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

Ephemera and Librarians as Scholars

As I’m sure many of my colleagues remember from my many emails requesting shift coverage, I recently attended a conference. The theme of this year’s Nineteenth Century Studies Association’s conference was “The New and the Novel.” The conference is interdisciplinary and welcomes scholarship that explores all nations. In addition to panels centered around my interest in American and British literature, I learned about French etiquette, Australian brush fires, and American national portraiture.

One of the more interesting presentations I attended engaged my interest in ephemera. A woman was beginning a study on a specific 19th century ballad. She traditionally studied 18th century literature so she was new to navigating the world of ephemeral resources. I use a lot of old newspapers, broadsides, and other ephemeral works in my writing, so I can understand the difficulty she faced as I have had to learn how to find these resources myself. Neither of my departments (English or ILS) has taught me how to locate these materials and I often resort to combing through searches that return thousands of hits.

I have since been in touch with this scholar and she has asked me if I can keep an eye out for ballads and song sheets related to her subject. I would like to, but where do I begin?

This is a different type of request than we usually receive from scholars. It is not a single question, a research consultation, or a request to help navigate a specific database. Library science is a service field and we are more accustomed to helping patrons in this way. How do we then treat these requests from scholars who treat librarianship as a type of scholarship? These requests suggest we establish a more long-term relationship rather than a limited series of exchanges. How long do we stay in contact with these patrons? How much work do we put into assisting them if they are not “our” (i.e. our library’s) patrons? Do we do extra research outside any that we are already doing or do we email whenever we happen to stumble upon something of interest?

This brings up interesting questions, ones I believe some of us will encounter as we attend conferences, work with patrons who are visiting on fellowships, and move from one job to another (hopefully keeping in contact with patrons from our last institution).

On a last note, if anyone knows anything about databases of ephemera, broadside ballads, or songs sheets from the late 18th and 19th centuries, will you let me know?

-Steph Luke

Humanizing Librarianship: A Reflection on the Need for Reflection

IM Patron, Hear Me Ask: Hi, I was trying to access an article from the Journal of Underpaid Adjuncts called, “I Wrote This: Hire Me, Please? Pretty Pretty Pwease?”, but OneSearch keeps turning up thousands of articles–just how many articles like this can there be?? Halp!!

IM Librarian, Destroyer of Weeds: Hi there, thanks for holding. Could you repeat your order?

No doubt, online services like our “Ask a Librarian” chat reference can be very convenient in a pinch. Need help finding an article or two for a paper on the fly? You’re in luck–reference operators are standing by, eagerly awaiting your next text or instant message! Yet, speaking for myself, I have to wonder what can get lost in the process of making reference services maximally convenient and efficient, whether it be in the name of promoting “information access” or some other favorite pastime. I ask, in particular, how some of our ideas on librarianship–our reasons for being librarians; our values, our visions, and our ambitions–contribute to the dehumanization and devaluation of librarians and patrons alike.

For me personally, the IM reference service merely foregrounds the impersonal, transactional form of exchange that characterizes much of our social interaction, a state of affairs for which IMs alone are hardly responsible (as anyone who has worked in retail or customer service knows first-hand). I find myself recalling a particular passage from Franz Kafka’s Amerika.[1] As the protagonist Karl Rossmann is about to get thrown out of Hotel Occidental (where he had just been fired from his job as a lift-boy), he ends up in the porters’ lodge. He observes the assistant porters, whose duty it is to dispense information of all kinds to the frenetic shuffle of the manifold hotel guests, with arms outstretched and hands grasping or signing impatiently. With guests always speaking over each other to get out this question or that demand, the assistant porters cannot afford to pause: They dare not stop the deluge of information spilling from their mouths, not even for the sake of clarity, until an exhausting hour has passed and they must rotate out, with nary a guest noticing the switch until much later. Behold, in all their glory, our information specialists avant la lettre!

In the porters’ lodge, we witness a perfectly efficient and bustling information system–along with the mutual dehumanization of guests and workers: Everyone is equally replaceable, equally disposable, as far as this system is concerned. What’s more, the system is not entirely imposed from without; rather, it comes into being, and stays in being, through the hurried exchanges that occur between myriad guests and overburdened workers.

