Librarianship as Mothering and Other Cries for Help by Ashley Roach-Freiman

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The romantic ideal of librarianship is that we are helpers, guides, keepers of knowledge. According to novelist and librarian Kristen Arnett, writing in Lit Hub:

The reality of being a librarian is that it’s hardly ever about sitting down and it has absolutely nothing to do with peace and quiet. It’s about assisting others. It’s about community service. Librarianship asks you to do 12 things at once and then when you’re in the middle of those projects wonders if you’ve got any tax forms left or an eclipse viewer. It’s endless questions. It’s “my two dollar fine pays your salary.” It’s a grubby little hand at storytime grabbing your leg and smearing glitter glue down the side of pants you’ve already worn twice that week. It’s finding the right answer to a question and reveling in that small joy for a bare moment before another patron comes up to ask you something even weirder. It’s library work, and it’s exhausting.

Librarians are familiar with these feelings and tasks and take pride in the hard work of accomplishing twelve projects at once and providing community service. Librarians also are notorious for being martyrs - or mothers. [1]

Librarianship is socially understood to be a female and feminized career - a pink-collar job, otherwise known as “women’s work.”  Kelly, in the blog entry “Pink-Collar Ghetto” for Ms. Librarian, does a grand job summarizing the problematic nature of pink-collar work in libraries, pointing out that it “is not a coincidence” when “service sector jobs employ high numbers of women, and are usually unstable and offer low or no benefits.” However, due to the gendered nature of the profession, and the gendered concept of “service,” the image of librarianship has evolved to be an idealistic portrait of service, involving no small amount of vocational awe.  In the LIS Theory blog, blogger ssheer connects the early breakthrough of women librarians in the workforce in the 1920s to the ideal of librarianship: 

Becoming librarians allowed women to fulfill [their] gender role, unlike, for example, becoming a lawyer or an engineer or a scientist. And unlike those professions, where “feminine” behavior is often an obstacle, being traditionally “feminine,” i.e., considerate and nurturing, can help make one a better librarian, as one of the main roles of many librarians is helping patrons find what they need.

As explored by social theorists, gender is a socially-constructed paradigm that delegates work, education, child care, and decision-making along binary gender lines. While the gender stratification of librarianship has evolved somewhat, the workforce remains overwhelmingly female. ssheer cites a statistic used by M. Niles Maack in the Libraries & Culture journal: almost 90% of librarians were women in 1920. The Data USA project says that in 2017, 82.1% of librarians were female. [2]

The idea of “femaleness” and “femininity” (and the grubby little hand grabbing your leg) extends to the idea of motherhood. According to Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D, writing the “Top Ten Reasons Why Moms are Important” in Psychology Today, mothers are “emotional backbones” who’ve “worked hard and made sacrifices, so our lives would be better.” They are “forgiving,” willing to “make your lunch for you” and “support your dreams” while you do the hard work of living by “teaching you how to be a functioning adult.” Some lucky people can perhaps describe their mothers this way, this monolithic role of mother-as-goddess, as wound-salve, as guide, but most of us would realize that this description is a trope. Our mothers are complex humans and we share complex, often fraught relationships. However, even if you don’t identify as a mother, or have the ideal relationship with your mother, you know, culturally, what “mother” is supposed to mean and what they are stereotypically supposed to provide. These expectations of motherhood are often misplaced on others, where this sort of emotional support might be located. Cue the pink-collar workers, and the librarian.

Research shows that emotional labor is built into librarianship. In their 2013 “A Study of Emotional Labor in Librarianship,” Matteson and Miller define emotional labor as “involv[ing] both the awareness of display rules [informal norms of self-expression] as a requirement for successful job performance and the use of emotional regulation strategies to display the desired emotions” and highlight research that demonstrates that, in many cases, though not all, this kind of “professional” emotional labor contributes to “poor customer service, work withdrawal, or task performance failures.” Distraction. Exhaustion. Crying at work. 

Building on the work of Matteson and Miller, Emmelhainz, Pappas, and Seale trace the expectation of gendered emotional labor in reference interviews explicitly to training and guidelines outlined in the Reference & User Services Association’s “Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service  Providers” in their chapter “Behavioral Expectations for the Mommy Librarian: The Successful Reference Transaction as Emotional Labor” (from the 2017 book The Feminist Reference Desk: Concepts, Critiques, Conversations). This labor is formally and informally codified into our everyday work expectations, job descriptions, and conversations:

Raise your hand if you ever stayed late because the student you had a research consultation with arrived late, needed help understanding the assignment, or started to describe their difficulty getting to campus because of transportation issues. Raise your hand if you’ve ever closed the door to your office because your manager or coworker or staff member needed to cry through a breakup or unwanted medical news. Raise your hand if you’ve gone out for a beer or three after work with a couple of your colleagues and stayed out too late because there was so much to complain about. ...if you’ve ever cried in a bathroom stall because you didn’t want to burden your colleagues, or face the anxiety of a poor work review ...or if you smiled your way through a difficult meeting with your manager when you wanted to defend yourself or someone else. Raise your hand if you’ve witnessed gender roles playing themselves out in real time, right in front of you. Raise your hand if you’ve participated in them...if you’ve referred to students as “kids” or to co-workers as “best friends” or “family” ...if you’ve blurred the border between professional and personal.

