Academic Librarian Burnout: Causes and Responses

ACRL announces the publication of Academic Librarian Burnout: Causes and Responses, edited by Christina Holm, Ana Guimaraes, and Nashieli Marcano. The book offers ways to discuss burnout in our work environments, studies burnout’s nature and causes, and provides preventative intervention and mitigation strategies.

Learn more about Academic Librarian Burnout in this excerpt from the book and section introductions by the editors.


Introduction

Why publish a book on academic librarianship as it pertains to unrelenting exhaustion, stress, and cynicism experienced in the workplace? After all, librarianship has been conceptualized as a “vocation” or calling—rather than a profession—since the 1800s, when librarian identity was inextricably linked to gender and disposition (Dewey, 1886/2015, p. 51). Within this historical context, librarians are encouraged to think of ourselves as individuals possessing a natural disposition to show perpetual engagement, enthusiasm, and self-regulation in pursuit of our shared vocation.

Like those outside the field of librarianship, our own assumptions about the profession, which are entrenched in “vocational awe” (Ettarh, 2018), shield us not only from societal criticism, but also from recognizing and managing the systemic occupational issues that afflict us. The emotional, physical, and mental investment we require of librarianship—to go above and beyond to serve the ever-evolving and increasingly complex needs of our patrons, to provide them with “safe space,” and to perennially justify our existence to them—comes at the expense of our well-being.

This book is a call to action; we intend to raise awareness of this issue and to encourage academic librarians to develop the agency to challenge the assumptions and practices that have led us down a decades-long path to burnout. We encourage our readers to take this moment to pause and acknowledge that librarianship is a profession that, like other service-oriented professions, is not immune to burnout.

We assert that it is simply not acceptable to overlook the warning signs of impending burnout and it is not appropriate to suffer in silence or to shoulder the burden of this issue alone. The systems that promote unsustainable work environments and devalue the unique contributions of librarians must not be accepted as the status quo.

This book is an invitation to sustain dialogues about burnout in our work environment, to study its nature and causes, and to advance mitigation strategies and preventative interventions. We invite our readers to take part in the rich scholarly conversations that have informed our understanding of burnout as a syndrome of chronic workplace stress.

Section 1: Reframing Burnout

We begin by introducing the theoretical, conceptual, and psychological frameworks of academic librarian burnout. Running like through lines in subsequent sections of this book, these frameworks will promote a nuanced analysis of this issue.

Section 2: Conditions that Promote Burnout

We build upon the ideas introduced in Section 1 by presenting eight chapters that investigate the conditions that promote burnout in academic libraries. These chapters employ a mixture of quantitative, qualitative, and case study methodologies to address the structural, organizational, and workload factors that contribute to academic librarian burnout.

Section 3: Lived Experiences

We now turn our focus to the notion of lived experience to explore different strategies used by academic librarians to uncover, discover, and recover from workplace burnout. As a qualitative phenomenological research tool, the lived experience (translated from the German Erlebnis) aims to illustrate a phenomenon as it is faced or witnessed by individuals. Through evocative, vulnerable, and at times intensely intimate accounts, the lived experience voice challenges the conventions of academic logic by conveying personal narratives as vivified research data. This form of writing requires research rigor to effectively and responsibly present personal encounters with phenomena to our readers, while critically examining and interpreting those encounters.

This section includes three chapters that frame academic librarians as producers of an outsider’s perspective on the burnout they undergo as insiders. Their positionality as experiencers-researchers of burnout allows these scholars to locate their privileged knowledge in the larger sociocultural context of academic libraries.

Section 4: Individual Responses to Burnout

With a clearer understanding of the structural causes of academic librarian burnout, and having explored some lived experiences from colleagues in our profession, we turn our attention to what individuals have done to address burnout. This section, comprised of four chapters, presents key themes such as self-analysis and care, work–life balance, collective bargaining, and the importance of individual agency in the workplace. Emphasis is placed on tangible activities or recommended actions for individuals to identify and address burnout symptoms.

Section 5: Organizational Responses to Burnout

If there is to be a path toward resolving academic librarian burnout, it will surely be collaborative. Responsibility for identifying and mitigating burnout in our profession must be shared by individual librarians, supervisors, and the highest levels of library administration if we are to combat these complex and systemic issues. The four chapters in this section all focus, to some degree, on the importance of organizational culture in establishing productive responses to employee burnout. Both positive and negative examples are discussed by the chapter authors, thus providing strong suggestions for behaviors to emulate and avoid.

Thoughts for the Future

We hope that in reading these chapters our fellow librarians are supported in pursuing new avenues of inquiry that elevate conversations that promote positive transformations of our working structures. We want this book to serve as a call: moving us beyond awareness, shifting our mindsets and helping us envision practices that will advance our shared profession. Above all, this work is not done; we hope that the voices, experiences, and insights not included join this cause.