Crawling to the Starting Line

The following is a lightly edited version of a post previously hosted on Librarian Burnout, published in October 2015.

By most accounts, I was a very successful library school student. In 2015 alone I’ve had the opportunity to give 3 presentations to national and international conferences, won an award that resulted in the publication of one aforementioned paper, met some of my best friends and professional colleagues and mentors, and finished my MLS degree. Today I am unemployed, living on my parents’ couch, and ready to give up on a career I know I want and will succeed in just because I can’t seem to get someone to let me do it. What may seem like such a wild downturn in my lot actually speaks to a condition that librarians are reluctant to take on or revisit once they have embarked on careers: library school is abusive. Library school fosters a culture of massive burnout before students even make it to the job market. Each successive high point I mentioned above was obfuscated by professors who were not willing to negotiate attendance grades around conference travel, marred by the busy work of “homework every day ‘seminars,’” met at the airport with the impending anxiety attack associated with the thought of getting back to class the next day. There was never time to bask in achievement because there was just more school. Always school, only school. Plus the two jobs on top of that, the volunteer experience, and the free labor of scholarship outside of the classroom. Maybe some sleep on a good day.

But that was okay because I was going to move away and get a job, right?

Burnout is simultaneously a very personal journey and a real systemic problem. Living with the embodiment of one’s own emotional labor is hard enough before connecting the dots and empathizing with others who share your professional turmoil. That said, we need both in concert to speak truth to power. Though this blog has its roots in library instruction—-a special kind of burden—-burnout lives among the entire library profession. Ask any librarian who is engaged with the field and they will not give you unconditional support when you let on that you want to be a librarian too. We’re cornered. The funding cuts are no surprise. The median salary looks worse and worse against inflation every year (not to mention your entry salary, which could be hourly and lower than $30,000 without benefits for an MLS-requiring position1). Raises don’t cover cost of living. Unions are rare. Salaried positions are being phased out or replaced with significantly cut hourly & part time positions. Resource-strapped public libraries rely on volunteer work to stay open. Inordinate amounts of MLS-havers leave the profession after unsuccessful job searches. Working professionals find more responsibility for less and less on the dollar. Popular media, some academia, and government officials all claim we’re obsolete. Oh yeah, student loan debt. No, that other degree. You went to library school without full funding?

This is 21st century American librarianship. The few, the proud, the neoliberal unicorns. We have a big problem. As long as the job market for incoming librarians is as bad as it is, just about every place can afford to hire a unicorn in lieu of other unicorns, not to mention the just “really great” applicants who might have gotten a phone interview.2 The first job search post-MLS is just brutal. Any time I get down, my friends are sure to share cold comfort horror stories of their first search. Yet for as much as we focus on the conditions of the working librarian and the constellation of employment practices and social factors that constitute the job climate of librarianship, we rarely focus on what it takes to get to the job search in the first place—-that pesky degree.

I’ve outlined only a small part of the anguish that was library school. As I talk to more and more peers who are currently students or recent graduates, this pre-employment burnout feeling resonates strongly in many. It’s not going away; it’s getting worse. Library schools tend not to advocate for their young—-GAs are being cut; student employment compensation is criminally low; financial aid is reserved for an extremely select few. Many other students have confided to me just how poor LIS faculties are at being master’s level advisors.

So what can you, working professional, do about this?

The number one thing you can do—-the number one thing I aspire to do for the rest of my career-—is advocate. Formally, informally, locally, nationally, personally. If you see the librarian struggling to get out of the starting gate, reach out and ask how they need help. It’s not a new librarian guarantee but it goes a long way towards keeping those who are really engaged around in times of trouble. This doesn’t mean you need to join any national mentorship program (although that’s a great option) or create your own mentorship network (which is a better option). Offer yourself as a career librarian that your alma matter can send questions to. Integrate students into your social media professional development.3 Let your office be a safe space for students of all kinds. Partner with a local library school, if possible.4 Support student-led programs and conferences. Just support students. I can’t say that enough.

I’m ready to quit and I haven’t even started. Talk about burnout.

1: A midwest university offered me this position. They also offered it to other people simultaneously. It was not livable. Don’t do that.

2: I’m in month 9 of my job search and I’m nearly out of leads. I’ve struck out after reaching the in-person interview stage 4 out of a possible 5 times (with an inordinate amount of applications). In each and every one of those interviews, including the one where I did not even make it to campus, feedback has been some variation on “exceptionally strong application, get some more experience, someone is really gonna love you” without any constructive feedback. It’s great that you can have such a luxury choice for your position, but some of us have to pay rent and eat and get out of bad living situations. I can’t keep being passed on like this with the great expense of committing to interviews that require travel.

3: The constellation of people and practices surrounding the Twitter #critlib chats kept me from dropping out of library school early when I could not find my professional voice as a scholar or practitioner and felt the futility of what I was doing in the classroom. I wouldn’t have achieved any of the things I mentioned in the opening without that wonderful, welcoming, loving community of friends and colleagues.

4: Easier said than done. Library schools have trouble engaging their own university libraries in partnerships, much less outsiders.

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