Navigating a Career in Law Librarianship

26 Balance, Burn-out, & Mental Health

Babak Zarin

Wellness concerns in both the library and legal profession have become well known as awareness of the toll of working in either profession has grown. Yet how are law librarians, who operate in both professions, meant to engage with these concerns? This chapter provides some initial guidance and insight into this question, beginning with a review of how wellness concerns have evolved in the legal and librarian professions. This overview is followed by discussions of approaches towards mental health and practical applications of these approaches before concluding with additional resources. In doing this, readers of this chapter are provided with the awareness, knowledge, and practices necessary to begin engaging with wellness concerns, both of their own and of their patrons.

Key Concepts
  • Mental health concerns are valid.
  • There are many customizable best practices for engaging with wellness.
  • You are strongly likely to have to engage with wellness issues, as are those around you.

Given the nature of the topic, the author of the chapter feels it is important to be open about the perspectives being brought to this chapter. More specifically, the author has both personal and professional experience in engaging individuals with concerns related to mental health, including depression, anxiety, and imposter syndrome. While these experiences cannot be universalized, they have helped to shape an awareness of the imminence and impact of this topic. Therefore it is strongly encouraged that those reading this chapter consider its contents seriously, as the odds of new librarians having to engage with these concerns are high.

Key Concepts
  • Mental health concerns are valid.
  • There are many customizable best practices for engaging with wellness.
  • You are strongly likely to have to engage with wellness issues, as are those around you.

Evolution of Wellness Concerns

What are wellness and mindfulness? Why should law librarians be concerned about either?

These primary questions have had many answers. This is because the role of wellness and mindfulness has changed in conception over time and appeared in different dialogues within the legal and librarianship professions. As will be seen shortly, it took a long time for the legal profession to accept wellness as an area of concern based on worries over burnout and practitioners adopting maladaptive coping mechanisms such as substance abuse. While librarians were similarly slow to discuss wellness formally, they have done so rapidly over the last decade, with current conceptions emphasizing the context of librarians facing burnout. This is particularly in related issues such as imposter syndrome,i where a person doubts the validity of their accomplishments, or vocational awe,ii which is defined as the values and assumptions librarians have about themselves and librarianship stemming from the idea that libraries are inherently good and sacred.

The second question is more readily addressable. Law librarians should care about wellness and mindfulness for two equally important reasons. First, their professional identity often requires them to engage these needs to provide patrons with high-quality service. Second, the demands placed on them to do such emotional labor can cause significant personal challenges related to poor mental health. Consequently, law librarians should care out of both personal necessity and professional expectation.

Wellness in the Legal & Librarian Professions

The first notable systematic attempt at addressing wellness occurred in 1989 when Jon Kabat-Zinn, director of Boston’s Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society, offered a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class for judges. However, it was not until 2002 that the first significant forum on wellness occurred, and until 2007 for the first journal article on wellness to be written in a top ten law review journal.iii This slow adoption can partially be credited to the legal profession’s tendency to emphasize external motivations such as recognition and financial awards over internal motivations such as personal enjoyment, a tendency that begins in law school.iv

Nevertheless, there has been a boom in forums, articles, and classes being offered for lawyers and law students on the topic of wellness.v This is largely due to how positive the results of such practices are on overall lawyer well-being and productivity.vi

This means that today’s literature on the mental health and emotional distress of lawyers is well built.vii Popular legal news websites like Above the Law have an active, dedicated Health and Wellness section.viii The American Bar Association provides resources for lawyers facing mental health and substance abuse issues.ix That wellness is such a huge concern for legal practitioners is unfortunate, to say the least.

The librarian profession has taken a different approach when it comes to engaging with matters of mindfulness and wellness. Formal literature on these topics was scarce before 2008, likely due to a combination of limited resources and the reality of programming generally being geared towards broader institutions.x However, the last 12 years have seen a large uptick in the number of resources and conversations surrounding these topics. Organizations like the American Library Association-Allied Professionals Associationxi and the American Association of Law Librariansxiihave established subsections to support librarians engaging with wellness and mindfulness.

This strong uptick is partly to changes in the communities librarians serve. School librarians have found themselves facing job creep or increased job expectations while working in understaffed libraries and facing “rude” patrons, resulting in work and instructional overload.xiii These expectations  are connected to issues surrounding vocational awe and beliefs that librarians serve without limit or expectation of return.xiv

Even this is somewhat idealized. As Andrews (2020) points out, many minority librarians also face additional challenges. These can include layoffs, refusal to grant tenure, sudden community pleas for help, attacks at professional conferences, and/or cultural trauma from working in slave-built libraries located on stolen indigenous land.xv

Given all of the above, it is clear why wellness concerns have become a topic of discussion within both the library and legal professions. Practitioners in both face incredible demands on their time, energy, and resources to help those with particular needs at potentially challenging times in their lives. Practitioners in both are expected to do this labor with ease and little complaint. These expectations have resulted in practitioners facing mental health concerns with severe consequences. All of this makes it valid for practitioners to be concerned about mental health and wellness.

