The Guilty Librarian: Grappling with Job-Related Guilt

I have been trying to write this blog post for weeks. The more time that goes by, the more guilt I feel. The powers that be at ALA are going to lose their patience with me, I tell myself. One post a month is not that huge of a commitment — just send it already! I frequently feel this crushing sense of guilt about a lot of things, particularly this year, and I don’t think I’m alone.

Illustration of woman touching her temples and closing her eyes
2020 was stressful. Congratulate yourself on accomplishments big and small.

This year has put many things in perspective. 2020 has pushed all of us to our limits, making us think about just how essential libraries are to their communities and whether or not lives should be put at risk to better serve our patrons (answer: no. No, they should not).

On a personal note, I have never felt so ineffective and helpless as a library director. The things I feel I should be doing far outweigh the things I am actually doing, and I wonder sometimes if I’m doing anything right. I actually had COVID last month, and though it knocked me flat on my back for several weeks, my mind was consumed mostly with what I could be doing from home to continue to serve the community.

This year has had a huge impact on everyone’s mental health, and the idea of an unknown future can be terrifying. Add that to an occupation that requires at least some semblance of people-pleasing and customer service, and things like feelings of guilt, a case of the “shoulds,” or even burnout could be on the horizon.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Here are a few things I’ve been telling myself lately that I’d like to tell you, too.

You are doing enough

Even before this year, I have suffered from a chronic case of the “shoulds”: “I should be putting together welcome packages for new patrons, but I just haven’t had the time,” and “I know I should be doing more partnerships with the school district; it’s just hard to find the energy.”

2020 has thrown some new “shoulds” into the mix: “I should be using this time during quarantine to weed or reorganize,” or “Maybe I should re-open my library since so many others in my area are open.” In this field of work, there can be so much pressure to do more, more, more to serve your community.

The truth is, you should go easy on yourself. That’s the only should to worry about right now. All of those things will still be there when the world isn’t such a hot mess. Don’t be worried about perfection or constant productivity, and be OK with “good enough.” Everyone is in perpetual survival mode these days, and we are all doing our best. Keep yourself safe, healthy, and mentally well — that is good enough for now.

Comparison serves no purpose

There are libraries that appear to be doing all the things right now. I’m sure you can think of one. They outgrew virtual storytimes long ago; now they’re on to weekly grab-and-go crafts for every age group, Zoom author visits, online cooking classes, Instagram art contests, you name it, they’re doing it. It can make you feel so guilty for not doing all of these things when there is always someone doing more.

This has been tough for me in terms of re-opening. We are still doing appointment-only service, though many libraries in the area are fully open with no restrictions. I feel so much guilt for remaining closed, even though I feel it’s the right thing to do. I worry that my patrons are getting impatient and fed up with my cautiousness, though I know that is a silly thing to worry about. This is especially relevant, I think, in a tiny library like mine, where my patrons aren’t just my patrons; they’re my parents’ friends, my old high school teachers, my former classmates. I know each and every one of them, and it makes it even more difficult to feel like I could be letting them down.

But this (gestures broadly around the country) is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing; just because one library is doing something doesn’t mean it will work for you and your library. I know what is best for me and my tiny library, and you know what will work for yours. There is no rule book.

Redefine the word “productive"

Earlier this year, I wrote about a popular meme I had been seeing about the idea of being productive during quarantine (I believe I instructed the author of that meme to shove it, which I stand behind). The concept of being constantly productive is not something that’s just popped up during COVID; it’s been shoved down my throat by social media influencers for years.

Many “hustlers” and “boss babes” love to talk about how little sleep they got the night before due to their work, how they live at the office, how if you aren’t in a state of perpetual exhaustion, you aren’t doing it right. This is not a healthy or sustainable way to live. I’m not sure when it became more of a humblebrag than a complaint to talk about having no discernible work/life separation or consistently being overwhelmed, but I don’t love it.

You don’t always need to be doing something. This is uncharted territory that we are in; being productive is not something that we should feel guilt about. The idea of productivity should be redefined when our bodies and minds are going through trauma. I showered and got dressed today, look how productive! I cleaned off my desk today, how productive am I?! What did you do lately that fits this new definition of productivity? Did you get through the day without crying? Ingest a green vegetable? Go for a walk? Amazing job, I applaud you!

I am proud of you

You know, nobody truly knows what they’re doing or what’s going on, myself included. We are all doing the best we can, and I’m so proud of you for just being here. You should be proud of yourself too — this is not an easy job, especially now, and your community is lucky to have you. Once this is over — and I see a tiny glimmer of hope over the horizon, it’s coming — your patrons will pour back into your library (six feet apart and with masks on, of course), buzzing with excitement and ready to advocate for you, volunteer for you, donate to you, be there for you more than ever before.

If you, too, are a guilty librarian and want to share your thoughts, please feel free to reach out to me at I am always happy to hear from you, and though I don’t have any advice or words of wisdom right now (aside from the things I repeat to myself), I am a great listener!