Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

What They Didn’t Teach Me in Library School: How to Find My Balance

Librarianship is one of those professions is more of a calling than a job.  Requiring at least a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, countless continuing education credits, thousands of hours of reading on personal time to familiarize yourself not only with your collection but also with new materials, and keeping up with latest trends in technology and culture, librarianship is not for the faint of heart, or for those who “just want to read all day.”

Unfortunately, while library school gave me a wonderful foundation for how to handle things professionally (cataloging, evaluating children’s and YA literature, reader’s advisory and reference, etc.), it did not teach me how to find my balance between what my professional (work) duties need and what my personal (life) wants are.

Library School Did Not Teach Me . . .
How to Say No (Without the Guilt)
I worked full time and took a full time course load during most of my master’s degree (so not the original plan) but while that made me the (mostly) well organized planner I am today, that did not teach me how to say “No” to everyone who needs/wants my time.  During the first few years, I was trying to fit everything people asked of me professionally into a very limited amount of time- outreaches to day cares, storytime at my branch, tween programming, teen programming, plus everything else that we had to do on a daily and weekly basis.  As I rose in the hierarchy that exists in public libraries, I had to learn where my personal limitations are- and I had to learn to learn the art of polite negotiation. 
My solution:  a huge paper calendar that lists not only work commitments but personal ones as well. I have certain days and times that I can do outreaches to schools; if they ask for a different day, I can say, “I’m sorry, I can’t that day but I can do this or that, or I can reach out to my counterpart who works these days and see if they’re available.” 

Karen’s Two Cents: As time goes on, I think most people learn to be better at this.  Without a doubt the higher up the ladder you go, the more they expect you to work outside the time clock.  This can be a double edged sword and I recommend that you help your employer develop appropriate staffing levels by being honest about the work you do.  When you take work home and work off the clock, your employers can fail to see that they may need to hire additional support staff.  Learn how to organize your time and make a professional case for your time management needs.  As Christie said, learn the fine art of saying no.  And of prioritizing.  For example, in April and May, SRC planning and promotion takes precident – all other activities are gravy.  Say it with me no, no, no, no, no.  You know you’re saying yes.  I have especially seen the importance of this as budgets have been slashed in the past few years due to economic times.  Libraries are important – vital – and it is our job to be advocates for libraries and for youth services in those libraries.  That means advocating for appropriate staffing as well.
Which Is Better, Local or National Committees (or Any)?
At least in YA librarianship, it seems that there’s a constant push to be *involved* in something.  Join a book committee, join a selection committee, join a round table, join SOMETHING and add to the hive mind of the profession.  All well and good, but what if A) I can’t afford it, B) I can’t fit another thing into my schedule without going insane, or C) I don’t care for anything that I’ve been selected for?  My monetary personal budget as well as my time budget only goes so far, yet the secret shame of not being an active part of something can be overwhelming, especially when you feel that you *should* be doing something to help your profession. 
My solution:  Know what works for you- if you want to join something, think about a local (workplace) or state committee, or a virtual committee.  Or be active on the listservs instead of a lurker.  Know your time and monetary budget before volunteering, and whether or not your workplace will sponsor your ambitions.  It may be that they can foot the bill for a state or local conference, but not the national one, or they might help pay for a webinar but not a conference.  Or you may be entirely on your own.

Karen’s Two Cents: Some workplaces pay for your membership into professional organizations and some do not.  At this point, I have had to let me professional membership into ALA drop, which breaks my heart.  The reason? When we moved and I got a new job the library is now replacing all full time people who leave with part-time people so they don’t have to pay benefits (Everyone’s doing it – yay for the economy!).  So, after 19 years as a professional librarian – with an MLS degree – I only work part time and all my professional development expenses come out of my own pockets.  Although, to be honest, librarianship like education, is one of those professions where you spend a lot of your own time and money out of pocket.  I have bought books, display materials and ,yes, program materials out of pocket – even in the times where libraries we’re better funded.  However, professional involvement is still really very important so find ways to make it work.  Be active in listservs, read blogs, seek out online webinars, etc.  Don’t forget to read your School Library Journal and VOYA.  Especially in tough times, libraries matter and we want to be relevant and top of current trends and changes so that we can serve our public well.  Be involved some way.
How to Leave Work at Work
One thing that’s been really hard to learn, and that I still struggle with, is when to leave work at work.  It’s not just the problems and issues that my kids deal with, but it’s the little things as well.  A new technology that I need to learn, that I haven’t had time at work to play with- do I bring it home and learn it on my own time, or do I hope that tomorrow is a slower day, and leave it?  Or the new grant application that I’m working on- do I bring it home to write it up in relative peace, or leave it for the next day, when I might have six students that need help on ten different homework assignments?  What do you do? 
My solution:  Learn what you can do without burning out, and learn how you personally can relieve stress.  If learning new tech is relaxing, then do it at home.  But don’t take the grant material or book order home unless you’re getting paid somehow to work on it.  If it’s relaxing to you to sing in the car, invest in a new mp3 player and some music and belt away- even drive a little longer until the stress is gone.  Make time to exercise or mediate when you first get home, or before you go to bed so that the stresses don’t carry over into your family time.  Make sure that you’re leaving time to de-stress and unwind for the next day.  You don’t want things to change to where you dread going to work.

