Joy is at the Heart of All Meaningful Work: Finding Meaning in Academic Librarianship

“Joy is at the heart of all meaningful work.”
Christopher P. Long

I read this quotation by Christopher P. Long in early Spring 2022 and it stuck with me. Long is the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University. He’s an advocate of what he calls ethical candor (“the cultivated disposition to be honest with yourself”) and values-based practice (“aligning our core values with the practices that shape academic life”). And the line quoted above struck me because I’ve been thinking about meaningful work as an academic librarian recently.

My friend Mary Greenshields gave a presentation with Sandra Cowan at the 2022 CAPAL (Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians) Conference on compassion and love in academic librarianship, which Mary later published with Sarah Polkinghorne in Library Trends’ special issue on the joy of information (‘Love is a lens: Locating love in library and information studies’). They’re not talking about romantic love, but filial love, or a love of connectedness, of friends, of family.And for me, this forms part of why I find my work as an academic librarian meaningful: there’s so many connections! I think about all of the coworkers that I genuinely care about, and the brief yet meaningful interactions with students and faculty.

I say brief interactions as I’m fairly new in my current role as a science liaison librarian, having worked in the position for just over a year. This is an area where I’m developing, cultivating meaningful relationships with faculty and students. It takes time, I know, to grow as a liaison librarian in your subject areas. It’s something I’m actively working on, trying different avenues to establish myself, and get to know the people in my subjects. For me I find those connections some of the most joyful and meaningful work that academic librarians engage in. Even though it can seem daunting at times to establish myself in my departments, I look ahead to not only what I could accomplish, but that makes me content in my role at my library.

But putting aside liaising, for others, there might be other things that are meaningful for you in academic librarianship and related fields – a well-organized and developed library collection, preserving individuals’ archival records, nailing that meeting that you’re chairing, teaching to hundreds about a topic you’re passionate about, giving your time to a library association you care deeply about, and on, and on.

Take time to identify areas of your work that bring you joy; get as much as you can out of these moments. I think it’s important to find your work meaningful in some way – even if that’s just one aspect of your role (but hopefully it’s more than that) – that it’s valuable, that you’re contributing to something, that you feel motivated and engaged to do good work. Maybe that something is bigger than just you, bigger than your library, your institution even.

I’m reminded of Stephen Brookfield in The Skillful Teacher. In it, he writes of teaching that it “is about making some kind of dent in the world so that the world is different than it was before you practiced your craft. Knowing clearly what kind of dent you want to make in the world means that you must continually ask yourself the most fundamental evaluative questions of all – What effect am I having on students and on their learning?”

I think you can apply this to our teaching, to our collections development, to reference, to all of our library services. What kind of dent in the world are you making? And what effect am I having on students [and faculty, and your colleagues, and …]?

But how do you really know? Think about the ways you assess your success, value, and impact as a librarian. Are you writing annual performance reviews? Do you have a list of goals for the year? Do you keep a teaching journal? Do you track statistics on your reference or other work? Look to these, sure, but consider looking beyond a number or measurement to find out where those areas are that you’re passionate about, those things that bring you happiness in your job.

For me, it’s about connections, supporting our library staff, faculty, and students, and making those dents in the world, making a difference. That brings me joy in academic librarianship, and along with it, meaningful work. Find those moments of joy, revel in them, and bring them to life intentionally throughout your work.

I hope that you can find your work meaningful, that you’re making your dents in the world, and that joy is at the heart of it.

4 thoughts on “Joy is at the Heart of All Meaningful Work: Finding Meaning in Academic Librarianship”

  1. Thank you for this. In the age of cynical self-justification of “Vocational Awe”, this little reminder of what’s important was a welcome change.

  2. Thanks for this post on finding the joy in our academic library work, Justin. It’s a good follow up on your portal article on developing personal librarian philosophies as a means to pursue what we find meaningful in our work. I have written some similar pieces a few years ago when I was a regular columnist for library journal. So I was glad to finally see a colleague covering some of the same territory but in new ways. Your column inspired me to revisit this topic and I’m in the process of writing a new column about it for the Charleston Hub blog I contribute here:
    If you are interested…take a look for it sometime in July…and share your thoughts with a comment if you like.

  3. @Brad, thanks for your comment. I think there’s important and critical work being done by demystifying librarianship and identifying how problematic devotion to a profession can be. Simultaneously I think there’s a lot to be gained by recognizing what brings you joy and meaning not only in the profession, but outside of it as well. A writer that I enjoy reading on the topic of healthy work–and someone who I constantly recommend–is Anne Helen Petersen.

  4. @Steven, thanks! It’s definitely an interest of mine, and that’s great to hear you’ve been doing work on this topic. I’ll check out the Library Journal columns and be sure to keep an eye on the blog.

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