Preserving Our Wellness: Strategies to Address Toxic Librarianship
Published: August 1, 2023 by Loida Garcia-Febo, Health and Wellness Ambassador
During recent years, I have noticed the increased use of the word “toxic” to describe individuals, including librarians.
WebMD says that “if you know someone who’s difficult and causes a lot of conflict in your life, you may be dealing with a toxic person.” Unfortunately, “toxic people impact our mental and emotional well-being, leaving us exhausted and stressed” (Sarkis 2023).
This year, “Toxic Librarianship and Leadership? Strategies and Methods in Addressing Difficult Workplace Environments” is the topic of a program presented by the Continuing Professional Development and Workplace Learning (CPDWL) Section of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) at the World Library and Information Congress (WLIC) in Rotterdam in The Netherlands.
In order to understand more about this theme and strategies to address it, I interviewed two long-time colleagues of mine who are speaking on this panel. The interviewees are:
Raymond Pun, EdD (he/him) is a librarian at the Alder Graduate School of Education and an IFLA CPDWL Standing Committee Member. He is the past President of the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA) and the Immediate Past President of the Chinese American Librarians Association (CALA).
Catharina Isberg is the Library Director of Lund Public Libraries, Sweden, Board Member of the Swedish Library Association, and served as former IFLA Governing Board Member, Chair IFLA Division IV, Congress Advisory Committee and Professional Committee.
Q: What are you referring to in the title of the program when it says, “toxic librarianship and leadership?”
Ray Pun (Ray): Thanks for the invitation to talk about this talk! As a co-organizer for this WLIC program, I think there’s a connection between leadership and the workplace and we have to think about how the two can create challenges for workers at all levels. The program centers on what toxic librarianship is and ways to mitigate the harm from the environment and leadership. Unfortunately, this issue is very real, and it is not a North American issue but rather a global one. In addition, the pandemic accelerated the issues that library workers have been experiencing, such as the “work more with less” mindset. Our IFLA Standing Committee: Continuing Professional Development and Workplace Learning (CPDWL) Section has been working to promote these issues in the profession for discussion globally.
Catharina Isberg (Catharina): Toxic librarianship and leadership for me is when you put your own good before the organization. Your behavior damages the organizational culture and people around you get health problems and stress symptoms. The willingness to collaborate and act for the benefit of the users and society weakens and the efficiency of the work gets damaged. The work environment is really bad.
As a manager or as a colleague, we should not accept any toxic or self-centered behavior. One way is to look into how success is built in the organization and if it is done by stepping on others and taking all the credit for the work instead of sharing it with the team.
Q: How can we build a more sustainable and resilient library as well as a better working environment?
Ray: It’s a good question, and unfortunately, working environments are very situational and circumstantial. We know that each library and its teams operate differently from one another. Sometimes the issues might be enduring biases, lack of funding, overwork, low morale, poor leadership, and lack of appreciation and trust. There will always be various issues, but the goals are to ensure that your team feels supported by leadership and by each other, creating a sense of belonging in the workplace, and setting meaningful expectations via robust communications through an inclusive and collaborative vision. Building trust and rapport also takes time. Libraries aren’t perfect nor should they strive to be, but efforts should always be made to create a safe and healthy working environment for all.
Q: How can we stop toxic leadership and workplace abuse, which research says can impact projects, initiatives, job performances and work environments?
Ray: Leadership work is difficult work. I’m not sure if there’s a way to stop it [immediately] but what I do know is that more and more people are becoming aware of the issues creating toxic workplaces and leadership. We explore this in the IFLA CPDWL Podcast Project that you can hear from our guests. It’s unfortunate and toxic leadership creates low morale and exacerbates people’s physical, mental, and emotional health [problems]. Consider reading academic librarian Kaetrena Davis Kendrick’s research article on this topic: Kendrick, K. D. (2017). The low morale experience of academic librarians: A phenomenological study. Journal of Library Administration, 57(8), 846-878.
