In your care, in our care

Burnout.  That topic “they don’t teach you about in grad school.” Whether we work in galleries, libraries, archives, or museums (GLAMs). we deal with burnout (our own or that of others.)  Employees. Contractors. And users of services.

Library and archives reference staff. Museum educators. GLAM Social Media employees

Backroom cataloging, preservation, projects and declassification staff. Employees doing systematic or on-demand scanning.

Mitigation doesn’t depend on embracing “vocational awe.” Or saying “we had it tough, that’s the way it is so don’t complain.”  But on finding ways to deal with exhaustion in ways that are realistic but humane, highly individual yet communal.

Where I work, anyone can come into the lobby during business hours when the doors are open.  Contract security guards have the most contact with people who enter and leave.  They perform the usual security functions and give directions to visitors.  And ensure everyone follows necessary exit procedures.

During normal operations, I have time to look around as I walk through back offices and public spaces. Working with employees and contract staff during museum events for children and at naturalization ceremonies brings me special joy.

Whether I’m doing routine staffing assignments or working on special event, I thank the guards who keep us all safe as I walk through the lobby at the end of the work day. Including the ones doing bag checks in the Pennsylvania Avenue lobby. And the security staff stationed at the Special Events door on Constitution Avenue (pictured in NARA photos).

The February 2020 National Archives Sleepover brought 103 participants to the National Archives to camp out in the rotunda for the evening, participate in a scavenger hunt in the exhibit, Rightfully Hers, and have conversations with Frederick Douglas and Elizabeth Cady Stanton reenactors.
The February 2020 National Archives Sleepover brought 103 participants to the National Archives to camp out in the rotunda for the evening, participate in a scavenger hunt in the exhibit, Rightfully Hers, and have conversations with Frederick Douglas and Elizabeth Cady Stanton reenactors.
The February 2020 National Archives Sleepover brought 103 participants to the National Archives to camp out in the rotunda for the evening, participate in a scavenger hunt in the exhibit, Rightfully Hers, and have conversations with Frederick Douglas and Elizabeth Cady Stanton reenactors.
The February 2020 National Archives Sleepover brought 103 participants to the National Archives to camp out in the rotunda for the evening, participate in a scavenger hunt in the exhibit, Rightfully Hers, and have conversations with Frederick Douglas and Elizabeth Cady Stanton reenactors.

When all goes well (normal interactions), employees and users of services don’t hear much about the guards who work in GLAMs.  But the contract employees out in front know the risks they’re taking.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has headquarters staff in Washington and the Maryland suburbs. A shuttle bus runs once an hour between the Washington, DC building (Archives 1) and College Park (Archives 2).  Shortly before 1:00 p.m. on June 10, 2009, I chatted with friends in the lobby of A2, then boarded the shuttle to ride to A1.

I’ve made many such trips back and forth.  Depending on traffic, it takes about 40 minutes.  As I rode the Shuttle to Archives 1, I read on my phone the news of a horrific shooting that had occurred right before 1 p.m. at another cultural heritage institution on the Mall.

An 88 year old white supremacist had shot Stephen Johns, a security guard on duty in the lobby of the U.S. Holocaust Museum.  The Associated Press account of the shooting included quotes from Johns’ colleagues.  “Bill Parsons, chief of staff at the museum, said Johns and other guards ‘did exactly what they were supposed to do to protect people at the museum.'”

He added, “Never take your guard force and security people for granted.”  AP also reported comments from national and local leaders: “‘We have lost a courageous security guard who stood watch at this place of solemn remembrance,’ President Barack Obama said in a statement.”

I later learned that Stephen Johns was an employee of the same facilities security provider as the husband of one of my friends.  When you go in and out of many Federal office buildings in downtown Washington, you get the know the guards on duty.  And when the timing is right, chat with them as they head out when their work for the day is done.

Over the years I’ve talked to guards who knew Stephen Johns.  And what happened that day in 2009 when he was the first one in the building to meet the visitor who ended his life. And our obligations to each other.

