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The Souls of Our Students, the Souls of Ourselves:

Resisting Burnout through Radical Self-Care
Maria T. Accardi
PaLA Annual Conference, College & Research Division Keynote, October 6, 2015

I want to start my remarks by noting that it was ten years ago this summer that I moved
to the fine Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to embark on my library school journey at
the University of Pittsburgh, so it is immensely humbling and pleasingly full-circle-ish
(yes, this is a word!) that I stand before you now, in Pennsylvania, addressing this
august body of colleagues, to talk to you about burnout in the library profession.


Next, Id like to invite you to Tweet your thoughts about this talk using the hashtag
#PaLAburnout. My Twitter handle is @mariataccardi.


When I was considering a title for my talk today, I was deliberate in my choice of the
word radical, not just because it represents this idea of a thorough and complete and
fundamental change or alteration or reform, but also because the etymology of the
word appeals to me as a Latin word nerd. I studied Latin in high school and college,
and I was particularly fond of learning to recognize Latin derivatives, or English words
with Latin origins.


So I chose the word radical knowing that the origin of the word radical comes
from the Latin word radix, meaning root.


I should note here that not only did I study Latin, but I was also an English major, so I
am skilled at reading extended metaphors into just about everything. So walk with me
for a minute while we visit the garden in my backyard. I promise this will all hang
together. When my wife and I bought a house this past January, one of the things I was
most looking forward to was having a proper backyard for vegetable gardening.

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Previously, we had attempted container gardening on the balcony of our condo, but
this was not very satisfying, and the tomato output was pretty pathetic, so a whole yard
of our very own to do whatever we wanted with seemed immensely exciting. It also
helped that my wife is a skilled and knowledgeable gardener. When we first met, she
told me that she was a Master Gardener, which I didnt realize was a thing. I just
thought it meant she was really good at gardening. But no! Its really a thing, involving
hours of education and training and service.
So as the spring season in our new home approached, Constance considered the
options for gardening in our yard, and after much research and reading and deliberation,
she decided upon square foot gardening in raised beds in the back yard. She had learned
that the soil in the yards of old homes often are contaminated with lead, and when we had
the backyard soil from our 115-year-old house tested, we discovered that there were
indeed very high levels of lead. So raised beds it was, with purchased organic soil.

The idea behind square foot gardening, if this isnt familiar to you, is that basically you
plot out a grid in your garden bed, and you plant whatever you want to plant spaced out
very carefully according to square foot gardening guidelines. Its supposed to be a
good way of growing a bunch of stuff in a small space.


It turns out, though, that plants seem to have their own ideas. I dont fully understand
what happened in our squash and zucchini bed, but as you can see here, one squash
plant interpreted the sides of the raised bed as mere suggestions that could be easily
dismissed. Theres more plant outside the bed than there is inside the bed.

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The bed with two tomato plants and two eggplant plants, also did not obey the neat
precision that square foot gardening seems to promote. They kind of grew however
they wanted, wherever they wanted.


Another interesting development was that some plants totally failed. Our Japanese
eggplant produced one sorry-looking specimen, then gave up. Also, our Bush Goliath
tomato plant became known as the Bush Disappointment around our house. It
produced one nice looking tomato and then, apparently exhausted by this output,
turned brown and did nothing more for several weeks. Constance speculated that one
problem could be that square foot gardening did not give the plants sufficient room for
adequate root development.


This realization was revelatory for me, not just as a way of explaining what was
happening in our garden, but also as a metaphor for what was happening in my
professional and personal life. In our square foot gardening experiment, we learned
that we have to space plants out more generously to give the roots enough space to
fully develop and provide the necessary foundation to flourish. Similarly, it occurred to
me that the burnout Ive been grappling with on and off for years would also benefit
from more generosity of space and room. Cramming together years of activities
publications, presentations, hundreds upon hundreds of library instruction sessions,
countless hours sitting at the reference desk, faculty senate committee meetings, the
worrying lack of resources that only seemed to increase, all of those things to which I
said yes when I really really wanted to say nostarved the roots that were
supposed to anchor me in place and also allow me to flourish. Combine the starved,
cramped roots with insufficient watering and nutrients in the soilor, in other words,

