We asked Amanda Oliver, author of Overdue: Reckoning With the Public Library, a few questions about how libraries become overburdened, why librarians burn out, and what effect this has on the health of our communities.
You write that Overdue will “push directly against the romanticization of what libraries are and who they are for.” Why do people romanticize libraries?
I think now, maybe more than ever, we need hope. And libraries, at least as we commonly understand them, are symbols of that hope—that we can share; that we can provide free, community-based items and care and space; even that we still love, read and uphold books. But there are more accurate truths, which I dig into extensively throughout the book, that I think will ultimately lead us to a more realistic version of hope around, within and from libraries.
Did you romanticize libraries yourself at any point?
My relationship to libraries has fundamentally, since childhood, been based in warm feelings toward them as safe havens and quiet spaces of comfort. I still love libraries. I still find them comforting and recognize that they can be safe havens. But I am always touched by the whys: Why do libraries provide so much in America? Why do so few institutions like them exist en masse? Why not look a little more closely and critically at them? I can’t, and don’t ever want to, look at libraries without the whys.
Overdue uses your experiences as a librarian in Washington, D.C., to address societal and structural issues that affect libraries nationwide. Did you consider interviewing other librarians and incorporating their experiences into the book as well?
I’m not sure people realize that many public library systems have clauses in their contracts about what you can and cannot say publicly while working for them. I’ve had many private, off-the-record conversations with librarians that I didn’t include in the book out of respect for their privacy and need for job security. In many of those conversations, librarians said things along the lines of “I can’t say this stuff while I still work for my library system.” Meanwhile, I knew I could say “this stuff” because I had left library work and didn’t intend to go back.
You write movingly about how you operated with empathy while working with patrons facing poverty, racism, substance abuse and other issues. It led you to feel empathy fatigue and burnout. What do you hope readers, whether or not they’re librarians, learn about that process of burning out?
It has always been very interesting to me what happens when I explain to people the toll that working as a librarian took on me. Even the most socially conscious and empathetic people I know sometimes find it bewildering. I think it is deeply ingrained in American work culture and ethic that we should work and not complain, especially in professions where you are serving vulnerable and underserved people. I know that this was part of why I burned out. The idea that I was overreacting, that I was too sensitive and not tough enough, that I wasn’t working hard enough—this sort of deep-rooted self-flagellation, in lieu of looking more closely and critically at the system(s) I was functioning within, didn’t help me, and it didn’t help the people I was serving.
My hope is that people will recognize that you can’t pour from an empty cup (no matter how much you want to) and you also shouldn’t be asked to—by an employer, a co-worker or, as it ultimately comes down to, the perverse, inhumane, unimaginative and oftentimes cruel systems of capitalism in this country.
Early in Overdue, you explore how libraries in colonial America were for wealthy white men and how racial segregation in libraries continued until the late 20th century. Why was it essential for you to include this history?
This is a key factor in all of American history, and yet it often seems to go missing from the narrative around libraries. That it was almost entirely wealthy white men who funded and founded public libraries (and so much else) means this was who determined libraries’ earliest roots, policies, procedures and so forth. It’s impossible to look at where libraries are today without looking at where—and how, and by and for whom—they were created. It was especially important to me to establish that our segregated past wasn’t that long ago, and that racism and systemic inequalities today still actively impact library patrons and employees in a negative way.
Helping professions (such as nurses, childcare workers, etc.) can be seen as “feminized” labor and treated with less respect compared to more male-dominated fields. Do you think, in general, librarianship is viewed as “feminized” labor? How do you believe that impacts how society treats libraries and librarians?
Yes, I think librarianship is often viewed as “feminized” labor, and historically as well as statistically, it is. Something like 30% of librarians are men, with an unequal proportion of them in leadership roles. There are also still pervasive stereotypes of librarians—as either shrewish, unpleasant women or “sexy” women in skirts and unbuttoned cardigans—that I find debasing. Any type of gender stereotyping, inequality and discrimination negatively impacts everyone, of all genders, in innumerable ways. At the library level, it’s another way of preventing progress and an accurate understanding of the profession.
What are some of the reactions you would like to see from library administrators and local governments in response to the issues you raise in Overdue?
I’d like to see a bit more honest reckoning—as the subtitle of the book implies. Which is to say, a bit more of those in power acknowledging mistakes and missteps as well as facing up to more realities and failures on an institutional level. I’d like to see local governments looking to libraries for guidance on how they can establish community supports and services—not necessarily as resources for information on this topic (which, of course, they are) but as living, breathing, working examples.
I also hope my book gives people in leadership or decision-making roles some genuine insight into what is being asked of librarians, the immense weight that carries and the potential tolls it can take. My hope is that we will see better, more conscious, caring and community-minded decisions being made in the future. I think public libraries have a real opportunity to implement and model better work environments and better ways of caring.
You mentioned how you like to visit a library in every place you travel. Is there one library that you especially love—either for its design, its people or something you did, saw or read there?
I have a particular fondness for the Seattle Public Library’s main branch. It’s a beautifully designed building. I also still go back to my first library sometimes when I am visiting Buffalo, New York, because it’s full of many warm memories for me.
Do you have plans for another book, and if so, can you tell us what it’s about?
I do! I’ll be attending a six-week writing residency this summer to focus on my second book, which is quite different from Overdue. I am a stylistic prose writer at heart, which is not what readers will see in Overdue but is something they can find in some of my essays. I’m quite excited to get back to writing that is meditative, experimental and not based in heavy research. The book is, loosely, about living in the desert, the idea of Home with a capital H and the many ways it shifts and fragments in a life.
Author photo of Amanda Oliver by Justin Danks