Meaningful Work & Librarian Agency

Hi, I’m Matty. I’m the Director of Research & Instruction at the University of South Florida Libraries on the Tampa campus. Thanks for joining my presentation today titled “Meaningful Work & Librarian Agency: Exploring Job Control Among Academic Instruction Librarians.”


Welcome! I’ll share a link to the presentation in the chat, which you can save for later or use to follow along with if you would like. I’ll also share an accessibility copy of the presentation, which contains language that very closely matches everything that I’ll say in the presentation. I also wanted to share some features of the presentation platform. The Slides were created with the revealjs format in Quarto using RStudio. You can click the menu icon in the bottom left to see a list of all of the slide titles in an outline. You can also select the tools header to see keyboard shortcuts for other options. You can see the speaker view, which includes my notes for each slide. You can also view a slide overview and export the slides to a PDF if desired.


I have a very brief agenda for this session today with a lot of content packed in throughout. I’m going to take a chunk of time at the beginning here to talk about and define job control. In my view, this is something that we don’t consider frequently in libraries and library literature though it’s definitely related to everyone’s hatred of micro-managers. After defining burnout, I’m going to talk briefly about burnout and the relationship between job control and burnout as a way of convincing everyone to care about job control. With that background information in mind, I’ll talk about job control in relation to burnout in academic libraries based on some conversations with librarians. To close on a productive and practical note, I’ll share a few specific strategies that I think can help with managing job control and coordinating with librarians to build more meaningful workloads.

Previous Work

To share a little bit more background before I jump into the presentation, I wanted to share a few of my publications. This first publication in the Journal of Library Administration last year demonstrated that burnout and job control are inversely related. I’ll talk more about this relationship in a bit. Using the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory, I also show that librarians are very burnt out. Like, how are you doing?

The second publication here in the Journal of Academic Librarianship analyzed responses to each item in a job control inventory and found that academic instruction librarians generally feel the least control over decision-making and income.

And the last publication in C&RL slated for publication next year, demonstrates that academic instruction librarians perceive less job control when doing instruction than they do generally. As we think about job control, I think that these findings help to demonstrate current issues in the field related to job control and the potential value of job control for improving librarian worklife.


So, this is the last bit of background before I get into talking about job control. I just wanted to share a bit of information about the data that inform this presentation and the publications that I mentioned. In terms of quantitative data, I collected responses to a job control inventory and the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory from academic instruction librarians. 245 academic instruction librarians completed the job control inventory and the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory, and 307 librarians completed at least the job control inventory. In the survey, there was an option to identify interest in a follow-up interview. I planned to interview 40 academic instruction librarians as a follow-up, and I identified interview participants who had high and low job control in comparison to other librarians in the sample. So far, I’ve interviewed 35 librarians — 19 with high job control and 16 with low job control. And the data from these interviews make up the preliminary findings that I’ll mostly be discussing later in the presentation regarding job control in academic libraries.

In my conversations with librarians, I will say, I have talked with librarians who have left librarianship, librarians who have left and come back to librarianship, librarians who are in therapy because of their jobs, and librarians who are in therapy specifically for PTSD because of bullying from their bosses. Which is just to say again that the librarians are not okay, and they’re not okay for quite a variety of reasons.

Job Control

I do think personally that lack of control is one of those reasons. I did previously consider sharing a lengthy anecdote about my own motivation for doing this research. But, I will just suffice to say that I think autonomy and job control are important especially in a professional field, and micro-managing is a recurring problem that I think we see across managers in the field.

So, again, I think job control hasn’t been a huge topic of conversation in libraries yet, so I’d like to take some time to chat about it. Job control can be very generally defined as “the ability to exert some influence over one’s environment so that the environment becomes more rewarding or less threatening.”

Dimensions of Job Control

But, I think that definition can be kind of vague, so I like to talk about some domains of burnout, and I do discuss these a bit more, including how each domain contributes to positive and negative workplace outcomes, in my article in the Journal of Academic Librarianship.

Task autonomy refers to employees’ control over how they perform their job tasks. It includes the freedom to set work priorities, make decisions about work methods, and exercise creativity and problem-solving skills. Task autonomy has been associated with higher levels of motivation, job satisfaction, and performance.

Work scheduling refers to an employee’s ability to determine their work hours and schedule. Flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting or flexible hours, provide employees with increased control over their work schedules, which can enhance work-life balance and reduce work-related stress. Unpredictable or precarious schedules may also undermine perceptions of security. In my opinion, this is frequently an issue with the way that we schedule one-shot library instruction, which is very reactive and perhaps predictable in terms of when in a term it will happen but not in terms of the actual timing of sessions or how sessions stack up in a given day or week.