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insufficient compassionate self-care, along with the lack of professional support and
recognition and validation of my workand it was no wonder that I felt so hopeless,
so used up, so numb and empty, like a robot-librarian going through the motions with
no real true emotion underneath. In this numb, robot state, I was unable to recognize
the need to feed my own roots, which also meant that my deep, abiding, and genuine
passion for empowering students was also starved. I could not care for my students if I
could not care for myself.
But I have to point out here that its really hard to care for yourself, to water your
own roots and give them room to stretch out and really get established, when the soil in
which youre trying to find your footing doesnt fully recognize you as a valued
contributor to the garden of teaching and learning. Ive been chipping away at improving
the perceptions of library instruction on my campus for the better part of a decade, but
there are still many faculty members who dont get it, who see library instruction sessions
as a placeholder for their class if they have to attend a conference, as if were some kind
of substitute teacher. There are faculty members who do not see me as a full partner in
the teaching and learning experience of students, as a professional with real expertise. I
once wrote to a faculty member to confirm an upcoming first year seminar library
instruction session. I told her that I would be teaching the session and asked about the
library assignment and what her students research needs were.

Her reply, I dont think of this as teaching this class for me I consider it providing a service
for the FYS students. She signed her name with Ph.D. after her name, I guess to remind

me of who was who, to put me in my place.

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I know not all faculty members feel this wayheres one psych professor who called
me a library goddess. There are plenty of faculty members who are library champions,
who understand and value the work we do, who see us as valued collaborators, but its
really hard to remember this when there are plenty of people who are only too ready to
remind you that you and your work are not valued or important.


When you couple these kinds of perceptions with the emotional damage climbing the
tenure track or otherwise having to continually demonstrate that youre doing your job
and deserve to keep it, its a basic recipe for the starved roots of burnout. And it wasnt
during my gardening experiment that I realized I was burned out. The burnout was
happening well before that, and I knew it. I knew it, but I was afraid to talk about it. I
was afraid that it meant that I was a bad librarian, that I wasnt good at my job, that I
wouldnt get tenure. In a tenure-track position, youre encouraged to amass a quantity
of accomplishments and to make multiple sacrifices at your own emotional expense,
not to mention financial in this age of shrinking travel budgets. You dont really get to
say no to very much when youre on the tenure track, or if your professional status is
in any way precariousat least, I didnt feel like I could. I did get tenure, though, but
by the time I had gotten there, I didnt remember how to say no.


This inability to recognize your own feelings, to acknowledge them as real and true
and valid, is characteristic of the emotional labor involved in library work. Arlie
Hochschilds 1983 work The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human
Feeling reports the findings of her studies of workers who have emotionally
demanding jobs: flight attendants and bill collectors. One flight attendant reported that
she had difficulty shaking off the artificial smile she was obliged to wear, and the

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feelings the smile were meant to communicate, when she was off-duty. Its as if I
cant release myself from an artificially created elation that kept me up on the trip. I
hope to be able to come down from it better as I get better at the job (p. 4).

This seems especially relevant to me when you consider that reference librarians are
expected to be visible in a constant state of approachable readiness. RUSAs
Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service
Providers describe how reference librarians ought to appear. We need to make the
patron feel comfortable, and we set the tone for the entire interaction. We are
expected to acknowledge patrons by making initial eye contact, employing open body
language, or using a friendly greeting to initiate conversation. Were basically
supposed to be on at all times. Its not quite on the same level of constant perky flight
attendant friendliness, but it still can be emotionally demanding and taxing, especially
if were not feeling at our best.


This notion of emotional labor also seems especially relevant when you consider the
ACRL Standards for Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators: A
Practical Guide. I have consulted this document regularly since its 2007 publication to
help guide my practice and professional development, as well as the professional
development of the librarians who teach in the program I coordinate. As the document
itself states, This document is intended to help instruction librarians define and gain
the skills needed to be excellent teachers in library instruction programs and to foster
collaborations necessary to create and improve information literacy programs. And it
pretty much does just that. The Standards address things like administrative skills,
curriculum knowledge, presentation skills, and so on.

