The Business of Library Services

Last week, I became unexpectedly agitated while reading an article for a class on manuscripts and special collections.

The article described a historical researcher’s relationship with a special collections archivist as fundamentally an exchange of social capital. Therefore, the author claims, researchers who develop relationships with archivists benefit from that connection or are otherwise disadvantaged.

Near the end of the text the author offers an anecdote as an illustration of when this exchange presumably “fails” from the perspective of the patron: a young scholar, a Ph.D. student, comes to the archives with a fuzzy idea for a project, seeking materials related to this topic. The scholar explicitly requests specific materials related to this emerging project, and the archivist provides those materials. The scholar, however, leaves the exchange feeling disappointed that the archivist had not taken greater interest in his project or helped him to define his research question based on potentially useful materials in the collection(s). The scholar sees the archivist as the gatekeeper of privileged information, inaccessible to those users with whom the archivist does not have an established relationship.

But the real disappointment for the scholar, it seemed, was not that the archivist didn’t perform these particular tasks, but that the archivist didn’t perform the emotional labor that would make these tasks possible. “Emotional labor” is a term used to describe the unacknowledged, unpaid, and often-feminized labor that is required of service industry workers. While it may seem counter intuitive, in this sense, the archivist, like many people who work in service (myself included), spend a lot of time and energy in their workplace providing (unacknowledged, unpaid, untrained) emotional labor in their daily exchanges and interactions with patrons.

Reference librarianship is undoubtedly service work. Reference librarians and public service assistants (like me) are expected to maintain an approachable and personable disposition for good reason: patrons should feel welcome to ask questions without the fear that they’re a bother or that they will be judged. Within our circle of public service assistants and supervisors, I’m grateful for the frank discussions that we’ve had about the emotional labor that goes into the routine performance of public service; we’ve agreed that no one can be expected to hold a perky smile through every single shift. And, as I acknowledge the weight of service work, it’s also very important to me that patrons feel respected and heard.

Unlike food service or classroom teaching, I’m not working for generous tips or glowing student evaluations, but I am, in a sense, trying to “sell” the library’s resources and the skills required to navigate them. And it’s the sharing of skills and collaborating with patrons (also emotional labor) that makes most of my exchanges at the reference desk positive and enjoyable, some even leaving me energized, euphoric.

When I put myself in the position of the archivist in the author’s anecdote, I’m reminded of the numerous times in teaching, in serving, and at the reference desk that a student, customer, or patron has asked something of me that I do not owe them or, perhaps worse, they’ve expected something of me without explicitly asking for it. When the expectation in the business world (or the university classroom) is to satisfy the customer at any cost, I’ve had a tendency to allow my personal boundaries to fall away in service to another. At the first hint of dissatisfaction, I’m bending over backwards to anticipate and interpret the customer’s needs and desires. By force of habit, I’ve carried some of these tendencies from the other world into the library, and certainly, I’m not alone. This is where I start to wonder how and where to draw the line between public services at a library and customer service in a business.

What distinguishes one kind of service from the other? What can I do as a librarian-in-training to emphasize the interactional nature of reference service and to move away from the business-like transaction wherein the reference worker is positioned as the gatekeeper of resources (as the young scholar imagined) and also as the customer service worker who must sell their good service and their positive emotional state for the sake of the patron’s satisfaction?

I’m not sure that I have concrete answers to these questions, but at the very least, we can start by naming emotional labor for what it is and then providing space to account for it and setting limits on how we employ it, all as a form of self-care and burnout prevention.

Here are a few readings that I’ve recently come across that may be useful starting points in approaching these questions:

#critlib chat: Working from within the system to create change
The library as a stuck place: Critical pedagogy in the corporate university
Work for hire: Library publishing, scholarly communication, and academic freedom
Into the Caldron: Neoliberalism, Ideology, Education, and Life Itself

-Leah Cover

On Exploring Possibilities

When I came to Indiana University for library school, I thought I knew exactly what sort of career in librarianship I wanted. For two years during high school I had been a student intern in my school system’s fantastic elementary school library. Then for three years after high school I worked off and on with children in my rural town’s tiny public library, conducting storytimes, crafts, summer reading program events, and more. Early on I discovered my passion for rural public communities, children, and teens, so when I started grad school I was excited to take as many classes as possible about public libraries and youth services.

