Incivility in the Stacks: Causes and Repercussions of Incivility in the Academic Library

By Sara Parme

Libraries are stereotyped as quiet, calm places filled with shushing librarians who read all day. Many would be surprised to know that the work environment of a library falls prey to the same dysfunctions as other professions. Incivility at work, defined as rude or impolite behavior low in intensity but still severely detrimental, is on the rise. Libraries are dealing with the same issues that breed incivility in other workplaces: advances in technology, diversity in employee age, race, culture, and sexual orientation, urban overcrowding, sleep deprivation, the decline in family and community life, and affluenza (Snavley and Hudson, 2013, p. 176). The causes of incivility in academic libraries follow the same root causes of incivility in academia in general: tenure, seniority, academic freedom, large and unruly meetings, online arguments, and lengthy time in the same institution. All of which allow grudges to develop and fester. In the largest survey of librarians on the subject, 89.14% of college/university library worker respondees experience incivility at work (Henry et al., 2018a, p. 41).

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Despite this statistic, the library literature on incivility remains low. Freedman & Vreven (2016) unearthed some of the structures specific to academic libraries that breed uncivil behavior. They include “the inequality of rewards and benefits between librarians and teaching faculty,” internal competition among librarians for resources, and weak library leadership (p. 730). 


The status of librarians differs amongst academic libraries. The debate over the library faculty model is well documented. Regardless of the perks, even when librarians are tenure-track faculty, they are often still treated as support staff and their efforts and accomplishments are rarely recognized in the same way as teaching faculty. In the context of social identity theory, on-campus, librarians juggle multiple identities because of the way their work is structured. Academic librarians collaborate and work side-by-side with staff in a way teaching faculty do not. Most library staff carry out jobs typically completed by degree-holding librarians in other institutions. In an academic library, the salience of the identity of ‘faculty’ can be higher than that of being a librarian. This can cause a damaging divide between librarians and staff as librarians do their best to distance themselves from staff in order to solidify their faculty-status identity. There exists an obvious stratification in higher education that librarians find themselves in the middle of that leads to group conflict. In the relevant intergroup situations, an academic librarian is not an individual working in an interdependent system to keep the library running, but part of a group that defines their relationships to members of other groups based on their achieved status as part of the “superior” social system of faculty, with their additional education and degrees creating a social class stratification.    


One would think, with the academic library losing funding, its diminishing prestige as the central gathering site on campus, and its space being sacrificed for other campus offices, that cooperation should be at its highest. Yet, as conflict theory proves, groups will always compete with each other. As Tajfel and Turner point out, “Whenever social stratification is based upon an unequal division of scarce resources – such as power, prestige, or wealth – between social groups, the social situation should be characterized by pervasive ethnocentrism and out-group antagonism between the over- and underprivileged groups” (p. 35). Complicating the social stratification, there are a surprising number of in/out groups creating internal competition among librarians for resources. There is the librarian and staff groups competing for the ear of administration to address the problems they deem most important and dwindling funds for their own departments. The tenured and untenured struggle in internal competition for travel money, rank, and opportunities just like any other academic department. Additionally, since the field of librarianship primarily consists of white females, non-white and male librarians are often a minority group and the least heard, adding levels of race and gender stratification. When it comes to racial and ethnic diversity, libraries, which often make the news for defending banned books and minority voices, need to do more to put their purported ideals into action. Snavley and Hudson (2013) cite a past American Library Association (ALA) report that links the importance of civility to efforts to diversify the profession: “If we can create a civil environment, we will be better able to cultivate a diverse environment. And if we fail to cultivate a civil environment, all of our diversity efforts will be for naught” (p. 177). Yet, despite libraries being a vocal supporter of diversity, Snavley and Hudson (2013) also note that “the literature on workplace civility programming, interventions, or training in libraries in non-existent” (p. 178). The gender stratification is especially complex as in the sphere of librarians and library staff, women hold the power by sheer representation, yet the majority of library deans and directors are men, undercutting that power. 

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Layered on top of social identity theory is expectation states theory, which helps explain why those in the tenured, librarian, and white female categories can be perceived as having more valuable ideas than those in the ‘out’ groups. They are given more opportunities to serve on committees and their performance evaluated more positively. Ultimately, their influence ends up overpowering the ideas and opinions of others and can give them carte blanche to act uncivil to others. Supporting Correll & Ridgeway’s (2003) findings that beliefs in status shape individual behavior, “[b]eing ignored or excluded implies that one is incompetent and/or not important enough to be in the group. This situation invokes negative personal and sociocultural consequences” (Freedman & Vreven, 2016, p. 740). Yet all of these in-out groups are required to collaborate in order to achieve library objectives.    

Weak Leadership

The findings proving that incivility in academic libraries is much more prevalent than one would think and the above theoretical connections on why it is happening to suggest that the weak leadership found by Freedman & Vreven does not do enough to create a network of social interaction contingent on a specific role identity. Doing so would increase the commitment to that identity (Merolla, Serpe, Stryker, & Schultz, 2012). For example, while acknowledging the bureaucracy and politics in higher ed libraries, library deans can do more to create role-identity focused around the library, as opposed to a specific role in it or letting those in the library control the group and individual social identities and stratifications. This would facilitate cooperation library-wide and create a more unified team to advocate for library funding, opportunities, and respect. While organizations are made up of individuals, they are also “collective entities that behave in systematic or collective ways” (Pershing & Austin, 2015b). The emphasis of groups over individuals follows an overall workplace trend:   

No longer is productivity a matter of ensuring the coordination of individuals engaged in isolated tasks – the production line model where each individual has a discrete job is no longer the sole, or even predominant, model. More and more often, the success of contemporary organizations requires that groups of individuals work in collaboration to complete complicated, interrelated, and overlapping tasks (Pershing & Austin, 2015b). 