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But it seems to me that an essential skill for being an instruction librarian or instruction
coordinator or any helping-people kind of librarian is the ability to regulate the
complicated emotions that are inevitably part of being a teacher or helping people. The
emotional labor required by our work has been well-documented. Julien and Genuis
(2009) describe the results of a qualitative study of Canadian academic and public
librarians involved in instructional work: A full range of affective experiences were
manifest in the diary and interview data (p. 929). Study participants reported a wide
range of emotions, ranging from pleasure and enthusiasm to more negative emotions,
such as frustration and disappointment. As the authors note, the teaching experience is
not always a joyful one (p. 930). Anyone how has had a carefully-planned and
eagerly-anticipated library instruction activity bomb knows that this is an
understatement. Julien and Genuis conclude with the observation that individuals and
organizations will benefit from considering the influence of emotional labour on
library staff with instructional duties (p. 934).


So why arent skills related to negotiating the emotional labor of teaching just as
essential as presentation skills or leadership skills? The absence of these skills in the
Standardsindeed, the actual invisibility of the reality of affect in the Standards
seems to me to resonate with the anxiety Julien and Genuiss study participants
reported about the visibility or invisibility of instructional outcomes (p. 931). The
participants struggled with the feeling that their teaching efforts didnt matter, probable
because the nature of the one-shot library instruction model that so many of us rely on
means that you rarely have tangible proof that a student actually learned something.
In short, instruction librarians battle the negative emotions of feeling invisible in many

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ways, and at the same time, the official professional document that purports to
formalize the skills we need to be good instruction librarians further renders us
invisible by completely ignoring the central role of affect in instructional work.

And what does this idea of emotional labor have to do with burnout? It might be useful
at this point to look more closely at burnoutwhat it is, what does it look like, why it
happensand its ramifications for the library profession. Christine Maslachs
foundational article, The Client Role in Staff Burn-Out, published in 1978 in Journal
of Social Issues, and it examines the dual role human services staff and their clients
play in the dehumanizing emotional exhaustion that is burnout. She characterizes it as
a mutually constitutive relationship.


Maslach continued to theorize the causes of burnout and developed the Maslach
Burnout Inventory, or MBI, which was first published in the Journal of Occupational
Behavior in 1981. The MBI was created based on Maslachs continued work with
human service workers, and it has been used in many many professional fields as the
primary tool to measure burnout.


Maslachs work on human services professionals is definitely generalizable, I think, to

librarians. In particular, public-facing librarians such as reference and instruction
librarians, whose entire professional mission and identity are wrapped up in helping
people, make library work unusually conducive to burnout. So my perspective in this
talk is going to focus primarily on the helping people side of librarianship, while I
acknowledge and affirm that librarians who do not work directly with the public
certainly experience burnout as well.

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In 1996, in Library & Information Science Research, Mary Ann Affleck published a
study of burnout among instruction librariansor, using the lingo of the times,
bibliographic instruction librarians. Affleck conducted a survey of instruction
librarians in New England and confirmed that burnout does happen with this particular
field. Affleck cites role stress as one possible cause of burnout. Role stress is the
conflict and ambiguity instruction librarians experience due to their marginal position
within the higher education environment; not all librarians have faculty statusnot
that faculty status is necessarily a guarantee of full status and recognition in the
university culture. Perceptions of the usefulness and value of library instruction
contribute to this role stress, as well as the lack of formal preparation available for
librarians who teach. This was published in 1996, and I think library school programs
have changed somewhat since then, but at the time, the lack of preparation for teaching
was significant. I think this is an interesting study that helps establish burnout as a real
problem in the profession, but it doesnt really offer much in the way of solutions,
aside from suggesting that there ought to be more library school preparation for


Afflecks 1996 article is an early example of discussions of burnout among instruction

librarians, and Beckers even earlier 1993 article in RQ suggests that instruction
librarians have strong potential for burnout due to tendencies such as idealism,
overdedication, and the setting of unrealistic goals (p. 355). Factors contributing to
burnout are discussed (such as lack of professional autonomy, as well as the denial that
burnout even exists) along with possible strategies and solutions for dealing with
burnout. Research suggests that personal, internal strategies, as opposed to external,

