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