Let Labor Be Labor

I’ve been thinking a lot about labor lately.

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“Work in Progress” by Gleb Khorunzhiy via                  The Noun Project, CC BY 3.0

Maybe it has to do with Mother’s Day (see what I did there?), but mostly it has to do with the fact that I’ve been really busy and doing a lot of extra stuff. It’s all stuff I enjoy—some directly connected to my job, some only tangentially so—all of it requiring my time and effort.

And all, I’m finally fully realizing, deserving of payment.

I really struggle with this. I struggle with demanding that I get fair credit for the work I do. Like many other non-male, non-white people, I tend to sell myself short and allow others to do likewise. I’m fortunate to have parents who get really vocally frustrated with me about this and who lovingly push me to demand fair recompense for my work. And while I don’t always get it right, I do try to push beyond my discomfort to get what’s rightfully mine.

One of the challenges that gets wrapped up in this struggle, though, is the insistence in many circles on qualifying what is meant by “labor.” Too often, work gets placed in categories based on its importance, value, emotional versus physical or intellectual requirements, etc. We talk a lot about “emotional labor” and “invisible labor” and “feminized or gendered labor.” And what we’re getting at is that work that gets done, often behind the scenes, and often without recompense. That extra stuff that certain people—often non-male, often non-white—get expected to do. The work that gets relegated to “the help.”

The fact is, though, that all this labor is really just labor. And all labor should be paid/credited/recognized. Period.

It makes no sense to create false dichotomies for our labor, particularly in a service-based profession like librarianship. Everything we do has emotional and physical and intellectual components. All of it is labor. All of it requires our time, effort, and talents. Even when we love what we’re doing.

One thing that has helped me shift my thinking about this is to go back to my roots as a corporate attorney. When I worked at a high-powered law firm, we had to account for everything we did in 6-minute increments. Paid client work got counted and billed, of course, but even work we did for pro bono clients and internal firm work got counted, as well. The thinking was that all our labor involved valuable time and effort that should be accounted for.

I’m by no means suggesting that high-powered law firms have it totally right. There was certainly “invisible” labor going on at the firm. And having to bill every minute of your time in a day is stressful and tiring (hence the fact I’m no longer doing it). But some of that, shall I say, mercenary thinking that powers law firm billing could be of great use to us in the library profession. Yes, we love to talk about how we’re called to the profession and how we love to help and we love to serve. But our help and service also involve labor. And that labor should be recompensed and credited accordingly. Being called and being credited are not mutually exclusive.

So, for example, as I get invited to speak with groups about diversity issues in libraries (which I thoroughly enjoy doing), I realize that I’m doing work and that work should be recognized. I should get paid for it; I should get credit for it as outreach and scholarship at my job; I should get recognized for having shared my time, effort, and thoughts.

Even when people reach out to “pick my brain” about something, before agreeing, I take time to think about how much labor I’m willing to put in and how much that labor should cost. In the end, I may agree to speak with that person for free, but it will always be with the understanding that I’m giving them free labor that should otherwise come with a cost. I make sure I’m clear on this to myself and I even go so far as to make it clear to them. I’m also very careful about how much labor I give away. When I reach my limit, I stop. No exceptions. Again, my legal training comes into play here. I imagine that the work I’m doing amounts to offering free legal advice and I determine how much of that free advice I’m willing to fork over before the billing clock should start to run.

It’s the same with time you may spend consoling a student who came to get reference help but ended up needing to vent about exam stress. Or the time you spend listening to a patron battling homelessness describe how difficult things have been lately. Or the time you spend sitting with a new colleague going over unspoken office politics so they can avoid the pitfalls of interpersonal interaction on the job. Or the time you spend serving on the diversity committee for your organization. You may love doing it, but it’s still work. Your work. And it’s worth something.


I say we stop qualifying our labor and just start sweeping it into our reports/CVs/stats/etc. I started doing this at my former job. There were times when some of the very few students of color would stop by the ref desk during my shift to chat about life. They did so because I was the only librarian of color there and they felt comfortable chatting with me. And even if we never discussed anything remotely related to library services per se, I always logged those interactions into my reference stats, under “general reference consultation.” Because as much as I loved being there for those students, my time with them involved important labor and that labor was worthy of credit.

I know we can’t all make this kind of change in our places of work. You may not be able to sweep all your labor into the same pot for payment or credit. But to the extent that you can, I challenge you to do so. And either way, be on the lookout for ways in which you can get credit/payment/recognition for all your labor.

Let’s stop bothering with false divisions of emotionality or invisibility. Let’s stop “other”-ing the important work we do. Let’s instead try to get credit for all aspects of our very valuable labor.