closer look at the role meditation and Buddhism plays in your life as it relates to burnout prevention and/or recovery. My hunch is that there is a spiritual dimension to burnout that people don’t really talk about that much, so I’m eager to shine some light on that.”

A lot of things got in the way of me following up on my promise to write that post, such as a crushingly busy Fall semester, but I think the biggest hurdle for me was my uncertainty about how to approach the topic. I tried multiple times, from a lot of different angles, before I finally realized there is a slight disconnect between how Maria phrased her request and my actual religious practice.

You see, for me, Buddhism isn’t spirituality. At least not my personal definition of that word, which in my mind gets at mysticism and deities and following dictates handed down from long long ago. That isn’t how I practice Buddhism. For me, Buddhism is practical. It’s almost like a coastal map that helps me avoid shoals and reefs. If you’re really interested in a history lesson about the evolution of this religion, I can recommend some books and/or websites. But the important thing to know here is that Buddhism is much more about the here and now than about any kind of hereafter.

In the interests of sharing the practical aspects, here are three ideas/practices that I think can help you avoid or even recover from burnout:

  1. Non-attachment. Try to avoid getting attached to ideas or people or things or places. Attachment makes us afraid to lose those ideas or people or things or places, and that’s the root of suffering and anxiety – that fear. I’m still kind of crap at non-attachment, but not getting too upset about not being good about this yet is itself an example of non-attachment. No matter how hard we try, pretty much all of us are still going to get attached to people, places, things, ideas, but we need to keep working towards non-attachment without getting wrapped up in (attached to) the results.
  2. Mindfulness. This is the idea of being in the moment instead of somewhere in the past or somewhere in the future. Try doing only one thing at a time, and really concentrating on that one thing. Another way to practice being present is to take a couple of minutes each day and concentrate solely on your breathing. I’ve got an Android app that I use to help me, but you really just need to count your breath.
  3. Daily meditation. Don’t think of meditation as quieting your mind. It’s letting the thoughts rise and fall without attaching significance (non-attachment again) to any of them. If I’m sitting with others, I can meditate for a lot longer, but in my daily practice I sit for 10-15 minutes. Even five minutes a day can help you. (This LifeHacker post has a good rundown of the science.) Also, even if you don’t sit in a lotus position on your fancy meditation pillow, just being still for 5-10 minutes can be beneficial. I read once that our minds are like ponds, and the events of our lives are like wind or pebbles or even boulders that disturb the surface. Meditation allows you to stop the input for those few minutes, and the surface clears a bit. No other explanation of the benefits of meditation has ever felt truer to me.

I know that Buddhism isn’t the right fit for everyone, but the benefits of meditation are proven. Give it a try, even if you just sit still for a couple of minutes per day. And if what I’ve said about Buddhism intrigues you, let me know? I’ve got about a bazillion books I can recommend.

Rejection Burnout–A Guest Post by Kaitlin Springmier

Today’s guest post from Kaitlin Springmier offers helpful and practical tips for dealing with the burnout that can result from rejection in the workplace. These suggestions really resonate with me! Kaitlin Springmier is the first Resident Librarian at the University of Chicago. She’s still trying to understand the twitter-verse @kaitlinspring.


 

As the information environment is rapidly evolving, librarians have opportunities to dramatically alter what they teach, how they define themselves, and how they embrace change. However, it seems new members in the profession struggle with getting some of their more experienced colleagues to agree to new and innovative ideas. I say this because, as a member of the New Members’ Round Table listserv, this week’s discussion topic was, “How to respond to common ways of shutting down ideas.”

Currently, I work for an institution that steeped in a history of traditional intellectual pursuit. The library is branded as a place for serious intellectual inquiry. Students are prompted to wander through the massive stacks to encourage ‘serendipitous discovery.’ When the main library hit capacity, the institution decided to spend $81 million in order to keep collections on campus.

This perception means that sometimes my proposals for new ‘fun’ outreach events can be shut down with a ‘we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work,’ or ‘that’s not welcome on this campus.’ And hearing ‘no’ can be hard. It can make you feel like your ideas are not welcome, and after so many ‘no’s, you can feel discouraged and give up.

However, my past experiences in the workforce have prepared me to work with the nos that I hear. I now have a toolbox to work within the outright rejection which can sometimes eventually turn into a ‘yes.’ I’d like to share my experiences, in hopes to help my fellow new librarians be the best change agent that they can be.

So first- a little history. Before I decided on library school, I worked for a chain of used bookstores. I started as a part-time bookseller and within a year had climbed my way up to a position of assistant manager. My promotion came with a change in location, which meant new coworkers, new responsibilities, and a new boss. Most notably, though, the location change also meant a new culture.