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organizational strategies, are the least effective. So while organizational strategies such
as reducing workload and increasing performance feedback are suggested, these are
not always entirely within the librarians realm of control. I think the most interesting
and notable aspect of this article is that it seems to suggest that instruction librarians
need to be less idealistic and enthusiastic about library instruction: The individual
strategy of lowering unrealistic goals is seldom mentioned (p. 355). It sounds to me
that Becker is suggesting that librarians should be less passionate or optimistic about
the value of their work, which strikes me as a really depressing way to approach a core
educational program the library provides. Sure, it can be helpful to lower your
expectations. Thats an almost foolproof way to avoid disappointment. But its also a
great way to live a dark life without hope, which isnt very satisfying or encouraging
and enjoyable or worthwhile.

Another article, this one from 2001, is notable in that the author, Deborah Sheesley,
offers a number of solutions to the problem of burnout, both inside and outside the
classroom. The internal solutions suggested are perhaps easier to undertake, given that
they are mostly within the librarians control. These solutions address things like
seeking collaborative teaching opportunities, or experimenting with teaching
techniques to keep things fresh and interesting, or emphasizing an interactive, studentcentered approach to teaching. Sheesley suggests that Coping strategies focusing on
the burnout victims emotions and undertaken by the individual are usually considered,
as suggested above, less effective than those focused at the organizational level (p.
449). However, these external strategies are harder to bring about, because they require
cooperation and buy-in from outside stakeholders. For example, a more participatory

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managerial structure within the library can help the burned-out librarian feel more
empowered. Feeling as though your voice matters, that you get to participate in
decision-making, rather than being passively decided about, makes a difference. But
this requires a cultural and organizational shift that a single librarian is really not able
to bring about alone.

If we return to the garden, I want to talk about what I think is really needed to foster a
library culture that is resistant to the insidious strains of librarian burnout. I can make
lots of recommendations for what libraries should and shouldnt do in order to allow
their workers to be more fully human. This involves firmly, visibly, and
enthusiastically supporting the public-facing emotionally demanding library work by
directing resources (financial and otherwise) into that area. Library directors also need
to recognize the full humanity of the librarians carrying out the essential services that
make the library more than a building full of books and computers. Library
administrators need to give more than just lip service to work-life balance. My library
director has a rewarding life outside of his job. He plays music in a folk band and
makes regular appearances at local farmers markets. And more than just setting an
example of the importance having interests and passions outside of the workplace, he
supports an organizational environment that facilitates work-life balance. I really dont
feel any pressure, overt or subtle, to prioritize my work life over my domestic life. I am
treated like an autonomous, empowered adult who can leave early for medical
appointments or to pick up my wife from work or just take a mental health day if I
need it and have no other pressing obligations. This is huge, and I know I am fortunate
in this regard. Ive heard some horror stories from colleagues whose supervisors expect

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their staff to essentially disregard their basic humanity and needs in order to serve the
needs of the organization.

Ive spent a lot of time talking here about, well, me. Or librarians in general, but I
havent forgotten that the title of my talk also addresses the souls of students. My
reference to the souls of students is an allusion to Teaching to Transgress, where bell
hooks writes, To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our
students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can
most deeply and intimately begin (p. 13). What the souls of students means might
vary from person to person, but for me, the soul of a student is their essential
humanity, their inherent dignity and worth and value, their right to be safe and cared
for in the educational setting. I believe wholeheartedly that students are whole people
in the classroom and in the library. They bring with them all of the things that make
them humantheir stories, their beliefs, their filters, their talents, their challenges,
their emotional baggage, everything. It is easy to forget all of this when the prevailing
terminology reduces a student to a patron, a user, or, worse, a customer, and
describes our human encounter as a transaction requiring an interview. The term
interview, to me, implies a hierarchical relationship, where one person has the power to
ask questions, and the other person has to submit and answer them. If youll recall the
beginning of my talk, I confessed to you all that I was a Latin word nerd.


