Kaetrena Davis Kendrick on Low Morale Among Academic Librarians

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, associate professor and associate librarian at Medford Library, University of South Carolina–Lancaster, is the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) 2019 Academic/Research Librarian of the Year. Kendrick’s recent research into low morale quantifies the experiences of many academic librarians who are not getting the support that they need for success in this field.

Kaetrina Davis Kendrick head shotKaetrena Davis Kendrick, associate professor and associate librarian at Medford Library, University of South Carolina–Lancaster, is the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) 2019 Academic/Research Librarian of the Year. Kendrick’s recent research into low morale quantifies the experiences of many academic librarians who are not getting the support that they need for success in the field. Taking a deeper dive into the subject, Kendrick has now documented behavior and cultures that specifically enable the low morale experiences of racial and ethnic minority academic librarians.

LJ : In 2017 you published a study on academic librarians' experience of low morale, which explores the long-term consequences of workplace abuse and neglect on LIS career trajectories. What prompted you to return to this research?

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick: The 2017 study was designed find out what low morale experiences entailed for academic librarians. The discovery of what low morale is—repeated and protracted exposure to emotional, verbal/written, or system abuse and neglect in the workplace—came about as result of my analysis of the deep, rich data generated by in-depth interviews with my study participants. Although the study invitation for that research did not limit participants by any racial or ethnic demographics, a significant portion of my participants did not identify as racial or ethnic minorities. This gap prompted me to immediately replicate this study and seek low-morale experience data from racial and ethnic minority academic librarians.

What are your main findings so far?

My main findings are 1) that the definition of the low-morale experience is validated. This group’s responses mirror the same types of abuse and similar trajectories and outcomes; however, 2) the trajectories and outcomes are exacerbated by additional general and specific impact factors [which] externally or internally influence the low-morale experience. In the original research, there are three impact factors, including six enabling systems. Enabling systems are individual behaviors or organizational cultures, structures, policies, or ethoses that inadvertently enforce or underpin low-morale experiences. My research shows that in addition to the three impact factors and six enabling systems, racial and ethnic minority academic librarians also face two more impact factors and seven more enabling systems.

What are the two unique impact factors for this group?

Two unique impact factors that impact the low-morale experience for racial and ethnic minority librarians are stereotype threat and deauthentication. Stereotype threat is summed up by scholars Inzlicht and Schmader as the “sense that one might be judged in terms of a negative stereotype that is “in the air.” In my study, participants often discussed “having to prove themselves” to their Caucasian colleagues in order to distance themselves from negative stereotypes about their race, culture, or ethnicity. Actions performed in response to stereotype threat were often detrimental to the mental health of this group. This group also discussed what I’ve termed deauthentication, a cognitive process to prepare for or navigate predominantly white workplace environments. This process results in decisions that hide or reduce aspects of (1) the influence of ethnic, racial, or cultural identities, and (2) the presentation of natural personality, emotional responses, language, physical and mental self-images/representations, interests, relationships, values, traditions, and more. Moreover, deauthentication decisions are made to avoid macro- or microaggressions, shaming, incivility, punishment, or retaliation. Such decisions create barriers to sharing whole selves with colleagues and/or clients. In the low-morale experience, this played out as participants shared numerous instances of information-withholding about innocuous or important life-events or suppressing natural emotional responses to work events (i.e. suppressing anger in order to avoid being pigeonholed as “The Angry Black Woman” or “Spit-fire Latina”).

What, if anything, is most surprising?

I remain stunned about the depth and breadth of emotional and verbal abuse that librarians face from their immediate colleagues as well the neglect they deal with from their campuses-at-large. Racial and ethnic minority librarians indicated [that] they experience emotional and system[ic] abuse and negligence at a much higher rate than those in the original study. This research offers credence to the stories I’ve heard or read about on social media and gives rigorous context to these anecdotes where the practice of LIS and climate where these practices are performed is concerned.

What is not surprising to you, but is news to other people when you present your research?

I was not surprised to learn from my participants about the detrimental impact of campus and library Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives on this group. Racial and ethnic minority academic librarians bear the brunt of emotional labor of the planning and implementation of EDI initiatives and associated work on their campuses. Ironically, they also face professional consequences and collegial invalidation if they choose to focus on these initiatives as part of their research and scholarship goals. [I talked] about this link with Kenya Flash and Quetzalli Barrientos at the ACRL Conference in April.

Speaking of ACRL, congratulations on being named the 2019 ACRL Academic/ Research Librarian of the Year! In addition to your current investigation of low morale, you have done research on underserved and rural user populations, professional ethics, the African American male librarian, and the experience of Korean academic librarianship. What’s next?

Thank you! I’m really elated to win the award and amplify the power of informal library leadership and the good work and effort that library employees put in at small and rural academic libraries. I am continuing my work on low-morale in North American libraries. I’ve recently been awarded a grant that will help me complete my data analysis for my studies on public librarians and nonprofit/business employees. Later, I will likely apply my qualitative methodologies to earlier works in my career, particularly regarding teaching anxiety in academic librarians and ethical decision-making in the practice of librarianship.

Realizing there is no simple fix, what ideas do you have for how we as individuals, and then collectively as a field, can improve morale for librarians of color?

My research is this area is still growing, and this particular study is forthcoming later this year. That said, I am seeking constant feedback from people who have gone through this experience so I can craft effective individual and organizational responses that reduce or eradicate low morale from our institutions as well as our profession. I have also developed a workshop that libraries and LIS associations can add to their professional development and training options for their employees and members, and I am teaching a course (Library Juice Academy) that helps librarians move forward in their low-morale recovery. I believe that the best defense is awareness of the on-the-ground experience of working in the field as a racial/ethnic minority librarian. April Hathcock mentioned this cogently in 2015, when she noted that "[b]eing a nonwhite librarian playing at whiteness is an isolating and lonely practice" and as a result, support and safe spaces must be created. Additionally, the urgent next step in our field is for those who are the majority LIS workforce demographic (87 percent Caucasian) to critically reflect on and commit to the active, deep work of social justice and anti-racism while understanding how the "progressive" public-facing perception of our profession hinders such engagement.

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