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Burnout is the phenomenon of exhaustion, cynical detachment, and reduced sense of accomplishment and self-worth produced by unrelieved, work-related stress. Burnout symptoms are psychological and physiological, caused by individual, interpersonal and institutional factors. Once thought to threaten only helping professionals, including reference librarians, burnout is now recognized as a widespread occupational hazard.





During its approximately thirty-year history, burnout research has shifted from a focus on individual psychology to investigation of organizational causes, and from collecting anecdotal evidence to more quantitative methodologies.



Herbert J. Freudenberger (1980) published the first book-length study summarizing his clinical psychiatric work and identifying individual tendencies that made his patients susceptible to burnout. Ayala M. Pines and Elliot Aronson (1981) and Christina Maslach (1982) identified a common pattern to burnout: highly motivated human services professionals exhausted their ability to connect with clients and withdrew from contact, becoming cynical or angry; however, they also blamed themselves for their protective response and suffered from poor job performance and feelings of low self-worth. Maslach developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) survey instrument for researchers and others interested in detecting an individual’s burnout level (Maslach and Jackson 1981, cited in Caputo 1990) and the My Relationship With Work test aimed at a general audience (Leiter and Maslach 2005).



Meanwhile the 1980s saw an explosion of burnout research as scholars applied early definitions of burnout to various work environments, including general reference librarianship (Bold 1982, Bunge 1984, 1989, Caputo 1990) and specific library settings including academic (Neville 1981, Smith and Nelson 1983, Haack et al. 1984), special (Smith and Nielsen 1984) and public libraries (Bly 1981, Smith, Birch and Marchant 1986). Articles offering anecdotal evidence of staff burnout and preventative advice appeared sporadically in various library journals (Blazek and Parrish 1992).



Recent research has focused on methodological concerns, including the preferred survey instrument to measure burnout (Shirom and Malamed 2006) or the need for international librarian burnout research (Togia 2004). Under-researched aspects of burnout in librarianship include: its manifestation outside America, particularly in non-Western cultures; sustained analysis of American survey data attending to demographic factors such as race, class and gender; and the relation of institutional causes of burnout to the current discourse on shifting institutional and professional roles in librarianship.


Burnout in Reference Service


Burnout is common among reference librarians. Surveys conducted during the mid-1980s in various settings consistently found 30-40% of respondents reporting high MBI scores (Caputo 1990). Caputo enumerates several aspects of reference service that contribute to burnout, including:

• Heavy, tedious workloads with short deadlines

• Conflicts with library users over barriers to service (including missing or unavailable materials and malfunctioning technology) or over ethical issues such as censorship of controversial materials

• Lack of appreciation from managers or from a public inured to librarian stereotypes, compounded by government and university budget cutbacks which must be justified to library users (1990, p. 61-65)

Any situations in which librarians experience hostility and feel powerless to act on it contribute to workplace stress and, over time, may result in burnout.



Counteracting Burnout


“The best advice that can be given to someone who is in danger of burnout can be summed up in a single contracted word,” according to Caputo: “DON’T. Burnout is an incredibly uncomfortable and distressing state…” (1990 p. 150) That being said, advice on how to avoid burnout has varied.



Early suggestions concentrated on altering the individual attributes that made one susceptible. Maslach (1982) suggested that helping professionals maintain balances of work and personal life, forming social support groups, cultivating communication skills and increasing variety of workplace tasks. Later librarian-specific advice also focused on individual stress-relief and efficiency-building techniques (e.g. Bunge 1989).



Given this focus on burnout as an individual phenomenon, Marcia Nauratil’s Marxist analysis (1989) recommending organizational-level changes in library education and leadership structures appeared anomalous. However, Maslach has also cited structural economic factors behind the growing prevalence of burnout outside the helping professions (Beneke 1998, Leiter and Maslach 2005), observing “the working environment has lost its human dimensions” (2005, p. 4). She currently relates burnout to “a match or mismatch between the person and the workplace” (Beneke 1998). According to this viewpoint, individuals, libraries, and librarianship as a profession share responsibility for addressing burnout as part of a continual re-evaluation of working conditions in 21st century libraries.



See also: Image, Job Satisfaction




Beneke, T. (1998, September 4). Burnout. (Interview with Christina Maslach) Express: The East Bay's Free Weekly, pp. 8-12.


Blazek, R., & Parrish, D. A. (1992). Burnout and public services: The periodical literature of librarianship in the eighties. (Electronic version). Reference Quarterly, 32(1) Retrieved November 1, 2006 from Library Literature and Information Science Full Text.


Bly, L. (1981). Burn-out. Arkansas Libraries, 38(September), 24.


Bold, R. (1982). Librarian burn-out. Library Journal, 107(19), 2048-2051.


Bunge, C. A. (1989). Stress in the library workplace. Library Trends, 38(1), 92-102.


Bunge, C. A. (1984). Potential and reality at the reference desk: Reflections on a "return to the field". Journal of Academic Librarianship, 10(3), 128-132.


Caputo, J. S. (1990). Stress and burnout in library service. Phoenix: Oryx Press.


Freudenberger, H. J., & Richelson, G. (1980). Burnout: The high cost of high achievement. New York: Doubleday & Company.


Haack, M., Jones, J. W., & Roose, T. (1984). Occupational burnout among librarians. Drexel Library Quarterly, 20(2), 46-72.


Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2005). Banishing burnout: Six strategies for improving your relationship with work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Maslach, C. (1982). Burnout: The cost of caring. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.


Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. E. (1981). The Maslach burnout inventory. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.


Nauratil, M. J. (1989). The alienated librarian. New York: Greenport Press.


Neville, S. H. (1981). Job stress and burnout: Occupational hazards for services staff. College and Research Libraries, 42(3), 242-247.


Pines, A. M., Aaronson, E., & Kafry, D. (1981). Burnout: From tedium to personal growth. New York: Macmillan.


Shirom, A., & Melamed, S. (2006). A comparison of the construct validity of two burnout measures in two groups of professionals. (Electronic version). International Journal of Stress Management, 13(2), 176-200. Retrieved November 6, 2006 from Library and Information Science Abstracts.


Smith, N. M., Birch, N. E., & Marchant, M. P. (1984). Stress, distress, and burnout: A survey of public reference librarians. Public Libraries, 23(3), 83-85.


Smith, N. M., & Nelson, V. C. (1983). Burnout: A survey of academic reference librarians. College and Research Libraries, 44(3), 245-250.


Togia, A. (2005). Measurement of burnout and the influence of background characteristics in greek academic librarians. (Electronic version). Library Management, 26(3), 130-138. Retrieved November 8, 2006 from Library and Information Science Abstracts.




Sanjeet-Singh E. Mann