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.

References

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/

The Power of (Scary) Stories

There’s a chill in the air, and it’s got nothing to do with the climate (in my town, we’re still experiencing highs in the 80s). It has everything to do with a certain haunted holiday at the end of the month. I’m a big horror fan year round, and I love this time of year especially because everyone is eager to get in on the scary fun.

In our latest #hyperlib chat, Stacie Ledden encourages libraries to resist the impulse to be insular: to look outside the industry itself to see how other industries and fields are behaving and how they are innovating. This may sound like a lot of work and it certainly can be, but there are also ways to easily bring this innovation into your own library- starting with what are your passions, and what are your staff passionate about? How can you bring that into the library?

A Haunted Library Tour

How that looked for me was the Beale Library’s Haunted Library Tour. I thrive on scary stories, enjoy creative writing and planning, and wanted to bring this all to a Halloween program after dark for adults at the library. It started as an idea for something small- one evening three years ago with guest storytellers throughout library with 30 attendees max. What it turned into is a multi-night, multi-tour event complete with scare actors, set pieces, soundscaping, and an original script that spanned the last three Halloweens (not including this one) and hundreds of attendees. You can see photos from last year’s theme, a summer camp run by an immortality cult, here, and a trailer for the year prior’s theme, Dr. Frankenstein’s haunted library, here.

Photo Credit: Terry Tripp Photography and Shawn McQuilliams

I’m immensely proud of this work and my team, but make no mistake, this was absolutely a labor of love. I would not have pulled several 14 hour days for just anything! I think stories, experiencing and telling them, are what keep many of us going through dark times. They certainly are for me.

Photo Credit: Terry Tripp Photography and Shawn McQuilliams

A New Type of Storytelling

This year looks different. I’m no longer working for the library, and though I’m still planning events they aren’t in person anymore. Appropriately for the season, these memories are haunting me right now. I miss the stress and excitement of pulling off events like these. But there is much to be learned about immersive storytelling virtually from theatre companies around the world.

No Proscenium is a site that shares news of upcoming immersive theatre and so much of it is at our fingertips now that we’ve been forced to go virtual. I invite you to take a seat around the online campfire as the world swaps chilling tales to keep you up at night:

  • The Tower of Terror: Six Stories of Horror – An immersive site to explore and experience on Halloween night. Pay-what-you-can.
  • The Empty Space’s HAUNTED BAKERSFIELD – Local storytellers and actors tell true accounts of ghost stories in Kern County. $10.
  • Dark Dial Haunted Radio Hour – With live soundscaping provided by a DJ, we present three tales of terror adapted for the small screen: The Monkey’s Paw, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Yellow Wallpaper (that last one adapted by me). Pay-what-you-can.
  • The Japanese Ghost Painting Introduction – Like most immersive theatre experiences I’ve done in the past month, I know absolutely nothing about this one, just that it comes highly recommended. But that’s part of the adventure! $33.

The More, The Scarier!

Scary stories pair well with libraries, it’s true. Perhaps a partnership with a local theatre company could bring new people into the library and create a unique immersive experience. As Professor Stephens reminds us in Challenged but not Dying, The Public Libraries are More Relevant than Ever, libraries struggle against the status quo of what we’ve “always done,” that fear response that shuts down change. Perhaps it is time to embrace the fear and show the public just how much fun being afraid can be. Consider adding horror programming to your library!

Choosing My Own Misadventure: Hyperlinked Environments Reflection

“Choose your own adventure,” we’d been instructed for our Hyperlinked Environments module. I was struck by this whimsical directive that recalled the series I grew up with, accompanied with a burst of nostalgia and excitement to dive into all the different modules for the week.

The Power of Choice

“Choose” and “adventure” are also two words that have not recently found their way into my personal vernacular. But this week, as we were ushered into a space that invited us to explore, the joys of choosing and learning took me by surprise.

A children's library display with cobwebs and caution tape, books wrapped in newspaper, and a sign that reads "the Society of Hidden History" (acronym S.H.H.).
An example of staff having fun at the children’s library I supervised! This program was designed to give non-circulating books some love as well as engage reluctant readers.

