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.

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).

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.

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.

Breaking the time barrier: Making time for research in a busy world

by Denise Koufogiannakis
University of Alberta Libraries

Finding the time to do research is a huge issue that many librarians face. Research studies have shown that librarians perceive time as a barrier to both doing research and being an evidence based practitioner (Turner, 2002; Booth, 2011). My own research found that time was a determinant of evidence use by academic librarians. It acts as both a barrier and an enabler depending upon an individual’s circumstances, particularly with respect to their work environment (Koufogiannakis, 2013). In general, though, we usually think and talk about time as a barrier, so the focus is negative, often without any solutions to the problem being proposed.

I think one of the biggest issues in relation to time being a barrier is the “culture of busy” that surrounds us. A culture of busy is one where we talk about being “busy” as if it were a status symbol, a badge of honour, a way to show we are important and successful. It’s a way of bragging, masked within a complaint. But it is not meaningful. Unfortunately, we talk this way a lot, including in the workplace.

Busyness also an easy excuse for saying no to doing something, when you don’t want to dig deeper. It’s is way too easy to simply say “I’m too busy,” or, “I don’t have time,” without giving it a second thought. Sometimes you actually face a different barrier such as needing to improve your research skills, or not feeling confident enough to do research, but it is easier to just blame a lack of time.

In librarianship, I think we also worry that doing research is an ‘extra’ and that our peers will judge us negatively for doing research, especially during a time when we all seem to be doing more with less – that others will say, “if you had enough of a job – were as busy as me – you would not have any time for research”. This is the culture and attitude that we need to try and break! Librarian contributions to our profession through research are very important in order to tie research to areas of practice and advance knowledge in our field.

“It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau

I don’t want to dismiss librarians’ feeling that time is a barrier to doing research, but I do want to step back and ask that we start to think about what we might be able to do to make time, and how we can place time for research as a priority. Let’s reframe how we look at the time we have and where research fits within our overall landscape. We need to fight against the culture of busy that makes it much easier to simply say I don’t have time rather than figuring out how we can make time. Let’s start reframing our discussions in order to move toward a place where doing research is more important than being busy with a bunch of other “stuff”. Ultimately, this means looking at time as something that is ours individually to shape and take greater control over.

The premise that librarian research is important is key to all of this. If something is important then you will make time for it. It becomes about prioritizing all the things you have to do and not letting research always sink to the bottom. I’m not saying research has to be your top priority – for most librarians it is not. But if it is at all important to you and you want to do research, then you can prioritize it over other things, and find ways to make time for it.

How do we make this idea work in reality? It starts with being mindful about what you spend your time on, your priorities, what you want to achieve, and where research fits in that mix. Above all, do research that interests you, that you are passionate about, that you are curious about; research that will sustain and fulfil you. It’s also important to take a pragmatic approach to doing research – plan what you can reasonably achieve, schedule time for research just like anything else you do, set reminders, give yourself deadlines, aim for presentation or paper submission dates, and find someone who will push you along. If you are doing all or some of these things, research is going to become a normal part of your day, part of what drives you, and hopefully, something you want to keep doing and will make time for.

Let’s drop the busyness and take back our time to do research. Let’s make time because research is important to our profession. Let’s show one another that we can make time, and support one another in doing research so that it becomes a norm and something to be celebrated.

“You will never ‘find’ time for anything. If you want time, you must make it.” – Charles Bruxton


Booth, A. (2011). Barriers and facilitators to evidence-based library and information practice: An international perspective. Perspectives in International Librarianship, 2011(1). doi: 10.5339/pil.2011.1

Koufogiannakis, D. A. (2013). How academic librarians use evidence in their decision making: Reconsidering the evidence based practice model. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Aberystwyth University, Wales, U.K.

Turner, K. J. (2002). The use of applied library and information studies (LIS) research in New Zealand libraries. Library Review, 51(5), 230-240.

This blog post is based on a presentation given at the C-EBLIP Fall Symposium, October 14, 2014.

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