Library Workers Who Are Neurodivergent – Part Two

By Kelley McDaniel

In part one of this article, the author discussed the issue of unemployment/underemployment of adults who are neurodivergent in the context of libraries and used the Autism @ Work Playbook to provide concrete strategies for helping libraries become part of the solution to the problem. In this second part, we hear directly from a library worker who is neurodivergent. In Question & Answer format, they describe their experience trying to establish a career in libraries. 

We Need to Listen to Library Workers Who Are Neurodivergent
Q & A with a Library Worker Who is Neurodivergent

Q: Why did you want to work in a library?

I grew up in libraries; my family always placed a lot of value and importance on books, and some of my relatives were librarians, so I was pretty much always around books in some sense, whether that was at home, at the libraries where my relatives worked, or at the local public library … I knew I wanted to work with books in some capacity. … Libraries and bookstores were my top two choices.

Q: What library jobs have you had (paid or volunteer)? What did you like about them? 

  • Volunteering in the children’s room of my local public library;
  • Working three hours a week as a shelver in the teen section of that same library;
  • Volunteering as a shelver in a special library;
  • Working part-time as a shelver at a different public library.

I’ve always loved the atmosphere of a good library and I loved being an active part of that atmosphere, enjoying it and contributing to it by helping people with their questions and so on – that was really great. There’s a lot that I wish had been different, though.

Q: Did you ever tell your employer and/or colleagues about your ASD? Why or why not?

Not that I recall. If I was ever asked outright, I wouldn’t have lied about it, but my gut has always told me that it’s better not to risk it. I’m very high-functioning and I try to stay under the radar.

Q: Why did you pursue a degree in Information and Library Science (ILS)?

The primary reason was because my family and I hoped that a B.S. degree in ILS would make it easier for me to pursue a long-term library career rather than just moving between low-level positions with no opportunity for growth. That didn’t exactly work out like we’d hoped, with me losing my second long-term library job just half a year after I completed that degree. 

Q: Tell me about your internship experience. Was the internship paid or unpaid?

My internship was unpaid, and it was the final requirement of my ILS degree. It was 120 hours, consisting of ten hours each week that I was able to add onto my existing sixteen hours of paid work. It was the first time I’d really tried to branch out from just shelving, with my foremost goal being to try a little of everything that the library had to offer. I was honestly expecting it to be much more challenging for me than it was. I had built up the wide variety of non-shelving library work to be foreign and intimidating and that turned out to be a complete misconception; instead, I found all the work easier and more natural than I’d dared imagine. The most joyful part of my internship experience was realizing that I’d been afraid for a decade of something that turned out not to be a problem. Far from it, in fact; getting to understand and take part in all the different processes that kept the library going was an incredibly fulfilling experience and, despite how my time there ultimately ended, it’s an experience that I still feel privileged to have successfully undertaken.

Q: The Autism Society has reported that “adults with Autism are chronically underemployed,” meaning that the jobs that they get are frequently well below their skill level. How does your experience in libraries comport with that, or not?

My experience certainly comports with that quote … that any upward mobility beyond the ground level of part-time shelving was, for all intents and purposes, a pipe dream. Throughout both of my long-running library jobs at two different libraries I made repeated attempts to expand my hours and pursue advancement, and I was repeatedly turned down (at best) or ignored (at worst). Probably the standout example of this was at my second long-term job after I had just completed my ILS degree.

Q: Tell me about your experience of feedback and opportunities for job growth in your library work.

During my first long-term library job … I mentioned repeatedly to my supervisor that I would be interested in increasing my hours, perhaps by also doing shelving work in other sections of the library; my supervisor was kind enough to pass these requests on to management, but once they got there they were invariably either rejected or ignored.

During my second long-term job … I worked for twelve hours a week and I was one of two shelvers in the library … Post-pandemic, I was the only shelver, responsible for the entire library on the same pay and the same number of hours, so I requested an increase in hours, and after several months received an additional four hours.

Across both of these jobs, general feedback – “thanks”, “good job”, and the like – was common, but I rarely received specific feedback. I was spoken to on a couple of occasions, and I tried to respond to clear and actionable criticism.

After receiving my ILS degree, I had high hopes for advancement, but they were dashed at the first opportunity. I submitted an application for an open Library Assistant position and heard nothing back. Several weeks later, I arrived at work to find that interviews were being conducted. I asked HR why I had not been selected for an interview and the reason that I was given did not make sense to me. Not long after, my hours were cut – from sixteen to twelve – and then cut again – from twelve to four. I decided at that point that I could no longer justify the emotional toll that it was taking on me to continue working in that particular place, and I resigned my position.

Q: What advice would you give to library employers and staff who want to do right by employees who are Neurodivergent?

I would say that the most important thing is to be direct and straightforward. With Neurodivergent employees, honesty actually is the best policy. Simply state outright if there is a problem or a deficit in certain areas, and if there is anything the employee can do to remedy or compensate for it. If there isn’t, then at least have the decency to fire them out loud instead of using “quiet firing” techniques, such as reducing an employee’s hours without saying anything to them until they quit on their own. 

__________________________

This library worker, who is neurodivergent and prefers to remain anonymous, was a library shelver for more than a decade. After completing two bachelor’s degrees – including one in Information and Library Science (ILS) – being passed over for promotion and being rejected for half-a-dozen entry-level jobs in other libraries, they were finally given a chance in a customer service position at a retail establishment. They still haven’t given up on their hope of working as a library paraprofessional one day.

Kelley McDaniel was a school librarian in Maine for eighteen years. She was the Walter J. Taranko Library Media Specialist of the Year in 2005 and a Carnegie Corporation/New York Times I Love My Librarian Award winner in 2010. After being a librarian, she pivoted to becoming an ELL teacher and a special educator who taught empowering literacy.