When libraries thrive, they function similarly to a Choose Your Own Adventure book: empowering their communities, incorporating their wants and needs, and giving them a safe space to explore. The gift of choice is a powerful one. Using “Responding! Public Libraries and Refugees” as a launching point, I found an excellent article on the public library’s role in Athens refugee camps, “Libraries as a space for self-actualization in the refugee context.” The author reminds us that “the case for the library is not only a sentimental impulse but research suggests that access to safe spaces offered by libraries not only support learning and literacy but also builds trust, self-reliance and social capital.” The library is not the hero of the story, as so much vocational awe might lead one to believe. The user should be. And the choices libraries make should be made with users in mind.

“No choice”? Roll with it!

Of course, sometimes the choice is wrested from us, or one we begrudgingly make for the greater good of the community. As part of the CYOA adventure for this module, I visited the Denver Public Library’s page for Cultural Inclusivity services (formerly services for refugees and immigrants specifically) to see their current offerings, and they are robust! Conversation groups, social hours, tutoring, an audio archive of stories from home, citizenship classes. They’ve simply pivoted to virtual offerings. At the very top of their page they have a pandemic-related update, pictured below:

A screencap from Denver Public Library's site that reads:
"Cultural Inclusivity Services
Formerly called Services to Immigrants and Refugees
UPDATE - To ensure the health and safety of our community, all Denver Public Library locations and Plaza programs are currently closed. 

Please contact the New Americans Project with any questions or to get more information about citizenship, English language learning, legal help, computer help and more. Call 720-865-2362, text 720-610-2310 or email nap@denverlibrary.org. "

While letting users know of a choice that cannot be made at this time, this update also provides three options for contact: email, phone, and text. With welcome guides for 13 languages and multiple methods of contact, this web page conveys a safe (albeit virtual) space.

In the midst of the chaos of today, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and like a passive observer, helpless in face of the onslaught. Sometimes all it takes is someone offering you the power and perspective of choice- whether that’s a professor’s module, a library’s services, or which fast food to eat for dinner- that us to put one foot in front of the other and make it through.

“No, really- how CAN I help you?”: The Curious Librarian’s Community Conversations in the Midst of Covid-19

Like everything else for me these days, any piece of media or literature I consume is tinged with a pandemic perspective. And our class readings are no exception to this. As I read through the excellent offerings for our module on Hyperlinked Communities, I was struck by the questions we as librarians ask of and about our communities.

When You Ask, But No One Answers

In his article “Asking the Right Questions: The User Experience,” Aaron Schmidt posits that perhaps the kneejerk question we eager librarians ask our users, “what do you want out of the library?” is in fact not as incredibly helpful as we sometimes think it is. While the inclination to tailor our services to users is a good one, asking community members what they want from the library when many of them do not know all the resources libraries offer will not get us mind-blowing results. Instead, taking the time to get to know the public, what they do, what they need or would like to see in their daily lives, could help us bring more innovative services that would successfully integrate the library into the community sphere.

When our county first closed down back in March, we asked on various social media channels for folks to “tell us what they’d like to see from us!” While we actively sought public opinion during the beginning of our community being thrown into chaos, we didn’t get much feedback. I saw similar narratives from other librarians reaching out in various library facebook groups.

I’ll tell you what did get us a lot of feedback, though. Doing things! Before we’d even closed, I started offering virtual programming. Virtual storytimes, virtual ukulele clubs, and more. I felt overwhelmed, I desperately wanted a positive point of connection to my community, and it turns out that the community wanted that, too.

I think it’s incredibly important to reach out for feedback and input, seek it from sources that don’t normally come to you of their own volition, and to listen to your patrons when they tell you what they want. But while the library may be the most important place in the world to a lot of us seeking to make it our career, it isn’t for many members of our communities. I don’t think it’s our job to make it necessarily hold that place of importance for everyone, but I do believe it’s part of our job to meet community needs as they arise and meet the public where they’re at.