Karen’s Two Cents: In many ways, I am obviously not very good at this.  I am passionate about this blog which, while technically is in no way affiliated with my job, is still a part of my “work”, the work of librarianship.  But I will ask people to do guest blog posts, I have learned to schedule posts . . . the big thing for us librarians is that in many ways, even when we are reading because we love to read (which I do daily), it is also in some ways our “work”.  So I’ll have to get back at you on this one as I try to get better at it.  I have never left work at work.
You (and Your Family) Comes First
One major thing that we as a profession and we as a nation need to change our viewpoint on is personal time.  We have guilt over taking time for ourselves, whether it’s our sick time or our vacation time.  And yes, it may be ingrained into the culture of the workplace where you’re at; I’ve been in places where they questioned you as if it were the Inquisition if you called in sick (which, by the way, was completely against HR rules).  I’ve worked at places where you had to schedule your vacation time AT LEAST 3 months out (which is where I get my current habit from, and can’t seem to break it).  We get trained somehow to think the following:  Oh, I need to come in even though I’m sick because I have a program (train someone to be able to step in if needed, or cancel it).  They can’t live without me if I’m not there (not true).  If I don’t show up, I’ll be showing them that I’m replaceable (really?  Do your performance reviews say that?). 
My solution:  I know it will sound simple, but in practice, it’s not.  Personally, as a manager, and professionally as a librarian, I follow these rules: 1. STAY HOME WHEN YOU’RE CONTAGIOUS. I don’t want your cooties, and if you get everyone else sick, that makes life harder for me.  If you’re out of sick time, we can usually work it out. If you can’t tell whether or not you’re contagious, consider the day-care or school district criteria for keeping a child home- do you fit those rules?  2.  TAKE YOUR VACATION TIME.  You come back happy and refreshed, and that makes everyone else happy.  3.  TAKE YOUR BREAKS.  Mental and physical breaks from whatever you’re doing mean that you come back ready for a new challenge.  

Karen’s Two Cents: When the tween was 3 years old, she got incredibly sick. It was devastating to see and no one knew what was wrong with her.  When I called off for the 3rd day in a row, my boss gave me an incredible guilt trip and I found someone to watch her for 2 hours while I went in before what would turn out to be her 5th doctors visit in 5 days.  At that visit, they told me that she had a life threatening illness called Kawasaki’s disease and told me to take her to Children’s Hospital immediately – after they did a test to see if her heart would be okay for the trip.  From that moment on, I have lived my life very differently.  The tween spent 2 nights in the hospital basically having her blood cleaned, she walked around for 2 months like an 80 year old with arthritis, and spent the next 3 years having routine heart checks.  It’s really important that you take care of health issues and hopefully your work has an environment that supports that.  If not, start a professional, polite and yet informed campaign for a work environment that supports a work/life balance.  Healthy employees with healthy families are productive employees.

What have you learned on the job about balancing work life and personal life?  Share in the comments.

Previous entries in Things I Never Learned in Library School
Where’s My Library School Class for This? with Christie G.
10 Things I Never Learned in Library School with Karen J.
These are a Few of My Creepiest Things with Christie G.


  1. Thanks so much for this post! Perfect timing after a month I thought would never end. I love my job, and I love working with teens, but I need to learn to leave work at work and make myself a priority too. Thank you for a sensible voice in teen librarianship.

  2. Three years into my position, I still don't know how to prioritize. Thanks for your suggestions on finding balance. A great post.

  3. Three years into my position, I still don't know how to prioritize. Thanks for suggestions on finding balance. A great post.

  4. I came for program ideas, but I think I was destined to find this post. Thank you, thank you, for the sage advice, always

  5. It's like you're speaking to my soul. Thank you for posting/

    • I love this article. Well written and humorous. In my job post since 2003, still trying to manage all my professional reading and professional development—-without letting it dominate my personal life.

  6. Janet G says:

    Thank you. It hit home again why it’s so important to think of yourself first. I find it interesting that many be it teachers and/or students come into the library to vent, unwind etc.I’m grateful they feel comfortable enough to do this but they don’t even think that while they are doing this that my work sits idle until they leave. This year after (to many years to count) I don’t stop working unless I feel it’s a crisis because I want to go home like a normal teacher without work and relax. Thank you for this reminder.

  7. Debbie Siegel says:

    I’ve been an elementary and high school librarian in an affluent city of Florida for the past 26 years. Many of our high school libraries have been used as testing centers. Last year our doors were closed 122 days for testing, I decided to request a Chrome Book cart and taught research strategies in classrooms. I was still pulled away to test 94 days and gave my summer to getting 600 more ChromeBooks in carts placed into our circulating system. I requested and received 38 days off this fall before testing ramps up again. Coming back fresh into another year is the best part of caring for students. I flipped our library and cleared out books no one reads. We only have fiction books; which I am genre-fying for those who still make time to read. Care about the things that matter to those who matter.

Speak Your Mind