In my 2 years as an assistant manager, I proposed a lot of ideas, and was shut down a lot. I went from working in a place I loved with friends who cared for me to dreading walking into the store everyday. I was not accepted, appreciated, or respected. When I put in my two week notice, I had turned into a person that was jaded, discouraged and unsure of my ideas. In hindsight, my presence impacted the store immensely. Employees interactions with customers improved, sales went up, and the store started buying used product smarter. It’s only in reflecting on what worked and what didn’t that I can give recommendations on how to approach and innovate in a culture resistant to change. Here’s 5 tips I’ve learned that can greatly reduce the rejection of new ideas or the burnout you feel after hearing ‘no.’

  1. Find your wolfpack

The hardest thing to do is to change a culture all by yourself.

When starting in a new place, find people (or groups of people) who have the similar ideas who can support you and your endeavors. When I started in my new position, this meant asking people out for coffee, dropping in on committee meetings, or just sitting next to strangers at staff meetings. Once you’ve found a great support system, see if they’ll help you propose new ideas. If your superiors see that there is a group of people interested in supporting a new idea, they are more apt to say yes. And if they still say no, at least you’ll have a group to commiserate with.

  1. Ask why

Don’t let someone tell you no without an explanation.

Learn what it is about your idea that’s getting the no, and tweak it. Personally, my proposals tend to be rejected because they’re too lofty. When I hear why my superiors have said no, I can come back with a more manageable, cheaper, or smaller idea that is more likely to get a yes. Asking why also begins a conversation with your superior. You’ll be able to learn more about your library’s culture, and what types of proposals are more welcome.

  1. Work within the system

Propose in a way that that seems to benefit them more than you.

If you’ve ever gone to a workshop on writing cover letters, you’ll know that one of the most recommended techniques is to speak directly to the expressed needs in the job ad. This is the same for proposing ideas. When crafting your proposal, ask questions like:

  • “How does this align with the library’s strategic directions?”
  • “What benefit would my supervisor find in this?”

Find your answers, and explicitly speak to them in your proposal. In doing so, you are acknowledging that your ideas are inspired by the directives that your superiors have labored over.

  1. Make it an extracurricular

Keep that work-life balance

Sometimes, no matter how great your idea is, your library won’t have the time, resources, or support you need to make it happen. When this is the case, see what you can do to make it happen in your own life. Maria previously wrote about the importance of maintaining a consciousness of who you are outside of work. Being a librarian is a job. Make sure you keep it that way.

  1. Find a new job

When your job is toxic, it’s time to get out.

By the end of my time at the bookstore, I knew that my only relief would be to leave the job, and move on. And while I miss my bookstore job everyday (so much so that I’ve begun to volunteer at my local bookstore), I know that I’m now in a work environment that fosters creativity, innovation, and happiness. Make sure you find the same.

I hope this is helpful in mediating the burnout you might be feeling. But I’m sure that you, dear reader, have discovered other ways to overcome the “no”s in your professional life. Please share!

Tipping the work-life balance toward life

baroque style painting by Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch depicting a woman weighing gold coins
“Interior with a Woman weighing Gold Coin, ” by Pieter de Hooch, c. 1659-1662. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_de_Hooch_005.jpg#/media/File:Pieter_de_Hooch_005.jpg

Many of the conversations about burnout inevitably address work-life balance as a form of prevention, so this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past several months. This notion of work-life balance was especially resonant to me in late summer into the fall semester of last year, which was maybe one of the most stressful periods of work in my life.

One day late last year, I was packing my lunch in the morning before leaving for work, and I found myself doing my usual mental arithmetic about what I would have time to eat. Notice it wasn’t about what I wanted to eat or needed to eat, but what I believed I had time to eat. All of a sudden, this struck me as immensely absurd. Why in the world was I planning a basic human need around what my work would accommodate? Eating lunch a necessity not just for fueling my body but also an important way of giving myself a break during the day, so why wasn’t it given higher priority?

My lunch revelation opened all sorts of mental doors for me. I began to protect open spots in my daily work calendar, believing that just because I didn’t have anything scheduled didn’t mean I was free and available. If I received an email from a committee chair about scheduling a time for a meeting, and the only open time available in a given day was my only chance to eat lunch in unrushed peace, I did not offer over that time. I simply said I wasn’t available that day. I felt so powerful! I was controlling my day. Having this empowered sense of control is so important to feeling like a whole person who happens to work, instead of a worker who is also maybe sometimes a person.