So, of course, I looked up the etymology of the word interview and was enchanted to
see that it comes from Latin via French, meaning to see each other. This is such a
beautiful image, but does an interview ever really happen this way? Think about the
last time you talked to a student at the reference desk, or at the circulation desk, or any

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kind of desk in the library. Did you really see the student? And did the student really
see you? What would it mean to truly see each other when interacting with a student?
I think to truly see each other, to respect and care for the souls of students, means
aligning the emotionally vulnerable parts of your self to the corresponding parts of the
student. It means remembering what it felt like to be in a college library for the first time
and not understanding where anything was or how to read a call number or why there
wasnt a fiction section to easily browse and how am I going to finish this research
paper thats due tomorrow. It means feeling incredibly stressed about balancing home
life, school life, and work life, and inevitably giving short shrift to one of those areas.

Im not suggesting that is easy work, this work of actively cultivating an attitude of
empathy, because its not. And its really only truly possible if we pay attention to our
own roots, this radical self-care. And by self-care, Im talking about lots of things. This
could include things like making a concerted effort to have restorative downtime, to do
the things that feed you and build you up, like going for long walks, or playing the
guitar in a Saturday farmers market, or giving yourself manicures on Sunday
afternoons, or spending time drinking tea on the front porch swing with your beloved,
or taking naps or practicing yoga or meditating. All of those things are very fine, very
excellent forms of self-care. But theres more to it. It also means saying no to the
things that do not allow your roots to grow and flourish and stretch. I know we dont
always feel like we can say no, but sometimes we actually can say it, and when we can,
we absolutely should.


In her book Writing Down the Bones, the poet Natalie Goldberg writes, When you
read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you. If you want to

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do good work, meaningful work, you have to feed yourself with good work, first. If
you want to care for the souls of students, you have to care for your own soul first, too.
Even when the soil is hostile or contaminated with lead.

I had the luxury of a semester sabbatical in the fall of 2014. My original plan, the one I
proposed in my sabbatical application, proposed to investigate the intersections of
teaching, learning, and storytelling, and to bring those threads of inquiry into
conversation with information literacy and library instruction. And I did indeed start
there, but I ended up meandering from that path a bit. As I read and thought and wrote
about what I was reading and thinking about, I also took some time to reflect upon my
seven years of climbing the tenure track ladder and how tired I was. The sudden and
startling vast expanse of compensated downtime to just think about whatever I wanted
to prompted me to acknowledge and contemplate the fact that I was burned out.


As is my natural inclination, I started to read and write about burnout, since reading
and writing is how I understand the world and try to make sense of things. I recognized
myself in the definition of burnout, which, put simply, is a syndrome of emotional
exhaustion and cynicism that occurs frequently among individuals who do peoplework of some kind (Maslach, 1981, p. 99). Another characteristic of burnout is the
development of negative, cynical attitudes and feelings about ones clients (p. 99).
Interestingly, for me, the clients in question about which I felt negative and cynical
were not students, the students for whom I retained a genuine deep fondness and
affection and care, but the faculty members I try to collaborate with in order to
promote the library instruction program and integrate information literacy throughout

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the curriculum. I felt really really tired of constantly trying to explain what we do, why
we do it, and why it matters.

It suddenly felt very urgent to me to talk to other people about librarian burnout, but I
didnt know where to start. I had deliberately quit all forms of social media before
starting my sabbatical in an effort to eliminate distractions, but it also meant I was very
disconnected from my peers at a time when I really needed to talk to people about what
I was thinking and feeling. So I reached out to my library director. I had zero intention
or desire to set foot on campus once I had packed my suitcase of books and left my
office in August, so we met off campus for coffee one evening. I confessed to him that
I felt burned out. I was not sure I wanted to be a librarian any more, or at least a
librarian whose primary task was library instruction. But if I wasnt a librarian, I
wasnt sure who I was. I harbored vague, secret dreams of being a creative writer of
some kind, and I even temporarily abandoned my sabbatical reading and writing and
started trying to write a novel, but obviously this was not a sustainable, mortgagepaying pursuit. My directors response was to emphasize the necessity of having a rich
and interesting and fulfilling life outside of work, that the work of librarianship can be
fulfilling on its own but not the only source of meaning in life. This assertion might
seem a bit obvious to many people, but for me, it was significant. And it was a
viewpoint my director exemplified. He himself is a writer. He served as the dining
critic for the local newspaper for years, before giving it up to focus more on his interest
in music. As I said earlier, he leads a folk band and can regularly be found strumming
the guitar and singing in various places around town. He said that he enjoyed being a

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librarian, that he found it to be meaningful profession, but that it was also a vehicle for
subsidizing and sustaining his interests outside of his professional work.

