Career Strategies for Librarians
In Search of an Emotionally Healthy Library
by Nancy Cunningham

Your job search involves not only finding the right position, but also the right kind of library that will
support your professional goals and allow you to flourish.  Libraries, like people, have an emotional IQ
and their cultures can be characterized as healthy or unhealthy.   Emotionally healthy libraries allow you
to fulfill your personal and professional goals.  Working in a library with an unhealthy culture may drain
you, prevent you from reaching goals, and keep you distracted by “drama,” no matter how positive,
professional, well trained and focused you are. In the worst circumstances, an unhealthy library culture
undermines your self-esteem, your sense of professional direction, and your commitment to the

A library’s emotional health is unaffected by level of funding, technology, collections or perceived
prestige.  The most emotionally unhealthy libraries can be housed in fabulous facilities, contain
prestigious collections, access cutting-edge technology, and fund a well-paid and trained staff.  
Likewise, there are emotionally healthy libraries plagued by a constant lack of funding, poor and
substandard facilities, or a small, underpaid staff.    

Often an unhealthy culture results from an amalgam of unhealthy personalities and characteristics, lack
of oversight by an outside body such a library board of directors or university administration, and other
factors.  Staff turnover, administration changes, re-organizations, and outside changes from stakeholder
groups can all serve as catalysts for the re-emergence of healthy culture in a library.  

Characteristics of Emotionally Healthy Libraries

  • Positive attitude toward library’s patrons
  • Desire to continually improve visible through new services & projects
  • Visible respect for all staff at all levels
  • Decision making process is open and shared
  • Criteria for decision making grounded in fairness and commitment to mission
  • Meetings in general are well organized, well facilitated, focused and appropriate
  • Committees are well structured and both professional and paraprofessionals have opportunities
    to chair committees
  • Communicating regularly with the library’s stakeholder groups
  • Constructive criticism from stakeholder groups is responded to appropriately and in a timely
  • Visible dedication on the part of the outside bodies (i.e., University Administration, Library Board
    of Directors) to the mission of the library
  • Mechanisms to celebrate everyone’s contribution
  • All staff included in planning
  • Managers at all levels work together and share the same vision
  • Ongoing training for all levels of library staff
  • Socializing is inclusive and open

Characteristics of Emotionally Unhealthy Libraries

  • No meetings (“We don’t have time for meetings” or “Too many meetings waste everyone’s time”)
  • Too many meetings, meetings are long, and are not well facilitated
  • Imposition of one person’s views on the rest of the library
  • Invisible administration – library administrators are not in the library but are busy at conferences
    and other duties outside the library
  • Committees that do not change leadership or constituents
  • Lack of communication between divisions, lack of mechanisms for communication
  • Lack of mission and vision articulated by the administration
  • Library lacks good communication with its stakeholder groups (i.e., community, faculty, students,
  • Culture is dominated by a few negative personalities that “act out” their own personal agendas or
    decrease staff morale.  
  • Passive library administration that seeks no conflict or resolution to unhealthy situations  
  • Complaints are ignored or are used against the staff member who complains.  
  • Library administration not held responsible by stakeholders
  • Double standard for performance by library administrators and staff (i.e., staff may not arrive late
    but administrators can).  
  • Hiding behind prestige of collections or “good old days” image
  • Publishing requirements for tenure are unlinked to the goals and objectives of the library; tenure
    is given a greater priority than the need to improve the library’s own services, collections, and
  • Lack of respect for the staff by the library administration
  • Lack of clear direction from library administration.

How do you avoid an unhealthy library?  Here are some questions you might ask during your interview.

Meeting and Committees

  • How is information shared in the library?
  • How many committees do you have?  How long do they last?  How do they communicate with the
    rest of the library? When results of the task are ready, how long does the administration take to

Management of Operations

  • How does the library handle budget cuts?  What gets cut and how is the decision reached? Who
    had input into the decision?  
  • Describe a crisis situation and how was it handled.  

Library Culture and Communication

  • Describe the morale in the library.  How does the staff socialize together?
  • What are some of the frustrations of the professional and paraprofessional staff?    
  • How is information communicated in the library?
  • How are executive decisions made and communicated?
  • How do departments communicate in the library?  Are there mechanisms set up for
    communication across divisions and departments?

Staff Tenure

  • How long has the staff and the library administration been here?
  • What has been the staff turnover rate?  Why?  
  • How long has the director been here?  What is the director’s relationship with the staff?  

Interview Warning Signs:

  • How did your interviewers answer your questions?  Did they seem uncomfortable or guarded?
    Did they seem to resent the questions?
  • Whom in the library did you meet?  Only a select few?  Why? Did you get the opportunity to meet
    everyone you will be working with or supervising?  
  • Does staff generally seem to enjoy what they do?  Did staff complain or seem guarded when they
    interviewed with you?
  • Were there a lot of “inside jokes” made during the time you were there?  Did you feel left out while
    you were with the search committee?
  • Were your requests for more information fulfilled in a timely manner?  
  • Were you made to feel guilty about your requests for information on benefits or salary?
  • How did your interviewers interact with each other?

There are no perfect answers to these questions.   Try to find out as much about the library’s culture as
you can, to determine if it is the right library for you.   If you feel uncomfortable with something you hear or
observe in the interview, don’t ignore it.  Share your perceptions with other friends, mentors, professors,
and colleagues.  Use the “library grapevine” and your professional contacts to find out what you can
about the library and the people who work there.  

Getting a great position in unhealthy library may lead to frustration, personal disappointment, and an
inability to reach professional goals.  I hope you can use these tips to decide whether an environment
will be right for you.

About the Author:

Nancy Cunningham is the Associate Director for Public Services at the Mary & Jeff Bell Library at Texas
A&M University – Corpus Christi.  She received her MLS at University of California, Berkeley in 1983 and
an MBA in 1997 from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. Nancy has been active in the Texas
Library Association with the Texas-Mexico Relations Committee and in ALA serving on the Staff
Development Committee of the Human Resources section of ALA’s LAMA division.  

Article submitted Dec 2001

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