Our employing institutions have people and objects in their care.  The actions contract security guards and GLAM staff take can feel frustrating to visitors.  When we go to other buildings for the first time, we, too, may feel frustrated at unfamiliar or changing procedures and requirements.  It helps to hold on to that and have empathy for first-time visitors to our own buildings.

There are other entrances to archives and museums beyond the physical. Social Media staff open the doors to GLAM institutions virtually. They welcome, provide information, and assist people online. Occasionally they absorb on Twitter or other platforms public anger or frustration expressed to them as representatives of their employee.

Developing online content and understanding user reactions is a relatively new field worth exploring in library and information science classes. The National Archives shared GLAM “Tips for Social Media Success” in 2017, including the value of a second set of eyes before posting certain types of content.

Empathy-centered experience reminds us that sometimes “things happen’– on both sides of the reference desk or information desk. Any visitor or researcher or contractor or employee (I among them) can have a bad day. The reason may be inadvertent or circumstantial or structural.  In the agencies where I’ve worked, deliberate malfeasance is rare.

Social Media isn’t a place to adjudicate allegations about performance issues since they involve legal or statutory rights (staff, contractors, or visitors).  Or sort through conspiracy theories about GLAM institutions or officials.  Hearing these always been part of the job in libraries and archives but now can play out in public on Social Media. A good response (if needed) is “thank you for your feedback.”

Understanding why things happen doesn’t prevent burnout but can help mitigate it.  Early in my career, budget cutbacks led the director of my NARA work unit to ask processing staff to start helping with reference duties.  Those of us who once only did backroom projects work joined the roster of people sharing research room staffing and box pull duties. When I later became a Federal historian, I tried to keep in mind what it was like on both sides of he reference desk.

Good library, archives, or museum managers know burnout can occur in any jobs “where intensive interpersonal contacts are the rule rather than exception.”  A library supervisor once noted in an essay about burnout, “Reference service has an inherent lack of positive feedback, either on how you are performing, or on how satisfied users are with your services.” He acknowledged it becomes “almost impossible to replenish your vitality and energy” through daily work.

To help staff and users, the supervisory librarian looked at why and how burnout occurs. And the importance of letting team members know it can happen to anyone and that you “are not to blame.” As a representative of his employer’s library association, he used his position to bring (or try to bring) workplace issues to management’s attention.  He found that,

Librarians in public service who are not involved in the library decision-making process often feel a lack of control over policies and procedures that directly affect the user community; as the visible link between the users and the library, we are often literally ‘caught in the middle,’ explaining or enforcing or circumventing policies in which we have had no input and in which we have no confidence.

The librarian stressed the importance of letting employees know that they are not alone.  That feeling exhausted and frustrated happens to others, too.  That burned out staff are not “bad” because they “can’t cope.” (So much this.  Much better than focusing on “vocational awe” or descriptions of “resilience” that lack empathy or recognition of workplace realities.)

Self awareness and humility help you focus on the team. The librrarian explained that doing a self-inventory helps supervisors understand what motivates themselves and their teams. “It is vital to the individual’s feelings of self-worth that he/she feel an integral part of the organization.”

Adam Grant, an occupational psychologist, later looked at similar mitigation strategies in a New York Times column, “Burnout Isn’t Just in Your Head. It’s in Your Circumstances.” Grant quoted a 2016 Cleveland Clinic study of medical professionals focused on shifting emotions and control.

It turned out that when physicians learned to engage with more empathy, they started hearing patients’ concerns instead of dismissing their complaints, which gave them more control in the conversation. The Cleveland Clinic’s chief experience officer, Adrienne Boissy, told me: “I can’t tell you how many times, over and over and over again, we saw them simply forget to say, ‘I care about you. I’m in this with you. We’re going to figure this out together.”

In 2013, historian Jason Steinhauer spoke about leadership training at the Library of Congress.  Jeff Page, the Chief Financial Officer of the Library of Congress, blogged about his remarks.