Catharina: For me it is important to work with all the staff to give them tools to handle self-leadership, to empower everyone and let go of control. To build trust and ensure that everyone in the organization has a voice and is using it.
For a more sustainable workplace and to improve resilience I have been collaborating with a researcher at the psychological department at Lund University, Magnus Lindén. In our collaboration we worked with developing a culture based on trust, how to deal with uncertainty and how to develop our individual strengths.
Q: How can we cope with stress caused by toxic leadership?
Ray: A lot of folks in the profession have suggested setting boundaries with work and their personal lives and finding joy outside of work. Activities may include taking vacation (a real pause from work), using sick leave when you need to, starting and maintaining a hobby, connecting with non-library friends, traveling for leisure, and setting boundaries to ensure that your life outside of work thrives too. I know many of us might be ambitious and always attuned to work and it’s difficult to create that space, but it takes practice and time to honor pauses and space so it may reduce the stress that someone may experience in the toxic workplace.
Catharina: To constantly work on the organizational culture, build trust and a feedback culture, and to give everyone tools to work on how to cope with stress, uncertainty, and changes. We live in a changing world where we have many different views of the future and a high degree of uncertainty. We need to foster a willingness and know-how to live in change.
Stress is not an individual problem, it is built into the structures and needs to be handled in the structure, together with sufficient systems for support.
Q: How can we empower, nurture, and support staff and those we lead?
Ray: We need to trust and support those interested in leadership at any level. They can be interns, student workers, library workers, etc. If they are interested in leading a project, a team, a department, or a library, we can provide support, context, and space for them to share their ideas and plans and uplift them too. We should always be uplifting, mentoring, and coaching others along the way and it goes both ways – we can always learn from interns, student workers, mentees, and coaches too, those who are new in the profession or in the workplace will always see things differently and experience things differently and may provide invaluable insight.
Catharina: I really believe in building an organization with less hierarchies and more empowerment of everyone. We work together! We need to move power from the management level to the staff and to the users. Being a manager also means that you personally need to give space and let go of some of your power (without letting go of your managerial responsibility). Sometimes we might take too much space, and that is something we need to be aware of to give other the opportunity.
Build learning organizations where we learn together. Where the work is team-based and where everyone’s skills and experience counts. To really use the potential of our human resources and our collective knowledge.
Q: How can we turn toxicity into empowerment?
Ray: It’s not one person’s job to fix this. An incoming new director or university librarian or a new colleague cannot make the changes by themselves. It’s a collective action and awareness for everyone to work together to communicate, repair trust, and foster support and engagement internally. This might mean that there needs to be an understanding that this is an issue, and that the library needs to work together to address it. It’s not only one or two action items but rather a long process. Building trust and engagement takes a long time but it’s a worthy endeavor to strive for because it benefits everyone, especially our community of users.
Catharina: Keep your eyes open, ensure you are not part of the game or become a toxic game player (without noticing it), keep the dialogue open and raise your voice when you see something that is questionable.
Q: Any other remarks you would like to share?
Ray: It’s not going to be easy, and this phenomenon is not an American issue, or a public library issue, it’s unfortunately common in our profession, and it’s not only a “for profit” corporate environment either. All libraries and library workers can be exposed to these issues but to acknowledge, to address, and to talk about them is an important step.
Catharina: We are all part of it and all have a responsibility to make the change. Together we are strong and can make a difference!
As we can see from the responses, toxic librarianship and leadership is a very complex area. It takes concerted action by a team, by a collective, to address it. Additionally, I believe we must be intentional to empower librarians and to build organizations to empower everyone!
- Honor your worth
- Seek strength
- Delay the response
- State your boundary as a policy
- See the other’s motives
- See through the power
- See through the entitlement
Resources to read and listen about toxicity:
Eliminating toxic influences by identifying them (Mental Health America)
Reshaping work environments to promote and protect mental health (The World Health Organization)
What’s a toxic person and how to deal with them (PsychCentral)
How Toxic Work Cultures Are Driving the Great Resignation (Podcast: Brené Brown with Dr. Donald Sull and Charlie Sull)