It’s been a quiet summer over here, focused on family, recovering from the stress of the academic year, and doing a lot of reading. I’d had fantasies of getting a lot of writing done over the summer (more on that below), but I didn’t get nearly as much done as I’d hoped. I’m trying to be very gentle with myself. I know I’m burnt out and emotionally exhausted. I’m dealing with stressful family health issues. I feel demoralized at work between the College trying to take away faculty and staff cost-of-living increases (which proved unsuccessful — woo hoo! union strong!), the increasing lack of voice and agency for faculty and staff in an ever-expanding hierarchy, and the fun of working during a pandemic. And I’m feeling really okay with not getting much done. I had some wonderful moments with my family this summer and that is without question the most important thing I could have accomplished in these months.
That would not have cut it a few years ago; I’d have been beating myself up for my laziness and lack of productivity. Back in the day, the worse I felt, the harder I’d work. I’d bury myself in work to focus on something other than my feelings. I’d work hard in the hopes of getting external validation that might make me feel better (spoiler: it never did). I taught classes through migraines and told myself that it would take my mind off the pain. And in a way it did, but these strategies of muscling through pain just led to burnout. We need to feel our feelings. We need to rest when our body or our mind is unwell. I’m immensely proud of the fact that I have not once felt guilty for not getting a lot done lately and I’ve resisted the pull to get involved in things that wouldn’t give me time to prioritize taking care of myself and my family. It’s taken a long time to get into recovery for my workaholism and I still do slip into bad habits from time to time, but those are getting fewer and I’m getting better and better at saying no to things.
One of the hardest parts of recovering from workaholism is having colleagues who still are active workaholics, constantly go above and beyond, and have very few boundaries. I don’t worry much about how my performance looks compared to theirs (though I used to), but I sometimes feel like I’m abandoning them. Last year, I was determined not to work on our annual instructional assessment project because I had worked on it or led it for so many years in a row and it is hard thankless work. But then my friend (who has worked on it even more times than I have) volunteered to lead and no one else was volunteering to help so I didn’t want her to have to do it alone. I’m struggling with the conflict between having boundaries and being in solidarity with my fellow workaholics. In the end though, I can’t make other people erect boundaries, and if I am ever to truly recover, I have to stay true to my own.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking about something I call slow librarianship. It was in response to the realizations I had about my workaholism and the ideas I explored around ambition, striving, productivity, self-optimization, and achievement culture on this blog two years ago. It felt like the answer to all this was to slow down, to notice and reflect, to focus more on being true to our values than innovating, to build relationships, to really listen (to our communities our colleagues, and ourselves), and to be in solidarity with others. I then discovered that another librarian, Julia Glassman, had written an essay in 2017 sharing her vision of slow librarianship called “The innovation fetish and slow librarianship: What librarians can learn from the Juicero.” In it, she brought up many of the concerns I have about achievement culture, reward structures that create a sense of scarcity and thus toxic competition, and the focus on flashy innovative work. While she wrote that defining slow librarianship was beyond the scope of her essay, I think she got a pretty good start with the last sentence she offers:
Perhaps, if we reject the capitalist drive to constantly churn out new products and instead take a stand to support more reflective and responsive practices, we can offer our patrons services that are deeper, more lasting, and more human.
It sounds about right to me. I can’t tell you how good it felt to see that someone was thinking along the exact same lines as I was. Thank you Julia for starting this conversation!
Last Fall, I gave a talk at the New York Library Association’s annual conference where I started sketching out my vision of slow librarianship. And I’ve been surprised since then to have been asked to speak at 8 different events on the topic (many of which I’ve turned down due to my own focus on slow living), when I’ve barely been asked to do any speaking outside of my state in YEARS. Clearly, we’re at a place where people are questioning the roles whiteness and capitalism play in our work and are looking for a new path. I’ve done a lot of reading and have made refinements since the NYLA talk and I have so many things in my head that I want to get onto the page. I started work this summer on something. I’m thinking it will be a book, since I’ve already written 9,000 words and have barely scratched the surface. I don’t exactly know what I’ll do with it when I’m done, but I know I want it to be open access and I don’t want it to be some perfectly polished scholarly product.
In my first draft of the first chapter of whatever it is I’m writing, I defined slow librarianship this way:
Slow librarianship is an antiracist, responsive, and values-driven practice that stands in opposition to neoliberal values. Workers in slow libraries are focused on relationship-building, deeply understanding and meeting patron needs, and providing equitable services to their communities. Internally, slow library culture is focused on learning and reflection, collaboration and solidarity, valuing all kinds of contributions, and supporting staff as whole people. Slow librarianship is a process, not a destination; it is an orientation towards our work, ourselves, and others that creates positive change. It is an organizational philosophy that supports workers and builds stronger relationships with our communities.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how individualism is at the root of so many of our problems and how things like solidarity, mutual aid, and collective action are the answer. Capitalism does everything it can to keep us anxious and in competition with each other. It gave us the myth of meritocracy – the idea that we can achieve anything if we work hard enough, that our achievements are fully our own (and not also a product of the privileges we were born to and the people who have taught us, nurtured us, and helped us along the way), and that we deserve what we have (and conversely that others who have less deserve their lot in life). It gave us petty hierarchies in the workplace – professional vs. paraprofessional, faculty vs. staff, full-time vs. part-time, white-collar vs. blue-collar – that make us jealously guard the minuscule privilege our role gives us instead of seeing ourselves in solidarity with all labor. It’s created countless individual awards and recognitions that incentivize us not to collaborate and to find ways to make ourselves shine. It’s created conditions of scarcity in the workplace where people view their colleagues as threats or competitors instead of rightly turning their attention toward the people in power who are responsible for the culture. This is how the system was made to work; to keep us isolated and anxious, grinding away as hard as we can so we don’t have time or space to view ourselves as exploited workers. It is only through relationships and collaboration, through caring about our fellow workers, through coming together to fight for change, that things will improve. But that requires us to focus less on ourselves and our desire to shine, rise, or receive external recognition, and to focus more on community care and efforts to see everyone in our community rise. It goes against everything capitalism has taught us, but we’ll never create meaningful change unless we replace individualism with solidarity and care more about the well-being of the whole than the petty advantages we can win alone.
I’m honestly really proud of myself for working so slowly on this. It used to be that I’d stay up until 2am writing if I felt passionately about something, so impatient to get my thoughts out of my brain and onto the screen. At the pace I’m working and with the academic year starting, it’s going to be a long time before this book sees the light of day, so I thought I’d share some things I’ve read, watched, and listened to that really influenced my own thinking (thank you all for your labor in getting these ideas out there and letting me learn from you!!). I hope these are just as inspirational for you as they have been to be.
(sorry my citations are sloppy and I don’t always include the url to articles (you know how to google/google scholar) )
Andrews, Nicola. “It’s Not Imposter Syndrome: Resisting Self-Doubt as Normal For Library Workers.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe, 2020.
Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Random House, 2018. (Kate’s podcast is also consistently AMAZING!!!)
brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press, 2017.
Ettarh, Fobazi. “Vocational awe and librarianship: The lies we tell ourselves.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe 10 (2018).
Ferretti, Jennifer A. “Building a Critical Culture: How Critical Librarianship Falls Short in the Workplace.” Communications in information literacy 14.1 (2020): 134-152.
Gallagher, Brian. “How Inequality Imperils Cooperation.” Nautilus, 9 Jan. 2020, nautil.us/issue/79/catalysts/how-the-rich-imperil-cooperation.
Glassman, Julia. 18 Oct. 2017. “The innovation fetish and slow librarianship: What librarians can learn from the Juicero.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe, 18 Oct. 2017, www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2017/the-innovation-fetish-and-slow-librarianship-what-librarians-can-learn-from-the-juicero/
Graeber, David. “After the Pandemic, We Can’t Go back to Sleep.” Jacobin, 4 Mar. 2021, www.jacobinmag.com/2021/03/david-graeber-posthumous-essay-pandemic.
Graeber, David. The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. Melville House, 2016.
Han, Byung-Chul. “The Tiredness Virus.” The Nation, 12 Apr. 2021, www.thenation.com/article/society/pandemic-burnout-society/.
Han, Byung-Chul. “Why Revolution Is No Longer Possible.” OpenDemocracy, 23 Oct. 2015, www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/why-revolution-is-no-longer-possible/.
Headlee, Celeste. Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. Harmony, 2020.
Honoré, Carl. In praise of slowness: Challenging the cult of speed. Harper Collins, 2009.
Hudson, David J. “The Displays: On Anti-Racist Study and Institutional Enclosure.” up//root: a we here publication. October 22, 2020. https://www.uproot.space/features/hudson-the-displays.
Soooooo many episodes of the podcast Hurry Slowly inspired me — they’re too numerous to name.
Kendrick, Kaetrena Davis. “The low morale experience of academic librarians: A phenomenological study.” Journal of Library Administration 57.8 (2017): 846-878. (all of Kaetrena research and writing is amazing and her more recent works are OA, so look ’em up!)
Leung, Sofia and Jorge López-McKnight (Eds.), Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory. MIT Press, 2021.
Mountz, Alison, et al. “For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 14.4 (2015): 1235-1259.
Nataraj, Lalitha, et al. ““Nice White Meetings”: Unpacking Absurd Library Bureaucracy through a Critical Race Theory Lens.” Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship/Revue canadienne de bibliothéconomie universitaire 6 (2020): 1-15.
Nicholson, Karen P., Jane Schmidt, and Lisa Sloniowski. 2020. “Editorial.” Canadian Journal of
Academic Librarianship 6: 1–11. https://doi.org/10.33137/cjal-rcbu/v6.35194
Nicholson, Karen P. “The” value agenda”: Negotiating a path between compliance and critical practice.” Canadian Libraries Assessment Workshop (CLAW) 2017 Conference, Victoria, BC.
Ndefo, Nkem. “Nkem Ndefo on the Body as Compass.” In Young, Ayana. For the Wild podcast, 24 March 2021, https://forthewild.world/listen/nkem-ndefo-on-the-body-as-compass-227
Odell, Jenny. How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy. Melville House Publishing, 2020. (if you don’t have time for her book, the conference talk she gave that became the book is excellent!)
Okun, Tema. White Supremacy Culture. https://www.dismantlingracism.org/uploads/4/3/5/7/43579015/okun_-_white_sup_culture.pdf
Parkins, Wendy. “Out of time: Fast subjects and slow living.” Time & Society 13.2-3 (2004): 363-382.
Petersen, Anne Helen. “Why Office Workers Didn’t Unionize.” Culture Study, 18 Oct. 2020, annehelen.substack.com/p/why-office-workers-didnt-unionize.
Petrini, Carlo. Slow food: The case for taste. Columbia University Press, 2003.
Sandel, Michael J. The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Penguin Books, 2021.
Seale, Maura, and Rafia Mirza. “The Coin of Love and Virtue: Academic Libraries and Value in a Global Pandemic.” Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship/Revue canadienne de bibliothéconomie universitaire 6 (2020): 1-30.
Solnit, Rebecca. “When the Hero Is the Problem.” Literary Hub, 2 Apr. 2019, lithub.com/rebecca-solnit-when-the-hero-is-the-problem/.
Spade, Dean. Mutual aid: Building solidarity during this crisis (and the next). Verso Books, 2020.
Walters, Alicia. “Centering Blackness: A World Re-imagined.” In Parker, Priya. Together Apart podcast, 17 June 2020, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/centering-blackness-a-world-re-imagined/id1506057555?i=1000478317059
Weber, Max. 2001 . The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York, NY: Routledge.
Wolff, Richard D. Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism. Haymarket Books, 2012.
Image credit: slow by elycefeliz on Flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND)
Thank you, Meredith! I couldn’t agree more. I read Julia’s article last year, and it struck such a chord with me that I blogged about it, too. Even though I think that it is not *quite* as competitive and fast-paced here in Norway as in seems to be the States (and many other places), we are absolutely on the same track. I am really glad that people are starting to notice how little sustainable this path is. Thanks again!
LOVE your dedication to slow living and working, definition, and explanation. Thank you for sharing. I am currently organizing staff to combat these practices and others through group reflection on white supremacy culture. It has been extremely rewarding.
Thank you Meredith! Oh my gosh, I have been talking for YEARS about why can’t our work follow the ideas of the slow food movement?! Why do we think it is heresy to talk about slowing down?! If there is an upside to the pandemic it is definitely that we had no choice but to slow down! Now we can really embrace a slower pace if we allow ourselves to. Our health is at risk! If our goal is to do good work, first and foremost we must take care of our health. I appreciate your words so much. Thank you!
Thank you, Meredith. This post and your work on the topic of slow librarianship are so needed in our profession. I find your comments about individualism to be especially insightful and true.
Meredith, thank you so much for your writing. Your blogs on slow librarianship really speak to what I have been reflecting on the last couple of years. I’ve been feeling the need to produce some scholarship while trying to make sense of everything that is melding together in my head. I have found a couple other librarians that feel the same, and I hope we are able to work slowly and methodically. I hope to chat with you at some point!
[…] 11 Meredith Farkas (September 8, 2021), “Slow life, slow librarianship,” Information Wants to Be Free, https://meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/2021/09/08/slow-life-slow-librarianship/ […]