I was very quickly disappointed when I learned that there were so few courses at IU for youth services, and even fewer for public librarians in general. The majority of our courses have little relevance to public libraries, are almost entirely theoretical and geared toward academia, and few professors are practicing librarians, especially public librarians. Many specific courses that seem to be obviously important courses for public libraries, such as Public Library Services, Advanced Cataloging, Reader’s Advisory, Grant Writing, Genealogy and Local History, and (before this semester) Collection Development and Management, etc. either have not been offered in several years or are simply not offered at IU at all. As such, if a student is interested in these important public library courses, he or she will have to register with IUPUI to take the courses online and have the credits transferred. We are actually really lucky that we are able to do this, but I have not taken advantage of this opportunity as much as I could have. I learned in undergrad that I do much better in a classroom setting than online, which is why I chose a school like IU-Bloomington rather than an entirely online program through another university.

Despite my disappointment in the lack of youth and teen services courses, this also has forced me to choose some classes and talk to some professors that I otherwise may not have. I tried out an introductory cataloging course and absolutely loved it, which is apparently a weird thing to love, but I really did. Next semester I plan to take a class focusing on developing websites in the hopes that the rudimentary website skills I grow from this experience will help make me look a little more desirable to prospective employers. I am also currently considering taking an instructional course about teaching information literacy. And while this course is geared toward instruction in college and research libraries and school libraries, public libraries often offer instructional workshops or help students learn how to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.

I honestly never expected to enjoy the technical aspects of libraries, such as cataloging, creating and maintaining websites, or instruction, but I believe that these skills can be particularly beneficial in rural public libraries, where there are very few full-time staff members, each of whom must wear many different hats and complete a wide range of “other duties as assigned” that do not directly fall under their immediate job title. While I have been disappointed in the course offerings at IU, it has allowed me to try new things and has opened my mind to think about how I can tailor courses that are not obviously relevant in order to fit my needs and interests. I think I might still want to work with children and teens, but this process has given me new insights to other possible areas that I did not previously know I was interested in. It can be uncomfortable and intimidating to explore a topic, skill, or class that you know absolutely nothing about, but it can also be rewarding and even surprising if you are able to think about it in terms of exploring new possibilities.

-Kelsey Shanabarger

Learning to Teach Yourself

One reason I was drawn to librarianship is the profession’s potential for being  pedagogical in an empowering way: connecting people to the resources they seek in order to educate, delight, or otherwise inform themselves fills me with lots of excitement. Of course, as Catherine wrote so well in her blog post, the corporate, capitalistic, job-prep mindset of major universities today is impossible to ignore. Few and far between are the patrons who come to the reference desk looking for a geometry book purely out of personal passion, or for a stack of books on queer performativity just “for my own reading.” That being said, I’ve had both of these rare Pokemon reference interactions stumble across my path; interactions such as these keep me going. As I read Tessa’s post lifting up, with such laudable honesty, her experience with burn-out, I found myself both nodding along and thinking–how can we get out of this? What steps might I take to keep myself believing in everything that drew me toward librarianship in the first place? What steps am I taking already?

First things first, I’ve been trying to walk my talk. I became really unsettled realizing how eager I am to leave the library. What’s this all about? For someone who used to linger in the library for hours, strolling through the stacks and riffling through luxurious mountains of books, a sudden aversion to being in the library should bode some serious ill. But when I’m only here for work or class, the associative box that gets drawn around “being at the library” is not a super positive one. I’ve started stacks-strolling again. I’ve started going up to the PS3000s and tracing my fingertips along the spines of poetry books until one catches my eye/skin/heart.

I found this poem:

Blue Dress

Her blue dress is a silk train is a river

is water seeps into the cobblestone streets of my sleep, is still raining

is monsoon brocade, is winter stars stitched into puddles

is good-bye in a flooded, antique room, is good-bye in a room of crystal bowls

and crystal cups, is the ring-ting-ting of water dripping from the mouths

of crystal bowls and crystal cups, is the Mississippi River is a hallway, is leaks

like tears from windowsills of a drowned house, is windows open to waterfalls

is a bed is a small boat is a ship, is a current come to carry me in its arms

through the streets, is me floating in her dress through the streets

is only the moon sees me floating through the streets, is me in a blue dress

out to sea, is my mother is a moon out to sea.

–Saeed Jones

and this one (both of these included here for pure inspiration, but also for their tie-in with the beauty theme this semester):


What is beauty? Ask my soul–

beauty is every extravagance, every gleam,

every flood of abundance

and every great poverty.

Beauty is being faithful and going naked to the fall.

Beauty is a parrot’s plumage or the sunset predicting a storm,

beauty is a stern expression and its tone of voice. It’s me!