Not all of the above-mentioned situations are necessarily inappropriate. I’ve certainly needed my share of grief-letting over (too much) wine and (too much) cheese. There are good reasons why we have explicit and implicit norms for emotional behavior at work: it’s impossible for buildings full of people with different backgrounds and values to understand and agree with one another. We need workplace norms simply to function. But Matteson and Miller point out that either suppressing authentic emotion or always necessarily emoting in a particular “professional” way has effects over the employee’s health and work satisfaction. This is all emotional labor. If not “mothering,” then responding to the emotional burden of “mothering.”

Suzannah Weiss, on the Everyday Feminism site, provides an even broader definition of emotional labor: “Emotional labor is the exertion of energy for the purpose of addressing people’s feelings, making people comfortable, or living up to social expectations. It’s called ‘emotional labor’ because it ends up using – and often draining – our emotional resources.” Weiss points out that it isn’t the normal relationship dynamics of advice-giving and needing support that are the issue, but that the difficulties arise when the labor is not reciprocated.

Consider the experience of librarians of color, having to not only shoulder all the emotional labor previously mentioned, but the emotional labor of navigating whiteness, white fragility, and racism. In an interview about whiteness in librarianship, Research Librarian Isabel Espinal, MLIS, PhD, recognizes this issue within herself, saying that, in her experience, “having to confront whiteness on a daily basis leads to many emotions [...] and it does for many librarians of colour, emotions that white librarians do not have to deal with in the workplace.” dazzlingurbanite commenting on the Hi Miss Julie blog about the emotional labor of librarians of color, writes “I’ve had people ask to touch my hair. People assume I came from a bad neighborhood when I say I’m from the South Side of Chicago. Once I was asked over the phone if the performers at an event were Black because the patron didn’t want to hear ‘those Negro spirituals.’” Not only are these kinds of interactions not reciprocal engagements, they place the weight of the labor on marginalized minorities to explain inequality and racism, and heaviest of all, to offer forgiveness and consolation for these things. This is unpaid labor, unlike the paid emotional labor of working with students who need mommies, which is usually a part of the job description (minus the mommy-behavior).

The problem of emotional labor is as old as the profession itself, so there’s no quick fix for addressing all aspects of the problem. There are, however, some small, deliberate actions, mostly around boundary setting, that may help you to step out of a mothering role and help our profession draw a box around appropriate job expectations:

  • Communicate clearly, place boundaries, and for goodness sake, white people (speaking as one) - educate yourselves. A lack of appropriate boundaries leads to excess stress and a feeling of being overwhelmed. As far as you are able to manage, put boundaries around your work. For instance:

    • Arrive and leave at times that respect the 7.5 hours you are required to be there. 

    • Designate appropriate avenues for contact in an emergency (for example, if the network fails, you can be texted, but if your colleague needs to talk about a display idea - well, that can wait). 

    • Outside of an emergency where you are the only person who can solve the problem, don’t allow contact until you come back the next day. Instead, empower your staff to be problem-solvers. (Yes, I know. But I promise, there is not much in a library that can’t be dealt with tomorrow if what you need right now is to eat dinner and have a conversation with your partner or friend.) 

    • Use your email away message to dictate the hours of your availability. Do this with everyone. 

  • Have honest conversations with your staff and peers and, if comfortable, your managers. No one wants you to fail to thrive at work. 

  • Remember that patrons are not your children, peers are not your best friends and siblings, and the library is not staffed by your family. However, just like in real family structures, relationship dynamics at work can be toxic and consuming. 

  • Save yourself. Don’t allow others to unload their problems if you don’t have the bandwidth. That’s what friends and family are for.

How do you manage emotional labor at work, and what solutions do you recommend for anyone feeling overburdened?


  1. Please note that I’m using “mother” here as a non-gendered socially-constructed concept that reflects the relationship librarians often have, voluntarily or not, intentionally or not, policy-driven or not, with patrons, colleagues, staff, and the work itself.

  2. Regarding the lack of gender diversity in these studies, I, like Emmelhainz, Pappas, and Seale articulate in a footnote regarding the recognition of women in the profession, “follow Judith Butler in understanding gender as fluid, constructed, and performative, rather than as binary and fixed,” and would love to see updated statistics for our profession.