The Labor of Librarianship, a Reflection for Labor Day
One day last week I saw that somehow had tweeted out about how we should not call librarianship a calling because it sets us up to be asked for unpaid labor. Although I understood the sentiment about what was being stated, I bristled a bit about being told how I can and can’t talk about my feelings about librarianship. You see for me, librarianship is a calling and something that I feel very passionately about. I come from a youth ministry background, so I’ve spent a great deal talking about calling. When I first started working in libraries I finally felt that I had found both my place and my calling in this world and it has continually brought me a sense of peace and direction.
I believe that there are several professions in which some people may feel called to. Teachers. Doctors. Artists. Writers. And yes, Librarians. That does not mean I support anyone in these professions being unpaid or underpaid. It does not mean that I feel that they don’t deserve work/life balance or reasonable schedules or manageable workloads. Speaking about life in terms of a calling has nothing to do with outcomes or compensation and everything to do with the intrinsic motivation of the person performing that labor. A calling is what the person doing the job feels, it does not in any way address outcomes.
Talking about librarianship also doesn’t mean that I feel that all of my peers should feel the same way or have the same motivation. I have worked in libraries for 26 years and I can assure you, I have worked with a lot of people who do not view librarianship as a calling, and that is fine. As long as everyone comes to work and does their best, which is true of any job that any person does, I think that is fair. You’re allowed to feel about your work however you feel. If for you it is a calling, like it is for me, I am happy that you like me to get be fulfilled by doing the work you feel called to do. And if for you it is just a job, that is also fine, as long as it is a job you are going to try your best at while you are at work.
For me, librarianship is a calling. Not just librarianship, but getting to serve and work with our youth. It is also a responsibility that I do not take lightly. I have made a lot of personal choices in my career to learn more, to grown, and to serve. It also doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize that most days are mundane, stressful, and yes, sometimes harrowing. I have felt disillusioned, overworked, underpaid, unappreciated, stressed out, over burdened and more. In 2008 I watched as hard working, dedicated staff got laid off, budgets were slashed, services were cut, and less staff were asked to do more work with less resources, less time, and for less money. Librarianship, even as a personal calling, is not without its challenges, faults, and issues.
I am also not an big advocate of doing unpaid labor or donating my time, energy or efforts to a library in which I am employed because ultimately it hurts not only me, but it hurts my fellow library staff and yes – the very youth that I am trying to serve. You see, libraries operate on budgets and those budgets dictate things like staff, programming, space allocation, supplies, materials (including books) and services (including online tutoring services, for example). If I donate a lot of time, supplies and labor, then the people in charge of creating those budgets don’t have a realistic idea of what kind of budget is needed. I am, in fact, harming my youth. And if I leave a position, I have now set the next librarian up for failure because that same admin will expect my successor to perform at a standard that they haven’t built into the schedule or budget because I failed to communicate authentic needs. No one wins, least of all the community we serve, when I do my job in unrealistic ways.
So yes, I do feel that for me being a librarian is a calling. I feel honored and blessed every day to get to be a part of something that I believe passionately about. But I help no one, including myself, my biological children who like to eat, and the youth that I serve if I don’t speak out about the very real issues in librarianship, including the tendency to have unrealistic expectations and low pay for our staff. I don’t think librarianship and libraries are above criticism, though I do ask for caution in the ways that we talk publicly about those issues because we already have a lot of negative stigmas that we are fighting against. I believe very strongly that we should talk particularly about the stress of day to day patron interactions in more private channels because we don’t want to demean, shame or alienate the very people we say we are trying to serve.
In the midst of this entire conversation is this very blog that you are reading. It takes a lot of time and energy, and I do my due diligence to make sure that the blog is always separate from my work because the blog is a personal choice I made. Make no mistake, any library that I work at has always benefited in positive ways from this blog and the networking opportunities it has afforded me, but TLT is also a personal choice that I make and I blog on my own time, which is why I’m sitting here on Labor Day writing this post. TLT brings me both deep personal and professional benefits; I’m a better and more knowledgeable librarian because of Teen Librarian Toolbox. That is also a personal decision that I have made for myself and I don’t expect or judge others who make different personal decisions about their careers.
And I guess that’s why I bristled so much when I heard others saying that we can’t or shouldn’t talk about librarianship as a calling. Because we can. If that’s what librarianship is to you, I completely understand. And if it isn’t, I get that as well. I’m not going to tell you what language to use to talk about your work or to police your feelings, and I would ask that you would extend the same courtesy to me. We can all still be professional peers and friends.
Work and everything involved in work is a complicated issue. Labor Day is a stark reminder that we have been arguing about what place work should play in our lives and what reasonable expectations are and a large variety of issues surrounding work for a very long time. It’s a complex and complicated issue that is woven into the very fabric of our personal and national identity. We’re not going to solve the issues today, but we need to keep talking about them.
But for right now, I’m going to go outside and make another t-shirt with my kid. Because we’re all off and that’s how she’s asked me to spend it with her. Happy Labor Day everyone. Whatever work you’re doing, I hope it brings you some measure of joy and stability in your life. I know that in this moment, I am one of the lucky ones because I am in a job I love and feel called to do.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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