Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Nothing Blooms Every Day: On Work Life Balance in Librarianship (My RECIP/CLRC Keynote)

Below you'll find something approximating the keynote talk I gave a couple of weeks ago at RECIP/CLRC. It's mostly what I wrote ahead of time, with a little bit of my memory of what I said instead. Also, I had a mini-breakout session in the middle of the talk and have tweaked what I wrote to fit this context. Thanks for reading.

Before I get into the meat of my talk, I want to thank Tyler Dzuba and the rest of the conference organizers for inviting me here today. One of the driving passions in my career is helping library science graduate students and early career information professionals, so this conference’s raison d’etre is very near and dear to my heart. On top of that, what a gorgeous time of year to be this far north. Delaware trees have started to turn, but nothing like what I saw on my drive up.

I have one more thing I want to tell you up front... a caveat of sorts, if you will.

warning sign with human figure falling off a cliff

You see, even though I knew my topic for this talk almost immediately, I had a hard time writing it. When the organizing committee approached me, I’d been doing a lot of reading related to this topic and expected to have a good handle on it by the time the conference rolled around. That just didn’t happen, and I felt stumped.

Whenever I’ve given presentations or workshops or whatever in the past, whether invited or proposed, I was always coming from a place of knowledge. I was the one saying, “hi, I did a thing, and you should let me teach you how to do a thing.” But that just isn’t true here. The reason I’d been researching this is because I was having problems myself. In fact, one of the ideas I had for the title of this talk was “Learn From My Mistakes: On Work Life Balance in Librarianship.”

a raccoon stuck face first in a recycling bin

I've made lots of mistakes in this way, and the reality is that I’ll likely always have problems. So there I was, someone supposedly so knowledgeable that I was invited to give a keynote. Yet I was at a loss.

Actually, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself.

Eeyore bumping into a tree

Why did I even agree to give this talk? Why did I propose this topic? But then, it the midst of trying to figure out if it was too late to change my topic, I realized I wouldn’t need to.

David Tennant, as The Doctor, looking like he just figured something out

I remembered a conversation I had with a coworker back when I was brand new to the field myself. I don’t remember what we were discussing, other than I’d asked for advice, but I do remember that they stopped and looked away for a moment before continuing. They said, “you know what? That’s good advice for me, too. I find myself doing that a lot… giving advice I need to hear myself.”

So that’s where I am with this topic.

a picture of the Earth as seen from the moon, with the words "You are here" and "we all are."
I’ve done a lot of reading and a lot of soul searching. I even hosted an online chat as part of my work on #libleadgender related to work-life balance. But I don’t want this to come off sounding like “do as I say, not as I do.” I’m still trying to figure this work-life balance thing out myself, and I wanted to be upfront about it: I still need advice, too. Regardless, I have learned some things, and I want to share them with you.

The first big thing I want to discuss is embodied in another title I almost gave this talk:  "It's a Marathon, Not a Sprint: On Work Life Balance in Librarianship."

Wile E. Coyote, running

There's no other way to say it other than it's a long road. And sure, saying "it’s a long road" is a cliché, but it’s something I remind myself of probably on a weekly basis. Speaking of clichés, though, let’s think about this in terms of the analogy I did pick for my talk title: plants and gardening. I’m not much of a gardener, to be honest. I even managed to kill a bamboo plant, which is supposedly almost impossible to do. But I do know that planting and tending a garden is a long game. Preparing the soil, figuring out what plants work best in your climate and in the space you have, getting or growing seedlings, planting, weeding, harvesting. You need to think of your lives and jobs the same way because your careers are hopefully going to be a long road.

It’s easy enough to say this, right? But how do you put such an abstract thought into action? Well, here are my thoughts.

First, professional development. You’ve got to keep learning, or else you’re stalled. Think about this: when I was in graduate school, the hot new wireless protocol was 802.11b. By the time I graduated, we had 802.11g. So the stuff I learned in my "Computers in Libraries" class was out of date by the time I graduated. Never mind the fact that there have been 6 or 7 further protocols since then. And that’s just one small area of knowledge from one class. The skill that will serve you best in the long run is the ability to learn and adapt, and librarians are great at that despite the reputation we somehow picked up, but it has to be a conscious effort.

