Reflections on Work/Life Balance and Academic Librarianship

This is part of the ongoing ACRLog/HLS collaboration. Check out ACRLog for Victoria Henry on “Mentorship & LIS Students” Read more about the project here! 

Sveta Stoytcheva is a Humanities Librarian at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and a recent graduate of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


Caveat #1

I chose this topic because, to be quite honest, I am really quite bad at work/life balance.  I’m a new librarian (a subject liaison in a full-time, tenure-track position) in a large academic library. And in the single semester that I’ve had this job, there have been many occasions where I have:

  • Stumbled home wishing for a flashlight because it had gotten dark and I had worked past the last evening shuttle
  • Wept silently in my office because if I’m overwhelmed at work it clearly must be due to some drastic, personal failure to do all. the. things.
  • Checked my work email* first thing in the morning (my phone is my alarm clock). Cue the anxiety that makes it so hard to get out of bed.
  • etc., etc.

I must confess, dear reader:  I’m writing this post for myself as much as for you.

Caveat #2

I live in a dual-income household with a supportive partner. I have no children or other dependents and am in good health. For academic librarians who are caregivers or live with chronic illness (to name just a couple of examples), the issue of work/life balance takes on different contours. Intersectionality is key here, too.  

Okay. Those things in mind, let’s get started. This post is not a how-to guide for achieving work/life balance. I’m also not very interested in defining work/life balance or telling you what it means to live a “balanced” life. (I have no idea.) Mainly, I’m interested in thinking through a couple of questions: How does academic librarianship specifically, but not uniquely, put pressure on workers’ work/life balance? What are the stakes of work/life balance anyway?

Academic Librarianship as Identity

Miya Tokumitsu has done a brilliant job of deconstructing the “Do What You Love” mantra that prevails in many contemporary white-collar professions, including librarianship. “Do What You Love” (DWYL) essentially eliminates the need for work/life balance by positioning work as the ultimate mode of self-fulfillment. In blurring the line between self and work, DWYL enables institutions to extract additional, unpaid labor from workers (writing emails on days off, for example). For Tokumitsu, academia is the DWYL industry par excellence.  Along similar lines, I recently read Lauren Berlant’s “Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy” (in The Politics of Research, ed. Ann Kaplan and George Levine). Berlant notes that the academy positions itself as a source of “sustainable” identity for knowledge workers, simultaneously obscuring the inability of institutions to provide the same (150). For academics who identify their work as part of their politics, this paradox amplified and accompanied by additional, often emotional, labor: committee work, mentoring, etc. Berlant is especially concerned with feminist pedagogy but her insights are relevant to additional domains; critical librarianship is one such example. These concerns are reproduced for academic librarians, especially on the tenure-track. As Roxanne Shirazi explains, as workers in a feminized profession, our work is simultaneously undervalued and overidentified with the institution. This additional labor is increasingly the responsibility of fewer people with insufficient resources.

Work/life balance becomes a Herculean effort when you are tasked with enough work for several people and your identity is deeply entangled with your work. The inability to excel in all aspects of a job at all times registers as a deeply personal failure – hence the silent office weeping – and ultimately manifests as burnout. (For many of us, burnout starts in library school.) It is really important to remember that librarianship, while it can be interesting, fulfilling, and occasionally joyful, is still a job.  We are not our jobs.

Work/Life Balance as Solidarity

Tokumitsu makes another important point while taking on the “Do What You Love” mantra: In addition to making it easier to exploit the privileged few who love what they do, DWYL erases the labor of those who do “unlovable” work.  Not only that, it dehumanizes them:

“If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a museum publicist or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves — in fact, to loving ourselves — what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores? The answer is: nothing.”

Replacing “entrepreneur,” “museum publicist,” or “think-tank acolyte” in that sentence with “academic librarian” is an interesting exercise in self-reflection. Could it be that our overidentification with our libraries exacerbates existing hierarchies between us and our colleagues in paraprofessional, clerical, and facilities positions? For example, by implicitly justifying the absence of non-librarians from shared governance?** How does our willingness to do ever more with less increase our reliance on unpaid interns and precarious (temporary) hires? Does touting our lack of work/life balance as a (perverse) point of pride help to normalize poor working conditions?

For Tokumitsu, the most pernicious thing about DWYL is that it configures work as a purely individual pursuit, obscuring the shared interests of workers regardless of their role in an organization. If the key to work/life balance is the recognition that librarianship is work, then work/life balance can also be a path to solidarity with other library workers. Insisting on work/life balance not only means enforcing the boundaries, however porous, between our work and ourselves, but also insisting on fair compensation and sufficient resources to do our jobs. It would behoove us to insist on the same for those we work alongside.

So that’s that. Some reflections on work/life balance from a new librarian who still doesn’t quite have the hang of things. My sincere hope is that it sparks some reflections of your own. Still, if nothing else, stop checking email off-the-clock.

Any personal insights about balancing life and work? Please share them in the comments.

*Work/life balance 101 is probably devoted entirely to work email and the pernicious compulsion to check it even while not at work. Personally, I’ve been sleeping considerably better since making a conscious effort *not* to check my email when I’m not working.

** Particularly in institutions where faculty librarians participate in decision making through faculty senate or other such bodies, as is the case at MPOW.



8 replies

  1. This is a fantastic offering on a critical subject. Thank you, Sveta!

    I would add that the DWYL mentality that so often leads to unhealthy transgressions of boundaries between personal work and professional work ultimately leads to diminished happiness in both spheres.

    I want to do work that I believe in–in fact, I insist upon it. But more and more I recognize that the work I do for pay and the work I do for passion need not necessarily be the same.

    In fact, when I am paid for work, I have an obligation–explicit or implied–to subordinate my own will and wants to the will and wants of the entity that pays me. That is why I think it is important to choose carefully who employs me for pay–and why I think it is equally important to cultivate just as carefully work not for pay apart from my source of income.

    I think I can still be a person of integrity if I do good work (however I define “good work”) for pay and do what I love during the other hours of the day. In fact, I think it’s possible that I may be a person of far greater integrity that way.


  2. Superb. I would add that librarians, and particularly academic librarians because of the higher expectations for professional development vis-a-vis public librarians, are expected to donate their time and expertise to publishing in journals, serving on committees, and so on. The acceptance of this lack of financial remuneration incentivizes our exploitation and contributes to a poor work-life balance. I weary of spending tens of hours serving a library organization, or researching and drafting an article for peer review, and receiving nothing but “recognition” in return. Especially when, unlike teaching faculty with similar rank and promotion criteria, we are still expected to show up at the office 40 hours a week.


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