ASSOCIATES (2011, March, v. 17, no. 3)


Chocolate, Pizza and Praise: Examining Morale Among Library Support Staff

Jill M. Baker
Information Resources Assistant Intermediate
The Law Library, Circulation Department
University of Michigan

During a recent thread on a library listserv, the topic of employee morale and stress among library support staff arose and it should come as no surprise that morale is low and stress is high. Words and phrases like “anxious”, “wary”, and “very worried about the future” were bandied about. One person said they are just trying to keep their utilities on and food on the table. Another said that there are days when they “just want to go home and cry” out of frustration.

What’s causing these feelings? There were many references to budget problems. One commenter said that support staff at their academic library has not had a raise in almost three years due to budget constraints, yet the library is in an ongoing state of remodeling and improvement with the addition of a café as well as a new computer lab. Meanwhile, many are experiencing increases in health insurance premium and other rising expenses. One person said that they are clearing less money now than they were three years ago as the cost of living goes up and income decreases or remains static.

Unpaid work furloughs are another issue causing low morale and stress among library workers. In the state of Oregon in 2010, there were six work furloughs for state employees, including library workers at state institutions and two (so far) are scheduled for 2011: March 18 and May 20. One paraprofessional noted that work furloughs cost them a bit more than 3% of their salary. Possible upcoming wage freezes and a cut in benefits are also looming for some.

Another concern among library support staff related to budget problems is the outsourcing of cataloging. One commenter said that their library will soon begin outsourcing the bulk of their cataloging to a vendor. This person has already seen two thirds of the positions in her department eliminated and is facing being laid off or reassigned to a different department. One person reported the possibility at their library of terminating employees but then rehiring them at lower pay levels and a reduction in benefits.

During the discussion on the listserv, people talked about what helps buoy employee morale. One person stressed the importance of a “team work attitude” and dedicated workers. At this particular library many of the staffers have been there for two decades or more and there is an effort to celebrate the positives by having parties for milestone anniversaries.

Another person noted that during a recent reorganization at their academic library, new positions were created and some positions were changed and this led to some positive feelings, yet there was still lingering stress related to the number of changes.

One factor that seems critical to a more positive outlook among library support staff is strong library leadership. One person mentioned that the leadership at their library has encouraged staff to be involved in identifying tasks that no longer are deemed necessary and encourages suggestions about changing established procedures. In addition, this library director involves all staff in decision making and “real-time implementation working toward [their] goals so the strategic plan isn’t just some lofty document that everyone ignores”.

Of course, food goes a long way to boost morale; monthly pizza parties and a library director who hands out chocolates at monthly staff meetings were both mentioned as morale boosters. In addition, some people said that simple recognition of a job well done goes a long way to boost morale, especially from people like the library director, board members, or trustees.

Finally, another cause of low morale among library support staff is the lack of promotional opportunities. People reported doing more work and increasingly more complex work, with neither recognition of a title/classification change or an increase in pay.

Furthermore, a couple responders to the listserv discussion mentioned that it seems as though when support staff leave, the positions are lost and instead new positions are created for librarians so more and more work falls to the remaining support staff while the librarians are “in yet another meeting agreeing to do more projects without thinking about the impact it will have on staff”.

So what’s the solution to low morale among library support staff? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer and things such as budgets are completely out of their hands. Personal, consistent recognition of work done well can go a long way, as can food or candy. Involving staff to the fullest extent possible in planning for ongoing change also seems helpful. The challenge, sometimes, can be to get management to understand this.