Work pacing refers to employees’ control over the speed at which they perform their tasks. Work pacing may be impacted by the environment, with librarians comparing themselves to those around them. This may be exacerbated in different environments where the speed of your work is easier to surveil by a manager or colleagues.

Physical environment refers to employees’ control over their workspace, including lighting, comfort, equipment, and decorations. There is considerable research about the impact of office space on workers.

Decision-making refers to employees’ ability to participate in making decisions that affect their jobs or the organization as a whole. This can include shared decision making or transparent decision making practices. Employees experience reduced job satisfaction and commitment when not adequately involved in decision-making.

Interaction refers to employees’ control over their social interactions at work, including collaborations with colleagues or work with students, faculty, and staff. Interaction may also be strongly connected to physical environment, where individuals may have less control over interactions and interruptions in shared workspaces or open offices. Meredith Farkas recently wrote a great piece in C&RL News where she responded to an open office propoganda piece.

Mobility refers to the ability of employees to move within the organization, take on different roles, or have control over career advancement. Employees who experience greater career motivation, including working toward career advancement, may be more satisfied and committed. An example of this in libraries could be clear and manageable promotion practices.

Burnout & Job Control


As I’ve already mentioned, burnout and job control are related, so I want to take some time to connect the dots. And, as I write frequently, librarians have been talking about burnout for decades. However, I think it’s always helpful to provide a shared definition, especially given that burnout has become very colloqial and may be used in ways that differ from how I’m thinking about it. In the discussion of burnout and librarians, we’ve moved from an article titled “Are librarians burning out” in 1990 to “The Librarians Are Not Okay” from Anne Helen Petersen’s CALM keynote in 2022.

The World Health Organization specifically notes that burnout is an occupation phenomenon and burnout shouldn’t be used to describe other aspects of life. It results from prolonged and unmanaged workplace stress and is characterized by increased emotional exhaustion, increased depersonalization or cynicism, and decreased professional accomplishment or efficacy.

My one critique of this definition is that it relates very specifically to the work of Christina Maslach and her colleagues who developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which measures these exact three dimensions. In this way, I think it’s possible that the measurement and the phenomenon become conflated in which its unclear if the measurement measures the phenomenon or if the phenomenon is what the measurement measures. And while measurement is my passion, it’s not the topic of this presentation, so I will get back on track.

In addition to clarifying in the definition that burnout is an occupational phenomenon, I think it’s also important to recognize that prolonged workplace stress does not mean only prolonged overwork. There are other things that may lead to workplace stress, such as bullying, toxic work environments, role ambiguity and stress, and bad bosses. Frequently burnout and overwork are conflated, and this can lead librarians (and others) to not think of themselves as burnt out unless they are overworked. In fact, when discussing burnout with librarians, some have told mean that they can’t be burnt out because they aren’t overworked or that they can’t be burnt out because other people are more overworked than they are. The former is an issue with conflating burnout and overwork, the latter is related to relative-deprivation theory: “only when one feels more deprived than other members of her reference group will she feel entitled to adamant protest.” It’s always worse somewhere else.

Burnout is also contagious. Burnt out colleagues can begin to contribute to toxic workplace environments and may treat colleagues poorly because of their own burnout. And, while I think it’s important for managers to be able to recognize signs of burnout, we also need to think about ways to prevent burnout before signs appear because we don’t just take one thing of someone’s plate and suddenly everything is perfect again. And, I think frequently, the causes of burnout are organizational. I’ve talked with librarians who have left their workplaces for extended leaves and come back thinking they would be refreshed only to find that the organization was just as toxic as it was before, and the feelings of burnout set in again.

The Relationship Between Burnout & Job Control

As we think about burnout and job control, I just wanted to show that burnout and job control are related. The model to predict burnout with job control explains a statistically significant and moderate proportion of variance, so 20% of the variance in burnout is accommodated for by burnout and the effect is negative. So, we can predict that someone with high job control will experience less burnout than someone with lower job control.

Self-Determination Theory

While the correlation and association between burnout and job control doesn’t prove causation, there is a theoretical explanation for the relationship between job control or autonomy and negative workplace outcomes. Self-determination theory is a theory of human motivation that differentiates between autonomous and controlled motivation and situations autonomy as one of three basic psychological needs. This theory grounds the importance of autonomy.

I think that autonomy is important for all of us, and there’s a lot of value in feeling free to exercise our expertise in ways that we see fit. I also think that job control provides employees with the autonomy to manage their own burnout and that requires self-aware employees and true support from leadership.