This idea that being a librarian did not have to be all-consuming, that it could be
meaningful but not everything, shifted something inside of me. It also made me realize
that I really, really needed to talk to other people about this, and more often. This idea
that I needed to talk to other people was reinforced by one of my sabbatical readings,
Steven Johnsons 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of
Innovation. One of the messages of the book that was most significant to me was the
importance of sharing your ideas. Innovation happens when ideas, and the people with
ideas, connect to each other, and in order to connect, you need to communicate.
Johnson notes that innovative discoveries happen not at the microscope, but at the
conference table, with other people.


As my sabbatical leave ticked by, and I continued planning my day around watching
General Hospital and reading and writing, it felt very clear, and very urgent to me, that
I need to figure out some way of connecting to other people experiencing burnout and
sharing those stories. I considered trying to do a qualitative research study of some
sort, and I still might attempt this, but this strategy seemed to have too many barriers to
me at that moment. Thats how I ended up creating the Academic Library Instruction
Burnout blog, where since its inception in March of this year, I have published 18
essays that describe personal experiences with burnout and reflect on its meaning,
implications, ramifications, and also just plain complained. A handful of those posts
were guest posts from other librarians who generously shared their stories and
experiences. My former co-worker and dear friend Emily Drabinski writes about the

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exhaustion that results from the need to constantly provide data and assessment reports
and this obsession we have in this profession with proving value. Its not that
accountability in higher education is necessarily a bad thing; its just that theres so
much of it, and it is tiring. Emily resists this burnout by having a deliberate and
concerted reading regimen that helps her stay connected to the ideas and words that
matter to her. Another friend and fellow Pitt alum, Nina Clements, talks about the
damaging effects of this idea of librarian neutrality, that librarians are somehow
supposed to have apolitical and neutral approaches to information access and learning,
and how she resists the notion of neutrality, and the burnout it can produce, through
her interactions at the reference desk. And yet another friend, Donna Witek, writes
about the challenges of assessment, and how she channeled these challenges into
creating a zine that explores the rich messiness of learning, and how learning doesnt
always fit neatly into precise boxes.

Shining light on my own burnout, and featuring stories from others who are also
experiencing it, had the useful effect of not just making visible something that felt
shameful and terrible, but it also served the very helpful function of helping me feel
less achingly alone. In my particular library organizational structure, all seven of us
librarians wear many hats, and are involved in reference and instruction, but we also
have one primary area that is our main thing. Mine is reference and instruction. This
means that for the Coordinator of Electronic Resources or the Coordinator of Public
Services, reference and instruction is something they do along side other things. But
for me, the Coordinator of Instruction and Reference, this is all I do. Im expected to
not just schedule library instruction sessions, and teach them, and assign them to other

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librarians, but also provide leadership and vision for how the program works. And lets
not even mention the challenge of wrangling a reference desk schedule, especially in
the summer, when librarians like to take their vacations! I do genuinely enjoy the
challenge of managing the instruction program, but I also feel a little lonely. It is a
confusing loneliness, because while on the one hand I appreciate that my colleagues
trust and rely upon my expertise about information literacy and instruction, I also wish
that I wasnt the only one for whom this was a primary responsibility.
Ive tried countering this loneliness in lots of ways, like having library instruction
brown bag meetings, or demonstrations where we try out new teaching strategies on each
other. These are good strategies and I need to make time to do them more oftennote to
self! But Ive also tried reaching out outside of the library to other people on campus who
seem to get what I do and why it matters and with whom there are natural intersections
between our work. This leads to me to describe one important solution I recommend for
dealing with burnout: seeking out productive partnerships. Before I entered the library
profession, I earned a masters degree in English, and as a graduate teaching assistant, I
taught first year composition and tutored in the university writing center. It was this
work, this business of trying to teach students how to engage with academic writing, that,
in part, inspired my desire to become an academic librarian. So pretty soon after arriving
on campus at IU Southeast, I reached out to the writing program and the writing center
director, and after a short while I had developed a satisfying and fruitful collaboration.
My writing center colleague and I developed a plagiarism prevention workshop that we
offer regularly several times a semester. Its open to any student who wants to come, but
it is also required for students who have been sanctioned by the Office of Student Affairs

