Contributing Editor Interview

From Philosophy to Action, Improving the Workplace for Library Employees through Research

Vivian Bynoe interviews Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, Dean of Dacus Library and Pettus Archives at Winthrop University.

Photograph of Kaetrena Davis Kendrick
Kaetrena Davis Kendrick

As a Black Librarian who is on tenure track, I pay close attention to other Black Librarians in the field who have an impact in the area of research. I seek out their work as a source of motivation for my own journey. I learned about Kaetrena Davis Kendrick’s work when I attended a webinar where she discussed low morale in academic libraries. At the time, my institution had recently consolidated with another university in Georgia, and many of the staff felt overwhelmed with all of the new changes and the pressure to adjust to a new culture. A few of us signed up for a webinar as a sort of therapy to learn how to work through the changes. Kaetrena Davis Kendrick is a graduate of the historic Clark Atlanta University School of Library and Information Studies and an alumna of Winthrop University. Her research interests include professionalism, ethics, racial and ethnic diversity in the LIS field, and the role of communities of practice in practical academic librarianship.  She is the Dean of Dacus Library and Pettus Archives at Winthrop University.  Here is my interview with her. 

Can you tell everyone the focus of your research and how you got started with this type of work?

In the past few years, my work on professionalism has focused on low-morale experiences in library workplaces. My research often begins with an observation; it is also piqued by my own experiences. In the case of my morale research, at some point I thought I was going through low morale, so I looked it up. When I read the traditional markers (seemingly discrete issues of pay, work-life balance, etc), I started thinking ‘is that really what low morale is?’

I’d already been exploring the qualitative method of phenomenology, so I applied that method in an effort to discover and understand the experience of low morale. What I discovered – and what my subsequent studies continue to validate – is that low morale is the result of repeated, protracted exposure to workplace abuse and neglect, and that there are impact factors and enabling systems that inadvertently help this experience thrive in our organizations.

There are almost 1,000 members in the Renewers: Recovering from Low Morale in American Libraries group on Facebook. Why do you think so many librarians find themselves faced with the issue of low morale? 

Folks can also find community on Twitter (@RenewersL) and Instagram (@RenewersLIS). Further study reveals that several frameworks intensify low-morale experiences for library employees. 

Fobazi Ettarh’s concept of vocational awe highlights troubling aspects of library practice, perceptions, and culture, including members’ reticence to critique the profession and penchant to center work identities. Within the low-morale experience, vocational awe leads to denial of abuse by colleagues, and feeds into perceptions that library workplaces are devoid of dysfunction and violence. 

Berg, Galvan, and Tewell have also discussed the concept of resilience narratives, which rely on individuals to fix systemic problems. “Do more with less,” “lean in,” and other similar sayings are invoked in such narratives, and librarians, who often join the profession under the noble, if nebulous banner of “helping people,” often fall prey to resilience narratives as they experience abuse and negligence via job creep, unsupportive leadership, and the continuing reduction of fiduciary support and expectations to provide traditional or out-of-scope services at the same levels.

Library employees are increasingly subject to the realm of precarious labor, which impacts the ongoing development and stability of library operations and management. In addition to creating conditions for workplace abuse and neglect, overreliance on precarious labor models fuels fierce (and false) competition cycles that have negative impacts on physical and mental health. Precarious labor also most often impacts already marginalized identity groups.

In 2019 you were named the Association of College & Research Libraries’ (ACRL) Academic/Research Librarian of the Year. Congratulations! What are the benefits of becoming involved with ACRL projects and scholarship? 

Thank you so much! If you decide to work with ACRL to be published, you will have a supportive editorial team who wants you to succeed, and you will learn about project management and publishing cycles. Most importantly, working with ACRL on such projects will help you improve your writing and editing skills, which are always needed in our field. I remain very thankful to ACRL for the support they offer to library employees who want to create, share, and improve their communication and practice.

Do you see an area of librarianship where more research needs to be conducted? 

