You Are Not a Tinker Toy

From Library Babel Fish, September 27, 2011 and October 4, 2011

When I read “Library Limbo,” a news story about library staff members being laid off the University of San Diego, I had to resist adding a comment because I needed what preschools sometimes call a “time out.” My first responses were strong, but not measured, and in stories like this there are always layers of complexity that the best journalist in the world cannot represent. Rarely are personnel decisions of any kind easy to describe, and some of the key information is usually not publicly available. Often what is described as the elimination of a position becomes suddenly not discussable because it’s a personnel matter. A personnel matter that can’t be discussed is not about a change in a position but about the performance of the person in the position, which is a different . . . hang on, I apparently need to go sit quietly in the corner for a few more minutes . . .

Okay. So let’s not talk about that particular situation at the University of San Diego because I don’t know enough about it to comment meaningfully. Instead I want to propose a few general things about libraries, change, and organizations.

If we had to hire new people in libraries because job descriptions changed, we’d be hiring an entirely new staff every six months or so. Our jobs change; that’s probably the only thing that is not going to change in libraries. The good news is that people change, too. They learn. People working in academic institutions should have faith in this principle and live by it.

If your library has inflexible job descriptions and structures that box people in, you either have a failure on your hands or an optical illusion. Quite often job descriptions and organization charts are boxy and limiting, but they don’t describe what actually happens day to day; the library functions in ad hoc ways without observing the official boundaries and constraints. If you work in a library and happen across your job description, chances are it will seem like an artifact from a time capsule, quaint and amusing. Wow, was I really doing that last year? Mostly, they don’t get looked at unless someone new is being hired, at which point, after some hilarity, they are rewritten. On the job, people figure out what needs doing and they do it.

Libraries only work if there is a lot of learning going on among the staff, and that learning needs to be supported with continuing education opportunities, both formal and informal (e.g.what I come across on Twitter and FriendFeed is a huge portion of my professional reading). It requires free time and rewards for risk-taking and growth. Given the inflexible nature of salary pools and job grades and whatever constraints obtain, the rewards are not likely to be measured in increased wages. An unfortunate feature of the way most library staff positions are structured is that there is no career path within a given role. You only move up if you move out – by taking a different job. So the rewards for growing in place have to come in a different currency: being part of an organization that is doing interesting things, feeling personally effective in your work, having the opportunity to make change.

Of course if learning is a requirement of the job and an employee refuses to do it or does it only under such duress that it’s more work than it’s worth to coax them to learn something new, that’s a significant problem. I can imagine a situation in which such a conflict becomes so intractable that the only solution is for the staff member to leave the organization. But frankly, it’s rare for things to be that bad.

Usually when there are problems, there’s something missing, something overlooked. A staff member hired to do a job many years ago really should be doing a different job but hasn’t been encouraged or even given permission to do so. People in that kind of stagnant situation are often anxious as the work they once did withers away, and that anxiety may make them insistent that the work they do is really, really important, even as the volume of the work dwindles. But given the opportunity and the right conditions, they might be perfectly able and willing to do the new work that needs doing. That’s the thing about humans: they can learn.

In fact I would argue most people who work in libraries want to learn. They know things are changing and they want to be involved in making the decisions that affect their working lives and they mostly are quite capable of being involved in those decisions. If people working in a library have utterly opposed ideas about what libraries are for, those decisions will be tricky to make jointly. But in reality most people who work in libraries don’t have wildly different definitions of what libraries are for. They only disagree about the details. And those disagreements are the stuff of working together.In fact, it’s the fun part.

If your institution needs to lay people off because there’s no money to pay their wages anymore, or someone higher up wants to allocate those wages to people in another part of the institution, that’s a shame, but so it goes. What I cannot accept is the idea that it’s perfectly all right for a library worker to be turned out of a job because the job they once did is no longer needed. When did that job stop being worth doing? Yesterday? Probably not. Who’s fault is it that a long-time employee has been suddenly discovered to be doing unnecessary work? Why has it only now been noticed and why wasn’t that person given a chance to do something more meaningful before it got to this point of no return?

HR practices may perpetuate the notion that an organization is a structure made of positions assembled like Tinker Toys, and the people in them are parts that are popped into place and, if the position changes shape, popped out so that a differently-shaped piece can be inserted. Library leadership often treats reorganization the same way, as a structure that needs to be taken apart and rebuilt in a different shape and with different pieces. In reality, library positions are not boxed sets of tasks. They are a set of interconnected and flexible responsibilities woven together to meet the library’s goals. The tasks involved in meeting those responsibilities will change constantly. And so will the people with those responsibilities – given the opportunity.

There’s another dimension of complexity here that is much more significant in libraries than in other parts of academia – the distinctions made between librarians (who may have faculty status or an administrative appointment or some kind of “academic professional” identity and who typically must have advanced degree credentials of some kind) and staff (who may be hourly employees or administrators and who do not need advanced degrees, though they may have them).