I can’t help but suspect the current devalued state of librarianship is in no small part the product of the ideas and assumptions we ourselves have allowed to shape the profession: ideas on librarianship, on our social and historical circumstances, on human nature and the ways of this world of ours. How might we humanize librarianship? We cannot begin to answer such a question until we engage ourselves in thought and reflection. Almost 40 years ago, André Cossette wrote in his Humanism and Libraries, “Library science is still in a time of pragmatism. Librarians know how to do their work, but do not respond in a systematic way to the primordial question: why do this work?”[2] That question continues to endure for good reason. In striving to answer it, we might not simply reinvigorate our work with renewed purpose and meaning, but humanize it as well.

-Dean Ericksen

[1]: Franz Kafka, The Man who Disappeared (America), trans. Ritchie Robertson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 129-31.
[2]: André Cossette, Humanism and Libraries: An Essay On the Philosophy of Librarianship, trans. and ed. Rory Litwin (Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press, 2009), 17.

To Badger or Not to Badger

“I knew I should just turn this question over to a reference librarian. You guys are like badgers.” I received this compliment (?) from a patron when I finally tracked down the article he was looking for after about 30 minutes of searching. At first, I wasn’t sure how to take this, but after thinking for a few minutes, I decided I loved it.

Badgers may not look like much to the casual observer, but when cornered, they can be fierce fighters.

When comparing librarians and badgers, I prefer Roald Dahl’s Badger in Fantastic Mr. Fox over Kenneth Grahame’s Mr. Badger in The Wind in the Willows. While Graham’s badger is a gruff hermit who very reluctantly agrees to help Toad, Dahl’s Badger captures the “good-in-a-pinch” nature of everyone’s favorite Mustelidae. Badger is friendly, loyal, tenacious, and a little bit goofy, character traits befitting a reference librarian.


Being a reference assistant means each shift can bring an onslaught of mind-numbing questions about the location of restrooms and drinking fountains, or my personal favorite: “Do you have books here?” While those questions can sometimes take a toll, it is the in-depth research questions that allow me to take pride in my work. Instead of simply handing off these difficult questions to a subject librarian, I do my best badger impression and fight until I simply cannot find the answer. (Unless the question is about science because…you know…it’s science.)

After spending hours at the reference desk, it can be easy to slip into grumpy librarian mode. While it may seem more interesting to figure out what Disney princess you are than to point a student in the direction of the Digitization Lab, we have to remain open to helping. At the beginning of each semester, new students are learning about using the library. Our hope is that, by helping them with mundane questions early in the semester, we will see them returning in November or April when research papers are due and our expertise is needed.

Over the past three years, I have worked as a reference assistant at two different academic libraries. Despite hundreds of questions that could have been answered by a sign, I have not lost my joy for working with patrons, especially students. Attacking each question eagerly, and working hard to provide the best answer possible, should be the goal of every reference librarian. While this is not easy, neither is defending your neighborhood from three mean farmers. Just ask Badger.

-Ryan Frick

Anything Peeps Can Do, You Can Do Better

The library can be a pretty intimidating place.


Especially if you’re made of marshmallow and sugar.


Lucky for this little peep—and you—we have some really great reference librarians and assistants on staff who can assist you with finding the books, journal articles, and online resources you’re searching for.

But I don’t even know where to start! you say.


Well, how about we follow these peeps as they journey through the library in search of a book?

First thing’s first, little guys: Head on over to the reference desk to learn how to locate your book.


Before the librarians can help out, of course, the peeps need to say what it is they’re hoping to find. Once they’ve done that, the librarians can show them where to search.


The librarian has pulled up IUCAT, which is IU’s online library catalog. It will show us any books or journals within IU’s libraries that are relevant to the peeps’ search.


Now that the peeps have a call number for their book, they’re heading up to the stacks. (They all agreed they could use some exercise, so they’re taking the stairs.)


Not quite what you had in mind, is it? The peeps thought they’d stumbled upon a book about Abraham Lincoln (their favorite president) AND peeps. Lucky for them, this entire section of books seems to be devoted to Lincoln. And one of the peeps has spotted an interesting title, up on the very top shelf.


Now that they’ve found their book, all that’s left is checking out with circulation. But, oh no! The peeps need a photo ID to borrow a book from the library…


Phew, looks like one of them found his.

Now the peeps are all ready to take their book on Abraham Lincoln home. And, best of all, they’ll know what to do the next time they visit the library!

– Kaitlin Bonifant

*No peeps were harmed in the making of this blog.