Because the extensive training in paying close attention to language is deeply ingrained in me from earning two degrees in English, I also find myself picking apart the words we use about work-life balance as well. Why is “work” always listed first? It’s like Sonny and Cher or flotsam and jetsam–you never hear the order reversed, or at least I haven’t. Why isn’t it life-work balance, to prioritize life over work? And why do we use the word “balance” anyway? Doesn’t this suggest that each component should be equally weighted? This strikes me as really wrong.

I understand that there’s privilege involved here. I know that this rethinking of how I shape work to fit into my life, and not the other way around, might be considered a luxury to some. I know how fortunate I am to have a job, a job that I have the power and ability to reshape to meet my needs. But the fact that this is an example of privilege also strikes me as messed up and backwards. And I can’t help but think that maybe publicly talking about how messed up and backwards this notion of “work-life balance” is, and questioning its prevalence in these kinds of conversations, might be useful to other people, possibly leading to the kind of internal shift that happened to me.

I want everyone to feel powerful, and human, in the workplace.

For the lucky librarian about to go on sabbatical, especially @donnarosemary

If you are a librarian about to go on sabbatical, I probably don’t need to tell you how lucky you are. I’m pretty sure you already know how luxurious it is to have extended paid time off to think and write and read as much as you want. But even if you are fully aware of how fortunate you are to have this opportunity and are eagerly awaiting the day your leave begins, you still might have some anxiety about what’s to come. Having experienced, enjoyed, and returned from a semester sabbatical leave, I have some words to share that may be wisdom or may be useless. Do with this what you will, keeping in mind that your mileage may vary, etc.

  1. Do what you need to do to tie up loose ends before you leave, but try not to stress too much about it. Do the minimum required to be a good and respectful departmental citizen and move on. Don’t kill yourself over it. You don’t have to leave your office, your desk, your inbox, or your anything in a perfect, pristine state. The library and the university will go on without you.

This image is a screen shot of a tweet to @donnarosemary that reads: "You do not need to be the valedictorian of pre-sabb-loose-end-tying-up" followed by a spiderweb and thunderbolt emojis.
This image is a screen shot of a tweet to @donnarosemary that reads: “You do not need to be the valedictorian of pre-sabb-loose-end-tying-up” followed by a spiderweb and thunderbolt emojis.
2. Do not listen to the grumblings of resentful colleagues who want you to know how inconvenienced they are going to be by your absence. If your institution is anything like mine, your sabbatical would not have been approved if there wasn’t a way to do without you for awhile. The solution may not perfect, and yes, people will be inconvenienced, but that is for your boss/dean/director/etc. to figure out, not you. Your job is to take the leave and do the work you proposed to do to the best of your ability, so do not feel guilty.

3. When you start your leave, you may feel unmoored by the sudden lack of structure in your day. You will likely need a routine of some kind to help you make the most of your time and not feel like you’re just frittering the time away. I urge you to experiment with developing a structure and schedule that works for you so you don’t feel completely untethered. However, make your schedule flexible, because life happens, and and there’s no point in beating yourself up if you don’t read X number of pages or write X words per day. For example, I abandoned my schedule and read all 800-plus pages of Anna Karenina in great big gulps over three days, because I could, and because I wanted to, and it was awesome. Sure, I didn’t get anything else done, but I got back to work when I was done, and it was fine.

4. Read and write stuff unrelated to your project. You’ll need breaks from the intellectual labor of your sabbatical project, so try doing some exercises with a creative writing workbook. It may help stir things up and ideas will click into place when you’re concentrating on other matters. Also, read for pleasure, if you can. See Anna Karenina above.

5. You do have an obligation to do or begin to do whatever you proposed in your sabbatical application, but you also have an obligation to tend to more than just your mind. Your physical/emotional/mental/spiritual health need attention as well. You have probably applied for sabbatical after the long, arduous, emotionally-fraught tenure process. You need a rest, so take one. Sleep in for as long as you need to when you start your leave and get it out of your system, because let’s be real: you can’t sleep your sabbatical away. Go to a daytime movie on a Tuesday. Explore the wonders of daytime television. (I recommend General Hospital. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t watch it growing up like I did. You’ll catch up.) Take naps. Start meditating. Learn how to bake bread. If you are able and interested, incorporate physical activity into your routine. Go for regular walks, or get a yoga CD or DVD. Just whatever you enjoy and brings you energy and pleasure and satisfaction.

6. Don’t feel like you need a special, dedicated space to do your work. When I was on my sabbatical, I did not have a study or an office or private space. I mostly read and wrote at my kitchen table while listening to the local classical music station. It worked just fine. (Also, because apparently no one else listens to my local classical music station during the day, I kept being the lucky caller who won tickets to things. I went to the opera and the ballet!)