Tinker Toy Story II

What do you do if you are new to an organization that needs change but the staff doesn’t want it? It takes time and patience to change a culture, and the years it takes to nurture new attitudes could easily occupy the entire college experience of many students. Sometimes you have no responsible choice except to go with the total upheaval option. Nobody at the CAO level should let a library get to this point. Sadly, it happens – a lot.

There are administrations that have ignored the library for years but suddenly realize, often thanks to a director’s retirement, that the world has changed but their library hasn’t. They may want change right away, but without upsetting anyone. That puts a new library director hired to usher in change in an impossible position. I mulled that over at Library Journal last week, imagining a parallel universe in which a college administrator puts in a call to the Change Agency to get some help and finds out it’s not so easy to get the budget-neutral, non-controversial, instant library makeover he wants.

These conundrums will sound familiar to a lot of faculty. Many new hires find themselves in the dicey position of bringing new areas of research and new courses to a department full of near-retirement faculty who are ambivalent or even hostile to those new forms of scholarship and who feel compelled to defend their expertise by disparaging the new. It’s a miserable situation for the new kid on the block.

Technology adds another kind of competitive anxiety that may also sound familiar to faculty. Either you’re technologically adept, but feel what you do is not valued by your elders, or you’re bad at it and have a strong suspicion all those youngsters are laughing behind your back. In libraries, learning new technology is inescapable, but that doesn’t stop some librarians and library staff from trying.

So we library folk have the usual forms of friction, but there are a couple of things that make libraries different than other academic departments. First, though librarians will defend intellectual freedom to the death, they don’t seem to expect it in their own places of work. Organization charts may flatten and include more teams, but most academic libraries remain stubbornly hierarchical and much more managerial in their design than faculty relationships, which are based on apprenticeship-based confidence in and respect for one another’s expertise. Librarians new to the field who want to do things get frustrated when they find out they have to first ask the boss for permission and then have their idea worked on by a committee. For months. It’s infantilizing and frustrating – and unnecessary.

Second, a library staff has different classes of workers with different levels of pay and prestige, but with plenty of insecurity to go around. In the past there were two major categories – librarians and support staff. Over the past fifty years, there has been a blurring of roles between these categories, and that has caused friction: why does she get paid twice as much as I do when we both perform critical functions? Why is it that decisions that affect my area are made by librarians without even consulting me?

Hierarchical structures based on preserving status don’t adjust well to change. There’s little incentive to take on new roles when you have a fossilized job grade and pay scale. On the other hand, there are also jobs that once were critical to a library’s functioning that are less necessary or time-consuming now, but still exist, while new tasks – such as creating and populating digital collections or data curation – that are embraced by library leadership as a badge of innovation, but then starved of resources. People asked to take on these tasks may well wonder why there isn’t more resource reallocation, but that requires that decision-makers to do some scary things, like explaining to people who doesn’t want to hear it that the work they do is no longer as demanding or important as it once was, and they will need to do other things now. HR processes often make this difficult – like insisting that if the duties change, that job has to be advertised. That’s a great way to make people fear change: you have to learn new things. Oh, and you have to compete for your job, since your position just became a new one.

Added to the old class system is a new kind of class conflict has been introduced as PhDs are hired to do professional work in libraries. Before we had a hashtag for this kind of #alt-ac worker, James Neal called them “feral librarians.” More recently, Jeff Trzeciak, library director at McMasters University, said he would henceforth hire postdocs and IT professionals instead of librarians, a statement many librarians took as vote of no confidence in their profession; in the backlash, highly-qualified folks working in libraries without the traditional credentials felt a bit cornered and devalued. In short, there’s no shortage of umbrage to go around – trapped inside a traditional organizational structure that doesn’t have change in mind.

People who work in libraries need to become skilled at reorganizing, taking on new roles, learning new skills, and letting go of work the only way to make change is to wait for retirements – or put people out of work. I think what libraries need is shared governance. The caveat is that it needs to be shared governance that actually works.

As a colleague and I wrote in a conference paper some years ago:

The self-regulating, self-organizing, dynamic collegial model of peers working together, sharing their expertise, balancing individual curiosity with a common goal of advancing knowledge provides a rich blueprint for library organizational architecture. And it is one uniquely suited to what libraries do: sustain and enrich the ongoing conversation that creates new knowledge.

The curious thing is that many libraries already operate this way in spite of bureaucratic and unhelpful organizational structures. They simply ignore the hierarchy, find work-arounds, or create unofficial structures that work better—a marketplace of ideas that is more or less a functional black market. It is the nature of those who work in libraries to serve, to share, to innovate. Our culture is already collaborative and responsive to our users. We have nothing to lose but our chains of authority.

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