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Health Hazards of Librarianship: Not Just Paper Cuts

by on February 15, 2021

One of my colleagues used to say: “We get to work in the candy store.” Indeed, many outside the profession may read the title of this article and joke: Health hazards of librarianship? Like what, paper cuts or falling off book ladders? However, as the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light, there are health risks entailed by all front line workers, as well as some more specific to library employees. 

Professional ethics, as outlined by the American Library Association Code of Ethics, include a duty to “advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.” The purpose of this article is to highlight some issues to be considered when it comes to that pledge. 

Shift Work Impacts Physical and Mental Health

Librarians, especially public librarians, typically do shift work, covering some evenings and weekends, often on a rotating schedule. Even more disruptive to regular eating and sleeping patterns, those shifts tend to be irregular from day to day and week to week. Studies on the effects of shift work have found negative impacts on mental health as well as physical health. The two are often intertwined, such as when disrupted sleep cycles contribute to stress. 

According to research published in European Journal of Neuroscience: “Shift work, defined as work occurring outside typical daytime working hours, is associated with an increased risk of various non‐communicable diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Disruption of the internal circadian timing system and concomitant sleep disturbances is thought to play a critical role in the development of these health problems.” In addition, irregular shifts create difficulty managing care for dependents, which can further increase stress and economic burdens.

The Psychological Impact of Emotional Labor

Even for those fortunate enough to have stable schedules, studies show that jobs requiring a high degree of “emotional labor,” including librarianship, can lead to job-related stress and burnout. Common to the “helping” professions, emotional labor is defined by Oxford Languages as: “the management of one’s emotions in order to present oneself and interact with other people in a certain way while doing a job.” 

A typical day in the public library includes many situations that rise to personal emergency level for customers – a student’s report is due tomorrow, someone with limited computer skills must fill out an online job application, a child is lost, someone needs information about a serious illness. Customers’ problems often become librarians’ problems. Occasionally customers become angry over fines or rules and take their distress out on staff. Good customer service means handling such situations gracefully. A study published in Library & Information Science Research found that the emotional labor reported by all types of librarians was associated with emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and job dissatisfaction, all of which can also impact professional efficacy. 

Harassment and Unwanted Attention 

As Gretchen Corsillo writes in Ending Sexual Harassment at the Public Library, this is an all-too-common occurrence. In many library systems, customer service guidelines specify that information staff should walk a customer to the stacks, find the desired item, remove the item from the shelf and put it in the customer’s hand. The goal of this personal service- as opposed to “it’s over there in 703.5” (pointing), is to ensure the customer isn’t left to wander confusing stacks alone, potentially not finding the item yet too uncomfortable ask for more help. It also enables a deeper reference interview to occur while walking together. Once in a while though, this can be misinterpreted as “this person must be interested in me” or even “s/he is intentionally leading me to a more private space. Here’s my chance!” 

At public service desks, there is little an employee can do to hide from unwanted attention from individuals who have misinterpreted professional care as personal interest… or worse, those who simply enjoy harassing service employees. Library pages, whose shelving work requires them to circulate around public areas, also become targets. The emotional distress of handling unwanted advances or outright harassment can be hazardous to the psychological well-being of employees. In the worst cases, it can even lead to stalking and become a risk to physical safety.

As Katie MacBride writes in #TimesUp on Harassing Your Public Librarian, while many service professions deal with this behavior, libraries are unique in that customers can stay as long as they want: “What if anyone could walk into your workplace, ask you as many questions as they wanted on virtually any subject, from the moment the doors open in the morning until they close at night?” 

Covid-19 and Exposure to Diseases

Librarians are among those who have died of COVID-19 after being exposed as front-line workers. Yet, librarians may not be high on the list to receive vaccines. Librarians were included in the same category with teachers as essential workers to be prioritized for vaccination in the July 2020 CDC AIPC Work Group report. However, the December 2020 CDC AIPC interim guidance does not specifically mention librarians among those prioritized in either Phase 1b or Phase 1c of vaccine distribution.

The very nature of public libraries–open to anyone and full of shared resources–puts their employees at greater risk. Unlike schools, where students are limited to a traceable group, public libraries are accessed by an unlimited variety of visitors. They are full of touchable shared surfaces and materials. While risking their own exposure, library employees are often under the additional stress of having to enforce new rules specific to the pandemic, sometimes to a resistant public.

Recent discussions over COVID-19 risks in libraries have provided an opening for discussing wider health implications of library work. Staff members who are healthier physically and mentally are better able to provide quality public service. Therefore, safer working conditions and fair compensation for employees benefit all.

Brown, J.P., Martin, D., Nagaria, Z. et al. Mental Health Consequences of Shift Work: An Updated Review. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2020; 22, 7. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-020-1131-z

Corsillo, GK. Ending Sexual Harassment at the Public Library. Public Libraries Online. March 30, 2018.

Kervezee, L, Kosmadopoulos, A, Boivin, DB. Metabolic and cardiovascular consequences of shift work: The role of circadian disruption and sleep disturbances. European Journal of Neuroscience. 2020; 51: 396– 412. https://doi.org/10.1111/ejn.14216

Mattesona, M, Miller, S. A study of emotional labor in librarianship. Library & Information Science Research. 2013; Volume 35, Issue 1, 54-62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lisr.2012.07.005

Macbride, K. “#TimesUp on Harassing Your Public Librarian,” Shondaland, January 31, 2018. https://www.shondaland.com/act/a15876574/timesup-on-harassing-your-public-librarian/

Peet, L. IMLS. CDC: On Staff Safety, Handling Paper in COVID-19 Pandemic. Library Journal. April 8, 2020.

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