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The Weight We Carry

Watercolor image of a Black woman's face surrounded by swirls of color (Photo illustration: ©Victor Tongdee/Adobe Stock)
Photo illustration: ©Victor Tongdee/Adobe Stock

As librarians, we are affected by our work. We’re often directly exposed to traumatic events or feeling the indirect results of natural disasters, terrorist events, or rioting. We experience secondary exposure by hearing patrons speak out about their traumas and even by helping them find the resources they need to realign their lives. While we are not specifically tasked with meeting patrons’ emotional and physical needs, we do perform emotional labor while communicating with them. Our physical spaces provide comfort, peace, and sanctuary for adults, teens, and children.

Although stereotypes about cold, harsh, robotic librarians persist, those of us who work with the public must display emotional intelligence for our patrons’ sakes—and our own.

Emotional labor

This is an excerpt from A Trauma-Informed Approach to Library Services by Rebecca Tolley (ALA Editions, 2020).

Vicarious traumatization (VT) occurs when we work with patrons whose traumatic stories transfer onto us. We may not realize that transference has happened. Subtly and gradually, it adds to the daily anxiety and stress that many of us carry home. VT happens from more than one story; it happens as a result of the hundreds or thousands of stories we hear over the course of years.

Depending on the type of library we work in, the region in which we live, and whether we’re in an urban, suburban, or rural environment, we all contend with various levels of VT. Many readers may ask: “Isn’t this simply burnout dressed up in a trauma-informed approach?” No, burnout doesn’t always mean that our view of the world is affected, which is one outcome of VT. Burnout combines low job satisfaction with feeling both powerless and overwhelmed in the workplace. VT, by contrast, changes our view of the entire world into a scary, negative place.

Toxic workplaces

Workplace conditions affect our mental and emotional well-being also. We feel it, and research supports it: We are exhausted and overwhelmed by our jobs. Whether library administrators explicitly overburden us with too many tasks or implicitly assume that library workers are not entitled to work–life balance, the stress we experience remains the same. Some library workers even lack support from administration for taking earned time off.

Library cultures can change dramatically from one administration to the next and degrade when the wrong person is put in charge. The overwhelming stress decreases our productivity, effectiveness, and happiness, thus creating low morale. Those who work a traditional Monday–Friday workweek typically dread Sundays because they anticipate Monday looming on the horizon, promising just another day in a toxic and stressful workplace.

One strategy for neutralizing toxicity is to approach library meetings differently. Naturally, meetings between staff and the administration exist along a continuum. Some may be collegial and warm, some may be abrasive and chilly, and some may flip-flop between these extremes. General dysfunction often appears. People talking over each other, having side conversations, or interrupting when people are speaking are all signs of team dysfunction and disrespect.

Alternately, no one talking at all is also a sign of team dysfunction and may indicate a fear of sharing ideas with the group because participants have been verbally attacked or seen it happen to others. Silence may also indicate some participants’ complete disengagement from their coworkers, especially if they display negative body language or bury their attention in mobile devices or laptops under the guise of following the agenda or notetaking.

The library team needs to collaborate and agree on how its members will work together. An important first step is to create a safe team environment. For example, when a new dean joined my library, the dean discovered that people did not respect each other in meetings and that one person in particular was a disruption. In response, the dean instituted a policy whereby people who wanted to speak held up their hand to be acknowledged, so that everyone could be heard in turn. While this helped the team dynamic tremendously, it was also a passive-aggressive strategy the dean used in place of meeting directly with the person who was unprofessional and asking them to change their behavior. This passive-aggressive strategy continued a legacy of silence, secrecy, and workarounds, when dealing with the problem directly would have been a more effective response.

Spending 20 minutes together to outline agreements on how meetings are to be run is a valuable way for libraries (and any group of people) to eliminate toxicity. I learned this practice as part of my Our Whole Lives: Lifespan Sexuality facilitator training. I mention this practice to provide an example of how other organizations handle meetings outside of following Robert’s Rules of Order, as well as to illuminate the importance of including everyone in rule-making. When the people who attend meetings and trainings are involved in their operational aspects, they’re empowered.

Why self-care is important

Self-care allows us to level up our compassion and empathy. Working with patrons, coworkers, bureaucracy, and administrators can deplete our emotional reserves. Forgoing self-care or being unaware of its importance is a poor strategy for long-term mental and physical health. When you feel like you kill a small part of yourself every day you show up at work, that is a major problem. The anxiety can range from occasional feelings of being out of your element to months or years of just barely keeping your head above water in a sink-or-swim environment. That’s why self-care and peer support are essential elements of the trauma-informed library. Being overwhelmed by situations, personalities, or interactions in the library workplace can be addressed with several self-care methods.