Beauty is a great loss and a silent procession of mourners,

beauty is the light touch of a fan that wakens the breath of fate,

beauty is being as sensual as the rose,

or to forgive everything because the sun is shining,

beauty is the cross the monk has chosen

or the necklace of pearl a woman was given by a lover.

Beauty is not the thin sauce poets serve up as themselves,

beauty is making war and seeking your fortune,

beauty is always to serve a higher power!

–Edith Södergran

translated by Samuel Charters

Beyond returning to the library for inspiration and renewal, I’ve also tried to seriously educate myself through the library’s resources this semester. Registering for fall classes last spring, I realized that there was information I wanted that the classes offered by SOIC-ILS were not going to provide: I wanted to learn everything I could about library services in correctional facilities, with a particular focus on library services in juvenile detention centers. There just aren’t classes on these topics (yet?). As a good wannabe librarian, I would have to seek out the information myself.

I registered for a directed reading/independent study and started making myself a curriculum, Almost immediately, I had that feeling, familiar to all who have faced an arcane question at the reference desk, of despair: there aren’t many resources at hand for the serious study of correctional center libraries. But after a few deep breaths and some dedicated search time, I cobbled together a respectable curriculum drawn not only from IU’s stacks and resources, but also from the network of librarians I’ve come to know in the course of getting my MLS, who recommended texts for reading and connected me with librarians facilitating a juvenile detention center’s book group in Johnson County. All of this served to turn my initial despair on its head. Satisfaction fills me when I realize that, between the library, the internet, and some persistence, I truly can learn about anything I want.

Bringing us back to earth from that dewy-eyed (Dewey-eyed? sorry) moment, I’ve got one last self-care suggestion drawn straight from personal experience: picture books. They’re everything a stressed out student/worker/trying-to-be-well-rounded person could possibly want in that they’re short, colorful, inspiring, comforting, funny, and heart-warming. IU has a collection that is equal parts marvelous and alarming, modern and antiquated, housed over at the Education Library, and Monroe County Public Library’s picture book collection is a force to be reckoned with. Need general ideas or particular suggestions? Here’s a few titles I’ve enjoyed lately, but also feel free to ask me in person or friend me on Goodreads (this probably also goes for any other youth librarianship folks, but I’ll just speak for myself).

Promising Picture Books:

The Storyteller by Evan Turk (MCPL)

Pool by JiHyeon Lee (Education Library; MCPL)

Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle (Education Library; MCPL)

Jazz Day by Roxane Orgill (Can request from Indianapolis; MCPL)

-Avery Smith


Jones, Saeed. Prelude to Bruise. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2014.

Södergran, Edith. We Women. Translated by Samuel Charters. Portland: Tavern Books, 2015.

The Other Librarian

I have had multiple professors discuss the evils of the “other” or “miscellaneous” category. The consensus it that these categories do not give any information about what is in them and random, unrelated things end up being grouped together. Yet, despite most librarians agreeing that “other” categories are not particularly helpful, we use it on our own profession. We tend to group librarian jobs as either academic librarians, public librarians, and “other.”  It is true that this “other” category does not give us any information about the wide range of careers within it.

When I started out in the MLS program I was foolish enough to think that I knew exactly what career I wanted once I graduated. I was going to be a science librarian in an academic library and that was that.  As I have progressed through the program my ideas for potential careers has grown and my certainty has lessened. Working in an academic library is still a serious possibility, but so is working in a public library or in an “other” library.  However, information about these “other” libraries and the careers in them are not as readily accessible. Therefore, I have begun seeking out people who work in these libraries to learn about them from the source.

My search for “the other librarian” started at the Indiana State Library, where I got into contact with Marcia Caudell, the Reference and Government Services Supervisor. Marcia kindly agreed to meet with me last week to show me around the library and talk to me about what they do at the Indiana State Library and what it’s like to work there. Something that I love about librarians is that I have yet to come across one who is not willing to take time out of their day to meet with and help out a prospective librarian. State libraries are unique places that serve many purposes. The Indiana State Library is a research library but not an academic library and its users come from the general public but it’s not a public library. They also serve as a library for libraries, loaning much of their collection to libraries throughout the state, including their talking books and braille collection and their extensive collection of microfilm. They also provide professional development and continuing education for librarians, so even if you’re not interested in working in a state library, they’re a great resource to be aware of (they even have a listing of all library job openings in Indiana for those on the job hunt).