7. After you’ve had some quiet time to yourself and the chatter in your mind has quieted down, you might find yourself feeling lonely. This is normal. I was surprised by how isolated and lonely I felt. Reach out to people and connect with your friends. If you know other people who are available during the day, have weekday lunch dates with them. This will refresh you and help you get focused back on your work.

8. Avoid going to your campus if you can help it. Check out all of the books you think you’ll need ahead of time. (I brought home two suitcases full.) Set up an out-of-office message for your voicemail and email directing people elsewhere if they need something, and try not to check your voice or email if at all possible. I personally checked my email maybe every other week, mostly to delete stuff, just to keep things from getting out of control.

9. And since you’re avoiding campus, this is a good time to become an avid user of your local public library, if you aren’t already, and if your local public library is a good one.

I come from immigrant people. My great-grandfather was a carusu and had a second grade education. So believe me, I understand my good fortune to have had a sabbatical, and I’m sure you do as well. Your sabbatical will end before you know it, and then you have to figure out how to reintegrate yourself into your workplace and worklife. But that’s to worry about later. For now, just enjoy your time, and your space, and the quiet, and your books, and revel in the luxury of being paid to not go to work. :hearteyes:

 

Coming out of the spiritual closet

This is a dark time of year, a time when I think a lot (or more than usual) about meaning-making in a world that feels so broken, about shining light on what is real and true and good, about what my values are and who I am and why am I here. You know, just the normal stuff.

So it’s in this mindset that I was recently reflecting on a #critlib chat moment. I do not participate in the #critlib chats because I find them hard to follow and process and keep up with. My thoughts aren’t always easily digestible into 140 characters, and by the time I have figured out a way to express my thought concisely, the conversation has usually already moved on. Also, there are so many people all tweeting at once, and I have difficulty understanding who is saying what and to whom.  So while I will occasionally watch part of the chat, I don’t contribute.

Sometime earlier this year, maybe over the summer, when I was lurking on a #critlib Twitter chat, a participant made a snarky comment about people who go to church. I don’t remember the exact context or wording, but it came across to me as sarcastic and mocking. I felt stung and offended and hurt by this comment, but I didn’t respond.

Part of the reason why I didn’t respond was because I never participate to begin with, and I felt like jumping into the conversation to challenge this comment wasn’t really the best way to begin my participation. I also know that because of the reasons I describe above, it’s really easy to lose nuance and context in a Twitter conversation, so for all I knew, there was some legitimate context for the assertion about people who go to church that I didn’t know about. I also felt worried that chiming in to say, “hey, what do you mean by that?” might sound a bit too much like the people who protest #NotAllMen (i.e., pointing out that some people who claim to be representing Jesus do terrible, terrible things and I’m Not Like That) and that would derail the larger conversation.

So I did nothing except stew over it all night. And maybe I’m still stewing over it now. It’s on my mind because I was corresponding with someone recently about feeling like you have a minority viewpoint within a dominant culture. And maybe it’s also on my mind because yesterday was the first Sunday of the liturgical season of Advent, which might be my favorite season of the church year. Advent is all about expectant waiting, about lighting candles in a dark season and anticipating the promise of light at the end. To me, there is so much magic about Advent that has nothing to do with presents and Santa Claus and everything to do with my belief that the God of my understanding came to earth as a helpless baby in the unlikeliest of places. (Don’t get me wrong, though–I’m still super into Santa and presents under the tree.)

I was born and raised Roman Catholic and educated at Catholic schools for K-12, and I also spent two years at a Jesuit university before transferring to a state school, where I graduated. Today I identify as Episcopalian, but mostly I am just me, and I am someone who finds thin spaces in quiet contemplation, in the familiar symbolism of rich and ancient rituals, and in the life-affirming inclusive language of the liturgy. Sometimes, though, it’s not the Book of Common Prayer but a teaching and learning moment that will leave me breathless and disoriented. Sometimes, during a reference encounter or in the classroom, I will truly see a student, really see the student as a person, a human, a unique and beautiful child of the universe whose inherent dignity and worth are so precious. I’ve written here before how the spiritual dimensions of teaching have been immensely healing to me and the burnout I struggle with. The funny thing is that while my spiritual practices and beliefs are of some comfort to me, I also feel lonely in my beliefs. It’s not something I really talk about, for fear of being mocked in a manner not unlike that #critlib comment I observed over the summer.

I’m writing this in the hopes there are other people like me, spiritually-closeted or otherwise, who see spirituality as an essential component of their identities as teachers. Are you out there? Maybe we could talk.

Elle’s Story–An Anonymous Guest Post

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.[1] 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.

[1] 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.