The pandemic has placed a massive strain on our library systems. Municipalities, hit hard by shrinking revenues, have had to make difficult decisions about funding and staffing. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how this time of crisis has tested our library community, and what that test means.
It’s become evident to me that we live in a place of tension. Many librarians entered the profession from an idealistic place: we wanted to make the world a better place. There are many, many opportunities to do this at the library. Librarians serve the underserved or unserved. We step into a variety of social gaps to bridge the divides between those who have opportunities or education or skills, and those who don’t. Indeed, much has been written about how ours is a noble profession, a vital endeavor, and a high calling. And yet I can’t help but wonder if that rhetoric misses the mark, especially in the wake of COVID-19 and a tsunami of change, much of it evidently permanent.
Many of my colleagues in the library field are used to going the extra mile. They work extra hard for those patrons who don’t have much to offer. They stay late. They arrive early. They put up with abuse. They work creatively to overcome obstacles and difficulties. They literally take heroic action on a daily basis. Even with support from good tools, volunteers, and stable routines, this is difficult. With many support systems swept away by a global pandemic, this level of heroism becomes downright impossible. I think it’s dangerous to try it. It’s one thing to go the extra mile, and another to go 15 extra miles, barefoot, carrying a 50-pound bag… simply because if we don’t do it, nobody will do it.
Our sense of calling is an important thing for our field. It drives us to dynamic action, and can make the difference between an ordinary library experience and a life-altering one. But we now face a risk of physical or emotional breakdown. It’s becoming apparent that the myth of the “superhero librarian” might be driving us to hurt ourselves for the sake of the cause.
Moving forward into the “new normal,” it’s critical to walk a fine line, balancing our passion for our calling and the reality that we’re doing a job. And that implies limitations. Our jobs, when they align with our passion, can be extremely rewarding and energizing. But without boundaries, even the best job can become toxic. While our calling may be to help others to the best of our abilities, it’s time to embrace the notion that self-care will mean tempering the expectations of what we can accomplish in difficult circumstances. We need to manage the expectations from our patrons, our managers, and ourselves. Sometimes that looks like saying no to things outside of the scope of what we can reasonably provide, especially during today’s limited resources. It looks like having a strong strategic plan and sticking to it. It means staying focused on the library’s mission and staying aware of scope creep.
The responsibility ultimately falls to us to set our boundaries (and maybe to set new boundaries in our new context). And I believe that we owe honesty about our limitations to ourselves and to our profession. If we run at 110% all the time, eventually 110% becomes the expectation for everyone. And consistently running things in such a way that we eventually break down gives a false impression of what librarians are capable of handling. We owe it to our organizations to recognize our limits and encourage them to find more resources to get the job done. Stretching further and further without additional assistance is unsustainable and unhealthy.
We might be in a situation right now where some difficult decisions need to be made. We have no way of knowing what normal will be in the future. But now is a good time to reevaluate our approach to our jobs, so that we can practice our calling without risking ourselves in the process.
Do you feel like you’re walking this line, too? How do you handle the tension? Do you think viewing librarianship as a job (rather than a calling) is helpful? Let me know your thoughts; comment below!