Student Snippets A Window Into The Daily Life & Thoughts of SLIS Students

Librarianship as Emotional Labor

Amy Wilson

This post is a little different from my previous ones – basically, I want to gather my thoughts on a topic that I recently read about. Rose Hackman wrote an article earlier this month for The Guardian, arguing that emotional labor is the next frontier of feminism. Emotional labor refers to the type of work that count on “service with a smile,” and historically there has been a “positive bias” toward women in these roles. Hackman also argues that it is work that is not accounted for in wages.

“The way I think of emotional labor goes as follows: there are certain jobs where it’s a requirement, where there is no training provided, and where there’s a positive bias towards certain people – women – doing it. It’s also the kind of work that is denigrated by society at large.”

The article does not mention librarianship, but I immediately thought of this profession, especially as it evolves away from the “shushing librarian” image and more toward positive user service interactions. Librarianship is an industry of knowledge, but human interaction has always been an essential part of the equation. I’m really interested in  the question of why predominantly women have historically been drawn to this field. Is it part of a positive bias? Or are there particular benefits offered in librarianship that are appealing to women (who are also often working mothers)? Are these benefits or labor conditions transferable to other fields where women have been missing (think: STEM)?

This positive bias is also not necessarily better for us lady librarians; it’s damaging to women who are expected to fit this image, and damaging to men who might be seen as incapable of filling these roles. In my own personal experience, I have been hired for a job where I was explicitly told “we wanted to bring fresh, positive energy to the team.” Maybe that positivism is part of my personality – and part of me is glad to be seen this way – but, after hearing that, I also felt a weird pressure that my job description included this unwritten duty to lift my team’s (often negative) spirits.

Back to Hackman: She talks to a male friend who asks her whether the expectation that women excel in emotional labor is necessarily a bad thing:

“My friend would probably never dare say: “Oh, but women are better cooks,” “Women are more talented cleaners” or “Women are better with children.” And yet, that he was suggesting that maybe some women “are just like that” – better at emotions – seemed to be the argument I was bumping into most frequently when I brought up the argument. But this essentialist view doesn’t hold up academically.”

I’m hoping to pursue these kinds of questions academically, and I am curating a Google doc of articles to look into when it’s time to write a capstone paper. In the meantime, I would love to hear experiences from other librarians on whether they agree that this a field of occasionally under-appreciated emotional labor. Is the gender imbalance within librarianship the next feminist frontier??

Check out Amy’s original post on