Friday, November 10, 2023

On the Struggle Bus

You may have noticed this blog has been pretty quiet lately, and unfortunately the reason for that is that I have been feeling completely exhausted and unmotivated, a passenger on the struggle bus that seems to be on an infinite route with no stops. I seem to be mired in a full-blown existential crisis, both personally and professionally. I feel like nothing I do really matters, and furthermore, nothing I have ever done really mattered. 

This has been building for a while, and many factors play into it, but I think the professional crisis began in 2020 when the pandemic hit just as I was finishing my MLIS, and the library system I had worked in for seven years suddenly terminated me (and 100 others) with no warning, no consideration, and absolutely no sensitivity. I always knew upper management viewed most of us as anonymous, disposable cogs rather than people, but to be actually thrown away without a second thought like that was devastating. I cried and mourned the loss of job I loved for a couple of days, but then threw myself into job-hunting, and I don't think I every fully realized or dealt with how traumatic that experience was for me. I know others were not so affected, but it affected me deeply.

I managed to land on my feet, finding a full-time professional position relatively quickly, but it proved not to be a good fit, and a year later landed what I thought was going to be my dream job. But due to understaffing, toxic management, a public that has grown meaner, more entitled, and less appreciative; and libraries being under constant attack, I am finding myself feeling exhausted, stressed, undermined, and unappreciated most of the time, and I have a hard time mustering any enthusiasm or excitement for things that used to routinely bring me joy. Work was my "happy place" in pre-pandemic days, an escape from stresses in my personal life; now it is just an even greater source of stress.

Another thing that I'm struggling with besides accepting that pre-pandemic life and the career I thought I was going to have are gone and everything is different now, is realizing that while certain experiences and people were significant and important to me, I was barely a blip on their radar. I know in my head that's normal and often the case as life goes on and everyone has their own lives and issues to deal with, but it still hurts sometimes.

Yesterday I visited the library where I used to work, where I truly loved working and was inspired to become a children's librarian, and I walked in and didn't see a single friendly or familiar face. So much has changed in the last 3 years, and it no longer looked or felt like the same place. I no longer felt comfortable there, or even welcome, really. It just hit me all at once, realizing that while the time I worked there and the relationships I had (in that branch & the system overall) were incredibly meaningful to me and I was very proud of the work I had done, the library had moved on without me and not only is it no longer the place or people I remember, no one really remembers me or anything I did while I was there anymore. I felt completely erased and insignificant, and I left and went to my car and cried.

I know I need to stop living in the past, let go of what might have been, what should have been, and just accept that everything is different now and that I need to move on like everyone else has. Sometimes people are more important to you than you are to them, and that's just how life goes. I need to learn how to stop defining myself by my accomplishments, my job, my relationships, or how others see me, and do a better job of having healthier boundaries and leaving work at work, but after a lifetime of being a type A classic overachiever, never feeling like I'm enough, and being in a field where vocational awe and poor leadership are so toxically pervasive, it's hard. 

I can certainly see why people are leaving the library field, especially youth services, in droves. Now is not a good time to be a librarian in general, and though all public librarians are generally overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated, I think children's librarians are the most prone to burnout due to the excessive programming demands that so often goes along with youth services. We are expected to be everything for everybody, without the staffing or funding to do so, with a public that has grown more entitled and less appreciative, kids that are so much more challenging to engage, parents that often don't parent, and upper management that is often out of touch and unsupportive, and frequently downright toxic. Some days I'm tempted to just chuck it, and let not-so-distant-future me deal with not having enough money for retirement. I wish I had figured out I wanted to be a children's librarian much sooner, so I would've had a chance to be one for at least a little while in the 'golden age'.

I know lots of you are struggling, too. If anyone has figured out how to escape some of the stress and still find some joy, to do a good job while maintaining healthier boundaries, to be able to let go and not let things drag them down, to stop taking things so personally and not lay awake every night thinking about everything that needs to be done or every little thing that went wrong, I'd love to hear from you! Additionally, how do you find the bandwidth to be there for your staff who are also struggling when you are barely hanging on by a thread yourself?


  1. The time between the pandemic and now in my YS library career and life has been very tumultuous too. My work life has stayed okay even as the national industry stressors, political threats, and admin indifference have mounted in part because my branch is small and I and my coworkers trauma-bonded over the quarantine and subsequent rocky reopening. But I don't think that would be cutting the mustard if I didn't also make huge changes in my personal life during that time like starting therapy again and deciding to move back in with my family for good. The specter of burnout still creeps up on me from time to time, and when that happens, I'm very lucky to have a partner in my department of two that tells me to drop a plan or cut a program even when I don't want to.