In a discussion of the practical implications of SDT for work organizations, Deci, Olafsen, and Ryan (2017) argue that “work settings, in which supervisors acknowledge employees’ perspectives, encourage self-initiation, offer choices for individuals and groups, provide meaningful feedback, assign tasks that are optimally challenging, and give a rationale when requesting a behavior are likely to lead to both high-quality performance and wellness, as mediated by basic psychological need satisfaction and autonomous motivation. At the level of immediate supervisors, the evidence is abundant that when the supervisors are more autonomy supportive there are a range of positive consequences for the employees, including trust of managers higher in the organization” [@deciSelfdeterminationTheoryWork2017, p. 38].

In academic libraries

So, as we think about the importance of job control and autonomy in relation to burnout and other worklife outcomes, I have a few examples of control concerns for librarians from my interviews with academic instruction librarians.


The first of these concerns has already come up a few times in the first day at the conference. Yesterday, in the keynote, the panelists discussed the tendency of bosses toward surveillance. I think there are some poor office designs that support or allow for additional surveillance, such as open offices. However, I’ve talked with several librarians who also share an office space with their supervisors. And while not all of their experiences were terrible, I think the lack of distance makes surveillance easier and may require a manager who’s better able to reflect on their own assumptions and expectations.

Additionally, in my conversations with librarians, surveillance by colleagues, especially in terms of time-keeping was a concern. A presentation on workloads yesterday discussed managing perceptions around workload, which I think is a helpful strategy for managing surveillant colleagues. In the keynote, they discussed focusing on outcomes, and I think making outcomes transparent and valued across a team is important for managing this type of control concern. Employees know when they’re being watched and might actually make changes that negatively impact outcomes or themselves. Especially with instruction librarians, I think we sometimes expect them to be flexible when working with faculty and students but then manage them rigidly.


This one was really important to me. Several individuals who were in librarian roles where research was a requirement for promotion expressed this sense that they had to do research (and didn’t want to), but they had complete control over choosing what research they did. I found this really interesting because I’ve always enjoyed the level of control that I have in my own research. I do think one challenge here for academic librarians in particular is lacking the time to do research and lacking the flexibility to dedicate significant chunks of time to the intellectual work required for research. I think the other struggle for academic librarians is lacking the training, support, and continued professional development opportunities to learn to do research. People are expected to do work, have a lot of control over that work and thus a lot of responsibility, but don’t know what to do or how to do it.

I’m curious also how this extends to service requirements. In my conversations, academic librarians often feel a similar sentiment that they don’t have control over whether or not they do service but have control over what they do. I think the difference is people seem to enjoy their service work and find community and direction.

I don’t think this is necessarily unique to research though. Even some academic instruction librarians I’ve talked with have expressed concern about their teaching and the lack of training, support, professional development, and feedback they receive for their teaching.

Some controversies

And then, there were some areas of disagreement among the people I interviewed specifically around many aspects of how we do instruction. People’s feelings about the one-shot library instruction module were expectedly varied. Some people felt like they had control over scheduling sessions even though they never say no and have to adapt to instructor schedules. Many people who I talked with specifically used language related to machines in reference to one-shot instruction, feeling like they were cogs in a machine and often feeling like that work didn’t matter. For some, even when a one-shot session went really well, they struggled to be excited because the work was draining, and it wasn’t clear if the session was actually valuable in terms of student learning.

In thinking about different types of instruction, I was surprised that many participants felt less control while working on online instructional materials. Frequently, these were created by committee and reviewed by several colleagues or disciplinary instructors, which led to feelings of lacking control over the work product. In comparison to synchronous instruction, participants frequently felt a high degree of control over content because they were generally the only person from the library in the room, so their supervisor couldn’t control the work. However, many people did note how disciplinary faculty can occasionally be micro-managers themselves. Participants frequently reflected on the value of collaborative relationships and partnerships with faculty, which felt more equal, and they frequently felt that those faculty members valued their expertise as librarians. In other instances, participants felt they had to prove themselves and prove the value of their expertise, sometimes by accepting less meaningful instructional work. In this sense, there was disagreement about the value of getting your foot in the door through these less meaningful experiences, where some participants thought it was worthwhile because you might build a relationship with a faculty member overtime and some people shared examples of this. Others felt that those relationships never manifested in the ways that they wanted or they spent too much time trying to convince people or force relationships.

Some participants worked in libraries with programmatic instruction, generally for composition courses, where there was maybe a set lesson plan. Some of these were more flexible than others, but this work like some of the other one shot work was seen as less meaningful or valuable while also being constricted by a set lesson plan. In some cases, there was more flexibility, if the learning objectives were set but not the whole lesson plan.