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for plagiarism violations. Ive visited the course the writing center director teaches for
undergraduate writing center consultants, where they learn about writing center theory
and practice, and talked to them about information literacy, and how they, as peer
consultants, can support and facilitate the campus information literacy learning goals.
This kind of collaboration with a like-minded colleague provides necessary nutrients to
help cultivate the roots of my work. Its not a surefire pesticide that will kill the bug that
is burnout, but it helps. Constance tells me that this is called companion planting, which
is the reason why she planted marigolds and basil in the tomato bedthese plants
naturally help each other grow.
And this is a recurring theme Id like to point out herethat I really dont know if
there is one true real cure for burnout, something that will completely and permanently
fix itother than just quitting your job. There are lots of solutions you can apply that
might perk up your leaves, make them a little greener, ward off pesky insects, stop the
squirrels from snacking on your tomatoes, but I dont think theres one cure-all fix that
will end it for good. But if I could make one thing happen, if I were to rule the world, or
at least rule libraries? I would argue for an approach to an organizational culture that
affirms the very real role of affect in the helping people kind of library work, provides
resources and professional support to foster healthy emotional expression and outlets, and
recognizes the librarian as a whole person with feelings and lives away from the public
service desks we staff. Regular and healthy communication, especially of the face-to-face
variety, is essential to any organization, and a good director should support regular
meetings with the staff as a whole, as well as one-on-ones for more private conversations.
Having a challenging reference encounter or a less-than-successful instruction session

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feels singularly terrible, but knowing that I can go talk to one of my colleagues about it,
get feedback, and commiserate is significant, and goes a long way toward healing the
painful isolation I often feel in my role.
I think a good library director should also encourage and support their librarians
in making choices that are in alignment with their values and goals. This means saying no
when it is possible and appropriate to do so. Due to some serious staffing challenges Ive
experienced this semester, Ive had to say no to a lot of library instruction requests, or
Ive had to offer them sessions that were at less than optimal times for their particular
needs. I could not and would not have had the courage to do this if I did not feel that my
director did not support this. I refused to run myself ragged trying to say yes to every
instruction request that came our way, or by consenting to schedule it on an already
packed day so that our stretched resources would be stretched beyond the breaking point.
I also am trying to set a burnout-prevention example for my colleagues who teach in the
program I manage by not asking or expecting them to teach more than one instruction
session a day, or staff the reference desk for more than three hours at a stretch, if I can
possibly help it. I felt empowered to prioritize my own self-care, and to subsequently
model self-care for my colleagues, because I knew my director supported this.
Another thing librarians can do to resist burnout is to stop thinking of ourselves as
service providers and instead view ourselves active participants and collaborators in the
teaching and learning mission of our campuses we serve and act accordingly. We do, of
course, provide essential services for the intellectual life of our campusI dont mean to
suggest that we do notbut I think that we get so caught up in our professional identity
as people-helpers to our own detriment. This means that I wish that I could go back in

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time to that email I got from that one professor, the one who said that she saw me as
providing a service rather than teaching her class, and I would reply politely, but
assertively, that librarians do teach. We have learning outcomes and assessment plans and
a whole scholarly field about library pedagogy and everything!

