An Uneasy Cult(ure) of Stress in Academic Libraries

by Lise Doucette
Assistant Librarian, University of Western Ontario

Academic librarians’ stress levels are not unusual when compared to other types of workers employed in social services, healthcare, and information settings (Shupe et al., 2015) – but that doesn’t mean we should accept this status quo.  Shupe and her colleagues found that academic librarians’ stress is often due to ambiguity and overload in our roles.  How do these factors also affect our research practices and research productivity?

Hoffmann et al. (2014) performed a content analysis of 42 papers on research productivity, and found that one of the most prevalent factors was “time.”  In discussions at my university, librarians and archivists also identified “lack of time” as a barrier to research productivity.  I’ve heard myself and colleagues talk about cancelling pre-planned research time for professional practice work, to deal with never-ending emails, and to get started on new work we’ve volunteered for.

There are many ideas in popular science and psychology literature about solving these problems of uncertainty and overload.  At the root of some solutions is managing the uncertainty, and at the root of other solutions is accepting that uncertainty.

  • Time management systems and project management software abound, promising to make you productive and happy. The title of a recent blog post – The Perfect System – made my heart leap.  Finally!  The true solution!  Alas, the actual post pokes fun at my (and others’) quest for this ultimate system, and the uncertainty and fear that drives us to seek it out.  The answer, says the author, is acknowledging, becoming comfortable with, and even embracing the discomfort of uncertainty, while pushing yourself to do hard and important work.
  • Many time management systems are based on negative descriptions of time, like scarcity of time and time famine. There are also interesting physical descriptions of time – visualising time or talking about the volume of busyness or work, as if it’s a heavy, physical burden.  Other approaches to managing time and work use more expansive words like acceptance and mindfulness, and suggest building slack or a buffer in your schedule (see blog posts Why I’m Eliminating the Word ‘Busy’ From My Vocabulary or Why You Can’t Stop Being Busy Even If You Want To).
  • One approach recommended by Cal Newport, professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work, is blocking time for doing important thinking work (like research and writing) and developing the ability to concentrate without distraction. His book and blog talk about ways to achieve this.  A similar approach is identified in the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown – identifying the things that are essential and where you can contribute the most, and eliminating the rest (i.e., doing fewer things but doing them better).

We have the right and the responsibility to be deliberate and selective about our work, within the bounds of how workload is set at our institutions.  When reading Ryan and Koufogiannakis’ (2007) viewpoint ‘Librarianship and the Culture of Busy,’ I laughed out loud when I came to their tongue-in-cheek use of the term ‘busy excellence.’  They and others also identify the problems with busyness as a performance – whether to supervisors, colleagues, or oneself.  If we associate busyness and stress with productivity and recognition, we neglect to address the real physical and mental impacts of stress on individuals and groups, and we neglect to make and take time for the important and time-consuming (but not always urgent) parts of our roles, like research.


Books and articles:

Hoffmann, Kristin, Selinda Adelle Berg, and Denise Koufogiannakis.  (2014). Examining success: identifying factors that contribute to research productivity across librarianship and other disciplines.  Library and Information Research, 38(119), 13-28.  http://www.lirgjournal.org.uk/lir/ojs/index.php/lir/article/view/639

McKeown, Greg.  Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.  New York: Crown Business, 2014.

Newport, Cal.  Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.  New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

Ryan, Pam, and Denise Koufogiannakis.  (2007.) Librarianship and the Culture of Busy. Partnership, 2(1).  https://journal.lib.uoguelph.ca/index.php/perj/article/view/149/371#.WSxz_mgrKUk

Shupe, Ellen I., Stephanie K. Wambaugh, and Reed J. Bramble.  (2015). Role-related Stress Experienced by Academic Librarians.  The Journal of Academic Librarianship 41, 264-269.  doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2015.03.016


This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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