In her book Simple Self-Care for Therapists: Restorative Practices to Weave through Your Workday (2015), Ashley Davis Bush introduces the concept of macro and micro self-care. Macro self-care includes vacations, massages, hobbies, a healthy diet, and exercise; these traditional activities are essential for self-care. But Bush also suggests micro practices such as breathing exercises, meditation, and positive thinking for the moments between and during everyday activities. These micro moments are dedicated to what she calls “calm, awareness, rejuvenation, and balance.”

Micro habits help librarians ground themselves when they feel scattered, energize themselves when they feel depleted, and relax when they feel bodily manifestations of stress and anxiety such as headaches, muscle tightness, nervous stomach, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, and clenched jaw. These symptoms, of course, can vary from person to person.

Forgoing self-care or being unaware of its importance is a poor strategy for long-term mental and physical health.

Just as bodies experience and exhibit stress differently, what works for one person’s self-care may be anathema to another. Getting quality sleep, exercising regularly, and following a nutritionally sound diet are the three big macro areas of self-care that everyone should focus on. Healthy relationships, rewarding hobbies, community involvement, and spiritual connection round out the macro practices.

But for some of us, hobbies, massages, and mini-vacations are difficult or impossible because of our professional lives and personal obligations. Finding the time, money, and sometimes even the energy for those indulgences can be challenging. This is why incorporating micro practices into our daily routine is essential for our optimal functioning as human beings and helpful library workers.

Bush recommends micro practices for a variety of times and places. Remember, these practices were designed for therapists, who usually have time between clients. For library workers, adding self-care moments between sessions of editing metadata or handling reference or circulation transactions may take some practice.

The kind of micro self-care practices you can perform habitually depends a great deal on the type of services you’re providing. Those who are working busy service desks and offering constant answers, referrals, and directions to patrons have less room for rituals and formal breaks between these activities. But those offering in-depth research consultation or library instruction do have moments for grounding, energizing, or relaxation practices. Whether we take prescribed breaks or work through them, most employers mandate two 15-minute breaks and an hour-long lunch break during the typical eight-hour workday. We make time for what we deem important, and we library workers are important.

Plan for self-care

Developing a self-care plan is an individual project, but library administration can encourage these practices. The administration should generate awareness of self-care and its importance in the organization. Having outside experts address the library workforce is also important in creating an organization that recognizes and values self-care. Helping workers devise plans in a workshop or a professional development setting demonstrates the library’s commitment. Building in opportunities and providing spaces for self-care within the workday helps workers help themselves.

Reminding library workers to take mandated breaks and step away from their desks is simple but effective. Asking library staff to schedule time for self-care on their calendars makes the practice part of the daily routine. Outfitting break rooms with quiet spaces where people can collect their thoughts while breathing deeply is another suggestion. If break rooms are too small or too heavily trafficked, the administration can set aside other areas—tech-free or contemplative spaces, for example—where staffers can take a minute to collect themselves. Often, briefly escaping the building completely is helpful for resetting one’s attention, and then returning with a renewed focus on empathetic and helpful customer service.

Reaching out

Don’t be afraid to ask for help with your workload in the library and at home. In our work life and our personal life, independence and self-sufficiency are expected. But many of us—either because of our family’s values or from the philosophy and practice of American individualism that Herbert Hoover spoke about—feel that we cannot ask for help. Hoover said that individualism is the key to progress and that our pioneer spirit has underpinned America’s political, economic, and spiritual institutions for the last three centuries. Our spirit of American individualism has imbued us with stoicism, initiative, and opportunity.

But this emphasis on the individual can sometimes preclude taking comfort from others and asking for help when we need it. We might fear that asking for help makes us seem weak, ineffective, and unable to tend to our duties. But asking our colleagues, friends, and family members for help when we need it is one of the most effective forms of self-care, and it’s available to just about everyone.

One of my daily practices is to check in with my immediate colleagues and those I supervise. During the check-in, I ask how they are and how their work is going, and I listen carefully, observe them with care, and note any concerns. When they’re having off days, when they’re stressed, or when something may prevent them from being their best at the library that day, I offer my help. If I can relieve a burden so that they feel less stressed, that creates a culture of caring and support within my immediate domain.

Last year a colleague asked me to complete a task that she had zero time for that week. I finished it in an hour, and my colleague’s sense of relief was immense. Helping her remove that obstacle from her workflow increased my usefulness to her as a colleague and as a friend. It reduced her stress and frustration at having a staggering workload, and it affirmed our relationship as warm colleagues.

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