Access to Tech: An Urgent Need, Not an Indulgence

This is why a library student’s question Michael Stephens brings up in in his article “Libraries in Balance: Office Hours” struck me in light of the pandemic. The question asked, how we balance emerging tech with the basic needs of the people we serve, has a painfully apparent answer now. The people we serve have always and will always need and deserve access to technology, emerging or otherwise. As Stephens points out, “3-D printing isn’t emerging, it’s here.” We are now feeling the digital divide in ways we never have before, with many districts now using an at-home learning model and parents worrying about bandwidth, devices, to say nothing of the time itself to be able to aid their kids with homework and distance education.

Some libraries are responding to these needs by quite literally bringing their library to the community, with bookmobiles serving as mobile hotspots. It’s a service community members likely would not have conceived of, if asked. But by getting to know what it is that people need in the moment, and envisioning a service to get it to them, we can earn a place in the heart of the places we serve. I continue to look forward to seeing how services evolve and adapt in the face of the virus.

Taking Care

So how can we help right now? I often feel powerless. Beyond the obvious takeaways of listening to our communities, and throwing ideas at the wall to see which ones stick, I’d say this: take care of yourself. Library staff are no stranger to burnout and stressors now are even worse. Please take the time for meaningful rest. The world will still be waiting for you when you get back.

Wanting to Yell into the Void about Library 2.0

I am in my 4th semester of library school. Overall I have quite enjoyed all my class readings, but none have quite made me want to grab the first person I see and tell them all about it quite like Library 2.0: A Guide to Participatory Library Services by Michael E. Casey and Laura C. Savastinuk.

What is Library 2.0, exactly?

To my mind, Library 2.0 is less a strict guide to a practice and rather a case for a certain mentality that library professionals would do well to adopt if they intend on staying relevant and perhaps even leading trends in their communities. Authors Casey and Savastinuk do not promise readers some magical library elixir, “do this, exactly like that, and you will thrive.” In fact, many times throughout, they caution against this type of thinking. There is no one roadmap to successful library service. Rather, we must listen to the communities we both serve and have the potential to serve in order to make a difference.

Casey and Savastinuk provide a whole host of suggestions for how to adopt Library 2.0. But first, what is it? Library 2.0 is an institutional mindset that values participation from within (library users, staff) and without (potential library users) the organization, and incorporates that input through constant evolution of library services, space, and policies. The aim of Library 2.0 as stated by the authors is to “improve services to current library users while also reaching out to potential library users.” If successfully adopted, Library 2.0 can and should also aid in staff retention and morale, something that I personally am incredibly passionate about.

Dealers of Delight

I have spent my three and a half years of library work mainly in two different branches: one, a small, quieter branch on the East side of my city, the other, the main branch and headquarters of the library system overseeing the children’s area. This reading assignment allowed me to conceptualize and put into words what I have loved best about both supervising that smaller branch and supervising the busier (and more micromanaged by library administration) children’s section: change not for the sake of it, but as a way to breathe life into the library and allow users and staff to shape it to its purpose in the moment.

Me in my natural habitat: the first, smaller library branch I supervised

As a library supervisor, I came to delight in the delight of others. How could we keep the library fresh, both so that we as staff couldn’t wait to show our patrons, and so that patrons themselves couldn’t wait to spend a day with us? Think the Beast in Beauty and the Beast when he shows Belle his library. That was the vibe I wanted to create, but not just with books! Extra craft supplies that had been sitting in our back area forever? Bring them out, set them up on a table in an interesting/attractive way, make a Creation Station out of them. Holiday books hiding in our staff-only area until the given holiday when we brought them out? Forget it, find the space and let’s put them out for people to enjoy whenever they want. A forgotten corner where nothing happens? Take up a puzzle donation and start a community puzzle corner.

See? Staff and patrons alike can be excited about the library!

None of these ideas are brilliant. They are just small things that come up on the day-to-day that you can try. Sometimes they come to you all by yourself, often they are suggested by a staff member or a patron. Seeing the gleam in a staff member’s eye when one of us got an idea and we realized we were going to try it, come what may, is what Library 2.0 is about.