I am a kaleidoscopic thinker, so I’m always thinking of questions that require deep reflection and response. I’m really happy to see my research work included in the sphere of critical librarianship, which calls us to push back – in our daily practice – on issues that require a move from philosophy and concept to action and sustained change. So, continue the callouts of why the needle on EDI recruitment and retention in LIS has not moved; continue the interrogation of the content of our shelves and archives; continue the conceptualization of what it means to work in and advocate for the library by including library employees, and continue the clarification of our moral courage and ethics where our users – and we, our very selves – are accountable for the sustainability and improvement of our profession.

Where do you see your own research heading in the next 5 years?

I will continue my work on various aspects of library workplace morale and its ties to library organizational development and formal leadership. I am currently completing work on how people choose to leave low-morale experiences, and I have several ongoing surveys that may eventually become fuller studies. Additionally, I’ve recently started my first formal leadership position, so I hope to explore this phenomenon in more detail through this practice lens. Currently and in the longer-term, I will partner with leaders who want to improve their cultures and support their colleagues and employees by preventing and/or reducing and dismantling the behaviors and systems that cause workplace abuse and neglect.

What is your advice for new librarians who want to conduct research?

Read about different methodologies; recognize that your research “identity” may change as you develop. I started out as a quantitative researcher and as I moved on, learned about qualitative research – and that’s where my “home” is. Find a mentor (or two or three) – and know they don’t have to be in the library field – I realized I am a qualitative researcher through my work with Dr. Crystal S. Anderson and our community of practice, the Kpop Kollective. Learn about Human Subjects Research and take the training at your institution so you will be able to vet your research design and protect your participants and your organization. Your first research project doesn’t have to be a traditional article. It can be a learning object that has practical use; it can be a dataset that you’ve learned how to visualize. Report it at a local conference, or at a colloquium on your campus. 

Read about different methodologies; recognize that your research “identity” may change as you develop.

Ready to write? Join writing support groups like this one. Start a blog and flesh out your voice and ideas. Make sure your writing is understandable to people who aren’t in the profession. Publish a short essay or column. Publish in a mix of journals – some highly sought, some that prioritize accessibility and practical use. 

These are some of the practices I’ve employed as a consistently active publishing scholar.

As the Dean of the library and archives at Winthrop University, you have inspired many librarians of color who want to pursue leadership roles. Do you think it is important for librarians to participate in research if they are going to become leaders in the library world? 

Yes, undoubtedly, at least for my experience, and especially since I started my position during a Public Health Emergency. My research background has helped me contextualize and navigate change in my organization. Particularly in this case, since *I* am the change, understanding and being able to apply the research principle of Beneficence has been stabilizing and affirming. On a practical note, participating in research often means you are more likely to be involved in helping identify and solve problems that impact libraries and library employees, so that’s also a major bonus. As you engage with surveys or interviews, the questions – and your responses – help you interrogate, reflect on (and hopefully improve) your practice, decision-making pathways, policies, procedures, and more. 

Is there anything else you want to share about yourself and/or your research experience?

My mission is to inspire authentic collegiality, and to promote well-being, share the gifts of creativity, and cultivate empathetic, engaged leadership in the workplace. I am grateful to be able to engage in meaningful research and scholarship, to know that my work may be useful to our colleagues, and ultimately to help improve our profession and support the health and dignity of library employees. I will continue to improve. Thank you for supporting and amplifying my efforts.

Featured image by Devanath from Pixabay.

Vivian Bynoe, MLIS is an Assistant Professor and Head of Reference and Instruction at Lane Library, Georgia Southern University, Armstrong Campus. As the liaison to the College of Education and Social Sciences, she works closely with professors to promote information literacy skills in students. She is a member of The American Library Association and active in the Georgia Library Association. Her work with promoting literacy began prior to her academic career when she worked in the children’s department of a public library in Charlotte, North Carolina. There she developed an expertise in readers’ advisory for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. She is a fellow of The Red Clay Writing Institute at The University of Georgia. Her other interests include promoting critical literacy, motivating and educating non-traditional students, assisting underserved communities in gaining access to information, and promoting diversity initiatives in the library and the larger community. Vivian Bynoe can be contacted at: vbynoe@georgiasouthern.edu

1 comment on “From Philosophy to Action, Improving the Workplace for Library Employees through Research

  1. Pingback: Interview – The Librarian Parlor – October 2020 – Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, M.S.L.S.

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