On Libraries and Stress

Photo credit: WPA poster from LoC

Jennifer over at The Stress Relief Handbook has a post up titled Low Stress Jobs: Librarian, which I found via the LISNews site. It’s from January 2010, not new as I previously thought, but it’s new to me. Everything on the Internet seems to get a second, or third or fourth or endless cycle of life, though, so here’s my take.

I find it interesting that she compares librarianship to detection and detective(…ship. Damn). I like that a lot; it reminds me of something one of my former library coworkers used to say when she was waxing poetic about working in Interlibrary Loan. Anyway, I think that it’s a good comparison, especially for reference librarians. Even catalogers may like the idea, what with the attention to detail and all, although my job usually makes me feel like a nitpicker rather than Sherlock Holmes. It’s all in how you approach it – I’m bringing in my giant pipe tomorrow.

She also mentions hitting up the ALA’s site for info. That’s a good idea. Obviously I wouldn’t stop there, though; I’d seek out library blogs and research the top i-schools’ websites, faculty, and program offerings. I’d also (as she mentions) narrow down exactly what type of librarianship I’m interested in, including in which kind of library I’d like to work. Check out financial aid, check out professional development funds, check out any available funding avenue. In my case, I struck gold: I did my MS-LIS part-time while working full-time at the same university, and the employee benefits package (at that time) included 12 free grad credits per year. Break out that Holmes pipe and investigate.

“It is important to note that while working at an academic library is a relatively low stress job, the hours may not be as reasonable as at a regular public library and academic librarians may often have to work late.”

Interestingly, during my tenure at academic and public libraries, I found the working-late thing to be true of both, but especially at the public library. At my public library job, the librarians were usually there till closing. And at the law library, public services staff stayed much later than the reference and tech services librarians. So I guess your mileage may vary, especially considering whatever kind of budget cuts your institution or city or county is going through.

“If you’re like me, you have fond memories of trips to the public library as a child, the excitement of discovering new books, picking out old favorites and the anticipation of waiting for that new book you’ve really been looking forward to reading to be returned!”

Yeah, I’m totally with her on that one. However, it was never my intention to become a librarian. I just wanted to read all day. We don’t do that, unfortunately. I got my masters because I was working as a library technician and I A) wanted to get paid more, B) not dump all my experience, and C) because my undergrad was in creative writing and, well. That’s certainly one way you can read all day. Just don’t graduate.

“…and library professionals who work at specialist libraries or academic libraries may also find it advantageous to have a second masters degree in their specialty.”

In the current horrendously competitive climate? Judging my own dismal professional job search? I’d definitely emphasize this. In my current area, the professional librarian jobs both at the local academic and public institutions are increasingly few and far between, and competition is unholy. I’m finding that in these tough economic times, a lot of places are unhesitating about putting libraries on the chopping block right alongside other valuable resources and services. This bit from the Prospects section (note: these are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, not the author):

“Jobs for librarians outside traditional settings will grow the fastest over the decade. Nontraditional librarian jobs include working as information brokers and working for private corporations, nonprofit organizations, and consulting firms.”

sounds about right, which makes me sad. But this cracked me up:

“More than 2 out of 3 librarians are aged 45 or older, which will result in many job openings over the next decade as many librarians retire.”

C’mon, Labour Stats Bureau! That was a chestnut when I first started working in libraries back in Ye Olde 2003. We had some lovely ladies and gents who were hanging on damn hard, and I’d assume the economic downturn will only make this more prevalent rather than less.

Ahem. Gee, I probably should address the no-stress idea, which is what I set out to do when I opened up the post form. As I’ve worked for four different libraries in the last eight years, I’ve got some strong opinions about that.

1. Libraries are not always unstressful places to work
Big surprise, I know. But no job is stress-free, and libraries certainly are no exception. They are unstressful to visit, I’ll admit. Like Jennifer, I’ve loved all my local libraries for their resources and (variable) relaxing atmosphere. But it’s relaxing because I don’t have to help people with reference or argue about fines or get books out on the shelves on a deadline (via cataloging or shelving, whatever) or perform any service beyond pleasing my own interests.

When I worked as a public services clerk at a small community college library, I was responsible for (surprise) public service, computer help, and some light cataloging and processing. And I wasn’t even up to the librarian level of teaching and serious, all-day reference. Not to mention the academic politics; they were particularly nasty at that school, and the unpleasantness filtered into every part of the campus, even the chilled-out library.

Bottom line? Libraries can be less stressful than other jobs, and they’re probably a less stressful place to work than say, an emergency room. But I’ve had stressful days of public service, of tangled reference questions on a deadline, of cataloging or box-packing or supervising errant employees/student workers…I like a beer at the end of the day just as well as anyone else. Oh, and boy howdy, “quiet in the library” is becoming a thing of the past in a lot of places, academic institutions included.

2. Regardless of how awesome your library may be, your coworkers and supervisors matter
Here’s another old chestnut: you can have the best job in the world, but it’ll be the worst if your coworkers and/or bosses suck. I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of great people; unfortunately I’ve also had the experience of working with/for some who made me dread going in to the library every day. While lots of cool, unique people are drawn to the library, no career or workplace is free of assholes.

3. Academic librarianship
Specifically? I’m thinking tenure requirements. Not all academic librarian jobs are tenure-track ones, so this won’t apply to every institution or librarian, but tenure requirements in addition to everyday work can run you ragged and pile on the stress. Something to think about when you’re applying for jobs, I suppose. I’m not sure if there’s an equatable stressor in the other library subsets. Perhaps promotion?

4. Adapting to change
For some people, I think this can be a big thumb-mash on the stress button. But in light of budget and funding slashes, libraries are scrambling to justify themselves, to redefine themselves as more than a communal place for books and research and public computers without losing the draw to people who want a community space, to investigate and try out new trends without razing their budgets…wait, now I’m just devolving into [libraries + change = good]. Bah.

Actually, to me, the above sounds like fun. I guess fun can, on occasion, be stressful.

I don’t mean to bash the author of the original post. I do recognize there’s a reason I work in a library as opposed to an emergency room or the NYSE trading floor. But I do think that a library can be as stressful as any other workplace, and billing them as the opposite smacks – to me – of the same type of easy stereotype as, yes, you guessed it, the good old standby of the crabby fussy librarian with her bun and her glasses with a chain and her cardigan/sensible shoes/cat sweater.

Okay, maybe it’s not that bad. And I totally wore three out of the six above today. Curse you, self-fulfilling stereotype!

Thoughts? Comments? Chocolate sauce?


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