My next goal in this search is to track down a corporate librarian. I have found the corporate library to be the hardest “other” library type to find information on. I assume this is because corporate libraries have very narrow user groups, consisting only of the employees at the company they are a part of, therefore they do not do much to try to advertise and reach out to the public. Most of the information that I have found so far has been blog posts by librarians working in corporate libraries and I’m still looking for a corporate librarian I can contact personally.

For me this search has been a good way to alleviate my own MLS fatigue and burnout. It gives me a chance to learn more about the options that will be available to me and reminds me what the light at the end of the tunnel looks like. I left the State Library, after meeting with Marcia, more excited about becoming a librarian than I had been in a while.

-Michelle Porter

School & Work

I had no prior experience working in a library when I came to Indiana University. However, my goal in getting an MLS degree (or now MIS degree) is clear: to get a job in a library working with information retrieval systems. So naturally, my expectation from ILS courses is to get practical knowledge that I can apply to my future job. However, since my first semester, I realized that most of the lecturers lack field experience; they have spent their career life only in the academic field writing papers. They are supposed to be teachers, but they do not learn to teach. Unless I am interested in getting a Ph.D. in Library Science, I do not see how the courses would help me in getting a job. Hence, I started utilizing my student status to apply to many jobs that I’m interested in.

I was terrified too at first, of overwhelming unnecessary assignments and insufficient time to learn many terms that I have never heard before, such as PHP, PKP, open source, java, XML, Dublin core, Darwin core, Fedora, Sufia (no, it’s not a person’s name) and etc. I was worried I would not be able to understand the systems and terms in such a short period of time. However, as time passed, I adapted well to the environment due to my jobs in the library. Compared to courses, having a real life working experience in the library or collection is a more efficient method of learning what it needs to become a librarian. I’m saying this not because “everyone else is doing it,” but for the following reasons that one will not get in a class:
a) emotional involvement on the job
b) repetitive process of utilizing particular technical skills set
c) on the job training

Working at the reference desk might not seem directly related to what I am interested in, but it is a lot more relevant than what I thought. Reference desk shifts give me a break away from the backend of archival and digital library work with the paleontology collection, IT heavy Scholarworks and the MDPI. Interactions with patrons or observations of the patrons at the front end always teach me something about the user’s perspective of the library. For instance, when patrons are willing to share their thoughts on confusion with library services and showing me how they use the library website, etc. And the fun part is that I will analyze and apply that user experience into system development for improvement. Even grumpy phone calls and rude patrons provide me a training ground to train on my EQ.

I think diversifying your work experience through different library jobs is far more important than attending courses. It’s a fortune out of misfortune that there are many library related jobs available to students.

-Wen Ng

On alienation

Honestly, I came to library school as a professional development decision, not out of any real passion to fondle decaying books or work closely with children. You see, after having spent my undergrad years in Bloomington, I had been killing some time working in service and flirting with the idea of pursuing a PhD wholesale, hoping that, at any moment, some life event would transpire and clarify what I was “supposed” to do. This three-year period of wheel-spinning and ruminating resulted in an appropriate degree of quarter-life angst, and in a moment of “I can’t take it anymore!” I considered the prospect of returning to school to pursue an MLS, and subsequently, a job as a librarian. No matter that my motivation and my goals were vague, I applied in December and enrolled a month later. The whole thing happened pretty fast: in the span of a week I went from working 45+ hours/week on my feet as a barista to taking ten hours of classes and sitting at a library service desk for eight more. It was an odd downshift in pace, and I had unwittingly brought a few too many expectations into the program: I had idealized library school, anticipating an intellectually stimulating atmosphere that would serve as a practical synthesizer for my disjointed interests and abilities. I was disappointed.

Looking back, of course, I can’t really solely blame this program for not meeting my expectation of fulfillment–that was simply displaced existential anxiety. Still, though, I can’t honestly say I’m happy with my time spent on the academic side of this program, and I don’t think I’m alone. My difficulty with it stems from a lot of what was mentioned byTessa, Dean and Catherine in their earlier blog posts: it’s an odd mixture of feeling over-burdened with minutiae, bored with redundant or irrelevant material, and maybe a sense of futility/fatality in the shadow of the university-cum-corporation. A lot of people just seem kindabummed; even some of the faculty come off as totally disinterested in their participation in the program. After a semester and a summer in classes, I’m left feeling some of that same ennui that drove me to library school in the first place. Of course, this could be a personal predilection for cyclical self-flagellation, but I still think there’s a shred of universality here: we can’t help but feel alienated from our coursework, and I mean that in both the emotional and the Marxist sense.