Dampeners of Delight

The damper for me in all of this is that when you aren’t in a position to change workplace culture in this way, your morale can wither and die altogether. If management does not adopt or foster Library 2.0, how does a library move forward? How does a motivated staff member or group enact lasting change? Casey and Savastinuk provide some insight, but even their suggestions for those without power and who work in a lackluster organization feel less than helpful. While they maintain that change is still possible, perhaps I am jaded, but I would recommend leaving a place that is toxic and unwilling to motivate and care for their staff and incorporate public feedback. The work we do is too valuable to end in burnout, but it all too often does (and quickly) in library systems unwilling to change and communicate.

Library staff having “too much” fun at the Northeast Library branch

Be the Change

As for me, I left my system altogether and on good terms. Perhaps someday I can return, degree in hand, in a position to enact some positive change and incorporate a constant and healthy change cycle into the system itself. Now thanks to Library 2.0, I have a handy toolkit on how to get started.

Hi there!

Hi INFO 287! I’m really looking forward to learning with and from everyone this semester. Allow me to introduce myself a bit!

Ah, making noise in the library. One of my favorite pastimes!

My name is Ariel Dyer, and I am currently halfway through my MLIS degree (I began in last Fall 2019). For the past three and a half years, I have completely fallen in love with the work of public libraries at the Kern County Library system where I worked as a library associate. I really never pursued a career in libraries, but happened to apply for this position on a whim, started working part time as a branch supervisor, and then was promoted to full time supervisor of the children’s library at the main branch. The fast pace, the planning of community events, and the everyday surprises I have encountered in my years with the library made me realize this was a job I could see myself having for a long, long time. After completing my degree, a long-term goal of mine is to ultimately become the director of a multi-branch library system. I am very passionate about the rights and mental health of library workers as well as racial equity in the workplace, and would love to put that passion to use as a director someday. 

But what about now? Well, we’re all living in this pandemic. I’m willing to bet it’s thrown multiple wrenches in many of our plans, likely in more ways than one. It definitely has for me! As of June, I no longer work at a library. I made the decision to begin job searching when the pandemic hit, because I was worried about the trajectory of my current library system. (Like many library systems, ours is understaffed and underfunded, and their budget has decreased by 20% for the upcoming fiscal year.) I was also worried about my personal safety and how the library management was handling the safety of its employees. I do find that as a member of the public and no longer an employee, I am more empowered now to advocate for libraries in our community.

Fortunately, I now work for an incredible tech company as their community events coordinator, and will be working from home for at least the remainder of the year. Making the switch from a public library to a private tech company has caused me some serious whiplash, but I love the work culture at my new place of employment. I also love how dedicated they are to pursuing new ideas and thinking outside the box. For instance, we recently launched a free service called Pod Up designed for parents to connect with other caregivers who share their same quarantine values and share the extra burden of childcare during this time.

Much like the rest of the world and my life, my new job’s offices are currently under construction!

I chose to take INFO 287 in part because of my new job running events for this company, but also because of the world’s rapid change now more than ever. As a librarian and also just as a human being, I’d like to learn more about the future of… well, everything and anything, really. Life feels pretty up in the air right now. So I’m very excited to be here!

In my personal life, I’ve been enjoying hiking now more than ever as a chance to get out of the house. I started out on 2-4 mile hikes but now I typically go for 6 mile and occasionally 8-10. It’s wild to me how many beautiful trails are within two hours’ drive of me. If anyone is looking to hike in the Sequoia National Forest area or in Kern County, let me know! I’ve got some great hikes to recommend. Otherwise, I’ve been keeping myself busy with work and school. When we’re not in a pandemic, I typically am a lot more active as a local musician and performer, and while I’ve done a couple virtual shows, it’s not the same. I’m also an avid horror fan and have been catching up on horror movies I’ve missed, and host a podcast about women in horror with two good friends. Plus reading as much as I can! Currently, almost all of my extracurricular reading has been devoted to Afrofuturist authors. I’m finishing up N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy right now and can’t recommend this amazing series enough!

Me with my two podcast co-hosts at Halloween trivia 2019

I’m eager to hear from the rest of you all, as I feel pretty starved for social connection and can’t wait to learn about you and learn together in this class!