The good news is that you are already on top of this idea, since you’re reading a libraries and librarianship oriented blog. Even if you don't read my blog every time I publish something new, I hope you're taking time every week to pursue some professional development - reading or otherwise. I have to admit that, even though I require everyone on my staff to spend at least an hour each week working on some form of professional development, I have a hard time fitting it in myself. Easy to say, but hard to do.

Another reason why you need to take time for professional development, even if your main duty is staffing a service location like the circulation desk or the reference desk, is to give yourself a break from having to do emotional labor. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, it’s the part of your work performance that has to do with the emotions you display. There’s a very limited range of emotions that are appropriate for when you are working with the public, but we all have lives beyond the performance of our duties, right? It doesn't matter to some. Get into a fender bender on the way to work? Too bad, you have to at least pretend be in a good mood if you’re doing a story hour for toddlers. Get into a fight with your best friend? Better put that anger aside if you’re supposed to be leading a class of incoming freshmen through a basic introduction to information literacy. Get proposed to by the love of your life? You can't show how giddy happy you are because you need to be calm and steady if you’re staffing the reference desk for a three hour shift. But that hour of professional development you spend in your office or at your desk or in your work space, away from the public, that hour of turning everything else off in favor of reading the latest issue of College and Research Libraries or watching a webinar on conflict resolution… that’s an hour when you can just be yourself. And we all need that kind of break. Making sure you get that kind of space in your work week is crucial to being successful on the long haul.

Second, figure out your workflow.

a Rube Goldberg machine made out of legos

I’ve spent a lot of time researching this and developing my own workflow, but it’s not really something I can teach you because everyone will have a different version. Further, what works for you might change over time - I know it has for me. Right now, I mostly use a website called Habitica that turns my daily to do list into a role playing game. I’m a big ol' nerd, so the goofy 8 bit graphics make me smile every time I’m on the Habitica website. Another attraction of this site is that I go adventuring with a party, so any time I don’t accomplish a task, Habitica lets whatever monster we’re fighting injure the whole party. I also use a paper planner. The act of writing myself a list helps me organize the following day.

If you're trying to get a handle on your workflow, there are some things that I think everyone needs to remember:
  1. You need a way to capture ideas immediately. This can be an Evernote file or a Google doc or a box on your desk where you throw scraps of paper with things scribbled on them. Don’t trust your memory - human memories are faulty at the best of times, but when you’re under a lot of stress - like with a forever long To Do list - your brain will turn into a sieve.
  1. You need to look at your ideas on a regular basis. I try to do it weekly, but never go more than two weeks. Capturing things immediately is a way to get them out of your brain to make room for other processes, but you can’t ignore those ideas otherwise you won’t have processing room.
  1. Keep track of your accomplishments. When you’re thinking long term, sometimes smaller accomplishments fade away and all you can see is the big things you haven’t done yet. Any time I start to feel overwhelmed by everything I want to do to improve my library and the service we provide to our community, I look at the list of things I’ve already done. I wish someone had told me to do this early in my career because this, more than anything, keeps me from burning out when I feel overwhelmed.
  1. You need to learn to let go of projects. This is one of the hardest things anyone ever has to do, especially when you love what you do and really want to give the best to the community you’re serving. Sometimes it will be a project that is going well but that isn’t as successful as you’d hoped. Other times it will be a great idea that you just don’t have the money or staffing or energy to accomplish. I find prioritizing easiest when I look at my ideas and ongoing projects in light of the mission statement of both my library and my college. If your library doesn’t have a mission statement, or if it’s a long and convoluted mess of a statement, you could always look at your job description or sit down with your boss to figure out which things are most important.

The third thing you need to remember when thinking about the long haul is that work-life balance is a myth.

Mythbusters picture with the word "busted" over the picture.

