Academic Librarians and the Pursuit of Happiness | From the Bell Tower

Sources of joy are found within librarianship, but everyday life can be stressful and hard on our minds and bodies. Science has much to tell us about ways we can achieve happiness. Surprisingly, those things can be a good fit with academic library work.

Steve Bell head shotSources of joy are found within librarianship, but everyday life can be stressful and hard on our minds and bodies. Science has much to tell us about ways we can achieve happiness. Surprisingly, those things can be a good fit with academic library work.

I’m fortunate to have had a mostly productive and enjoyable library career. I recall few days when getting up and going to work was an intolerable task. Could I describe my library work experience as a happy one? I think so. While librarians are doing amazing work on behalf of their communities every day, I worry that the work experience of newer generations of librarians will be far less satisfactory than mine, or those of colleagues who have retired after long, rewarding careers. Social media may contribute when library workers lament about career choice disappointment, although some will argue it is cathartic for these individuals to share their low morale experiences. While there may be benefits in shared misery, and no one should diminish the problems of those in truly desperate job situations, it can certainly leave us feeling that professional dissatisfaction is pervasive and unavoidable. To be sure, this is countered by success stories from academic librarians enjoying the rewards of their work. I suppose it depends on where one’s attention gets focused.



For the week in which my online LIS course covers the connection between design thinking and user experience, I ask my LIS students to read this, and then ask them to discuss their thoughts on whether libraries are places of happiness. Overwhelmingly, they share stories about themselves and those they serve that speak to the ways libraries can deliver a happiness experience. A few are more skeptical and question whether any organization can give that kind of experience. There is general agreement that a connection exists between staff happiness, or at least satisfaction with their work, and the degree to which the library can deliver happiness to patrons. The students acknowledge that when library workers are angry, disgruntled, and in conflict with each other or management, they are far less likely to engage with and enjoy their work and the people with whom they interact. While there’s no one way to design a library happiness experience, or set the tone that best facilitates it, I do point students to what social science research tells us about happiness and how it connects with the work they’ll do as librarians.



Why is the most popular course at Yale University the one about achieving happiness? Do acts of kindness increase our longevity? Is it true that when it comes to happiness, small, everyday joys are far more powerful than single, occasional, possibly costly experiences? According to the science of happiness, a subject of intensive research, the path to happiness is not achieved with money, exotic vacations, or other forms of material excess. All of those could bring some spontaneous happiness but their power to do so diminishes rather quickly. Experiencing sustained happiness is far more dependent on achieving what Dan Gilbert, Harvard University psychologist and happiness researcher, described as routine “ small joys,” daily acts of kindness or gratitude. According to Laurie Santos, the lead instructor of Yale’s Psychology 157: Psychology and the Good Life, a course in which roughly 1,200 students enroll every semester, work environments can bring happiness if

(a) workers achieve flow through engaging work that is at least as interesting as leisure activity

(b) frame their work in terms of how it helps people rather than the problems it presents

(c) be “other-oriented”—caring more about others than ourselves

In the course of their activities library workers should have abundant opportunities for those small joys that add up to those good feelings we associate with happiness. Students who tell you your assistance helped them succeed. Helping a colleague wrap up a project. Finding that elusive citation for a researcher. Getting mentioned in the acknowledgement section of a book. In addition to these intrinsic rewards, it certainly helps to treat library customers and coworkers with kindness, and new research suggests it supports wellness and adds to longevity. Any and all of these small yet rewarding accomplishments can contribute to happiness. But can they happen often enough to outweigh workplace problems that contribute to a library worker’s low morale, potentially blocking their ability to achieve workplace happiness?



The presence of a micromanaging boss, a coworker who drives you batty, or counterproductive work policies could certainly erase those small joys. No matter what level of happiness might be obtainable in academic libraries, a toxic workplace will always make it difficult for a library worker to see beyond misery-inducing conditions. What’s not helping, according to Laura Geller’s article “ How to Create Happier Employees,” is that workers can hardly count on their employer’s wellness programs or other efforts to deliver happiness because they fail to target the primary stressors in the workplace. While I think there are steps library administrators can take to facilitate better conditions, just depending on HR wellness programs is unrealistic. What constitutes happiness will always differ for each individual. According to Geller’s article it may mean feelings of calm and the absence of stress. For others it can mean being continuously challenged and highly engaged by their work. Contributing with colleagues in professional associations, along with publishing and presenting successes—and acknowledging the success of others—are where librarians may find happiness when it isn’t obtainable in the workplace. In whatever way each academic librarian defines their own job happiness, when finding and experiencing it seems more elusive than ever, it may ultimately come down to what each of us can to do stay personally positive and help others to do the same.

Author Image
Steven Bell

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing