LIScareer.com
Career Strategies for Librarians
The Resilient Librarian
by Shelley Hourston

Do you think of yourself as resilient? Perhaps my preoccupation with resilience is connected to my mid-
life point of view—a 180-degree look at what’s behind me and what might lie before me in the
uncomfortably dwindling time I have left. Like most people, I feel that I have weathered some rough water
and had my share of ups and downs. But what is it that gets us through? Resilience? My thesaurus
offers these synonyms for resilient: flexible, durable, stout, sturdy, tough, buoyant and irrepressible.1 I’d
like to think of myself as resilient, but on a day-to-day basis, I’m not so sure. And I certainly don’t feel
irrepressible!

As I mulled over the idea of resilience, I began to think of my friends, many of whom are librarians. I
thought of the number of librarians I know who have been downsized, outsourced, and otherwise
required to morph into new forms, new positions, new organizations. How many changes have we all
experienced in our work? How many changes have occurred in our profession since we graduated from
library school? The internet—a blinking colon in the bottom left corner of my old 386 computer—became
public the year after I graduated and things have never really been the same since. I decided to see how
my colleagues felt about change and resilience.

What is Resilience?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the
face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress—such as family and
relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. It means
‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.  Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not
extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience.”2 Other psychologists say that resilience is at
least partially genetic, but most emphasize that it can be cultivated. Good news indeed.

The APA has developed a program called The Road to Resilience which recommends ten ways of
building and maintaining resilience. Last year, librarian Kim Dority wrote an excellent article in Colorado
Libraries3 offering tips for coping with change in our profession. I was curious to see if recommended
resilience-building strategies are commonly used by information professionals in the trenches.  

Challenges We Face
After polling my librarian friends, I posted a note to a number of library listservs asking for “stories of
resilience.” The topic obviously struck a chord—I received more than 40 responses over a period of
several days. Some had been in the business since “the days when the library had a huge party to
celebrate getting their first dumb-terminal,” while several were currently completing their degrees.  

The challenges and changes they described illustrated the interconnectedness of our personal and
professional lives. I received stories about downsizing, merging of organizations and cultures, funding
cuts, difficulties with senior management, personality conflicts, isolation in the physical, professional
and social sense, and continually changing roles and responsibilities. Some described narrow or
stereotypical attitudes from friends and co-workers outside of the library, the need to continually learn
new skills (often without support), and the belief that “everything is on the Internet.” I was inspired by the
stories people shared. Even more encouraging was evidence that the strategies these librarians used
to bounce back from professional challenges were indeed those recommended by the experts.  

Resilience Tips from the Trenches  
Change happens: bring it on!

Librarians consistently said that “change is a given.” Accepting that change is inevitable is the first step
toward resilience. Mary Sue Livingston in Michigan described the challenges of changing technology and
dramatic changes in her library’s organizational structure. “The attitude of accepting change as constant
has been necessary for me to survive in the college as a whole … coping with all these changes
sounded overwhelming; but I’ve been amazed to see that I’ve been able to cope quite well. I have served
as reference librarian, head of circulation services, assistant to the library director, and librarian-at-large;
so when changes occur or problems arise, I am quite prepared to cope with them and ‘roll with the
punches.’”

A number of stories mentioned colleagues who had worked for 15-20 years in the same position in the
same organization. While one person noted that long tenure in one position often pays off financially,
several others commented on the benefits of experiencing different positions in different environments.
According to cataloguer Julie Renee Moore, “Some folks have trouble with change … mainly because
they have not practiced it much! Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I cannot imagine working
20 years or more in one place. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. I’ve seen so many different places
and things and people. It’s given my life a lot of excitement.”  

Julie offered a breathtaking account of her career which has taken her from Florida to Alaska, New York,
New Jersey, and finally to California where she currently works. As she describes her 18-year library
career, you get a sense of the energy that has propelled her through the darker times. “During my career,
I’ve done chores as menial as unplugging the toilet and cleaning cockroach droppings off books to
tasks as interesting as cataloguing lichen samples and grey literature to the challenges of supervising
library assistants to the complete joys of being involved in a mentorship program and the thrill of writing
articles, providing training, and giving talks at library association conferences.”

When I asked Julie what she thought people entering our profession should know about change and
how to cope with it, she said: “Change happens in our profession and it happens in ways that you often
cannot predict. It is important to take the attitude that change is good. Embrace change! Just roll with it!
Don’t be afraid of it. Change can make your job exciting and fun and take you places you’d never
imagined possible!”   

Relationships and support: ask for help!
Maintaining a reliable support network is a familiar strategy for coping with personal and professional
challenges. Information professionals are perhaps better equipped than others in this arena because of
our long-standing tradition of information sharing and professional networking.   

Julie Renee Moore notes that support from other librarians has been critical for her. “Relationships with
colleagues are of utmost importance. Were it not for Autocat [listserv] while I was in remote Alaska, I
think I might have just curled up and died!  I have known one person from the beginning of my career,
and she has been a trusted guide and mentor throughout.”

Others also describe the importance of relationships. Laura* notes the difficulty of adjusting to
significant change at work. “The feeling of frustration, grief, the need to keep motivating your staff even
though you feel like hell … the need to motivate yourself to keep going.” What helped was “the support of
staff who think that you will get them out of this, clients, mentors, champions.  Above all, make sure that
you have senior people as champions. Work on this aspect so that when the time comes, they are there
to support you.”

Perspective: is the glass really half-empty?
The value of adopting a positive perspective has received considerable attention recently and is central
to Appreciative Inquiry and the positive psychology movement. Reframing or looking for the benefits in a
challenging situation was advocated by librarians discussing resilience.