It's never going to happen in the short term. The idea of work-life balance is a myth perpetrated to make us feel even more like failures. It’s the unicorn I was chasing when I first proposed this topic to the organizing committee. If you are tenure track or have a new position or are working on another advanced degree, of course you’re going to throw yourself into your job. That’s the way it works and in a lot of ways, it’s necessary to lose yourself in your job for at times. But there are also going to be times when you’re personal life will take over. You could get really sick - everything from a bad case of the flu to something really serious. You could get pregnant or adopt a kid, at which point you better darn well focus on that new little life. You could end up having to take care of a sick relative.

Don’t neglect your personal life completely because you can’t just be the job. But don’t feel bad about those times when you have to say no thanks to going out with friends because you have an article revision due or a grant proposal due at work. But don’t neglect. The most important thing to remember during those stretches where work seems to blot out everything is the next big theme I want to address: self care.

Treat. Yo. Self.

Now, let me dispense with a common misconception. Self care is not the same thing as self indulgence. During a recent #libleadgender conversation, someone expressed a concern that self care could be seen as “Treat Yo Self.” Nothing could be further from the truth. When people talk about self-care, they aren’t talking about buying themselves a movie caliber Batman costume. When people talk about self-care, they are talking about drinking enough water and taking a sick day if you have a fever. They’re literally talking about taking care of themselves.

This is another aspect that can be easier said than done, so I want to share with you some of the things I think everyone should do.

a ring tailed lemur sitting as if it is meditating

First, spend at least 5 to 10 minutes every single day being still and quiet. If you are religious, this can be prayer or meditation. If you aren’t religious, it can still be meditation but it can also be sitting outside. And I’m gonna say something that you might not want to hear, but watching television or listening to a podcast isn’t gonna cut it. Think about the surface of a pond after someone has thrown a pebble or a boulder or anything into it. What does it take to get the water to rest and be still? It’s not more input. I can’t even tell you how much research has been done into this idea. Really, everything I’m sharing here is based on research. This is basic self care and so beneficial.

Ren and Stimpy eating sandwiches

Next, take a lunch break. The occasional - like once or twice a month - lunch hour spent snarfing food at your desk while you continue to work on a big project is okay. But don’t make a habit of it. You are not doing yourself or anyone else any good if you work work work straight through. In fact, there are countless studies and articles that talk about how taking a break and letting yourself rest improves the quality of your work. If you’re more introverted, go somewhere quiet away from your office and eat lunch there. If you’re recharged by spending time with people, go to the staff room or the dining hall or to a friend’s office to eat.

sleeping black kitten

Here’s another one: you need to get sleep. But remember that enough sleep for one person isn’t going to be enough for someone else. I need 7 hours or else I’m cranky and shaky, although I can every once in a while survive on 5 or 6. I’m middle aged, so I’m cranky enough already. Trust me, you don’t want to see me crankier. If you’re having a hard time sleeping, whether from anxiety or other reasons, get yourself to a doctor. I went and slept overnight at a hospital a few years ago in order to figure out why I wasn’t sleeping well, and you better believe I followed every one of my doctor’s suggestions. Insomnia and lack of sleep only makes things worse, so staying up late to get more done… well, that isn’t going to cut it either.

a goat and a baby rhino playing together

Another thing you need to do is you need to move. Yes, I’m talking about exercise if you’re capable of it, but I’m also talking about seeing different sights or hearing different sounds. Don’t overtax yourself or think you’re not doing things right if you can’t take a walk because you have mobility issues. Even just moving to a different part of your library can help you.

30 Rock screen shot of Alec Baldwin holding a cookie jar
The final admonition I have about self-care is that you need to make time in your life for something that isn’t librarian related. You need a hobby or a club or other kind of activity, and reading doesn’t count because that’s still library related.

[At this point in the keynote, I asked people to discuss hobbies - something they love but have neglected and something they've always wanted to try - with the people sitting next to them, before sharing my own hobbies.]

