The Problem with Resilience

Recently, my Twitter feed blew up with reaction against ACRL President’s Program Planning Committee Call for Participation. The call for participation asks for stories about librarians’ resilience, and their experiences in the workplace. I was confused. What was wrong with resilience? People who characterized as resilient are lauded as successful in business, emotionally healthy, and politically engaged.

From the American Psychological Association:

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.

Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling seems to have first popularized the concept of resilience in his 1973 work Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems. In his book, Holling studies how changing environments (due to natural or human interaction) can create new approaches to managing resources.  In his book, resilience is a natural, active response to change.

Resilience, however, isn’t a trait that is natural for humans. In Researching Resilience, Linda Liebenberg and Michael Ungar consolidate literature on how people survive and thrive after stressful environments including poverty, abuse, violence, neglect,and marginalization. Liebenberg & Ungar stipulate that all resilience research is immediately affected by social-cultural variables, and therefore, contemporary research is no closer to answering the question, “what makes a human resilient?”

But back to the question, why is ACRL’s call for resilient stories problematic? What is wrong with celebrating bouncing back?

The problem lies in the assumption that librarians are passive, natural agents- and they need to be resilient to bounce back from changes impacting their day-to-day existence. Holling defines four critical aspects of resilience: latitude, resistance, precariousness, and panarchy.

The first three can apply both to a whole system or the sub-systems that make it up.

  1. Latitude: the maximum amount a system can be changed before losing its ability to recover (before crossing a threshold which, if breached, makes recovery difficult or impossible).
  2. Resistance: the ease or difficulty of changing the system; how “resistant” it is to being changed.
  3. Precariousness: how close the current state of the system is to a limit or “threshold.”
  4. Panarchy: the degree to which a certain hierarchical level of an ecosystem is influenced by other levels. For example, organisms living in communities that are in isolation from one another may be organized differently from the same type of organism living in a large continuous population, thus the community-level structure is influenced by population-level interactions.

What has been happening on Twitter is the phenomenon of precariousness.  Librarians en masse have identified that they have hit the threshold of circumstances that they might be able to bounce back from.

Latitude has been pushed from academic librarians losing faculty status, libraries experiencing  budget cuts,  publishers releasing more titles with rising serial prices.


Librarians who attempt to be resilient might experience resistance from administration, rejecting or making it difficult to change workflows, acquisitions, staffing.

And then, the issue of panarchy: our resilience is highly dependent on our organization, our identification, our community. APA says that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships. For librarians experiencing microaggressions, burnout, or resistance, resilience will be much less likely.

It seems counter-productive to highlight stories of resilience. We as a group should not be celebrating moments when we’ve been knocked down. I ask, rather, that ACRL ask for stories of advocacy.

When did you stand up and make a change?


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