As Catherine notes in her post, we’re students in a program run by a corporatized university whose prime motive is capital. If we’re being really cynical (hell, let’s just go with it), the courses we take have no real “value” in the eyes of the Trustees beyond what we pay for them and the symbolic gesture towards continuing the fine field of library science. Conversely, the value I’ve gleaned from this program has mostly come from experience here at the Reference Desk (and with its librarians), critical interactions with other students (always outside of class), and small, skill-based, workshop-like classes and sessions. In order to un-alienate us from our program work, why can’t library “school” instead be more like a library “apprenticeship”? Why should a youth services librarian have to take a course on the History of the Book because it’s the only one that fits with her work schedule? Why don’t we read some critical theory and bring that to bear on our library work instead of spending two hours on an activity that just illustrates that categories are arbitrary? It depends on what kind of librarian you want to be to know what is involved in becoming one, so why are we trying to academically homogenize a heterogeneous group? What would it take for “becoming a librarian” to mean a critical, fulfilling personal engagement with reference services/cataloging/digital librarianship/etc. instead of the ticking-off of requirements on the way to a degree? Can we make that shift happen? I’m doubtful, but it’s important to frankly appraise the structures that be, is it not? And as for me, nothing has ever been quite as motivating as a healthy dose of pessimism; now that I know fulfillment won’t necessarily come from this program, it’s my responsibility to fight to seek it out wherever I find glimmers of it, be it at the desk with an affable patron or in a conversation with a like-minded colleague. If you’re feeling that, too, maybe we aren’t so alienated.

-William McHenry

On Keeping an Open Mind

Since I first started to work different part-time jobs as an undergraduate, I was always drawn to jobs that involved some type of public or customer service. In each job I had, the moments when I got to engage and interact with the people who came to the particular coffee shop/ school/ library where I worked was always my favorite aspect of each job. So when I started to look for part-time jobs at the IU libraries when I came to Bloomington last year, I focused mainly on trying to find reference and instruction work. Not only do I enjoy working with different library patrons in person, I also really enjoy having the opportunity to try and view problems and situations from someone else’s perspective. Whether the issue at hand is trying to find a particular article, dealing with an uncooperative printer, or creating instructional materials that will teach new undergraduates what the library has to offer them, I value the chance to step outside myself and look at things in a different light. I think that kind of practice helps me to stay open-minded and check my own biases and assumptions from getting in the way of meaningful interactions.

This past summer, however, I found myself struggling to maintain that kind of positive attitude during an internship at a public library about thirty minutes outside of Bloomington, where I focused on developing the children’s summer reading program. While working in areas like reference and instruction in an academic library definitely require librarians to try to understand the perspectives of the people they work with, it never felt like a huge stretch for me to try to view the library from an undergraduate or even faculty perspective. I knew how intimidating the library could be from my own experiences as an undergrad, and I had talked with enough faculty members over the years to gain some understanding of how they approached the library. But during this internship, I traveled each day to a small rural public library, and from there would travel to even smaller and more remote branch libraries to put on the children’s program for that week. Having lived near a major city in the Northeast for most of my life, and also having never worked in a public library before, I mainly spent the first few weeks of my internship dealing with some serious culture shock. The lifestyles and ways of thinking that I encountered out in these small towns were worlds away from anything I’d ever really known, and I instantly started to judge everything and everyone from the moment I encountered them. In focusing on how different everything was and whether I approved or agreed with what I saw, I struggled to get past those judgments and actually talk to and connect with the children and parents who came to my programs.

A few weeks into my internship, I ended up chatting with one of the branch librarians, who started to tell me about her experience moving from Phoenix, Arizona to tiny Eminence, Indiana. The shock and discomfort that she felt upon first arriving exactly mirrored my own feelings, and I was relieved to find someone who could relate to what I was dealing with. But as she talked about how all of those feelings changed once she actually took the time to get to know the families and patrons who came to the library, I started to feel slightly ashamed of how I’d been acting. Rather than making an honest effort to really get to know the families that came to my programs, I had been refusing to engage at all because everything was so “different.” But I hadn’t traveled to these towns to pass judgment on their lifestyles; the whole reason I was there was to try to motivate kids to come to the library, and to do that effectively I needed to be able to relate to their families and approach my programs from their perspective, regardless of any personal opinions. If I couldn’t do that, I was seriously limiting my ability to create programs that were not only fun and meaningful, but that could potentially foster a better relationship between the kids, their families, and their local library.

