Kaetrena Davis Kendrick on Low Morale Among Public Librarians

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick recently completed a new study examining low workplace morale among public librarians, and is working on a report analyzing responses to a November 2018 call for librarians who wished to talk about their experiences. What she discovered included a disturbing level of abuse coming from patrons, a lack of institutional support to help librarians resolve such issues, and a mindset in which librarians view surviving such abuses as “earning their stripes.”

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick head shotIn August 2019, LJ spoke with Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, then associate professor and associate librarian at Medford Library, University of South Carolina–Lancaster, and the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) 2019 Academic/Research Librarian of the Year, about her research on low morale among academic librarians. Using this and her earlier work on low morale among racial and ethnic minority librarians as a template, Kendrick recently completed a new study examining low workplace morale among public librarians, and is working on a report analyzing responses to a November 2018 call for librarians who wished to talk about their experiences.

What she discovered included a disturbing level of abuse coming from patrons, a lack of institutional support to help librarians resolve such issues, and a mindset in which librarians view surviving such abuses as “earning their stripes.”

LJ caught up with Kendrick to hear about the survey, its overlaps with—and differences from—her previous work, how vocational awe and resilience narratives feed into the acceptance of abuse, countermeasures to develop assertive communication practices, her current work on low morale during the COVID-19 crisis, resources for librarians who would like to find communities of support, and more.

LJ : Your job is academic—in July, you’ll begin your role as Dean of Ida Jane Dacus Library and Louise Pettus Archives & Special Collections at Winthrop University. Why did you choose to focus this study on public librarians?

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick: I look at most of my work through academia because that's where I've been practicing for over a decade. But as I went into the area of looking at low morale, people who worked in public libraries started contacting me saying, “I resonate with this study.”

I used to work in public libraries and I knew that there are differences in practice and organizational structure, and I wondered how that plays into workplace abuse and neglect. I was also thinking about the differences in users. I wanted to find out if there were any differences, what they were, and how they impacted people.

Initially I didn't have any funding, but my organization at the time had a grant for research and productive scholarship, so I applied and got funding for it.

How did you design the study?

I use phenomenology, a rigorous qualitative methodology that looks at the meanings of experiences, to understand the meaning of these experiences for different groups of people going through the same experience with slightly different areas of practice, or slightly different lenses.

I've always been interested in why things were happening. And qualitative methodology gets me closer to the why. I think that's why these studies on low morale are significant to people who read them, because you get an understanding of why they're happening—the systems that are in play. My questions had to be open-ended, but specific enough to elicit what I'm trying to find out. The biggest thing was trying to get the questions without leading people, but also giving them enough room where if I needed to follow up I could.

I'm trying to find out the common story, so I can get an understanding of why things are happening. That's how you get the low morale trajectory. Everybody seemed to have a trigger event—significant types of abuse were happening over and over again. They were compounded; there were cognitive markers; people started doing things differently after. Even though the differences in how they came about were discrete to different people, there's this common story.

Those conversations sound like they could be difficult. How did you keep your boundaries intact?

In phenomenology one of the things you do is bracketing and epoché—a methodology to engage so you don't walk in with expectations about what people are going to say. I would limit how many interviews I did per day. I made sure that I was doing other things to take care of myself, a lot of journaling so I could get whatever feelings out. I was just there to hear the story. Another thing is, I don't look at the transcriptions right away. I distance myself from the data as much as I can.

What were some of the most striking similarities and differences between academic and public librarians experiencing low morale?

They're going through the same trajectory. All of the markers of low morale are the same. The only thing that was different, really, was one enabling system, which is promotion and tenure, which is unique to academia. But everything else—abuse, cognitive markers, physical outcomes, practice outcomes, [and] emotional outcomes [are the same].

In this study, there are two things that are significant: Public librarians are the first group to report physical abuse, and abuse from library users in addition to their colleagues, leaders, and people who have administrative oversight. In the previous study these types of abuse were coming from people who worked in the library [or] on campus.

You mentioned in a recent webinar that boards, human resources departments, and others with oversight are rarely helpful in these situations.

