Emotional Labor in Library School and Work

A typical day for me might include going to class, meeting with a professor or two, scouring LinkedIn, staffing the reference desk, grocery shopping, and talking to my mom. I only get paid for one of those things — the reference desk — but all involve emotional labor.

Emotional labor does not really have a universally agreed upon definition, because it looks different for everyone. Essentially, it’s the catch-all term for the little bits of life that leave you exhausted at the end of a day, the things you need to do to keep your life and the lives around you running smoothly.

The Work and Family Researchers Network at the University of Pennsylvania uses the following definition: “Emotional labor applies to both men’s and women’s work, but is the ‘softer’ emotions, those required in relational tasks, such as caring and nurturing, that disappear most often from job description, performance evaluations, and salary calculations.”

Though you may not have had the words for it, you’ve probably found yourself considering the effects of continued emotional labor during the course of your MLIS degree — I know I have, and I’m only a few weeks in. Even for those with the best work-life balance, emotional labor can be inevitable: the nature of the work we do as librarians makes us likely to fall victim to exhaustion from emotional labor.

Take, for example, a recent reference interaction I had. It began with a question about the way a patron could activate his online accounts for the university. It quickly became clear that the patron did not speak English well, which required extra patience as people lined up behind him. The patron explained that he was late arriving for the semester and had just gotten to town, that his adviser picked him up from the airport and dropped him off, and that he did not have a phone or other way to connect to the internet. Since I couldn’t help him, I asked a senior library staff member, who quickly grew exasperated with the patron and was short with him; we ultimately determined that he went to a university nearby (not ours), so we could not help him.

In that situation, trying to maintain emotional distance was so challenging. To be dropped at a library at a school you don’t attend, to be alone, and to be speaking in a language that isn’t your own is a confluence of challenges I hope I never need to face, but one which made me extremely empathetic for the patron. It was upsetting to have to say ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do to help you,’ and to feel like I had failed as a librarian. I continue to think about this interaction — and, beyond the initial emotional energy spent in that interaction, the lasting disappointment has been draining.

The biggest challenge I’ve faced is thinking I can trade off my own emotional labor to someone else — that others in the library will take care of the crying student and I can just answer questions about books — but it’s impossible. There is no way not to do emotional labor in librarianship; it’s natural and even almost required to try to connect with patrons and to do all you can for them, often at the expense of your own well-being.

Every article and blog post I read in the process of writing this detailed the authors’ own daily emotional labor, but few offered solutions. There really aren’t many ways to solve this problem and that can be intimidating. The findings in a recent study, for example, boiled down to a suggestion that we fake it ‘til we make it, but are we really supposed to do that for our whole careers? I’m not sure, and I am still navigating my own emotional labor commitments, but talking about and reflecting on the issue (more emotional labor, yes) are key to my processing of it.

How do you deal with emotional labor?

By Guest Author Georgia Westbrook

Georgia is an MLIS student at Syracuse University. She’s interested in oral histories, news librarianship, and open access.

1 reply

  1. I love Michelle Caswell and Marika Clifor’s piece on “From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives” in terms of addressing this issue. I also wonder how much emphasis would be put on emotional labor if it wasn’t a largely (white) female profession — & how much the tolls of emotional labor are intensified for librarians of color.

    Emotional labor is expected of me, both inside & outside the professional world, as a queer femme, disabled, archivist. I try to leverage my privilege so coworkers may not have to have those difficult & loaded conversations. I also wish more allies would step up & talk about disability justice, survivor support & solidarity, & queer & trans liberation, as well as the roles of misogyny in this.

    In short, I don’t have an easy answer. I’m feeling burnout already, as an early-career librarian because of this. I’m interested in hearing what other folks have to say!


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