Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Article Note: On demands in librarianship and their impact

Citation for the article:

Knibbe-Haanstra, Marcella. "Reference Desk Dilemmas: The Impact of New Demands on Librarianship." Reference and User Services Quarterly 48.1 (Fall 2008): 20-25.

Read WilsonWeb.

This short article looks at stress factors in reference librarianship. The title uses the label "new demands," but a lot of the article presents these demands as stress factors. The article starts with a pretty generic overview of how librarianship has changed. It's the usual statement of dichotomy: how we see ourselves and how the public sees us. We know that librarianship is dynamic, and it continually changes and evolves. The public either sees the elderly matron with a bun or sees the naughty librarian stereotypes. Apparently, for the public, there are only female librarians. Then the literature review continues with the image of library work as minimally stressful. Les Kranz, who Knibbe-Haanstra cites, apparently never observed a real library in action. The reality is different. Knibbe-Haanstra writes that "the modern librarian is expected to be up-to-date on the latest technological developments, information sources, and service management" (20). I've written a couple of time on issues of keeping up and service (for example here, over here, and way over here), so a lot of the article's opening is not really new to me. The issue with Knibbe-Haanstra's statement is that as technology and information developments arise, expectations arise as well. Add a very demanding public, often known for its lack of gratitude, and you get a formula for stress and burnout in our profession. This is the gist of the article. The rest is just a discussion of the stress issues.

As I usually do when making notes, here are some article highlights with my comments:

"Clients in these professions do not often communicate gratitude to professionals who are trying to help them and will sometimes communicate quite the opposite attitude, creating a hostile and unappreciative environment" (22).

  • There is a reason why blogs such as The Society for Librarians Who Say Mofo are thriving. A good number of librarians like to put down that blog, say that they are unprofessional, and overall portray themselves as if they are above venting about rude patrons or just deny such exist. The sad reality is that a lot of library patrons lack basic manners and social behavior skills. Librarians, and front line library staff, bear the brunt of this. Of course, talking about this is a taboo subject. After all, a lot of the celebrity librarian bloggers and upbeat wide-eyed librarians would have you believe that patrons can do no wrong. The truth is that our profession often excuses patron bad behavior for the sake of the "nice helpful librarian" image, but this only continues to encourage hostile work environments. Thus, with no place to vent, places like the mofo blog attract those seeking to vent and maybe find someone who will listen and understand. The fact blogs like that exist makes a serious comment on our profession and how it often mistreats its own.
  • Personally, I could tell plenty of stories about ungrateful and hostile students and their parents from my school teaching days. But those would be told after the newer ones I can tell from my current librarian days. Overall, some days are better than others.
Knibbe-Haanstra mentions some of the stress factors mental health workers and experienced teachers face. Yes, I can count myself as an experienced teacher, and I can attest to having being victim of these at one time or another. I don't mean to sound extreme, but we need to call a spade a spade. I am just jotting down the list because if I start commenting on each item on the list, this post will get a lot longer. From page 22 in the article:
  • Poor leadership.
  • Lack of staff autonomy.
  • Incongruent vision of job objectives.
  • Growing workloads and duties.
  • Lack of support from administrators and the community.
Then, there are the new challenges and demands in reference services:

"For the most part, this includes the construction and maintenance of a library's website, blogs, and wikis, as well as advanced knowledge in online communication such as e-mail, chat reference, and even virtual worlds such as Second Life" (22).

  • I don't maintain websites (yet), and I am familiar with Second Life, though not a user of it. Otherwise, I've done or currently do everything else on the list. And I enjoy that part of the job quite a bit. Things would be a tad easier without some of the stress factors I listed previously above. By now, these skills and activities are just part of my professional life.

Citing Placzek, Knibbe-Haanstra writes that:

". . .the learning curve expectations are very high and many reference librarians are often required to teach patrons how to use a resource not long after being first introduced to it" (22).
  • The issue is that often there is not enough time to reflect on what we learn let alone absorb it prior to teaching it to someone else.
The article's author further adds:

"Although the Internet offers a wealth of training information online, Ennis points out that the opportunity to improve technological skills is hardly useful if a librarian has no time to complete them" (qtd. in 22; emphasis added).
  • In many cases, technology just adds to our already bloated workloads, and it increases stress levels.
Now for a statement of the obvious. I don't want to sound snarky, but as someone who reads a lot of library literature, I usually find at least one statement of the obvious in every LIS article. Here is one for Knibbe-Haanstra's article:

"It could be argued that the main cause of stress for reference librarians is the ever-increasing number of responsibilities alongside a declining period of time for personal and professional development" (23).

  • This is a point I've made before. We need thinking time, something that is very rare in our profession and workplaces. This is specially true if you work in a library's front lines.
Knibbe-Haanstra concludes with some suggestions for stress management. I won't go into them here since they go from somewhat condescending (better time management by librarians) to nice in theory but nonexistent in practice (upper management support, if you can get it). At the end of the day, much of the advice boils to "shut up and deal with it." After all, the only certain thing is change, even if not all change is positive.

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