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As we have seen above, groups in academic libraries can be both the problem and the solution. “In library environments, team approaches are commonplace because units collaborate on projects, programming, instruction, and other activities. This makes libraries prime environments for rude behavior with its frequent social interactions of workers” (Henry et al., 2018a, p. 44). Victims of incivility will avoid working in teams because they are avoiding people or seeking revenge. “Because team concepts are an often-utilized strategy that libraries use to promote their agendas, this could be disastrous” (Henry et al., 2018a, p. 43). Yet, the creation of groups and teams is actually one of the things Henry et, al. (2018b) suggests can lower overall library incivility. One way of uniting a group is to find a common enemy. Pershing & Austin (2015c) outline how “threats or risks outside of the work unit can also contribute to cohesiveness and, correspondingly, the effectiveness of the group.” Considering the overall library trends of dwindling budgets and the repurposing of library space for other departments, there is plenty to unite library employees. Second, is the importance of leadership to the functioning of a group. Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid identify a team leader to be the one who “leads by positive example and strives to engender a cohesive and collaborative environment.” The library literature supports this. “Leaders in library organizations play an influential role in advancing collegiality as a library value to remove barriers in serving library goals. Academic library leadership that addresses the incivility among library staff while actively promoting collegial management will serve library goals and institutional patrons effectively” (Freedman, 2012, p. 112-113). One way to do that is to give some control over to the group in order to increase participation. Penn State University Libraries, in forming a Civility Team, gave the members the power to create programming (formal and informal education is another approach for establishing control and managing the behavior of a group) and develop policy, with the support of the administration. 

Lastly, no organization can stay the same forever. “Public organizations are expected to stay true to certain values and traditions, but organizational life is not motionless. … It is not enough to alter practice or action; we must alter behavior, which is action plus intention” (Pershing & Austin, 2015a). Easier said than done. On an organizational level, the change affects all individuals. Libraries, librarians, and library employees have been struggling with professional identity for years with the rise of the internet and mobile devices, which some members of the field are more comfortable with than others. 

When such changes are imposed suddenly from outside the profession or by an influx of members whose identities are radically different, such changes become challenges, even threats, to the identity which members derive from their professional role…The resistance of many librarians to changes in the profession over the past several decades…is not understood as a reaction against the imposition of an alien identity which rejects, degrades, and devalues the identity which they derive from their profession (Stauffer, 2014).

Perhaps the above quote refers to the ‘ending’ in the steps to transformation, outlined by Pershing & Austin (2015a). Many libraries and librarians have lost turf, structure, meaning, and control in recent years. The insecurity many feel lead to acts of incivility. In order to reach the ‘neutral zone’ where policies and procedures are made and anxiety is lessened, leaders must include as many people as possible in the changes. This requires training, communication, participation, and institutional support. Only then can library employees stop being uncivil to one another and reach a ‘new beginning.’


Correll, S. J., & Ridgeway, C. L. (2003) Expectations States Theory. Theory In J. Delamater (Ed.), Handbook of Social Psychology (pp. 29-51). Springer Press. 

Freedman, S. (2012) “Collegiality matters: Massachusetts public higher education librarians’ perspective,” Journal of Academic Librarianship 38(2). 108–14.

Freedman, S., & Vreven, D. (2016). Workplace incivility and bullying in the library: Perception or reality? College & Research Libraries, 77(6), 728. doi:10.5860/crl.77.6.727.

Henry, J., Eshleman, J., & Moniz R. (2018a). The dysfunctional library: Challenges and solutions to workplace relationships. Chicago: ALA.

Henry, J., Eshleman, J., Croxton, R. & Moniz, R. (2018b). Incivility and dysfunction in the library workplace: Perceptions and feedback from the field. Journal of Library Administration, 58(2), 128-152. doi: 10.1080/01930826.2017.1412708

Merolla, D. M., Serpe, R. T., Stryker, S., Schultz, W. P. (2012). Structural Precursors to Identity Processes: The Role of Proximate Social Structures. Social Psychology Quarterly 75(2) pp. 149-172.

Pershing, S. P, & Austin, E. K.  (2015a). Affecting Organization Change In Organizational Theory and Governance for the 21st Century. (pp. 173-212) Thousand Oaks, California: CQ Press – Sage.

Pershing, S. P,&  Austin, E. K. (2015b). Understanding and Shaping Group Dynamics In Organizational Theory and Governance for the 21st Century. (pp. 137-169). Thousand Oaks, California: CQ Press – Sage.

Stauffer, S. (2014). The intelligent, thoughtful personality: Librarianship as a process of identity formation.” Library and Information History, 30(4), 267-68). 

Tajfel, H., Turner, J. (1979). An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict. Retrieved from

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