Researching Low Morale in Libraries

WebJunction with Kaetrena Davis Kendrick /
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Kaetrena Davis Kendrick

Since 2017, Kaetrena Davis Kendrick has been researching the low-morale experiences among library workers. In her research, she has identified workplace factors and events that trigger low morale, the effects of low morale on physical and emotional health, how library staff respond to low-morale experiences, and the systems and structures that enable and perpetuate these factors. WebJunction recognizes the significance of Kendrick's research and is committed to helping to center this learning and conversation in the field. We learned more about her impactful research in this short interview, in which she discusses the key low-morale themes and factors that surface across various types of organizations and roles. And we invite all to view the recording of the WebJunction webinar, Low Morale in Libraries: Impacts and Countermeasures, from June, 2023, when Kendrick was joined by co-presenter, Sunnie Scarpa, Library Director at the E.C. Scranton Memorial Library. We further explored the findings of Kendrick's research and learn how these insights can be applied in practice, highlighting the most effective countermeasures for reinvigorating and sustaining a healthy and supportive workplace, and improving the morale and well-being of all library staff.

What is low morale?

For my research, I am using the experiential definition—based in lived engagement with these events—of low morale which is repeated and protracted exposure to emotional, verbal/written, system, and physical abuse or neglect in the workplace.

Why and how did you come to begin this research focus?

At some point in my own library career, I thought I was dealing with low morale—and when I’ve been in difficult circumstances (or observed things) at work, I’ve always turned to research. So I asked myself “What is low morale?!” After doing some reading, I decided to make it a study and ask our colleagues about their experiences. The definition already shared is what came of my first study (in 2017), and which has been consistently validated and expanded in my subsequent studies on this phenomenon.

Your research has engaged with libraries of all types and sizes, and with positions throughout the staff hierarchy. What are some of the key or consistent themes or factors that surface across the various types of organizations and roles?

All of the studies have confirmed my experiential meaning of low morale as exposure to workplace abuse and neglect. Overall, the same kinds of abuse are consistently reported: emotional abuse, written/verbal abuse, system abuse, and neglect. There are also impact factors and enabling systems that have been validated consistently. Impact factors are events or contexts that influence low-morale experiences from its beginning, and which may continue after formal resolution of the experience; and they include enabling systems—individual behaviors, organizational cultures, structures, policies, and/or ethoses that inadvertently enforce or underpin low-morale experiences. Uncertainty & Mistrust (not knowing next steps, goals, vision of the organization), Insidious Experience Development (not realizing abuse and neglect are systematic or regular occurrences until response patterns are solidified) are some impact factors, and enabling systems consistent across all studies include Human Resources Limitations (finding no recourse in alerting Human Resources), Staffing & Employment (understaffing/attrition), and Library/Librarian Perceptions (library and library worker stereotypes).

Through your research, you are also committed to uncovering and supporting the ways that countermeasures are being implemented, by individuals or organizations. Can you provide a few examples of ways library staff can begin to counter the low-morale experience?

graphic reading 3 tips to clarify work and personal life boundaries

Established countermeasures for low morale include centering self-preservation—a set of tools to access at the moment abuse and neglect may be presenting/occurring. Boundary-setting, assertive communication, and associated responses are more likely to both identify the negative/dysfunctional behaviors in the moment and help the victim regain a sense of autonomy. These skills also help decrease feelings of self-blame/shame and increase pathways to self-compassion—all of which are often surfaced or compromised by low-morale experiences. For example, I invite library staff to explore Three Ways to (Re-)Establish Clarity Between Your Work and Personal Life to take steps to center your own self-preservation by reducing the blur between work and personal time.

How are directors and managers experiencing and addressing low morale?

My most recent work on the low-morale experiences of formal leaders reveals that this group is not immune to workplace abuse and neglect, and in fact, are abused by both their own supervisors and organizational peers as well as their direct and indirect reports. The study also reveals unique impact factors for this group, including Misaligned Values (recognizing gaps between personal, professional, and/or organizational stated values) and Positional Isolation (feeling alone in experience while in a formal leadership role). These factors surface the complexities and difficulties leaders face in improving workplace culture and highlight that their stated positive leadership styles may not be perceived as such due to their employees’ long-term exposure to abuse and neglect at work. Advice and lessons learned from this group share clear considerations: rather than “servant” or “collaborative” leadership styles, leaders should intentionally learn about and implement empathetic and/or trauma-informed leadership styles, which stress authenticity, vulnerability, mutual aid, and collective care. We explored these strategies in more detail in the webinar.

Can you tell us a bit more about the Renewers community and how you’re continuing to connect with library workers there?

The Renewers: Recovering from Low Morale in Libraries community is a Facebook group with over 2,000 members who have joined to find validation in and recover from their low-morale experiences in libraries and archives. Open to all interested library staff, the community shares information about morale, mental and physical health and well-being, and answers member questions as they arise. We also have sibling communities on Instagram (@renewerslis) and Twitter (@RenewersL).

Do you plan to continue your research in this area, and if so, what are your plans for future investigations?

Yes, the more I learn about low morale, the more I realize I need to surface. I’m always gathering data about numerous aspects of low-morale experiences, and they often inform future expanded studies. I will continue surfacing the realities of library work for employees at all levels, and my goals are to center humaneness, compassion, and empathy in library workplaces and develop practical, creative, and collaborative strategies that can be used to improve health and well-being in the LIS profession. I’m looking forward to talking with webinar attendees about my research—and more importantly, their own experiences—soon.

Learn more in webinar recordings

View the recording for Low Morale in Libraries: Impacts and Countermeasures, a webinar with Kaetrena Davis Kendrick and Sunnie Scarpa, to learn more about this important research and leave with actionable ideas for promoting a healthy work environment for all staff and cultivating empathetic leadership in libraries.

And in a follow up webinar, Revitalizing Morale: Cultivating a Supportive Library Culture, Kaetrena and Sunnie were joined by additional panel members, to delve deeper into essential facets that foster a healthy and supportive library culture, exploring institutional and individual solutions to countering low morale.

Low Morale in Libraries Studies

Visit and bookmark Kendrick’s list of Published Low Morale Studies including:

Webinar Recording: Low Morale in Libraries

Learn more about this important research and leave with actionable ideas for promoting a healthy work environment for all staff and cultivating empathetic leadership in libraries.

View recording