This post comes from a guest poster, Alejandro Marquez. Alejandro is a Collection Development Librarian at the Auraria Library which serves the University of Colorado Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and the Community College of Denver.
I recently attended a diversity committee where we talked about the state of the university. We talked about our workload, compensation, lack of mental health services for students, and diversity trainings. After the meeting was over, I received an email from one of the new members of the group. It read, “does this meeting always hurt the soul so much? Like I’ve heard nothing but facts and everyone here seems so amazing and talented and brilliant, but everyone sounds so beat down.” This response could easily describe the comments that I hear from library workers when I read the listservs or attend conferences. Library workers are known for going above and beyond expectations by staying late to help a student find a resource, answering emails at 11PM, or doing the job of coworkers who have left the building. They not only give of their time but also a piece of themselves. They work on library activities, complete campus service, serve on professional organizations, and assist students and faculty. A lot of a person’s library identity is emotionally and psychologically intertwined with their work.
The pandemic changed the face of libraries and heightened the already present difficulties of many institutions that never fully financially recovered from the housing recession. Some of the issues that people might be facing include increasing workload, inadequate staffing, time pressures, flat budgets, burnout, wages haven’t kept up with inflation, and lack of professional growth opportunities. Anecdotally, one library has a designated decompression room and they encourage workers to utilize it with no questions asked. There is a recognition that even mildly difficult interactions can compound over time and create secondary trauma.
Quiet quitting is the latest workplace buzzword. It describes individuals who go against a culture of going above and beyond what a job requires. They are still doing the work but they don’t work outside of their job descriptions. The quitting part is a misnomer. Individuals aren’t quitting their jobs, rather they are setting clear boundaries. Quiet quitting is a way of dealing with burnout. They try to balance these pressures by looking towards meaning and purpose in their work, organizational culture, and professional relationships. The term presents a view of an American workplace culture that celebrates toxic workaholism and grind culture. The popularity of the term is a positive sign that there is a shift in workplace expectations.
The pandemic has led to what some are calling the “great resignation”. On many college campuses, salaries have stagnated and the cost of living has increased while productivity has remained the same. It makes it hard for many people to afford a home. For contingent workers, there is no national legislative support for required paid sick days. As a result, people are rethinking the role that work should take in their lives.
Many individuals like to think of libraries as the bastion of democracy. A place of liberal ideas and intellectualism. However, it is conservative and resistant to change. It is just a workplace at the end of the day where individuals jockey for prestige, hierarchy, and resources. A non-profit that has a need to generate income. Although some might think of it as a higher calling, it doesn’t mean that it is beyond reproach. The university library is built on relying on workers to pick up the slack due to the slow pace of hiring and the freezing of positions as budgets become lean. Library workers have had to do more with less. It raises the question: would the library collapse if people worked the stated number of hours and/or stayed within their job description?
Asking workers or groups to change feels “personal.” It seems like an individual moral failing if a person burns out as though it were an accurate reflection of their ability and character. There are some individuals who will claim that work is supposed to be hard and difficult and people have to just suck it up. They use the stereotypical phrase, “It is called work for a reason.” It presumes that burnout is a personal factor rather than an organizational failure.
Organizations have weaponized the idea of passion or calling when it refers to working. The work that library professionals do such as helping patrons or serving the common good feels like it is “inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” The previous quote and concept of vocational awe was coined by Fobazi Ettarh talks about the ways that librarianship at both an institutional and individual level are feeding into the narrative that dysfunctional systems and actions are beyond critique because of the mission, vision, and values of a highly regarded institution like the library.
Let’s stop blaming individuals for imposter syndrome, burnout, and low morale. Organizations send library professionals to conferences or bring in consultants to address these workplace issues. It often feels like the message is for individuals to fix their attitude because organizations can’t be successful unless people are productive. After these employees come back to their libraries, they often find that the policies and budget don’t support the necessary changes that need to be made. Libraries need to look at the systems and structures. When we ask people to make do with less, or don’t give them all training or resources to do a project, people will say that they aren’t good enough. They think that there is something wrong with themselves. Instead, let’s look at the system that underpays them and doesn’t give money for projects.
When we focus on a process, policy, or system, leaders can make workers feel that they are less targeted or spotlighted. There will be less resistance, rejection, and backlash. Additionally, these problems are complex and multifaceted. To create bigger and long lasting change, it is better to focus on the system rather than the individual.
These issues surrounding quiet quitting create an opportunity for the university library to recognize the challenges and assume responsibility for resolving them. This is a message of hope because it means that members of the community can take action. Hope without action is just toxic positivity. The challenge might be tough but the pain even more so. The pain that we are collectively feeling can act as an impetus for change. It can keep us focused and working towards something positive.
I want to end this post with a list of ideas. I acknowledge that every library environment is different and we each have a unique set of circumstances. It is my hope that each of us at no matter what level of the organization that we find ourselves will enact change where we can. As a result of this change, library workers and administration are able to build on positive patterns of trust, commitment, accountability, and results. We are part of an interconnected ecosystem. Just like the natural world, if we neglect one area, other areas suffer.
Some ideas for change include:
- Individuals and organizations need to undertake an honest assessment of the financial situation, staffing patterns, and employee workload. Using this information, they need to make deliberate decisions and create sustainable environments. It doesn’t mean giving up but rather a chance at a new beginning. An opportunity to get rid of preconceived ideas of what it means to be successful. It can be exhausting to live up to unrealistic ideals. Quiet quitting isn’t a symptom rather it is a direct cause of overwork, neglect, and low compensation. When people don’t feel cared about, eventually they stop caring.
- Individuals must prioritize the health and safety of individuals at all levels of the organization. There is a thought that it would be easy to just get rid of things that are bad or harmful and everything would be solved. It is only one piece. We also need to create systems that heal too. Activities could include job flexibility, access to mental health services, and diversity policies.
- Leaders need to readdress relationships with historically marginalized employee groups by focusing on pay equity, promotion and tenure, and workload distribution. They need to have difficult conversations and enact change.
- Administrators need to take a long term view of the future instead of focusing on the current budget year. Planning for the future instills in library workers at all levels a sense of purpose and motivation to go the distance. It also allows us to plan for the well-being of future generations.
- The system needs to be designed to learn and improve over time. It can’t just be a yearly training and there is no single solution. It needs to be a continuous improvement feedback loop. Leaders need to look at personal structures and relationships that enhance psychological safety, empathy, vulnerability, and peer support. This will create a culture of support at all levels that aligns structures and processes with our institutional values and purpose.
- Diversity work needs to be baked into the job duties of individuals and they should have adequate time during their work day to accomplish it.
- Building managers need to design workspaces to fit a variety of different people including individuals who are neurodivergent and who have differing physical abilities.