  2. I appreciate this post and your honesty so much. The burnout is so real, especially in the last 3 years. Everything you said here just resonated so much. Just wanted you to know you are not alone and you are very much appreciated by this librarian! I am positive you made and are making a difference in lives in numerous invisible ways you might not ever know.

  3. I appreciate your honest appraisal of all that has happened, and how you view the field that I'm now entering! I ditto the above comments. I know one thing that stood out to me...that has helped me in a library where our management is really allowing yourself to have very firm boundaries with patrons, including patrons with their kids. You are right (and this is something I ran into in the teaching field I left behind)...parents aren't parenting as much, and many people are entitled and easily angered. Stand firm. You have the right to set clear expectations that creates a culture of calm and respect, at least in your corner, your world, and your programs! State that up front and build policies that support that, and support your team members when they run into patrons that are expecting way too much and not being kind about it. I don't know how much of that is in your control, but if you or whoever is at a manager level can do that, that would be so helpful.
    For example, at our story time, we state clearly that children aren't allowed to throw tantrums or "cry it out" in our public space where we give the story time. We give the parents a few minutes to calm their little down; if they cannot or will not, we reserve the right to ask them to "regroup" outside of the story time area so that we can hear ourselves read/sing/think, and it doesn't set off a domino effect of criers. In my time here, most parents understand- we say it every story time program, we post signs, etc. But, one time a parent (holding a screaming, flailing toddler who had already torn apart my flannel game and started flinging their clothing everywhere) complained when I asked her to step outside and regroup, saying I didn't understand children and wasn't patient because I didn't allow him to "cry it out" for longer than a few minutes. Thankfully, my managers stood by my decision. This boundary, though misunderstood by some, allowed others to better enjoy the story time, and allows children to learn self control. Other parents take their child outside, regroup, and come back (and are welcomed!). This is a small example, but little boundaries like that may help. I don't know if you've already tried that, but I hope you can find little lines to place in the sand that help stop the avalanche of being stepped on etc. that can happen SO easily in the public field!
    Your work here alone shows how creative, helpful, and engaging you are. The field would be remiss to lose you!

  4. All your feelings are valid. We've gone through so much as a profession these past few years. I came back into being a YS librarian after 2 years off with my baby during the pandemic. I came back with a renewed interest in boundaries and w-life balance, because I want to be there for my family after work and not devote all my emotional identity into my job. Some things that have helped are: therapy, 8 hours of sleep, therapy, exercise, meditation, eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and streamlining YS programming whenever possible. I re-use a lot of my storytime plans for several months (swap out the books and a song or rhyme) because otherwise I'd burn out. (In my old job, twice a week I was doing a whole new storytime practically.) There's too much other stuff to do than making flannels once a week-- I don't have the time. I don't expect perfection for myself. Buddhism, meditation, and therapy have all helped propel me into a deeper self-compassion, which provides an ongoing easiness on myself and others. This has helped me remember that I can bring my whole self to work, yet it is still a job, and that I am still an amazing "me" after work. Please don't forget that you absolutely have made a significant difference on the lives of the families you've worked with. Staff and management will always turn over, but someone who is kind and listens to a child can cause a ripple effect in that child's life forever.

  5. Hello - I just sent you a longer email, but I wanted to each out and tell you I'm so sorry you are going through such a hard time. I only just discovered your blog and what an INCREDIBLE resource it is.

    I echo what the previous post said so eloquently - "you absolutely have made a significant difference on the lives of the families you've worked with. Staff and management will always turn over, but someone who is kind and listens to a child can cause a ripple effect in that child's life forever.".

    I think we can all take that to heart.

  6. Ah so sad to read this. I have grown to appreciate your blog as one of my favorite children's library services blogs! Your post about how library STEM programs usually emphasize coding and ignore the other "letters" like math and engineering made me think more carefully about the activities I present.

    I totally get the feelings of being burned out, especially after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a rough 2-3 years. I'm sorry that your former workplace terminated you and others so unceremoniously after you'd poured your heart into youth library services. I'm confident that the work you did left an impression on the young people and their grown-ups though, based on how thoughtful your writing is. I don't think it was wasted effort or time, and I hope that the skills that you developed will serve you well in your next job.

  7. UPDATE: I appreciate all the comments and words of encouragement (and commiseration)! Our toxic director has resigned, so I'm hoping to see some improvements/lessening of stress. But after two years of chaos and abuse, I think it's going to be hard to regain my former level of enthusiasm, and I can only hope we end up with someone better.

  8. Every time someone shares their thoughts and feelings and experiences like this, it helps someone else feel seen and heard and less alone. And that means a lot. <3 It seems like the past few years have been really awful for American librarians in particular, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better, and I'm so sorry to hear that. :'( You matter, and your work matters. Even if you only help one person in one moment, that's more than a lot of folks can say they do. <3 Take care of yourself. <3