“Exploring Librarians’ Agency and Choice from a Sociological Perspective” (Roundtable)

Tuesday, June 8, 1pm EDT

Andrea Baer (Rowan University)

Note: The majority of this session will be a roundtable discussion that will not be recorded for future viewing.

Agency, the ability to act with choice and purpose in one’s environment, is essential to remaining engaged in one’s work and to responding to challenges with resilience and creativity. In contrast, if a person repeatedly experiences not being able to make intentional choices or to act according to their own values and goals, they can quickly become frustrated, disillusioned, and burnt out. Research on burnout suggests that experiencing a lack of agency is among the chief contributors to burnout, while being in a supportive environment in which one is valued and can act with choice and intention can help individuals regain a sense of purpose and engagement in their work.

How we experience agency – or a lack thereof – depends on numerous complex factors, some of which are within our control and some of which are not. While in Western cultures agency is often thought of primarily in terms of an individual who chooses and acts independently, sociological approaches to agency emphasize the relationship between the individual and the social structures and relationships in which they are embedded. As Priestley et al.’s (2015) describe in their ecological model of agency, agency can only be understood in relation to the various environmental factors in a given moment and context and or as “an emergent phenomenon of the ecological conditions through which it is enacted” (“Teacher Agency: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?” 2015, p. 3).

Despite how essential a sense of agency is to sustainable and fulfilling work, in a service-oriented profession like librarianship there are far fewer conversations about agency from a sociocultural perspective than there are about how to serve others, how to “prove the library’s value,” and how to respond to stakeholders who hold a large amount of institutional power. While all of these things are important, placing far more emphasis on pleasing others than on the values and larger purposes that drive librarians’ work (and that are also central to acting with agency) can be incredibly demoralizing. It also tends to exacerbate burnout while reducing the sense of connection and purpose that are necessarily for responding creatively and constructively to challenges. In this roundtable participants will be introduced to theories and research on agency from fields including sociology, education, and library science. Participants will consider these theories and research in relation to their own experiences and conceptions of agency as librarians. The group will also explore potential implications of their discussion for fostering agency in their individual and collective professional practices, communities, and environments.