I made a conscious effort from then on to try to push back against those thoughts and feelings that kept me from truly interacting with those families. It took a lot of work on my part, but it was also one of the most rewarding part of my internship. I had the chance to experience an environment and culture that I never thought I would experience, which challenged my own assumptions surrounding librarianship and allowed me to see the world of public libraries and the relationships between libraries and their communities in a different light. In the process, I learned so much about how these different families felt about their public libraries, their thoughts and opinions on the children’s programs I was creating (which helped me to create far better programs), and about the overall value that the library held for them. It was also a very humbling experience – confronting a world that was truly different from my own forced me to honestly examine the biases I held, how they impacted the work I was trying to do, and what I needed to do to get past them. Because as a librarian, no matter where you work or what type of library you end up in, you will inevitably work alongside a patron with whom you (at first) appear to have absolutely nothing in common. But as cliche as it sounds, I’ve learned that if you take the time to get past initial judgments and step into someone else’s shoes, you really can find out that you have more in common that you first thought. And maybe along the way, you’ll learn just as much from them during that brief library interaction as they have hopefully learned from you. It’s been the biggest takeaway from my education in librarianship so far, and regardless of whether I stay in librarianship or eventually move beyond it, it’s a lesson that will stick with me.

-Sarah Klimek

Disappointments in the Edu-factory

In reference to Tessa’s much-appreciated post about mental fatigue and self-care, I would have to diagnose myself as nearly burnt to a crisp on the burnout scale. My burnout, however, is specific to a particular type of library setting: the Great American University. To be perfectly honest, I find myself exhausted by the increasingly corporate culture pervading campus. Just the other day at the Research Assistance desk, I was approached by a student with her intro-level history assignment in hand and upon reading the document for context, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Along with requirements and expectations, the project was prefaced with an overly utilitarian justification for assigning a research-oriented assignment.

To paraphrase, the main rationalization behind the assignment was to prepare students to meet the analytical and information-seeking expectations of the job market. Sound familiar? It shouldn’t be hard to recall instances where this type of education-as-job-prep rhetoric has appeared, whether it be in previous courses or even library instruction. And to be frank, I’m really sick of it. When did the Great American University begin to prioritize student marketability over intellectual cultivation? When did job preparedness rather than individual growth become the main goal of academic institutions? When did corporate values replace academic ideals within higher education?

The moment this existential shift emerged within the university setting can be observed if we take a brief sojourn into American history. In the early 1970’s, nearly three-fourths of college freshmen indicated college attendance was essential to them in order to develop a meaningful, more well-rounded philosophy on life while only a third indicated financial well-being as the prime motivator for admission. Since then, those fractions have dramatically swapped (Berrett). So what happened? In the wake of the Cold War, higher education underwent a major structural adjustment influenced partly by the broader socio-political shift toward free-market orthodoxy, economic strain, and an increasing linkage between university operational budget and industry-related contracts (Berrett). It is at this point that corporate culture hijacked the traditional academic values. Thus was born the edu-factory in which “students are neither ‘customers’ nor ‘consumers’. They are the ‘industry’s’ ‘inputs’ and ‘product.’ The purchasers of the products—private, corporate ‘employers’—are the customers” (Rhoades & Slaughter 14).

Thus began the desperate pitch for the continuing relevance of liberal arts education in the wake of this reorientation towards economic competitiveness of its products (i.e. students). Although corporate interests ultimately stand as the beneficiaries of university efforts, student recruitment is also important for drawing in enough raw product for the university-manufacturer to ultimately yield its finished goods. While higher education was once lauded for developing young people’s potential—to think, to question, to reason—today it is instead presented to students as vocational training, to the point that these corporate values become widely-accepted and even expected by students. As a part of this recruitment strategy, universities offer world-class amenities, among which the university library stands as a major selling point. At my most cynical (and trust me, I’ve been feeling pretty cynical these days), the academic library merely signifies a marketing hook on a university’s recruitment brochures. For the corporate consumers of the student-product, on the other hand, the library represents a reliable brand which provides a type of collateral to hiring said student-product. And Area Studies librarianship—the field I am (was?) interested in pursuing—then would allow the university to check off its “‘multiculturalism”’ box and prove its ability to form a globally competitive workforce to both potential students and corporate interests. So then, where does that leave us future librarians?

It is impossible to completely detach the work we do as librarians, even when engaged in library instruction, from the “context of contemporary labor, capital, and the corporatizing university” (Eisenhower & Dolsy 306). I do not deny that many librarians are engaged in critical pedagogies that at times serve as alternatives to this corporate narrative. But I have to ask myself if information specialists and their critical approaches to teaching and library practices are even making a dent in the prevailing corporate culture. These thoughts I have been grappling with as of late are perfectly encapsulated by Eisenhower & Dolsy’s line of questioning: “What kind of work does our defiant speech do? Is it defiant enough? Is it defiant at all, or simply the expected questioning spirit that is finally disciplined by power arbitrarily executed?” (314).