For something I love to do, but that I haven’t done in a while, I need to admit to neglecting my guitar. I didn’t pick it up until a couple of years ago, but a couple of months back when the semester started, that 10 to 15 minutes I used to spend with my guitar went into other things instead. And for me, playing the guitar and learning a new song or new technique is bliss - even when it’s challenging. Maybe especially when it’s challenging.
And for something I want to do, I want to learn to be a better baker. I can do a few thing, like my great grandmother’s pumpkin bread recipe or pizza dough, but I really envy people who are good bakers. And more than anything else, I want to learn to make bagels. I am obsessed with bagels lately, and I end up spending so much money to get the good ones at the bakery.

a picture of me with my guitar

a classical looking painting of soldiers on horseback, with one holding a bagel

As for me, I will learn a new song and try a bagel recipe. Before Thanksgiving. And I’m expecting you all to hold me accountable. I’ll post that I learned the song and pictures of my bagels, and if I don’t meet the deadline, please call me out. In fact, if I don’t meet that deadline, I’ll donate $100 to a charity and I’ll let you all chose. Deal?

the cast of Firefly

And this leads me to my third big point: you need to have a support network. Before I get into this part, I want each of you to exchange contact information with one of the people you just talked with and pick which hobby or activity you are definitely going to do over the next month. You’re going to hold each other accountable just like I’m asking you to hold me accountable. So take a moment more to give business cards or email addresses or whatever.

A support network is how self-care and thinking long term can come together.

One way this works is with goal setting, like the one I just had you all set. So let me tell you about my best friend. She’s this amazing, strong, and kind person.

a conversation between Leslie Knope and Anne Perkins about Harry Potter

For those of you who know Parks & Recreation, my best friend is definitely the Anne Perkins to my Leslie Knope. I even made her watch all 8 Harry Potter movies, but luckily for me my bestie loved Harry Potter. Anyway, we have become each other’s life coaches. We meet once a week to set goals for ourselves for the next week and to check if we’ve met the goals from the previous week. If we met the goals, we get to take a nap that weekend. If we didn’t, we have to socialize with a coworker who drives us crazy. It’s making the promise to someone else, with ramifications, that gets me to keep up with the goals I set for myself.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer saying "But I have to save the world! Again!"

Another way this works is you have a cheering section when you start to doubt yourself. When I was new in my current position, I had a day that left me feeling worn down and wrung out. I was exhausted and feeling a little despondent because something I’d been working on for a while had gotten stalled yet again. A good friend of mine was trying to make me feel better. I told him that I couldn’t keep up my normal witty banter because I felt like Buffy Summers after she triumphed over the demon mayor, and that I was at the “fire bad; tree pretty” level of tired. My friend responded, “so what you’re saying is that on your worst day you’re still a vampire slayer?” It made me laugh, which made me feel better.

My best friend is a psychology professor and my online friend is an academic librarian who mostly focuses on technical services type stuff. But I also have a professional support network that keeps me going long term. I know so many library administrators who have mentored me or who I mentor, officially and unofficially. I can reach out to them and ask everything from how do I handle a particularly sticky situation with a faculty member, to recommendations for compressed shelving vendors, and beyond.
You need a support network and friends both within and outside of the profession, both within and outside of your particular specialty in librarianship. You need people who know exactly what you’re going through and doing, and people who have only vague knowledge. And this is the kind of work-life balance you need to achieve.

a hummingbird and some bees drinking from the same water source

And to bring this back to the metaphor I picked for the talk, gardening, again, support networks are like an ecosystem supporting multiple people just like a garden can support multiple kinds of life. Okay, I’ll admit it, I am beating the gardening analogy to death a bit here because I really wanted an excuse to use this picture, but you get my point.

baby flying fox getting wrapped in a blanket

Anyway, I want to wrap this up, so let me remind you of my main points, things I wish someone had told me when I was new in this field and an early career information professional:

  • You need to think long term and long distance. Hopefully you’ll all have long and fruitful careers, so you need to pace yourself and think beyond this moment.
  • You need to take care of yourself. Have a life outside of your career, be still once in a while, and get some rest.
  • And you need to have a support network as well as supporting others. Keep each other honest, Keep each other on task. And keep each other laughing.

Thanks again to the organizing committee and to all the conference attendees. I'm proud of how well this talk went, and I hope we all take my advice.


  1. Did you make bagels and learn a new song? You asked us to how you accountable for that.

    1. Yes! Posted about both on Twitter, but forgot to update here.