For law librarians, who work in the intersection of both professions, the concern is more serious. As legal professionals, they are expected to address effectively the needs of a wide range of patrons in ways that impact future dealings with the legal system. This is true regardless of whether the patron is a legal professional, student, faculty, pro se litigant, or even prisoner. As librarians, they are expected to do this with increasingly scarce resources and with little complaint.

Combined then, it becomes paramount for law librarians to learn and develop a host of approaches to engaging with issues connected to wellness, mental health, and mindfulness to mitigate the high risk of negative impacts from poor mental health.

Approaches to Mental Health

Mindfulness is “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”xvi The American Psychological Association defines mindfulness as the “moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.”xvii Notice that mindfulness has a very broad scope and is implicitly long term as it is a maintenance practice for one’s internal state. Given this broad scope, it’s worth knowing there are many different approaches to mindfulness.

One popular approach is to imagine a wellness tree. This tree is divided into “roots,” “trunk,” and “branches.” “Roots” focuses on internal motivators such as personal values, personal identities, and the ability to make choices. The “trunk” emphasizes the act of self-care, which enables individuals to align their actions with their internal motivations. Finally, the “branches” are different domains of life that actions occur in, such as intellectual, social, spiritual, environmental, financial, physical, and creativity.xviii This tree is sometimes also envisioned as a wheel.xix

Under this approach, individuals engage in self-care by reflecting on how their actions in each domain interact with other domains and their root values. This helps to ensure general harmony between act and intent, and thus overall wellness. Note that this model is heavily dynamic since it is taken for granted that nobody is in flawless balance in all areas of their life at all times.

Another popular approach is the contemplative practice. These are a set of actions that help practitioners gain greater insight into themselves and their surroundings. These practices help to build a stronger mindful awareness and thus strengthen the greater ability to be mindful. This is in addition to benefits like reducing stress, reducing insomnia, and increasing self-confidence.xx

Contemplative practices are also often visualized as a tree. This tree has seven branches, one for each “family” of practice. Families include stillness practices like centering, movement practices like dance, and creative practices like journaling or singing. Families also include practices like activism, rituals, relational practices like dialogue, and generative practices like visualizations.xxi

Outside of these practices, there are additional approaches worth knowing. For example, it is common for mindfulness practitioners to learn more about various means of therapy and thought reframing, such as cognitive or dialectical behavioral therapy (CBT or DBT). There are also additional time/stress management techniques from the perspectives of those who suffer other types of illness or pain, such as in the case of Christine Miserandino’s spoon theory.xxii While these additional approaches are beyond the scope of this chapter to treat deeply or effectively; readers should know these approaches exist and are worth exploring independently.

Applications of Approaches

The wide range of potential ways to develop general wellness and mindfulness is encouraging for law librarians since it gives them the option of choosing among them with little risk. Nevertheless, this same range raises a simple question: how should law librarians actually apply these practices?

First and foremost, law librarians are encouraged to adopt what works best for them. This is because you must help yourself before you can help others. Adoption can be done either in a “small scale” manner, like taking a moment to be contemplative, or in a “large scale” manner, like establishing work boundaries and expectations.

The latter is of particular importance. Many librarians do not come to the field with a background or preference towards serving as counselors or engaging in emotional labor. Knowing one’s boundaries, therefore, enables a library overall to establish what amount and kinds of wellness services are offered.

CONCEPT IN ACTION: EXPLICIT EXPECTATIONS MAKE BETTER STAFF RELATIONS

Paige, Ezra, and Alexis all work as law librarians for the small law firm Booker & Sinker, LLC. While they’re able to provide resources for the firm’s attorneys, the three have to work fast and rarely get to spend much time together. Recently, Booker herself has asked the three of them to develop a wide-ranging research survey on the impact of a set of state tax law changes passed in the prior year.

After dividing up the work on the survey, they schedule short “bonding breaks” so they can check in with each other. Alexis helps to enroll her coworkers on a free email listserv she uses that offers 1-minute meditation exercises, while Paige sets them up with free accounts on an app she has that structures managing the project like playing a video game. These measures combined help the three law librarians to strengthen their staff relationships and maintain reasonable work expectations, all of which help Alexis, Paige, and Ezra to avoid getting burned out and uncertain how to best support each other.

Applications of a stillness practice (meditation), relational practices (discussion and gaming), and a ritual (bonding breaks) helped law librarians strengthen their wellness by avoiding burnout and fostering a stronger, more supportive community. This is just one potential application, though: what other applications are there?

Below is a set of potential ways the approaches discussed in the last section might be used. Note that the exact application can vary dramatically based upon setting as where a law librarian often dictates the range of resources available to them. While the discussion will attempt to show how applications may occur in each section, readers are encouraged to think deeply about what possible resources they might have in the settings they are or wish to be working in.

