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  • Writer's pictureShea Swauger

Reflections on Leaving Librarianship

This is not a screed against my former job or a condemnation of higher education, but as it’s been about a year since I left librarianship, I’ve had time to process and wanted to share why I left and what my experience has been like since.

The chain of events that led to my decision started in 2020. The beginning of the pandemic was a montage of chaos, fear, scrambling, and sadness. Everyone I worked with honestly tried their best to keep people safe while keeping the library’s core services running. It was awful. My institution wasn’t remarkably better or worse than other libraries or universities in their COVID response, but I distinctly remember when the emails about COVID went from being about public safety to being about “the student experience,” which I understood to be coded for “trying to make sure our enrollment numbers don’t drop.” Safety decisions were heavily influenced by their financial impact on the institution. It felt like a strategic abandonment of employees. Once I internalized that my university cared more about its financial solvency than reducing a credible threat to my life, something broke in me. That would have been enough reason for me to leave, but there were others.

Pay inequality was a huge second reason. Many library and university employees were significantly underpaid, and salary transparency was fought against by the university. I was told for years by my library administration that they would do their own salary equity study, but to this date, they still haven’t. Some of my coworkers were making $37,000 a year. Mind you the library is in Denver, which has a median house price of $570,000. No one was ever given a cost-of-living increase. When I started my job in 2015, I came in at $72,000. When I quit my job in 2022, I was making $78,204. If my salary had kept up with just the cost of inflation, I should have been making $87,221. Essentially, the longer I stayed there, the less money I made. When I shared a spreadsheet of everyone’s salary data at the university, over a dozen people contacted me, primarily women of color. They told me they were being paid less than their male counterparts and were filing formal complaints. There was every indication that salary equity would not improve despite everyone's efforts.

There are other reasons I left. I had a hostile relationship with the campus police, and campus legal counsel verbally harassed me about my abolitionist work. Most of the DEI-related committees and projects I participated in felt stalled, and there was little support from my library or university leadership to move things forward. I was extremely burnt out. Trying to survive and care for my community during a pandemic is hard enough, but having to continue to work and often pretend like COVID wasn’t happening crushed me. I would often share in department or whole-library meetings that I was not ok, that I was suffering, and that we needed to change something to respond to the trash fire of our circumstances. I was usually met with awkward silence. Besides remote work, no change or accommodations were offered. I decided I needed to leave so that I could be okay again.

I started a new job in May of 2023. I won’t lie; it was scary to accept a new job so outside of everything I knew. I had to grieve the loss of an identity that came with being a librarian. Later, I realized that I had to grieve the loss of the idea of what librarianship could have been, but never was.

Many things in my current role are similar to librarianship. Every day, I work on privacy, research, data sharing, writing, and community-building issues. Some things are different. I’m very new to law, policy, and politics. Everyone I work with is brilliant, which I’m used to. You can’t get your coffee in academia without bumping into three PhDs. But the people I work with are also kind and generous, which was new. Not to say academia wasn’t full of many wonderful people I still call friends. But my new job has much less drama and little conflict, and the conflict it does have is meaningful. My boss knows how to do my job better than me and is supportive, encouraging, and incredibly smart. The learning curve was and is still very high.

Some things in my new job surprised me. For starters, everything moves faster, which is both good and bad. Academia is famously glacial; policy work moves much faster. I have to analyze and share my ideas quickly, which can be stressful. I work 100% remotely and have coworkers worldwide, but despite the distance, I’ve made significant friendships with people I’ve never met in person.

The support my employer offers me is much different than I’m used to. For example, I started my job the week the Dobbs memo was leaked, indicating the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v Wade. On my second day there, I asked my boss if we could have a fund for people who needed to get abortions to travel out of state. Within 24 hours, the leadership had met to discuss and then implemented a policy that every employee was allowed 3K annually to travel out of state for any medical procedure (abortion included, but it could be for anything such as a plane, hotel, or procedure) on top of what health insurance could cover. The speed and support I witnessed were baffling and welcome. Something else that’s different is that I’m paid much better. I started at $115,000, and every employee gets an annual cost of living increase and a bonus. I’m still not used to this.

Mostly, I have so much more joy in my life. I’m less angry than I used to be. My anger came from feeling powerless to change a system that was hurting people. I was quick to lash out against institutions, companies, and people. I had little room for nuance regarding ethics. The Good Guys and Bad Guys were easy for me to identify, and I was always one of the Good Guys.

Now, I’m less sure. My job puts me in contact with people who wield significant power, and I have the opportunity to share my thoughts with them and be listened to. I’m still uneasy about this responsibility, and I’m much slower to come to conclusions. I feel like what I say has more weight than it used to, so I choose my words more carefully.

Also, my understanding of the corporate, non-profit, and political landscape has radically shifted. I’ve met intelligent, ethical, thoughtful, and justice-minded people within companies doing impactful work in a way I hadn’t imagined. I’ve talked with people in politics earnestly trying to legislate on highly complex issues with the goal of helping people. This doesn’t mean there aren’t corporations and politicians that harm people who should be held accountable. However, it’s new for me to meet the people within morally-compromised systems working their asses off trying to make things better, and in that way, they’re a lot like my friends still in academia.

I hold my work and opinions much lighter than I used to. I care more about smaller things that bring me joy, such as gardening, talking with my kid, and cooking dinner with my partner. I’m glad I left libraries, not because everyone should leave, but because I needed to. It was scary, but the people I’ve met have been warm and supportive, and the work has been meaningful.

I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

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1 Comment

Trish P.
Trish P.
May 03, 2023

Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability. Much of this post resonated with me. After reading your post, I feel hopeful and optimistic about a life and career outside of librarianship. Thank you again!

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