Toxic Dynamics: Disrupting, Dismantling, and Transforming Academic Library Culture

ACRL announces the publication of Toxic Dynamics: Disrupting, Dismantling, and Transforming Academic Library Culture, edited by Russell Michalak, Trevor A. Dawes, and Jon E. Cawthorne. The book provides evidence-based solutions to mitigate the negative effects of toxicity, change management strategies, and ways to confront and challenge values that harm library workers and their well-being.

Learn more about Toxic Dynamics in this excerpt from the Introduction by the editors, licensed under CC BY 4.0.


Academic libraries play a critical role in supporting research, teaching, and learning at universities and colleges, but they face several challenges that impact the work of librarians. One of the main challenges is the rapidly changing landscape of higher education, which has led to significant shifts in how academic libraries operate and support their communities. Additionally, academic librarians must navigate the complexities of managing digital collections; deal with issues of copyright, licensing, and open access; and support the evolving needs of researchers and students. Amid these complicated issues, libraries must create and maintain healthy work environments, as toxic cultures can negatively impact librarians’ mental health and job satisfaction. Libraries face increasing pressure to demonstrate their value and relevance to the institution, often with limited or diminishing resources. Addressing these challenges requires innovative solutions, ongoing professional development, and effective leadership.

Recruitment, retention, promotion, and payment of living wages are critical factors in the overall health of academic libraries and can contribute to or alleviate toxic work cultures. However, in the current state of academic libraries, implementing and continuing these vital functions can be challenging due to the perception of the profession, vocational awe, the lack of diversity in the field, and the competitive job market. Many librarians leave the profession due to low salaries, job dissatisfaction, boredom, and burnout, leading to a high turnover rate that can negatively impact workplace culture.

Low salaries and inadequate benefits also contribute to the toxicity in academic libraries. Many librarians face financial insecurity and struggle to make ends meet, which can impact their mental and physical health as well as their job satisfaction. Inadequate compensation can also contribute to a lack of investment in professional development, which can further perpetuate a toxic work culture. The challenges of recruitment, retention, promotion, and payment of living wages are intertwined with the issue of toxic work cultures in academic libraries and addressing them is crucial for promoting a healthy and sustainable work environment.

There are other issues creating toxic cultures in libraries. Power dynamics and hierarchies can create an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and a lack of trust. These toxic behaviors can result in workplace bullying, harassment, microaggressions, and gaslighting that can harm an individual’s mental and physical health, leading to burnout and decreased job satisfaction.

The profession’s lack of diversity and inclusivity can create an unwelcoming work environment for academic librarians from underrepresented groups. This unwelcoming environment can result in feelings of isolation, exclusion, and marginalization, contributing to a toxic work culture.

More recently, there has been a growing concern about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on academic librarians and their work environment. The pandemic has created additional challenges, including remote work, increased workload, and limited resources. It has also highlighted existing inequities, such as access to technology and the digital divide, and their impact on marginalized groups.

Recognizing and addressing these issues is crucial for promoting a healthy and sustainable work environment in academic libraries. The chapters in this edited collection aim to provide practical solutions for addressing these complex challenges and promoting a positive work culture.

Toxic Dynamics: Disrupting, Dismantling, and Transforming Academic Library Culture is an exploration of the complexities and challenges of toxic cultures that occur in all sizes and types of academic libraries within higher education institutions. It addresses critical and timely topics on the subject, including faculty versus staff or us versus them, organizational behavior, unionization, leadership and management challenges, gendered labor, organizational change, self-care, tenure, and promotion.

The audience includes librarians, library workers, library leaders and managers, educators, and researchers in the field of library and information science. Authors provide valuable insights and strategies for promoting healthy work environments in academic libraries, making it an important resource for anyone interested in improving workplace culture and addressing issues related to toxicity and inequity.

In particular, this collection would be useful for deans, directors, and senior administrators in academic libraries as it offers a diverse range of perspectives and insights into the challenges faced by academic libraries and their workers in creating and maintaining healthy work environments. Toxic Dynamics provides evidence-based solutions to mitigate the negative effects of toxicity, including strategies for decision-making, planning, and change management; recommendations for increasing gender equity; and ways to confront and challenge values that harm library workers and their well-being. By understanding the root causes of toxic cultures and implementing the recommended solutions, top leaders can create a more supportive and positive work environment, leading to improved morale, retention, and productivity.

As you read and reflect, never lose sight of this: While our libraries are full of collections, resources, and services, the libraries are special because of people. Ultimately, what people believe about the current culture impacts ideas, plans, and outcomes. The good news is that toxic cultures can change, but not without a collective belief that they can or will.

About the Book

In the following chapters, authors identify the characteristics of a toxic work culture in academic libraries and address practices that may turn a toxic work environment into a high-functioning organizational culture. Improving toxic workplaces requires a multifaceted approach that addresses issues such as communication, leadership, organizational culture, and employee well-being. Authors identify several steps you can take to work more effectively together toward a healthier work environment:

●  Identify the issues: The first step toward improving the culture is to identify the issues that are contributing to the toxic work environment. This can be done through open and honest communication with your colleagues and by seeking feedback from employees at all levels.

●  Create a plan: Once you have identified the issues, create a plan to address them. This should include specific actions and goals, as well as timelines and accountability measures.

●  Build a coalition: In order to effect change, it’s important to build a coalition of individuals who share your goals and are committed to improving the culture. These can include colleagues, supervisors, and other stakeholders.

●  Foster open communication: Effective communication is critical to improving the culture. Encourage open and honest communication among all team members, and make sure everyone feels heard and valued.

●  Lead by example: As you work to improve the culture, be sure to model the behavior you want to see in others. This means treating everyone with respect, being collaborative and inclusive, and holding yourself and others accountable for their actions.

●  Lead to promote sustainable change: Understand the role of leadership influence at every level of the organization, especially the recognition, buy-in, and support of individuals at the top of the organization.

●  Celebrate progress: It’s important to celebrate the progress you make along the way. Celebrations help build momentum and encourage continued efforts toward improving the culture.

Organizational change is one of the key themes in this collection. We recognize that changing a toxic culture is a long-term process that requires commitment and perseverance from everyone involved. The contributors offer insights into the steps needed to build coalitions, foster open communication, and lead by example in order to create a healthier work environment in academic libraries.

Another crucial theme in this collection is self-care. We understand that working in a toxic environment at an academic library can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental and physical health. Therefore, some contributors provide guidance on how to prioritize self-care and promote a healthier work-life balance.

In addition to exploring the challenges of toxic cultures in higher education within academic libraries, Toxic Dynamics offers practical solutions for creating a more positive and inclusive work environment. Each chapter provides an in-depth look into the unique issues and struggles that higher education institutions face regarding toxic cultures. By delving into the power dynamics among faculty and staff and exploring how gendered labor affects workplace culture, the chapters offer insight into the underlying reasons for toxicity in higher education. Furthermore, authors present actionable measures to reduce the harmful consequences of this toxicity.