Collection

First, patrons in all settings may request to have resources made available to them as part of the collection. This includes informational pamphlets about mental health resources and CDs/DVDs offering instructions on wellness practices. While librarians in all settings must follow their library’s collection processes, it is worth considering how materials can be easily identified in the collection for use by others.

For example, those in public or academic libraries may want to consider making a clearly indicated year-round display of materials in an easily-located, relatively-private part of the library. Some may want to work with student organizations and other departments to provide space for meetings or wellness-orientated events (see next section for more.) Law libraries may also want to consider having handouts describing where to find resources in a larger public library or at the university’s main campus.

Those in private law firm libraries, government libraries, or jailhouse libraries often have stricter limitations on being able to add materials. Still, librarians in those settings may want to consider making materials such as local bar association resources or calling cards available as possible.

Programming

Programming is generally the first instinct of many librarians when it comes to implementing these practices.

For law librarians at public law libraries, programming can often be found as part of the larger library system they are embedded within. This may mean providing literature such as the library’s calendar of events in visible areas, or promoting library events to patrons as part of their visit. Academic law libraries may want to do the same kind of promotion with wellness events hosted by the main library system, academic departments, and student organizations. Both may also be able to do independent programming in a limited manner.

For example, at a discussion den in the 2018 AALL Conference in Baltimore, academic law librarians shared doing a wide range of programming to provide students during final exams with opportunities to improve their wellness. These programs included live streaming videos of animals (e.g., dog cams, cat cams) on the library announcement screens and providing color books and crayons for relaxing. Some identified rooms as “quiet” rooms for those seeking silence or provided healthy snacks (including a peanut butter and jelly bar) and coffee to students. This had the additional benefit of addressing food insecurity among students.xxiii

In contrast, many private law firms, government, or jailhouse law librarians may face great limitations on holding programming due to the time constraints of their patrons (e.g., prisoners can only visit the library at certain times). For that reason, librarians might arrange “micro-programs” like 1-minute yoga or meditation challenges, signs with a daily reflection/motivational quote on them, or small healthy snack bowls.

Outreach

There are also opportunities for law library outreach to their patrons on these topics. Many law librarians have the ability to use messaging platforms such as blogs, newsletters, listservs, or public speaking to talk about what resources the library has or offers for mindfulness and wellness concerns.

For example, an academic law librarian may choose to blog about where items regarding wellness in the collection are, or what the main university health center is offering, as part of outreach before final exams or studying for the bar begins. A public law librarian may share information about where to find the local bar association’s information on mental health as part of a newsletter released for Mental Health Month in May. Even law librarians in more restricted settings, such as jail and government lawyers, may do things like speak with patrons on the topic if it seems the patron may be interested or begin a public speaking event with a 30-second meditation.

Utilizing any of these approaches offer law librarians and their patrons an opportunity to strengthen mental health. In some cases, this is because the program addresses unspoken needs the patrons might have, such as food insecurity or a need for socialization. In others, the application directly addresses a clearly spoken need, such as stress management or opportunities to process what is occurring around them. All strengthen the relationship between law librarians and their patrons. This, in turn, provides law librarians both with a chance to develop their own mental health and develop their ability to address such concerns in the future.

Conclusion

As the above discussion shows, the need to maintain balance and good mental health is both normal and deeply important for law librarians. This is true both in terms of maintaining their own mental health and in terms of helping their patrons.

Furthermore, the ability to address such wellness has never been stronger. While this chapter focused on developing practices and programs, there are a plethora of both physical and digital resources beyond those mentioned above. This includes resources from more localized bar associations as well as broader computer applications (or “apps”) such as Headspace, Calm, or Ensō. These resources can supplement pre-existing physical resources and database resources in a library’s collection. All help law librarians develop mindfulness practices that work best for them and their patrons.

That said, it is worth remembering such practices are not “one-shots,” i.e., meant for temporary application. The use and choice of mindfulness strategies alter and evolve for many people as their understanding of their mental health needs develop. Consequently, while this chapter is a good starting point, readers should consider continuing to develop their own knowledge of mindfulness. Doing so ensures that they are able to ensure their own mental health more effectively as time goes on.

DIVE DEEPER

To learn more about this topic, both from the perspectives of librarians and lawyers, consider reading the following five resources:

  • The Mindful Librarian: Connecting the Practice of Mindfulness to Librarianship by Richard Moniz, Joe Eshleman, Jo Henry, Howard Slutzky, and Lisa Moniz
  • Recipes for Mindfulness in Your Library: Supporting Resilience and Community Engagement by Madeleine Charney, Jenny Colvin, and Richard Moniz
  • Lawyers as Changemakers: The Global Integrative Law Movement by J. Kim Wright
  • The Best Lawyer You Can Be: A Guide to Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Wellness 1st Edition by Stewart L. Levine
  • Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen

License

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Introduction to Law Librarianship by Babak Zarin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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