And finally, there was some disagreement about the utility of guidelines for instruction. Some librarians felt that they were too restrictive while others felt that guidelines helped them exercise control when working with faculty by helping them set boundaries and by maintaining expectations across the department.

Job control as panacea

In a 1986 meta-analysis, Paul Spector reflected on the idea job control as a universal panacea for all employee ills. He pointed specifically to the increased responsibility and potentially increased workload that come with increased job control. I think in addition to this, more autonomy requires that employees be more self-directed, and I think different personalities and experience levels may require different degrees of control. Which is just to say, that it might be particularly individual and change over time, requiring continuing conversations between employees and supervisors.

Some librarians with high degrees of job control have expressed a desire for more leadership and more strategic direction across a department or library to better connect them with their colleagues and provide additional purpose and direction. In these cases, I’ve posed the hypothetical question about whether or not these librarians would be willing to give up some of their control in exchange for this leadership and shared vision, and the response is consistently yes.


So, in closing, I just wanted to talk about a few strategies for managing job control and burnout. I think person-centered management is a staple of this conference, and this approach is really valuable for thinking about control. Employees treat customers better when the employees themselves feel that their managers treat them fairly, Béliveau (2013) argues that managers “create a trickle-down effect by adopting a person-centered management approach to ensure that employees in turn adopt a person-centered care and services approach” (p. 1347). That is to say that person-centered management can result in both happier and more-supported employees, as well as better supported users. As we considered individualized approaches to management, we can consider the ways that employees grow and scaffold control in a way to best support them.

Relatedly, I think person-centered management approaches provide opportunity to build rapport and trust with employees, which is integral to having honest conversations about control and burnout. We need to invest time in building relationships and in developing psychological safety in order to have productive conversations about designing meaningful work, supporting autonomy, and preventing burnout.

As I’ve already discussed, creating opportunities for professional development and encouraging librarians to take advantage of professional development opportunities is integral to supporting autonomy. I think this includes professional development for library managers that is specific to managing librarians, but also professional development opportunities around instruction, such as ACRL Immersion, and around research, such as the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship, provide opportunities for librarians to become more confident and thus exercise more autonomy in these areas. However, these programs can also be created as local communities of practices or other support activities at an institution within the library or with the broader academic community at an institution.

One activity that a research participant shared with me is called the locus or circle of control, in which you identify things that you can control and things that you can’t control. It can also be designed in terms of gradients or levels of control. This activity may also be helpful for departments to consider decision-making processes and who is responsible for what decisions. In this way, you can also empower employees to make decisions on their own by specifically outlining areas of authority.

A final activity is considering minimal and optimal workloads or service models. With individuals, you can consider what their minimal workload would look like or what an optimal meaningful workload would look like as a way of identifying things that can be given up. I think often managers make decisions about what needs to be dropped without meaningful consultation with employees. The same approach can be used with a department to consider minimal and optimal service models. What would a minimal model look like for instruction or research help? What would an optimal model look like? This also provides opportunities to consider the direction you want to move in as you work toward the optimal model, which might required increased capacity or changes to workflows and processes.

It seems, to me at least, that there has been a shift in libraries away from grit, resilience, and the idea of doing more with less to the idea of doing less with less. I think the prevalence of sessions about workload at this conference actually speak to that shift. However, one of my concerns is that as we do less with less, we resist innovation and return to the “tried and true.” For example, instead of boldly abandoning the one-shot and focusing on faculty development, we might lean in entirely to the one-shot. In a way, it seems easy because it’s well-known and has been done. This might be seen as doing less with less by avoiding doing anything new and sticking to our “bread and butter.” The challenge that I see here is that I don’t think the majority of librarians find one-shots exhilarating, but exhausting. In fact, as I mentioned, in talking with librarians, so many discuss one-shots in relation to a machine or a factory. It’s not fulfilling work. As we think about workloads and doing less with less, I think we need to consider meaningful and engaging work, and library managers and leaders need to work with librarians to decide what they give up and what a minimum viable service model looks like. I think too frequently, managers make decision to do less with less, and then drop the interesting work they’re doing or resist proposals for innovation because there isn’t capacity. In some cases, this may make sense. However, in other cases, there may be opportunities to change our work to be more efficient. For example, abandoning one shot library instruction in favor of faculty and TA development around information literacy provides an opportunity for deeper, more meaningful instruction while potentially requiring less capacity. However, if we consider one shot instruction as a baseline or a requirement for library instruction, and then add teach-the-teacher approaches on top, it obviously creates more work and stretches capacity. In this sense, innovation is simply additional work rather than replacing work or making work more efficient. We see this in other library instruction as well, such as multiple engagement with the same class or embedded librarianship, which might be great and meaningful models of teaching but require more and more work.