Kevin Seeber is the Head of Education and Outreach Services at Auraria Library in Denver, Colorado.
The LibParlor Online Learning Forum was the first “library thing” in which I participated in three years. There was a period in my career when I was presenting at three or four conferences annually, along with publishing at least one article or book chapter. By the summer of 2019 I was exhausted, so I decided that I would take a year off from my research and pick it up again in 2020. “Next year will be easier,” I assured myself, blissfully unaware of what was lying ahead.
Now here we are, halfway through 2022, and I haven’t touched anything I was working on, nor have I started anything new. I’m in a spot where everything from before the start of the pandemic seems irrelevant and everything after seems ephemeral, leaving me devoid of motivation. The result is that I’ve spent the past two years seeing other people publish articles and give presentations with a mixture of envy and incredulity. How on earth has anyone been able to focus?
Our pre-work for the forum asked us to think about our researcher identity, but I’ll admit I boarded the plane to Vegas wondering if I even was a researcher anymore. One of the main reasons I wanted to attend was to meet with other people who might be at similar points in their careers, and to see how they were faring. Did they still feel as committed to their work? How were they finding motivation over the past two years? What were the research areas that kept them engaged?
Finding Answers in Community
In the morning on our first day, we were asked to chart our researcher identity. I graphed my personal satisfaction over time, starting with my first faculty appointment in 2011 and ending with the start of the pandemic. It ended up being an arc, showing an increase in satisfaction that peaked somewhere around 2015 or 2016, followed by a gradual descent over the past several years. I broke my research arc into four periods: “Figuring it out,” “Being good at it and having fun,” “Being good at it and not having fun,” and finally, “Meh.” I taped my chart to a board, along with the rest of the forum participants, and we all spent the next several minutes walking around the room, reviewing each other’s drawings and leaving comments for one another.
The time I spent reviewing everyone’s charts was the most meaningful part of the forum for me. There were zig-zags and spirals. There were peaks and nosedives. There were paths that diverged and dotted lines into the future. Someone else even labeled part of their career as “Meh.” Our assembled group was filled with some truly impressive scholars, and reviewing these representations of their researcher identities was perhaps the first time I realized that this is a thing that happens. Motivation wanes, other parts of our lives become priorities, we move into new roles and research doesn’t carry the weight that it once did. For a myriad of reasons, a researcher’s identity is not a linear progression, and that’s okay.
Later, when asked to write down our takeaways from day one, I jotted “It is normal and fine to have a mid-career slump.” I left that note on a board in Vegas, but I’m thinking about writing a few more notes just like it and scattering them around my office. (I might also rent out billboard space in front of every academic library in the country…)
We Need Breaks
I wanted to share this reflection because I appreciate the community that LibParlor has created, and I think that part of talking about research needs to include talking about when we don’t do research. Usually the only evidence we have of a “break” is a gap in a C.V., but being with the other forum participants for those two days, and engaging in such thoughtfully designed exercises, left me feeling validated in a way for which I wasn’t prepared. By not researching I feared that I had lost a community, when in fact I had instead joined a new one.
Have I been in a research slump? Yes. Will it last forever? Probably not. And in either event, I’ve got company.
With that in mind, I’d like to first address my mid-career colleagues: If you’ve been on a break, that’s fine. If you feel like you need a break, take one. For so many of us, our first years in the profession were spent facing austerity and precarious employment, and we were conditioned to think that we had to maintain an unsustainable amount of productivity to acquire even a modicum of security. Speaking for myself, that pressure continued even after I acquired that security, and I am now confident that this is a structural issue felt by librarians across institutions. We can and should take breaks, and encourage our colleagues to do the same.
For my colleagues who are newer to the profession, and still working towards tenure, promotion, and other material benefits that come from participating in research: Pace yourself and find breaks where you can. I know that when your appointment depends on your productivity, there’s intense pressure to establish a research agenda, to publish and present, and I don’t mean to discount that. I appreciate that you do need to get these things done or risk losing your job. I have been there. But in that early-career crucible, there are forces that will push you to conflate your “researcher identity” with your “identity.” You’ll see rejections of your proposals as rejections of you, and that way lies burnout. You are not your productivity, and taking a break can help you better realize that.
I suppose I knew that I was more than my publication record before going to the forum? I had certainly heard maxims about productivity a few hundred times over the years. But I’ll admit, taking a break from my research has often been accompanied by feelings of guilt. Or at least it was accompanied by feelings of guilt, until I looked at those charts and saw that so many of my colleagues’ course changes and squiggly lines were accompanied by notes about moving to new towns, buying homes, having kids; things that had nothing to do with their research or libraries or institutions… you know, “Life Stuff.” (Heck, two separate forum participants talked about how happy they were to have a house with a yard where they could keep chickens.) Our identities as researchers might not be linear, but that doesn’t mean our lives can’t move forward, toward something better.
I don’t know that I’ll publish or present my research again. If I do, however, I’m hopeful that it will be on my terms, pursuing those things that matter the most to me. As it relates to the goals of LPOL, I’m hopeful that as we create these support structures and improve the conditions in which our work is produced, it will improve not just the research, but also the researchers. We’ve all been through a lot, but I still believe that there is good work to come if we act with intention and care. And that intention and care must include carving out time where we can take a break.
I was humbled to be invited to contribute to the LPOL Forum, and am grateful to Chelsea, Charissa, Nimisha, and Hailley for their commitment to the work of LibParlor, and the expertise with which they get that work done. I also very much appreciate the candor and vulnerability of the other forum participants, who helped me learn a lot about myself and our profession.
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The expressions of the writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own.