**Except this one…

IU-B African Studies Library: a Bountiful Research Collection


Are you someone who is interested in scholarly reference materials on Africa south of the Sahara? If so, look no further than your IU Bloomington Library! The 6th floor of the Wells Library has a vast collection of documents covering a great deal of historical information. Keep reading to get more information on our collection and how to use it.

What exactly is the collection about?
The African Studies Library Collection is a multi-reference research area that contains information about Sub-Saharan Africa, supporting research inquiries for undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. students alike. The collection has documented information dating back as early as c1500, including aspects of indigenous tongues, spirituality, culture, government, and more.

What does Sub-Sahara mean?
The Sahara is a geographical reference point spanning from far West Africa towards Egypt and then south towards the country of South Africa. The African Studies collection consists of multiple documents written in indigenous languages such as Zulu, Igbo, Xhosa, Ibibio, Afrikaans, Bambara, Fula, Kpelle, Sango, Somali, Swahili, Wolof, Twi (Akan), Yoruba, and many others. In addition, these documents can be extremely useful as primary resources!

Who should use the African Studies collection?
Anyone interested in learning more scholarship about Africa and all that it consists of will benefit greatly from this collection, which contains everything from manuscripts, academic journals, annual conference reports, newspapers, and language and linguistics manuals. You don’t have to stop there, though! Expand your realm of knowledge by exploring the IU Art Museum which has primary resources of African art and archaeological pieces of African tribes and culture south of the Sahara. Using the African Studies Library Collection interchangeably with other resources on the IU Bloomington campus can help you if you are not solely dependent upon the African Studies collection for scholarly reference materials.

african studies lib

If you’re looking to broaden your African Studies horizon even further, feel free to visit the library’s African Studies resources page. Browsing through these resouces can be helpful in obtaining information that the Wells Library may not have. For instance, Michigan State University currently carries one of the most comprehensive collections on the Amharic language of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Since IU and MSU are part of the Big Ten conference library system, resources can also be researched through Worldcat. To request items that another library holds, you can submit an Interlibrary Loan (ILL) request.

Happy researching! As always, don’t hesitate to consult with a reference librarian in the Wells Library east tower for further research help!


How do I Cite??

The world of citing can be scary-do I use MLA? APA? Chicago? What if I am in a science discipline-how do I cite my sources? Citing is also one of the most important components of research in the academic world, and the difference between doing it right and wrong can be the difference between a successful career in academia, and being kicked out of school for plagiarism.

But not to worry! The Reference Department staff has you covered for all your citation needs. On our reference department homepage you can check How To Cite, which will provide you with guides reference staff has created as a quick “how to” guide to citing sources. It offers MLA, APA, and Chicago guides to citing, three of the most common citation styles in the academic world. These guides are in PDF format.

Are you a political science major? Perhaps you’re working with government documents and don’t know the first place to start to cite such complex documents. Not to worry-we have government information citation guides specifically designed for you, explaining how to cite everything from microforms to electronic documents to government websites.

If you’re doing more intensive research, and are looking for help with a citation program such as Endnote or Zotero, we have resources for you to use, as well as other bibliographic software that can aid your research and citations.

Lastly, the Reference Department has a wide array of books to offer even further citation help. Below are just a couple books that we have that can assist you with your citation needs.

A Manual For Writers of Research, Papers, Theses and Dissertations. Located in the Reference Collection, call number: LB2369 .T8 2007

MLA Style Manual. Located in the Reference Collection, call number PN147 .A28 1985

There are a host of other books, so check these out. And, as always, don’t forget to ask a librarian!


How do you find the Etymology of a Word?

The Reference Desk has gotten some questions about how to find the etymology of a word. We have several resources you can use. A good online source is Oxford English Dictionary.  Enter the word you want to find the history of in the search box, for example “ghost” and then click “Find Word”. From the results page, click on “Etymology” at the top of the page.

To quickly find books in the library that provide the etymology of words, go to IUCAT, the library’s online catalog and sign in with your user name and password. Click on “Advanced Keyword Search” under “More IUCAT Searches”, type in “etymology and dictionary and ‘English language’ ” in the Subject field in IUCAT. Under Search Options, toward the bottom of the screen, select  Blmgtn – Herman B Wells Library and then hit the Search button. You will get a list of books that can help you find the etymology of all types of words. To view a quick video that demonstrates how to conduct the search in IUCAT – click here.