Introducing the main theme of his speech, Jason shared a comment from one of the…instructors who had suggested to the participants that “there are only two emotions in this world: Love. And fear.” Jason went on to say that, “Each day, we choose from which to operate.”

It would be three more years before President Barack Obama nominated Carla Hayden to be Librarian of Congress.  By the time the Senate confirmed Dr. Hayden’s nomination, Steinhauer and Page both had left the Library of Congress for other jobs.  While still CFO Page wrote in 2013 that,

Ego is the place where our conventional, parochial, and self-centered interests reside. When we can’t manage to move beyond what matters most to us personally, how issues affect us, and how they bother us, we become severely limited in our ability to interact effectively in the work place, and in life in general.

Page noted, “When conflict involves people being mean, inappropriate, and disrespectful, operating from a place of love means rising above, taking the high road, not biting the hook, and sitting with your big self.”

Good advice but not always possible or feasible. Some situations are so bad, you have to flee. My Mom was about to start college (she was interested in history and psychology) when totalitarian forces overran her homeland, changing her life forever.  In her new life as a war refugee in the United States, she did some volunteer work in my high school library.

When Mom fell ill in July 2016, I visited her once or twice a day in the hospitals and nursing homes where she spent the last 15 months of her life.  I had just retired from Federal service and had returned to the National Archives as a Volunteer.

The Ring Theory of Comfort places the person most in need of help (in this case my Mom) at the center of the rings.  To protect them, you avoid sharing your own anxieties and worries with the most vulnerable person in the center circle.  To share your experiences, you turn to people in the outer rings. For me that included getting out for lunch or dinner with longtime family friends.

When I came to NARA to work my staffing assignments, I greeted and bantered with the security guards.  Leaving the building, I thanked them as they checked my bag, which often held books I had bought for Mom at the Archives Store.

I learned how long some of the guards had worked at NARA.  Where they worked before. In some cases, their family background. Hearing that Mom was ill, some guards asked after her at times. So did AOTUS David Ferriero (photo at a reception 2012) and other colleagues I worked with on education and public program events.

National Archives, March 2017
National Archives, March 2017
Dara Baker, Rodney Ross, Maarja Krusten, David S. Ferriero, National Archives, 2012 (photo by Bruce Guthrie)
Dara Baker, Rodney Ross, Maarja Krusten, David S. Ferriero, National Archives, 2012 (photo by Bruce Guthrie)

When my NARA shifts ended, I went to the nursing home and showed Mom photos of the National Archives and the Smithsonian gardens.  I did the same for the Certified Nursing Assistants and RNs who helped care for Mom.  Focusing on others helped me replenish my vitality.

The Supervisory Librarian I quoted extensively above?  That was David Ferriero, then at MIT, now Archivist of the United States, writing in 1982 about “Burnout at the Reference Desk.” (I talked to David at a reception in 2014 about why he wrote it.) He recognized in his essay the value of library staff meetings where employees could share workplace frustrations within the group (“alright to have those feelings”).  And the need to look out for staff and for users.

MIT Libraries leadership team, David S. Ferriero, right
MIT Libraries leadership team, David S. Ferriero, right

Ferriero wrote in 1982 that

Just as it is necessary to know the subject strengths and special reference skills of one’s colleagues, it is just as important to learn about their burnout threshold.  Members of the team must look out for one another and step in when the situation warrants and provide support where appropriate because it is crucial that users not fall victim to the burnout frustrations of the staff.

A month after Mom died, I wrote in “Color Palettes and Frames” that

We benefit when we walk around and talk to people to learn about workers on the loading dock, the archives technician, the library shelver, but also the executive in the corner office. And expand the circle of our concerns.

As Ferriero took office as AOTUS, he discovered there was no program to show NARA’s security guards examples of archival holdings or connect them to the mission of the agency they protect.  He changed that, ensuring guards received orientation briefings and inclusive tours that placed them within the team contributing to the work of the National Archives.

Let’s do that for everyone in our physical and online GLAM workplaces, including them in our care. And creating an ever-expanding team, needed now more than ever, that looks out for one another.

In your care, in our care