Those are enabling systems. It's not just that behaviors are going on—these systems are in play. That's significant for people to know, because people move through these experiences blaming themselves, thinking that they're not doing enough. Really, it's the enabling systems. I use the term enabling for a reason: if you're familiar with substance overuse circles, people who are enabling think they're helping, but they're actually doing things to continue negative behavior. Enabling systems are systems that you would think were designed to help, but they inadvertently prolong or continue the experience of workplace abuse or neglect.

Leadership, overwhelmingly, is cited as an enabling system. You go to your leader and think, if I tell my leader, then they'll do something and stop it. But leaders generally have been shown to be most often the perpetrators of the workplace abuse and neglect. It might be a leadership style, authoritarian or toxic leadership, or even just not leading. I call them laissez-faire leaders. Perhaps you have a leader who's never there, who dismisses your complaints—radio silence.

If I go to human resources and lodge a complaint or a grievance, [I think] they will remove or discipline that person. But what often happens is the human resources [person] doesn't do anything, or file a complaint and nothing really happens. A lot of people have told me that the response is: “This person's been here a long time, everybody knows it, so basically just deal with it. It's cheaper to keep them.”

Did you get any responses from library administrators or directors?

No, and that's interesting, because I never say administrators are not welcome. Administrators have said that the study has helped them. It would be a disservice to walk away with the idea that administrators are not going through low morale, or don't care about low morale. But I think that leaders can be abusive, and they need to be aware of their leadership skills and gaps and be willing to set the standard.

Branch managers are represented in the public library study, but I don't think I've heard from any public library directors.

What did you find that surprised you?

The physical abuse. And even more than that, what was surprising and alarming is that public librarians perceive the abuse that they encounter as a useful training tool. The sentiment would be something along the lines of, “Well, now I can say that I've gone through that.” They have their stripes. And I don't think abuse should be a training method. That came out in the study, that being exposed to abuse and neglect, from patrons in particular, was a career stripe.

Now we go into issues of vocational awe and resilience narrative: “It is OK that I take this for the good of the profession and for the good of the people I'm serving,” instead of fighting back and saying, “This is not right in our profession.” That was very concerning.

Do you feel like this study has bearings on librarians' concerns for their safety and health during the current pandemic?

I'm doing a survey now on COVID-19 and ongoing low morale experiences. Before this study, [librarians] were concerned about their personal safety, and they continue to be concerned about it now with the pandemic, in particular how people are not responding to their concerns. They get met with vocational awe, which is essentially the weaponization of librarianship values against them, and they also get met with resilience narratives, which is, “You should be filling in the gaps for system failures.” That's how it's playing out now.

They're already dealing with these vocational awe and resilience narratives anyway, but now it's being highlighted; it's more in their face because they're being told so in more concrete language. Before the pandemic, resilience narratives and vocational awe were not tangible—you talked about them in these kinds of abstract terms. But now we see [librarians are] not being offered cleaning supplies, or personal protection items, so now we see how these tangible results of resilience narratives and vocational awe play out. They're literally not being given the tools they need to be safe.

What countermeasures can librarians take, and what are their biggest barriers?

What I’ve found is that librarians generally do not have a good track record with assertive communication, because we are really concerned about people perceiving us as nice, and kind, and helpful. And for some reason we think that we can't be nice and kind and helpful and also have boundaries, and that's how we get into mission creep, job creep, and vocational awe. We end up doing all the things.

So: practice boundaries. They feel weird and you only get better at them as you use them. They require self-compassion, because you're going to make mistakes as you figure out what your boundaries are. I think that folks generally are fearful about what others may or may not do for them, instead of figuring out how they're going to show up for themselves no matter what.

I just want people to know that they're not by themselves. This is not their fault. This is a problem of systems and culture, and not of individuals.

This is not just an area of research for me—I have communities available to them if they want to join, on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter, and I also have a blog if people want to keep up with what I'm doing. This is not going away, and these communities can help with self-preservation methods—tools that help deflect workplace abuse and neglect at the time the events occur.     

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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