7 Tips for Starting Small and Coping with Overwhelm

I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately: botched anesthesia during a surgery left me traumatized and everything became too much almost overnight. I’m sure many of you can relate to these feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, and burnout. Kaetrena Davis Kendrick has created so much amazing work librarians experiencing low morale, documenting and validating our journeys as we navigate these difficult feelings and the daily experiences that trigger them. LGBTQ+ librarians, librarians of color, disabled librarians, and those of us who live at the intersections, are especially at risk. As a white, (gender)queer, disabled, femme librarian, I feel this burden intensely, triggered by the recent medical trauma I endured. I decided to be proactive, vulnerable, and brave by talking to my supervisor about taking medical leave and working half-days. I’m grateful that my supervisor is incredibly supportive and has been there the whole way with me.

All this is to say that I’ve been thinking about how to manage the overwhelm by creating strategies that will allow me to survive this so I can once again thrive. I’ve found the key to managing my feelings of “this is too much” is starting small – and practicing radical acceptance and self-love along the way. Today, I want to share seven of those strategies with you.

01. Just start

Just start – and start small! I set a timer for five minutes and get to work. If I feel like I can handle it, I reset the timer and keep going.

02. Brain dumps and mind maps

Do a quick brain dump – or invest in creating a mind map – to manage large tasks and projects. When I do a brain dump, I draw a container and just write down – or as I call it, word vomit – whatever comes to mind, no filters. Mind maps can be a great way to organize a brain dump.

03. The Pomodoro Technique

I use the Pomodoro Technique to manage my time well. First, you choose a task to focus on and set a timer to 25 minutes. Then, you work on the task until your timer goes off and  PUT A CHECK OR STICKER OR WHATEVER YOU WANT ON A SHEET OF PAPER WHICH IS SO REWARDING! Next, you take a short break (5 minutes or so!) and finally for every 4 checks / stickers / whatevers you accumulate, you take a longer break. I use the Forest app on my phone which plants a tree for every 25 minute session you finish (bonus: the tree dies if you use your phone which eliminates one distraction!).

04. Set SMART goals

SMART goals are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time bound. This system has really helped me set achievable goals and meet my deadlines with precision!

Art by @beckiebeans

05. Time-blocking

Time-blocking is a time management method that divides your day into blocks of time where each block is dedicated to accomplishing a specific task or group of tasks (called task batching) and ONLY those specific tasks I like to color-code my time blocks since I’m a visual learner.

06. Reminders and alarms

Setting up reminders and alarms on my calendar and phone to remind me it’s time to change tasks, go somewhere, meet someone, take my meds, take a break, hydrate, etc., are a lifesaver. Take that lunch break!

07. Affirmations

Utilize the power of affirmations. Remember, you’re doing the best you can and that’s more than good enough. Even if you’re in a situation that’s difficult, challenging, or just flat-out sucks, remember that you can grow, expand, and transform from those experiences. I know I have.

Finally, remember that there’s help available – and please utilize it because you deserve it. 

How do you cope with feeling overwhelmed?

Karina Hagelin is an artist, community organizer, and Outreach and Instruction Librarian and Diversity Fellow at Cornell University Library. You can find them tweeting about critical librarianship and cats under @karinahagelin or more about their work at KarinaKilljoy.com. They can be reached at karina.hagelin@cornell.edu.

Creating Cultures of Radical Vulnerability and Empathy: 5 Ways to Support Colleagues Who Are Survivors

Today, I thought I’d share a little bit about how we can do just that – supporting survivors who are colleagues by cultivating a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability in our libraries. These recommendations are based upon my personal experiences as a survivor who is also an academic librarian, my final project, and my upcoming book chapter in LIS Interrupted: The Intersections of Mental Illness and Library Work, titled “Surviving to Thriving: Creating a Culture of Radical Vulnerability in Libraries.” Here are five ways we can support colleagues who are survivors in academic libraries…


Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash.

I recently had the opportunity to take a class on trauma-informed librarianship with S. Bryce Kozla. This course gave us the skills to describe the importance of trauma-informed care in library spaces and services, consider ways to keep an interaction from escalating (and to keep calm and present in a potentially stressful situation,) name some ways trauma-informed principles can be applied in libraries, identify the role of historical trauma and institutional oppression in trauma informed care, and reflect on the effects of trauma in the workplace and how a workplace can become trauma-informed. By the end of the course, we had developed a document, artifact, or action plan for the concepts learned in this course, going forward. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) “Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach”, an organization that is trauma-informed: “realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices, and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.” Based on this definition, I decided that my final project would be a presentation on “Supporting Survivors as Workers in the Academic Library,” which I will be presenting at Cornell University Library’s Engagement and Outreach Forum next month!

Today, I thought I’d share a little bit about how we can do just that – supporting survivors who are colleagues by cultivating a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability in our libraries. These recommendations are based upon my personal experiences as a survivor who is also an academic librarian, my final project, and my upcoming book chapter in LIS Interrupted: The Intersections of Mental Illness and Library Work, titled “Surviving to Thriving: Creating a Culture of Radical Vulnerability in Libraries.” Here are five ways we can support colleagues who are survivors in academic libraries:


1. Cultivating a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability

The expectation to perform sanity is stifling and isolating for those of us who are survivors. As librarians, we’re expected to put on a shining face for our patrons and colleagues rather than “cause discomfort” if they were actually faced with our real-life, human struggles (physically, emotionally, mentally, etc.) This prioritization of others’ potential discomfort with our very real anguish is dangerous, creating a culture of silencing, fear, and stigma. As a community, we need to foster a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability, without the fear of repercussions from colleagues, supervisors, and/or HR. This isn’t an easy task but it’s something to work toward. A little progress each day can add up to big changes in the lives of our peers and colleagues.

As librarians and library workers, we need to commit ourselves to creating a culture that radically celebrates vulnerability, compassion, and empathy – a culture that allows folks to bring their whole, authentic selves to work. 

We need to show up for each other. I think sometimes people are afraid of doing it “wrong” – but showing up is what’s important, letting your colleague know they’re not alone, that you see them, and that you’re someone they can go to and trust. Doing so from a genuine place of care and concern is essential. 

2. Participating in mental health first aid

We can also participate in trainings on Mental Health First Aid or speak to our local survivor support organization or counseling center about how to best support colleagues if we’re nervous. These trainings should be offered periodically and everyone should be encouraged to attend to improve the overall health of our workplaces.  

I’m incredibly grateful for the colleagues and comrades who have supported me in bringing my whole self to work. They’ve made it a possibility for me. I hope I can pay their kindness forward by cultivating a similar culture wherever I go.

3. Changing ableist language

Something that seems small, but that really affects me and many other survivors, is the usage of ableist slurs, such as crazy and insane, as descriptors – usually not in the positive sense, never in the reclaimed sense. 

People have used these slurs to discredit me and my experiences as a crazy, disabled, and sick/chronically ill queer femme. They are both harmful and hurtful. It’s important to learn new language, to question why we feel it’s necessary to use ableist slurs, and to interrupt ourselves and others when we slip up. 

There are many resources available to help us communicate more compassionately. Lydia X. Z. Brown of Austic Hoya has a fantastic resource on ableism and language. This living document they’ve created (with the help and input of many different disabled people,) is an ever-growing, expanding, and changing glossary that includes lists of ableist words and phrases (including slurs), as well as words which people can consider using instead. 

4. Knowing your resources

One of the simplest things we can do as librarians for each other, for our patrons, and our communities, with the potential for the greatest impact is to know our resources (such as those related to mental health and sexual and domestic violence) both locally and nationally: What is their phone number? Where are they located? What services do they offer? 

It’s absolutely crucial to be familiar with resources outside of the police (and forced/nonconsensual institutionalization) which can be violent and even deadly for marginalized communities such as disabled people, people of color, and queer and transgender folks. 

When someone experiencing a mental health crisis is taken by police to the hospital, they may be forcibly stripped and injected with tranquilizers, as I have been before. This can be extremely traumatizing, especially if the person you’re “concerned” about is already a survivor. “What To Do Instead of Calling the Police: A Guide, A Syllabus, A Conversation, A Process” is a living document of resources on alternatives to policing, which range from the theoretical to practical, including best practices and guiding questions.

5. Practicing community care

During October, a month when my PTSD tends to worsen, my supervisor put together a community care shared document in which colleagues could sign up to assist me with various tasks to help make the month easier for me. Here’s an example of what one might look like:

Image via Karina Hagelin.

These are just a few examples of ways you can support colleagues who are survivors at work. Support looks different for each and every one of us and it never hurts to ask what that might look like.

How do you support survivors at your workplace?

Ending the year with questions

It’s the end of the year and all the things I expect are happening. Students are camping out in the library, I’m working on end-of-the-semester recaps,  and I’m already thinking ahead to 2020. With the way the holiday lines up, I’ll leave campus before finals are over and graduation has occurred and when I return, it will be empty and quiet. Like many people, I’m looking forward to the break, turning on my out-of-office email and basking in several meeting-free days in a row.  

As I gear up for this last week, I’m leaving 2019 with a lot of questions. Asking questions is part of my job but recently my questions have gotten harder to easily answer. You might have read my post in October, which raises a lot of questions about my type of librarianship. But beyond that I’m also thinking about: 

  • What does space mean to us?
  • What does it mean to be productive in a capitalist society and what space lends itself to being productive?
  • Where is my research agenda going? 
  • Where is my research project going to take me in 2020? 
  • How do we, as libraries, promote ourselves to students? Does it actually work? 
  • What is the spectrum of experiences in the library that we want our students to have?
  • How do you push back against the idea that a scholarly article is always reliable? And how do you do that in just 50 minutes? 
  • What should reference in an academic library look like? How is that tied with our instruction?  
  • Is it possible to lead transparently?
  • How do we tell a compelling story to administrators? What data do we need and how do we tell the story if we don’t have it? 
  • Will we recruit enough students for our new class

I’m lucky I can talk through these questions with my friends in academia, my supervisor, my formal and informal mentors, the students I work with, and my colleagues. While sometimes it feels strange to have so many questions and so little direction on how to answer them, I wonder if this means I’m getting somewhere. Or maybe I’m just getting more seasoned. But I’m ready to unpack these questions in 2020. Stay tuned to see what I discover.

