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