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CRD Luncheon Recap – Maria Accardi’s “The Souls of Our Students, the Souls of Ourselves: Resisting Burnout through Radical Self-Care”

October 22, 2015

Maria Accardi’s “The Souls of Our Students, the Souls of Ourselves:

Resisting Burnout through Radical Self-Care”

Slides available at

Text of Accardi’s speech available at

Recap by Melissa Correll, Instructional Services Librarian, Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA

On Tuesday, October 6, 2015, Maria Accardi, Coordinator of Instruction and Reference at Indiana University Southeast, gave the keynote address at the College & Research Division luncheon during the Pennsylvania Library Association’s Annual Conference. Her presentation, “The Souls of Our Students, the Souls of Ourselves: Resisting Burnout through Radical Self-Care,” addressed an issue that affects many librarians: burnout.

Often, librarians don’t want to talk about burnout. We may be ashamed to admit we have feelings of frustration and fatigue. Accustomed to accommodating faculty and students alike, we may have lost our ability to recognize our feelings along the way. We may even be afraid that any harboring kind of negative feelings might mean that we are bad librarians. These feelings are real, however, and Accardi is working to bring burnout, and its prevention and remedies, into the light.

While Maria Accardi was planning library instruction for a First-Year Seminar, the faculty member with whom she was trying to collaborate wrote to her in an email, “I don’t think of this as teaching this class for me – I consider it providing a service for the FYS students.” The professor signed her name, writing Ph.D. after it, and Accardi felt slighted, as if the faculty member were ‘putting her in her place.’ While this is certainly not the way the majority of teaching faculty treat reference and instruction librarians, it is probably safe to claim that we have all experienced a similar slighting. Being treated like a service provider, rather than an educator, can lead to feelings of burnout. Accardi experienced this firsthand.

When she began to feel exhausted in her career and to question her decision to enter librarianship, Maria Accardi used her sabbatical to do something very librarianish: she started to research burnout. She found that workers in social and human services, fields which demand a lot of emotional labor or have a highly affective component, suffer burnout often. Affect is central to librarians’ work. Reference and instruction librarians, for example, must always be approachable. We must use open body language, make initial eye contact, and set the tone for the reference interaction. Essentially, we have to be “on” at all times, which can be emotionally taxing. Yet, these emotional skills are not part of the library school curriculum, and, in fact, are rarely acknowledged.

Take this emotional drain, add the intellectually intensive work of the profession, and stir in all the extra demands of academic life (like committee work, faculty meetings, and the demands of tenure and promotion), and you have a recipe for burnout. If these factors combine in a demoralizing institutional climate, in which librarians’ work is not valued, or faculty do not see librarians as equal partners in the educational mission, burnout is even more likely. The institutional climate is what triggered Accardi’s experience with burnout; she was “tired of explaining what we do, why we do it, and why it matters.”

Librarians often feel frustrated by the continual need to demonstrate that we are doing our jobs well, and deserve to keep them. So how can we combat these feelings of burnout? Accardi recommended taking a holistic view, reminding ourselves that we are whole people, and that our identities do not necessarily hinge on our careers. This is where the radical self-care comes in.

The word “radical” comes from the Latin “radix,” meaning “root;” radical self-care means taking care of our roots. To illustrate the concept, Accardi drew a metaphor comparing librarianship to her garden, which was planted too compactly, stunting the growth of some of the plants. Something similar to this failure to flourish happens to librarians when we take on too much; if we do not allow ourselves the time and space we need to develop personally, we wither. Accardi reminded us that it is okay, even necessary, to say “no” sometimes so that we can care for ourselves.

Extending the metaphor, Accardi noted that the quality of the soil is important to the health of the plants. Librarians want to know that they are valued contributors to the garden of teaching and learning. In her research, Accardi found that a positive institutional climate can be the most influential factor in reducing burnout. Institutions can cultivate a positive climate by recognizing employees’ full humanity, and making policies that support work/life balance. Participatory management styles can also help employees feel empowered. Accardi suggested that institutions show their dedication to their public-facing librarians with strong, visible financial and political support.

Individual strategies may also help librarians to cope with burnout. Knowing our limitations, and saying “no” to responsibilities that are not productive or are a time-drain is a start. Taking restorative downtime to focus on a favorite hobby can also help. Librarians can also use their teaching philosophy as a form of self-care; Accardi suggested that seeing the student as a whole person, and teaching to that whole person, is a way to reaffirm the librarian’s humanity. Additionally, she recommended that we view ourselves as active educational collaborators rather than service providers.

If we forget to take care of ourselves, we run the risk of burning out our passion for the profession; we can’t care for our students if we can’t care for ourselves. It is important to recognize and acknowledge feelings of burnout so that we can take steps to remedy the problems.

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