What questions do you have as we end 2019?


Featured photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

When Did Efficiency Become the End-Goal?

Earlier this week I read the latest Library Trends article by Karen P. Nicholson, Nicole Pagowsky, and Maura Seale, Just-in-Time or Just-in-Case? Time, Learning Analytics, and the Academic Library (also available via the University of Arizona Repository. If you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this blog post and head on over to that article because it is well worth your time.

It’s an exploration of time, in fact, and examines the relationship between academic libraries’ adoption of learning analytics as a crisis response to the “future of academic libraries” discourse that has been around as long as libraries. One of the very first blog posts I ever wrote was in response to this constant state of crisis and dire warnings of the future. Nicholson, Pagowsky, and Seale describe this existential fear as the “timescape of a present-future, whose primary value lies in staving off the risk of a library-less future” (2019, p.4). By existing in this “present-future” we seem to be responding to a known-future, one that we must make changes to adapt to fit, rather than a future of our own making that we have the power to shape through organizing, taking actions based on values, and a concerted effort to create change as a profession.

I so appreciate the authors linking the notion of time to power, because time is being used in such a way that renders us powerless. We’re somehow always working against a constantly ticking clock, trying to be more productive and more effective and more efficient. But when did education become about efficiency? When did we collectively decide that our library instruction programs should be about teaching the most classes, reaching the most students, providing badges, or highlighting major initiatives. Learning is messy. Teaching have can impacts that are small but significant. If we are constantly living in a present-future of what our libraries will or will not be then we are unable to exist in the moment in our libraries, classrooms, and interactions with those around us.

The irony of the popularity of future-casting in libraries AND mindfulness is not lost on me. One is constantly urging us to look forward, mitigate risk, and plan against predictions. The other asks us to be present in our current state, maintain awareness of ourselves and those around us, and work to cultivate a sense of balance with the world. Is the push towards mindfulness a response to our ever-anxious existence as libraries looking toward the future? Is it the answer? Or do we need something more?

I suspect that mindfulness / awareness of the present is a start, but that it should then lead toward present action. What can I do in this moment to make things meaningful for myself, my colleagues, my library? The push towards making work, particularly instruction work, more sustainable tends to edge towards standardization, or, as Nicholson writes, the McDonaldization of Academic Libraries, again because we are looking towards a future rife with cost efficiency concerns, doing more with less, and proving value. It may appear to be programmatically sustainable, but ultimately sustainability relies on people, and people burn out. People get tired of teaching the same lesson plan over and over again. People get fed up with the distance between themselves and the students at the other end of that online lesson. For our work to be truly sustainable it needs to also be sustaining to our needs as people who entered the work of librarianship, specifically teaching librarianship, to help others.

So what can a present-aware, meaningful practice of librarianship look like in the current academic library?

Doing Less with Less

Like so many of us in academic libraries and public higher education more generally, at my college and university we’ve experienced several successive years of budget cuts. My colleagues and I have done what we can to make changes that reduce costs with minimal impact to patrons, but unfortunately we are now at the point where it’s no longer possible to do more — or even the same — with less.

It’s challenging to do less with less in a profession that’s as focused on service as librarianship. My colleagues and I care about our students, each other, and our college community. We want to say yes, to offer support, to maintain our open hours, to teach that additional class. We need to keep our working hours realistic both for contractual reasons (library faculty and staff are unionized) and to stave off burnout; as the director, it’s important for me to take seriously the possibilities for burnout and low morale. When we reduce services and resources in the library we also experience a (completely understandable!) increase in complaints from students, which is an added emotional load on library workers.

It’s challenging to do less with less when we what we really want is to do more. My colleagues have expertise in and beyond their areas of focus in the library, and we’re interested in expanding our knowledge and skills as well. We know there are more services and resources we could offer in the library with increased funding, additional collaborations we could engage in with faculty and students, more work we could facilitate and support with facilities and infrastructure adequate to the campus population.

There’s no easy answer to budget cuts; while I continue to advocate for increased funding and to foreground student concerns, disinvestment in public higher education is not a problem that we in our library can solve. In working within and through the challenges of budget cuts we’re trying to identify the things that we do have control over, however small. I can’t add another floor to the library with more student seating, but we can revise and clarify our signage to make it easier for students to find what they need, especially during busy, crowded times. Keeping the front doors closed rather than propped open (with a sign that indicates that we’re open) this semester has helped cut down on the ambient noise from the hallways outside the library and has made it a little bit quieter overall, though we still lack a truly quiet study area.

Small changes don’t obviate the need for additional funding, nor my obligation to argue for it. It’s hard work keeping our chins up during times of austerity, and I want to acknowledge our feelings while we keep doing the best we can with the resources we have available, pushing for change while working within our current constraints.