-Catherine Fonseca


Works Cited

Berrett, Dan. “The Day the Purpose of College Changed: After February 28, 1967, the main reason to go was to get a job.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 61 (2015). Accessed online:

Eisenhower, Cathy, and Dolsy Smith. “The library as “stuck place”: Critical pedagogy in the corporate university.” Critical library instruction: Theories and methods (2010): pp. 305-18.

Rhoades, Gary, and Sheila Slaughter. “Academic Capitalism, Managed Professionals, and Supply Side Higher Education.” Social Text 51 (1997): pp. 9-38

Baffle Library School

Over the past few months, I have been reading and enjoying a lot of The Baffler [1], a magazine that bills itself as “a journal to blunt the cutting edge.” I’ve found this magazine’s salvos to be consistently engaging, provocative, and incisive. Take, for instance, David Graeber’s essay on animal play, in which he pokes fun at evolutionary theorists’ efforts to explain animals’ fun away in rational, economic terms. Some other articles that immediately come to mind:

But what does The Baffler have to do with libraries? Well, if I had one regret regarding library school, it would be that I didn’t pursue my wish to turn my subscription to The Baffler into an independent study course. I’m mostly kidding, of course, but I daresay the magazine has influenced me as a librarian perhaps as much as library school itself. To give an example, I’m inclined to think that parts of the library school curriculum focus rather myopically on “information” as a theoretical concept, to the extent that we can easily lose sight of the ineliminably political dimensions of the regime of information capitalism within which we undertake the work of librarianship–and, by extension, the ineliminably political dimensions of that work. Reflecting on this view of mine, I find echoes of Evgeny Morozov’s excoriation of tech criticism appearing in The Baffler, especially where he writes, “The lines demarcating the technological and the political cannot be drawn by those forever confined to think within the technological paradigm; one needs to exit the paradigm to get a glimpse of both alternative explanations and the political costs of framing the issue through the lens of technology” (para. 43). Just imagine what library school could be like if it had more of The Baffler‘s verve, perspective, and spirit–and if we, the students, were the ones to make it happen!

One’s education in library school is in good part what one makes of it, however trite that may sound. At its best, library school gives us indispensable practical experience and know-how; it affords us the opportunity to become a part of a community of professionals and the space to consider the world of libraries and the issues it faces with (relatively) fresh eyes and to reflect ultimately on what we want the work of librarianship to be. These are the things that make library school worthwhile, even while library school (like any academic institution) also has its distractions, from the drudgery of writing on uninteresting topics to the pressures to accept as given certain ideas and arguments that should be controvertible. For myself, it has admittedly taken a concerted effort on my part to look past these small distractions to focus my attention on what I find interesting, engaging, pertinent, or otherwise useful. However, to have the freedom to make one’s education here one’s own: I regard the thought of this to be both reassuring and liberating, especially as a librarian who sometimes feels disaffected with the zeitgeist prevailing in Library Land today.

It is a freedom, too, that can make one’s education in library school more enriching and relevant. I’ve ventured far beyond the confines of the library school curriculum during my studies here. I’ve drawn upon my “outside” interests and research to inform my work as a student and a librarian, for instance by bringing ethical philosophy and the idea of human dignity to bear on management theory. Come to think of it, given the interdisciplinary nature of the library school curriculum, shouldn’t we feel free to baffle library school and to determine for ourselves what falls inside the scope of our studies and our librarianship?

-Dean Ericksen

[1]: IU Libraries does not appear to have a current subscription to The Baffler, although IU Libraries does provide online access to issues from 1988-2010 and to an eBook version of No Future For You, a collection of salvos from The Baffler that was published in 2014. There are also two other, older collections of essays from The Baffler that are available through IU Libraries: Commodify Your Dissent (1997) and Boob Jubilee: The Cultural Politics of the New Economy (2003).

Admitting to Burnout, Not Failure

I have a confession to make: I’m not entirely sure I want to be a librarian anymore.

This may be as shocking to you as it was for me to realize. I’ve known I wanted to be an academic reference and instruction librarian since my sophomore year of undergrad. Working in the reference department at the University of Louisville, I discovered my love for teaching and helping students with research. So, I went right into library school at full steam, scouring professional job ads, working multiple jobs on campus to get as much experience as possible, shadowing and team-teaching with instruction librarians, volunteering for outreach events, presenting at conferences…I’m exhausted just running through the list.

