Emotional Weight-Lifting: Professional Learning to Strengthen Soft Skills

A colorful mural of two hands reaching out in a supplicatory position
Photo from Tim Mossholder / unsplash.com

Academic, public, school, and beyond- ask any librarian in most any field and they can likely tell you their heartbreaking story of the month, if not the week. Undoubtedly, many of us in this class have our own to share that have stuck with us. These stories are heavy, and their cumulative burden becomes harder to bear over time. But while that weight grows, library staff can and should direct professional learning efforts to strengthen our metaphorical shoulders.

Seeking: Staff Support

While perhaps not as widely discussed as the topic deserves, recent research has focused on the subject of librarians and emotional labor. Librarian and professor Rebecca Tollney (and author of the book A Trauma-Informed Approach to Library Services) discusses the concept of vicarious traumatization in the latest ALA publication. She outlines the difference a workplace’s environment (toxic or positive) can make in the mental health of library staff. The emphasis on administration and management brings to mind Dr. Stephens’ observation in Wholehearted Librarianship on the “formula for success”:

“Essential Skills + Mindset² × Support = Success” (p. 31)

Without support of an institution, library staff withers. It’s a hard enough job without active stress added from your supervisor. In our own iSchool’s excellent Student Research Journal, recent publication “Emotional Labor, Stressors, and Librarians Who Work with the Public” delves into the cause of work stressors for library staff and their potential solutions. They identify three main causes of stress that involve emotional labor (specifically surface acting, or the “grin and bear it” mentality): user-produced stress, coworker-produced stress, and management-produced stress. Social sharing is noted as a positive coping mechanism that staff should be allowed to engage in (having an honest conversation with coworkers behind closed doors after a negative interaction with a patron, for example).

Letting Library Staff Learn

Staff training is imperative to empower library workers to notice and prioritize their own emotional health and to continue empathetically serving others. (This comes back to that support element Dr. Stephens outlined as part of a librarian’s success.) It may be far beyond our power to massively overhaul an administration’s toxic work environment, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start making inroads now to improve life for library staff and continue our own lifelong learning as well as our coworkers’.

If some libraries paid half the attention to staff development as they did to their library programming, I believe a world of benefit would blossom: staff turnover would likely decrease, genuinely positive library interactions would increase, and staff goodwill would be on its way to secured. Such training doesn’t necessarily need a budget: libraries can partner for staff development just like they do for their programs, reaching out to local social workers to taking advantage of existing free community trainings. I found at least one library-specific training on trauma-informed services that’s now archived for free on Infopeople. This could be an opportunity to present to your library management a proposal for free and much-needed staff training, whether at a designated staff development day or as part of a meeting.

Emotional labor is on the rise, and learning as library staff how to navigate that labor will put us ahead of the curve.


Gershon, L. (2017, June 22). The future is emotional. Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/the-key-to-jobs-in-the-future-is-not-college-but-compassion

Simon, K. (2020). Emotional labor, stressors, and librarians who work with the public. School of Information Student Research Journal. 10(1). Retrieved from http://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/ischoolsrj/vol10/iss1/6.

Tolley, R. (2020, November 2). The weight we carry: Creating a trauma-informed library workforce. American Libraries. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2020/11/02/weight-we-carry-trauma-informed-library-services/

6 thoughts on “Emotional Weight-Lifting: Professional Learning to Strengthen Soft Skills

  1. @dyerariel YES! I love your post! One quote that stood out to me in this week’s readings came at the end of Gershon’s article, “Having some autonomy, being treated decently and not being overstressed all the time might be the biggest keys to being an effective emotional worker” (2017). It doesn’t seem like this should have to be said but it totally does. Valuing employees, treating them well, not overburdening them, and allowing them room to grow sounds like it should be obvious, but so often it feels like the bottom line is more important than the people.

    I appreciate your perspective on this!

    Thank you for your post!


    • Hi @jlford0209! Yes, I loved that observation too. I really loved Gershon’s article and how it looked at overall trends in the future of work not just in libraries. It’s oddly comforting to know it’s not just us having this problem, but rather it’s an issue to navigate as a general trend. Thanks again for your comment!

  2. @dyerariel This:

    If some libraries paid half the attention to staff development as they did to their library programming, I believe a world of benefit would blossom: staff turnover would likely decrease, genuinely positive library interactions would increase, and staff goodwill would be on its way to secured.

    So on target and I would argue my research supports this idea. Thanks for the SRJ article too.

  3. @dyerariel Hi, Ariel, This post really resonates with me as I’ve been in a number of toxic work environments; it makes a world of difference when we are treated with respect and allowed the independence to approach work from our respective unique styles. Thanks for the links to the article in the Student Research Journal and the free, online professional training; I will check out both of them.


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