Library Work Won’t Love You Back

This summer, I have been fortunate to have an internship that I love. I loved the work of cataloging, enjoyed the company of my coworkers, learned a lot, and actually got paid to do it. 

But amidst all of the positives, I recently read Sarah Jaffe’s new book Work Won’t Love You Back. Just the title alone is an excellent reminder that no matter how much I love my work, it cannot love me back.

Jaffe explores many jobs and professions in this book—from domestic work to teaching to technology to pro sports—and how they’ve all been fed the myth that if you love your work, you won’t work a day in your life. In reality, this message is often used to exploit workers through not paying living wages, expecting excessive overtime, enforcing toxic workplace conditions, or requiring the accumulation of crushing student debt (or all of the above!). 

Though Jaffe doesn’t explicitly discuss library work here, there are many experiences referenced in these chapters that parallel librarianship. I think it’s vital that library workers and MLIS grad students become aware of how these myths seep into our work, so that we can not only avoid our own burnout, but also change the workplace culture that expects us to be dedicated to our careers above all else, including our own health and safety. 

In the first half of Jaffe’s book, each chapter correlates to a field that’s known for encouraging its workers to do the work purely out of love, including domestic work and caretaking, teaching, retail, and nonprofits. It’s no coincidence that these professions are predominantly filled with women. In Jaffe’s words, “These kinds of service positions draw on the skills presumed to come naturally to women; they are seen as extensions of the caring work they are expected to do for their families.” 

Ever since Melvil Dewey advocated for women to join librarianship with the founding of his school at Columbia in the late 19th century, our profession too has suffered from the myth that this work may come naturally to us, and therefore, we must do it purely out of love for our patrons and communities—and for less income than our male coworkers. We are taught the same messages as retail workers about the customer always being right and held to the same expectation to burn out for the cause as other nonprofit workers.  

Like teachers, we are expected to think of our career as a calling, or vocation.  Fobazi Ettarh’s essay “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves” similarly articulates how this devotion to our career has led to exploitation. You could swap Jaffe’s words that apply to teachers to librarianship and still have the sentence make sense: “teachers librarians have been pressed to treat their work as a calling, to dedicate long hours outside of the classroom library to do it, and to do this out of care for their students patrons. Yet such expectations have existed in tension with the idea that teachers’ librarians’ skills are little more than a ‘natural’ inclination to care for children communities and/or books, rooted in a love that is simultaneously too big and too unimportant to be fairly remunerated.” 

If you work in a public-facing library position where you develop relationships with students, patrons, and the community as a whole, it’s easy to mistake the love and appreciation you may get from these people as love from your work. Even if you work behind the scenes, many librarians’ proclaimed love of books and information seems to disguise the fact that very little of the work we do involves reading for pleasure. As Jaffe illuminates, we must not confuse the love we can share with others with real compensation for the work we do.

While librarianship is certainly a feminized profession that’s expected to do plenty of inadequately compensated care work for our communities and students, we’re also subject to the myth that if you find pleasure in your work, it’s not really work. Jaffe traces this myth to the concept of the male genius that arose during the Renaissance, in which artists’ hard work and developed skills are obscured by the idea that they have an ingrained natural talent for creativity—and therefore that artistry isn’t real work. As a result, modern day interns, academics, tech workers, professional athletes, and yes, librarians too, are all expected to think of their work not as work, but as a natural talent and pleasurable activity that they are privileged to be able to do, despite potential long hours and low pay. 

Whenever we uphold this idea that some skills come more naturally to some people, we set the stage to exploit them on the premise that what they’re doing isn’t really work. For instance, as both a student and professional, I’ve been told that I may have a natural aptitude towards detail-oriented work, which often erases all of the time I’ve spent building skills in reading, writing, and editing. As I pursue work in metadata and cataloging, I’ll now be especially aware that my work deserves recognition and compensation, even if I enjoy it.

I encourage everyone who works in a library, or hopes to, to learn from Sarah Jaffe’s lessons in Work Won’t Love You Back and to reassess your own relationship with your work. Just because you love your library’s community or find pleasure in your work does not mean you’re undeserving of adequate income, benefits, time off, a healthy workplace environment, and basic autonomy over how your work gets done. After all, why can’t we both love our jobs and be appropriately compensated for our hard work?

Paige Szmodis is an online, second-year MLIS student at Simmons University in the Cultural Heritage Informatics concentration. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Featured image courtesy of Bold Type Books.

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