Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Hidden Suffering of “Good Librarian Syndrome”

It’s a really tough time to be a(n) ___________. Fill in that blank with your chosen profession. It’s true for all of us right now. But in my own role as a librarian and archivist, there are some particular challenges.

I recently had an online discussion with some wonderful library/archives friends from around the country who are all struggling with hiring freezes, budget cuts, and administrators begging us to do more with less. One of the issues that was mentioned was a lack of staffing, which led to position restructuring within the library but no change in services. As usual, library employees were expected to endure these changes with pleasant smiles and helpful demeanors. But why? Other departments are not burdened with such expectations. Nobody bats an eye if they stand up and fight against cuts. Why are we so different?

It was suggested that the core of our problem is “Good Librarian Syndrome”: it hurts us to say “no” when we are asked by our supervisors, administrations, or even our patrons to do something. The librarian who described this malady went on to say that we have to teach librarians how to say “no” – it’s not a natural behavior for those of us who love to help people. Instead, we will naturally go out of our way to help patrons discover topics, find the best sources, and format and cite their research papers. It’s just what we do. We can’t help helping. And we will help you until it kills us. Maybe not literally, but we will “do more with less” until we have nothing left to give to anyone.

One of the librarians in the discussion fought back: “I don't understand why we have such a problem saying ‘no.’ If our budgets get slashed and we have to cut resources, and then people complain, I feel like we should be honest and say, ‘Hey, our budget got slashed. It totally sucks. Here is who you should complain to.’ I find the fact that we are not ok with doing this mind-blowing. I don't think it is good to portray libraries as not suffering, if in fact they are. I think it could work against us. How can we ask for more when we always seem to be doing more with less?” She’s right, of course. If we continue to maintain hours and services with fewer and fewer resources, we will never get our budgets restored or our vacancies filled.

The answer she received in our chat was, “Because ‘Good Librarians’ like to suffer and want to seem like superheroes. It's a nice idea but it leads to bad service, unrealistic expectations, and burnout.”

Yes, it does. Why do we think this is normal behavior? Why aren’t we empowered to stand our ground and state our case? How can we maintain our “Good Librarian” status without running ourselves ragged? I don’t have all the answers, but I think the outspoken librarian above is correct. We need to let people know that we’re suffering and that we’re not superheroes no matter how much we long to be. (And with a name like “Superstarchivist,” I do long to be.)

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