Intellectual Freedom and the Library as a Workplace

From Library Babel Fish, June 5, 2012

One of the online communities where I lurk and occasionally shove in my oar is a listserv for writing program administrators (which, lucky for me, is inviting even to those who are no such thing). It’s a virtual water cooler where people who teach writing talk about all manner of things, from what readings might be appropriate for a literacy narrative course project (I took notes) to what kinds of researched writing assignments are most appropriate for first year writing courses (pass the popcorn!) Graduate students and TAs rub elbows with some of the most distinguished scholars in the field. It’s a nifty place, egalitarian, smart, and full of cool ideas.

One recent thread was about a perceived trend among higher education administrators to doubt that faculty will perform their jobs adequately without lots of supervision and rules. This conversation went in many directions, but one comment by Doug Downs, who teaches rhetoric and composition at Montana State University, really struck me as containing a key to many of the frustrations that bubble up in libraries. He wasn’t talking about libraries, but rather about the “two cultures” of faculty and staff/administrators.

He wrote, “one of the things I like about being faculty is ‘academic freedom,’ which more or less faculty at my institution still enjoy. To me, academic freedom includes deciding what’s important to teach, deciding the best ways of teaching it, having a near-absolute free-speech zone in my classrooms for all participants, and being able to reasonably speak my mind regarding issues related to my field, to higher education, and to culture.”

True: we grant faculty a great deal of autonomy because we think it’s really important to protect the freedom of a class a people who think (and teach others to think) for a living. We want them to be unafraid to follow an idea into dangerous territory, so we set things up so that their jobs are not in danger for saying the wrong thing or annoying powerful people outside the university. This is also something librarians defend, only we think everyone should have that freedom because it’s healthy for all citizens to be able to pursue knowledge into scary places. We call it “intellectual freedom.” It doesn’t come with job security, but it does at least mean that librarians will have your back when law enforcement comes asking about what you’ve been up to in the library.

But Doug went on to point out other ways that academics are traditionally free – free to set their own deadlines, work from home, work odd hours, choose their own priorities, negotiate departmental priorities, and even dress however they like. These are luxuries that most of the other workers at a university – or workers in general – don’t have. Even decisions as simple as when to have lunch are often not theirs to make.

People who have little freedom in their work lives are, not surprisingly, a bit irritated when faculty take these not-so-academic freedoms for granted or, even worse, as perks for being intellectual royalty. Holding a PhD has little to do with wearing jeans to work (unless, perhaps, you’re a geologist), yet the granting of academic freedom would seem to confer that privilege. (Some faculty seem to think it also confers the right to ignore deadlines, to fail to follow simple instructions on forms, or to park in designated spaces. Not cool.)

In academic libraries, we run into these cultural issues all the time. Some of it is the second-class citizenship librarians often hold, which has twisted into its DNA the issue of gender, because librarianship has always been to some extent a women’s profession. Sometimes faculty in other departments treat librarians as their handmaidens and personal assistants. Sometimes librarians avoid making decisions or confronting an issue because they don’t want to risk upsetting a powerful faculty member. (“We can’t drop that $10,000 journal that nobody reads; Dr. Touchy would have a fit.”) Sometimes library administrators make big decisions and hope nobody on the faculty notices because consulting them first might derail an initiative that seems too important to abandon, yet the expertise informing that choice is too fragile to expose to negotiation. This isn’t healthy.

Even more unhealthy is the way that relationships within the library are so often handled along a factory floor model rather than on the basis of shared governance. This is really curious, considering the work done in libraries and the values we supposedly uphold. You’d be hard put to find a library director who didn’t support vigorously the concept of intellectual freedom. But you might be a bit challenged to find a library that practices it wholeheartedly in their own organizational structure. It would seem shocking indeed in many if not most libraries to believe that all those who work there should be allowed to speak their minds and decide what work to do, based on their professional judgment – or to set their own deadlines, work from home, work odd hours, play an equal role in negotiating departmental priorities, dress however they like, or even make their own choice about when to eat lunch.

Does it take a PhD to have the expertise to make these decisions? No. Are those things uniquely pertinent to teaching scholars? Not really. Is shared governance something that only academics with PhDs can handle? Not at all. It could work in any organization that held high standards, respected its workers, and developed a culture of shared responsibility and shared vision. Libraries often talk about those things, but set working conditions differently.

Academic libraries, in spite of their tradition of defending intellectual freedom, have organizational structures that date back to early-twentieth-century bureaucracies and, when adapting to new conditions, seek inspiration from corporate management culture rather than the academic values they defend. I really can’t figure out why, other than that academics themselves have rarely made a strong case for shared governance as an effective organizational principle. Perhaps simply trying to hold their ground as it’s eroding under their feet is all they can manage. As Doug Downs pointed out, this friction between the free-wheeling faculty and the rule-bound administrators leaves the unprotected and fast-growing ranks of adjuncts in a dicey place, with a foot in faculty culture but their actual working conditions determined quite differently. Under these conditions, the triumph of “run your organization like a business” may seem inevitable and the idea of shared governance some sort of golden-age legend.

Libraries have, perhaps unwittingly, bought into the idea that managers are a special category of people who are able to see that things will get done and that those they manage cannot or would not manage their own work without direction from someone in a higher pay grade. In reality, most library work gets done quite well without oversight, but when something unexpected happens, infantilized workers are likely to think dealing with it is above their pay scale – or they may just not care, because the workplace doesn’t care about them. Why do we do that to people?

As Doug put it, “I’m allowed by my institution the freedom to create an environment that best helps me be the best scholar I can.” Wouldn’t it make sense to give library workers the freedom to do the best work they can?