I wasnt at LOEX this past year, but I saw on Twitter that Angela Pashia, Kevin
Seeber, and Nancy Noe presented a pretty great sounding session about saying no to
library instruction requests that were not consistent with the learning goals and values
of the program. Some of these opportunities to say no are more obvious and kind of
offensivelike the instructor who wants to schedule a library instruction session when
they just happen to have to go a conferencebut even saying no in subtler ways can be
effective and empowering. When I get an email from an instructor asking me if I can
demonstrate databases to students, I am careful in how I word my response. I dont
say, yes, Ill demonstrate this to them, but instead I say something like, Id be
happy to teach students how to use library databases effectively. Whether my subtle
shift in language is lost on them or if it makes an impact I do not know, but it certainly
helps me feel better to assert myself and insist on my own expertise and the importance
of my role. Making small changes over time like this to resist the forces that lead to
burnout can subtly shift a culture, or so I would like to think.


One final suggestion Id like to offer as a remedy to the problem of burnout is, in short,
intersectional feminism, and Ill explain briefly what I mean by that now, and also at a
breakout session tomorrow at 9:00 am, FYI! Okay, now, Im not trying to claim that
feminist approaches to library work can cure or prevent burnout, but I do believe,
according to my lived experience, that incorporating an intentionally feminist approach

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to classroom teaching and the reference desk work I do is a way of making my work
incredibly meaningful and rewarding. Feminist pedagogy is an approach to teaching
and learning that sees education as a site for social change, and it does this, in part,
through student-centered experiences that employ consciousness-raising about sexism
and other forms of oppression, validate student knowledge and experiences, foster
collaborative and egalitarian learning, and transform the traditional power relationships
between teacher and learner. When I first learned that feminist pedagogy was a thing, a
real thing in the world, it provided me with not just an approach to teaching, but also a
lens through which I could re-envision all of the work as I do as a librarian. I am
someone who really cannot live with myself and be content or fulfilled if I cannot
approach work in accordance with my values and politics. I just cant. Reading and
writing about feminist pedagogy, and enacting it, and reflecting on my practice, has
been an immensely rewarding and enriching experience that provides a much needed
healing balm on the soul-sucking despair that burnout can produce.

Id like to wrap up by returning once more to the garden in my backyard. When we

picked out our tomato plants in the spring, I was intoxicated by the possibilities
presented by an abundance of tomatoes growing in my very own backyard. It turned
out, though, that our cherry tomato plant was almost a bit too enthusiastic. Try as we
might, we simply could not keep up with its output, and soon I was bringing bowls of
tomatoes to share at work. Last week, my wife Constance made an executive decision
as the Master Gardener to end that tomato plants time on earth. She just ripped it right
out of the bed by its roots and that was it; we were done with cherry tomatoes. So here
is the last twisting tendril of this metaphor Ive been extending all throughout this talk:

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When you are trying to figure out how to deal with your own personal case of burnout,
it might be tempting to just pull yourself up by your roots and give up, to quit
everything, to just resign yourself to the numb cynicism, the dehumanization, the
feeling that nothing is ever going to feel right again. I know that feeling. And it
certainly would be indeed radical in a way to just give up, but it is also radical, I
believe, to tend to your roots more gently, to seek the kindness and support of likeminded people, to employ the services of a trained mental health professional if that
seems helpful, and to nurture your own soul, your own roots, just as tenderly and
compassionately as you would the anxious student who is walking up to you at the
reference desk right now, waiting for you both to see each other.

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ACRLs Standards for Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators:
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Becker, K. (1993). The characteristics of bibliographic instruction in relation to the causes and
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Goldberg, N. (1986). Writing down the bones: Freeing the writer within. Boston: Shambhala.
Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York:
Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. New York:
Riverhead Books.
Julien, H., & Genuis, S. K. (2009). Emotional labour in librarians' instructional work. Journal of
Documentation, 65(6), 926-937.
Maslach, C. (1978). The client role in staff burn-out. Journal of Social Issues, 34(4), 111-124.
Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. E. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of
Organizational Behavior, 2(2), 99-113.
Pashia, A., Seeber, K., & Noe, N. (2015). Just say no: Empowering ourselves and our
expertise. LOEX conference presentation.
RUSAs Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service
Sheesley, D. F. (2001). Burnout and the academic teaching librarian: An examination of the
problem and suggested solutions. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 27(6), 447.

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