And now, going into my second year of the library science program, I’m overwhelmed by the feeling that all my momentum has backfired. Instead of doing a few things well, I feel like I’m doing lots of things very poorly. At least in the end I’ll have an impressive CV and maybe even a job offer with a salary and paid time-off and weekends and everything! As I’m frantically juggling classes, a leadership position in the ALA Student Chapter, the instruction and outreach team lead position, a fellowship project in assessment, and managing two small libraries all at once, I’m finding it harder to have patience and empathy for patrons at the reference desk. I no longer get excited when I get an actual reference question or research consultation. Instead of seeing an opportunity to teach, learn, and grow, I feel like their question is just another task on my to-do list. Interacting with patrons is time away from getting something else done instead of, you know, the whole reason why I’m here in the first place–to become a librarian.

Reference librarians sometimes get a bad rap for appearing too busy and unapproachable at the desk. You’ll hear patrons apologize, “I’m sorry to bother you, but…” as you hurriedly close ten tabs to pull up IUCAT. According to the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers, a successful librarian “is poised and ready to engage patrons. The librarian is aware of the need to stop all other activities when a patron approaches and focus attention on the patron’s needs.” This seems like a fair expectation: we’re here to help. We’re expected to not only put aside our homework, but also our subjectivity and identity. This is where it gets complicated, I think, as a student working at the reference desk. It can become taxing, emotional labor to appear friendly, interested, and focused while a million other things are running through your head. This can lead to burnout.

According to Maslach and Jackson, “Burnout is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion and cynicism that occurs frequently among individuals who do ‘people work’ of some kind” (1981, p. 99). Burnout is often a symptom of larger problems. For many instruction librarians it can be caused by their marginal status in academia and the pressure to assess their impact on campus-wide student learning from only one instruction session. It can also stem from the discord between one’s internal emotional state and the external poise and interest one must display when teaching or at a public service desk.

This summer, I interned at IU Southeast as a library instruction assistant with my personal role model and superstar librarian Maria Accardi. I saw a lot of myself in Maria and what I strive to be. She cares fiercely for the souls of her students, but also for herself.

Recently, Maria’s scholarship has diverted slightly from feminist pedagogy and library instruction to include library burnout. She even has a blog dedicated to sharing other librarian’s stories. I had the opportunity to attend the KLA-LIRT conference at the University of Louisville, where I heard Maria speak about her personal experience with burnout. In her keynote speech, she talks openly and honestly about the feeling of exhaustion and cynicism that comes from library work, especially when the professional privileges the personal.

She also suggests ways of preventing and combating burnout–pulling out the weeds as she illustrated with bountiful garden metaphors. Here are my takeaways:

  1. Say no to things that don’t nourish your roots.

This is a big one for a lot of us, I think. As librarians-in-training, we are conditioned to accommodate and please, to be proactive. At least for me, I feel like I can’t say no to opportunities that could get me a job down the road. But cancelling a meeting or turning down a program isn’t going to ruin me.

2. Reject a false balance of work and home life.

The line between work and home life is especially blurred for students who have little consistent off-time. We don’t walk out of the library at 5 o’clock on Friday, we’re here all the time. Prioritize your personal life and well-being. Create boundaries and take time for yourself. Practice self-care. When looking for a job, find a culture and administration that supports this as well.

3. Find a cause you’re passionate about.

For Maria, it’s empowering students in the classroom and approaching her work through intersectional feminism. I’m still searching for my exact calling, but I’ve been invigorated by feminist pedagogy and critical theories.

These things have been especially hard to practice with my current schedule, but I plan to cut back as much as I can next semester. I won’t admit to failure yet, but I will admit to self-inflicted burnout. A big part of my ILS education has been learning about myself and what I really want in life. Maybe I’ll go straight into a library job next year, or maybe I’ll take some time to explore other interests. Be wary of burning out too soon. We have our whole lives and (separate) library careers ahead of us.

–Tessa Withorn


Accardi, Maria. “From Cynicism to Empowerment: How Instruction Librarians Can Resist Burnout.” Kentucky Library Association Roundtable Retreat, 15 July 2016, Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY. Keynote address.

Maslach, Christina and Susan E. Jackson. “The Measurement of Experienced Burnout.” Journal of Occupational Behavior, vol. 2, 1981, pp. 99-113.

Reference and User Services Association. “Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers.” Retrieved from