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.
The academic library is open the most staffed hours of any public building on campus. We open early for students to use the computers, print papers, or use the photocopier before class. The library provides a clean and climate-controlled space for individuals to study and learn even on the weekends when other departments are closed. Individuals visit the library to ask for directions or help navigating the physical campus. Because we see a wide swath of students, community patrons, and individuals experiencing issues such as housing insecurity, food insecurity, we should be able to recognize the signs of mental health distress. Healthier patrons equals healthier interactions which mean less trauma for employees.
As a community hub of campus, libraries have a mission to advocate for their communities and the workers themselves. I see advocating for emotional well being as being tied in with librarianships’s values of promoting social justice. The role of library professionals is to support belonging, build trust, and relationships within the library and in the academic community. All of these actions support student retention and employee retention. A healthy student body and healthy workforce support student retention and staff retention.
The profession needs to go beyond the traditional approaches to thinking about our work to meet the needs of our community. Libraries have always supported the traditional concept of literacy and mental health literacy is just another variation of our core mission. Many library professionals are woefully under trained nor equipped to handle mental health and there needs to be an active investment of resources to ensure success.
There are high levels of burnout and low morale in library professionals and it is compounded by similar experiences of university students, staff, and faculty who they also interact with and serve. Library professionals experience difficult situations and pass it on to the people we help and our loved ones at home. Later, our loved ones pass it back to us and we take it back to work where we begin the cycle anew. It becomes a never ending draining cycle. There is a recognition that even mildly difficult interactions can compound over time and create secondary trauma.
It can become overwhelming to think where to start addressing the issues when there is an interconnectedness and an action and reaction between the corresponding entities. The theory that I like comes from the field of safety science called the swiss cheese model. James Reason, a professor at Manchester University, introduced this model in his book, Human Error. A block of swiss cheese is full of holes and when cut into slices the number of holes and size vary from one slice to another. These holes could represent shortcomings, weaknesses, hazards, or potential for failure. Each layer has holes and no layer is perfect. Since all the slices have holes in different places, stacking them up reduces the risk. The openings are covered by other slices. The strengths in some parts can negate weaknesses in others. With any complex issue, there is no magic bullet and it is rare that there is any one single root cause. It requires all of those things, not just one of those things. Small changes enacted by individuals or organizations can broaden the safety net.
The following levels of care are meant to be fluid and can bleed into one another. They are built on trust, commitment, and accountability. Each of us has a duty to care for ourselves and others. Not everyone is a manager but they can be a leader. Leadership at all levels is needed to address the issue and improve well being. This collective and coordinated action involves library professionals, the organization, and the entities that fund and support our work. This is a community problem and will only be solved with the help of everyone.
On the individual level, the more immediate environment encompasses relationships between coworkers, library members, and staff. Self care is the most commonly heard phrase in the mass media. It calls for individuals to take care of themselves after a stressful day due to personal or professional obligations. Common remedies are getting enough sleep, exercise, or enjoying an indulgence. This level of care assumes that the responsibilities were difficult but manageable. Audre Lorde’s essay, A Burst of Light, illustrates this idea: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” It is like they tell you on the airplane, put your mask on first. You are unable to help another patron or coworker unless you are well yourself. People often feel guilty about taking time for themselves. Your health is just as important as others.
Individual Level Questions
- Are staff receiving training and feedback?
- Are there sufficient professional development opportunities?
- Is the workload manageable?
- Are individuals treated with civility and respect?
- Are patron and staff interactions warm and inviting?
- Can people afford to make a living at the job or do they have to work two jobs?
Collective care is the duty to advocate for coworkers and the work being done in departments. It requires building a culture of care so no one slips through the cracks. It is our duty to champion their health and wellness as we are interdependently connected. It increases work and life balance that create stronger and stable dynamics within a unit.
Organizational care is one in which institutions have a robust medical and mental health plan for their employees. A good benefits package shows that organizations care about their workers. It can help with recruitment and retention. Flexibility in the work schedule allows workers to spend more time with their families which allows individuals to balance child care and other life commitments.
Departmental And Organization Level Questions
- Are there supportive policies such as remote and flexible work schedules, COVID policies, diversity, pay equity?
- Are there clear expectations and NOT vague workplace fit and professionalism standards?
- Are we only valuing work that is easily measurable? What about emotional labor and diversity work?
- Are there systems in place for hiring, pay, promotion, and retention?
- Are we making sure that there is pay equity?
- Is there adequate staffing and resources?
Societal care is a public that funds quality medical and mental health services for all individuals regardless of their ability to pay for it. This creates a healthier workforce and prevents future social costs. We saw during the pandemic that the most vulnerable communities were affected because they didn’t have healthcare nor paid time off. Physical and mental health shouldn’t come with any financially or culturally imposed moral failings or blame.
Socio-Political Level Questions
- How does the profession advocate for government investment of time, money, and resources?
- How do library workers promote critical thinking to counter the wave of anti-intellectualism?
- How do individuals fund libraries as a social good?
- How do institutions lower the cost of the masters of library science degree?
- How do organizations retain BIPOC librarians?
- How should libraries contribute to the larger societal conversations on racism, discrimination, and marginalization?
Overall, libraries need to be able to give employees the tools and confidence to try to meet these modern problems. These challenges create opportunities for change. We should treat this situation not as something to run away from but as a signal that there is something to understand.