Linda Howard, a colleague working in British Columbia, describes how perspective has helped her.
“One of the ways in which I have become more resilient is to find the positive aspects of this change
[moving her library 5 times in 15 years]. For example, with a library move, there is the opportunity to have
new neighbours, and therefore to introduce library services to ‘new’ staff. Of course there are negative
aspects to each change or move, but focusing on the positive helps increase one’s ability to adapt and
adjust. One no longer holds onto the past with the same intensity.”

Margaret says, “I kept my priorities straight—no matter what the circumstances; I tried to do my job to the
best of my ability, and kept a patrons-first attitude. This paid off at one point when a major faculty
committee went to the manager’s office to tell him how much they needed me.”  

The benefit of having experienced change can help with perspective. Julie Renee Moore says “I try to let
the small stuff go. Things that used to get my tail in a twist are now just fleeting blips on my radar screen.
I cannot afford to expend energy, time, or other resources on things that do not really matter.”  

Be brave! Believe in yourself
Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton4 write that “Aside from the policies of your organization, there
is only one obstacle barring your progress: your own reluctance.” They argue that people direct most of
their energy toward their weaknesses rather than their strengths. For example, if we feel that one of our
weaknesses is public speaking and we believe this is a skill required for success, we’ll focus on
developing that skill. Buckingham and Clifton write that this “fixation with weakness is deeply rooted in
our education and upbringing. … [T]he reasons seem to stem from the same three basic fears: fear of
weakness, fear of failure, and, fear of one’s true self.” Focusing on your strengths in difficult times will
foster greater resilience than lamenting your weaknesses.

In situations requiring resilience, believing in yourself can take a lot of courage. For most of us, it
becomes easier with each positive outcome or experience. Alana writes that as a librarian, “You need to
believe in yourself, the validity of your emotions and reactions, your understanding of a situation, your
value as an employee.  What would I do differently now? [I] would be less afraid to confront situations.”
Jean says that one of her strategies for managing change was “to continually stay focused on not falling
into fear-based thinking and to trust that I have incredible resources.”

Know yourself and take care of yourself
Self-knowledge and self-care are really at the core of resilience. Without knowledge of and appreciation
for who you are, tips from the trenches really won’t help you be resilient.

Julie Renee Moore believes that “It’s important to not allow work to take over your life.  For me, little
breaks are important … to get me out of my usual environment and away from my computer.” She also
uses journaling as a “way to take time to reflect on how things went and are going. And it is kind of fun to
look back and see how far I’ve come.”

Kim Dority writes about the importance of “honouring our sense of humour.” I believe this is critical to my
resilience. There is a growing body of research supporting the value of humour in managing illness,
pain, and depression. Surely 2500 laughter yoga clubs5 around the world can’t be wrong! Using humour
as a way of maintaining a positive perspective should not be underestimated.  

Another gem from Kim Dority is “embrace ‘beginner’s mind.’” It is indeed unsettling to suddenly feel that
we “don’t know”—we don’t know what is going to happen, whether we’ll have a job, how to do a new job,
or what the next change will be. Embracing “beginner’s mind” is a reminder to treat ourselves with
compassion. As Jean notes, in the midst of change, “we can only gently observe how we respond, feel it
fully and be kind to ourselves, while remembering a bigger vision of what we want.”

Final Reflections on Resilience
Paul T. Jackson, possibly the most resilient librarian I know of, said to me,  “People are resilient
because they have to be … although the scars never disappear totally.” Then he added, “I like to think of
‘real’ librarians as described by Librarian Avengers6 … ‘people become librarians because they know
too much,’ and they can usually do anything they choose to do with grace and excellence.”  

I had lunch last week with my librarian friend, Marjory Jardine, to discuss resilience. She said
“Resilience is the big picture. Day-to-day we cope … get through. Resilience is not only bouncing back
but how you bounce back. It’s developing awareness so that on a day when you’re not feeling on top, you
rearrange your schedule accordingly if you can. It’s all in the attitude.” Hmmm… I thought. I can do that.
Then I talked to my co-worker, Jane Dyson. She said, “I think I am resilient, yes. I’m more resilient now
than I was when I was younger.” When I asked her why, she said “Hope.” I felt relieved. I’m pretty sure I
can manage hope. I think I really am resilient … if not irrepressible.

* Use of first names only indicates a pseudonym.

References & Resources

1 Oxford Paperback Thesaurus. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 728.

2 American Psychological Association. The Road to Resilience. (c2004, accessed August 26, 2005);
available from http://www.helping.apa.org/featuredtopics/feature.php?id=6&ch=1.

3 Kim Dority, “Change, Chaos, and Control: Strategies for Change Agents,” Colorado Libraries 30
(Spring 2004): 13-16.

4 Buckingham, Marcus and Clifton, Donald O. “Are You Afraid of Your Weaknesses? Obstacles to
Building Your Strengths (Part 1).” Excerpted from Now, Discover Your Strengths. (New York: Free Press,
2001, accessed August 26, 2005); available from http://gmj.gallup.com/content/content.asp?ci=559.

5 Laughter Yoga/Laughter Club International. Welcome to Laughter Yoga Therapy. (n.d., accessed
August 26, 2005); available from http://www.laughteryoga.org/meditation/.  

6 Librarian Avengers. Worship. (July 13, 2005, accessed August 26, 2005); available from http:
//librarianavengers.org/?page_id=3.

Appreciative Inquiry Commons http://appreciativeinquiry.cwru.edu/

Positive Psychology Center http://www.positivepsychology.org/

About the Author:

Shelley Hourston is a librarian who uses Appreciative Inquiry, life review and coaching to help
information professionals recognize and maximize their skills, talents and resilience. Learn more in The
Art of Resilience 101, an online program beginning October 3, 2005. Visit http://www.
shourstonandassociates.com for more information.

Article published Sept 2005

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
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