Notes of a Library Worker

When I tell peo­ple that I work at a library, a com­mon respon­se is to ask whether I sit around read­ing books on the job all day. Although asked jok­ing­ly, the stereo­type con­tains a ker­nel of truth and points to a real site of con­flict. I’ll term this the prob­lem of read­ing at the cir­cu­la­tion desk. At all but the busiest libraries, the work­er check­ing books in and out will have peri­ods of inac­tiv­i­ty between trans­ac­tions. It’s only nat­u­ral that she will turn to the mate­ri­als at hand – books and a com­put­er – to pass the time in the inter­vals. Man­age­ment often does not see this as a log­i­cal respon­se to the cycli­cal, uneven nature of much library work. Not only have I been for­bid­den at cer­tain libraries from read­ing at the cir­cu­la­tion desk (once with the expla­na­tion that it gave an impres­sion of lazi­ness to the pub­lic), I’ve often been made to fill the spare moments with menial tasks as banal as high­light­ing the library’s web address on due date slips. The same con­flict occurs across the divi­sion of labor, not only at pub­lic ser­vice points. Cer­tain­ly this “time to lean, time to clean” men­tal­i­ty of enforced pro­duc­tiv­i­ty is not unique to libraries, but it takes a pecu­liar form here, where the means of pro­duc­tion, so to speak, are things of edi­fi­ca­tion and plea­sure.

I would char­ac­ter­ize this mate­ri­al con­flict between library work­ers and man­age­ment over read­ing books and news­pa­pers, using the inter­net, etc. dur­ing work­ing hours as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of an alien­ation inher­ent to the work. An asym­me­try exists between library users and work­ers. Library users, those who access and enjoy library resources, are not library work­ers, but library work­ers are always poten­tial­ly and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly library users. Man­age­ment dis­ci­pline cleaves this poten­tial coin­ci­dence, at least dur­ing waged time. An area of antag­o­nism opens every time a library work­er attempts to access the uses and plea­sures of the library in the same way as users. Where dis­ci­pline pre­vails, which is near­ly every­where, the fore­clo­sure of use alien­ates the library work­er from the mate­ri­als they han­dle, work up, and could poten­tial­ly also enjoy. Cre­ative, crit­i­cal, and leisure mate­ri­als are reduced to mere things to be tracked, trans­port­ed, and altered accord­ing to the dic­tates and stan­dards of some­one else. Encoun­ters with oth­ers are like­wise ratio­nal­ized and reduced to ref­er­ence inter­views, cir­cu­la­tion trans­ac­tions, lend­ing requests, pol­i­cy enforce­ment.

Beneath the veneer of lit­er­a­cy and knowl­edge, the library is a site of work, and there­fore of strug­gle.

library

Unity and Diversity of Library Work

To write of the “library work­er” runs the risk of col­laps­ing the extreme vari­ety of labor per­formed in the­se insti­tu­tions. First, there are a vari­ety of types of libraries – typ­i­cal­ly sub­di­vid­ed as pub­lic, school, aca­d­e­mic, or “spe­cial” libraries – that serve dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions and have vast­ly dif­fer­ent types of hold­ings. Sec­ond, each library itself has a divi­sion of labor, often com­plex and high­ly var­ie­gat­ed. The gap between a page in an under­fund­ed urban pub­lic library and an archivist at an elite research library may be such that their expe­ri­ences are mutu­al­ly unin­tel­li­gi­ble. Despite this het­ero­gene­ity, I believe that the cat­e­go­ry of the library work­er, as opposed to, say, the library page, cat­a­loguer, or children’s librar­i­an, is use­ful. It empha­sizes the shared work­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the library, insti­tu­tions which, despite their vari­ety, have coher­ence in the social imag­i­na­tion. Addi­tion­al­ly, despite the many dif­fer­ing ways we may work with it (lit­er­al­ly han­dling it, describ­ing it in meta­data, inter­pret­ing and trans­mit­ting it to users, etc.), infor­ma­tion is the com­mon mate­ri­al library work­ers meet at the work site, how­ev­er oblique­ly. To illus­trate this vari­ety and com­mon­al­i­ty, I’ll describe two very dif­fer­ent libraries I’ve worked in.

A small neigh­bor­hood branch in a large urban pub­lic library sys­tem. Sev­en employ­ees, four full-time and three part-time, staff a sin­gle desk, where the usu­al­ly sep­a­rat­ed func­tions of cir­cu­la­tion, ref­er­ence, com­put­er lab help, and children’s area are con­sol­i­dat­ed at a sin­gle point of con­tact with users. Although all staff per­form the­se func­tions while staffing the desk, there’s a huge gap between the wages and ben­e­fits of part-time work­ers, mak­ing just above min­i­mum wage with no ben­e­fits, and full-timers. Yet aside from some spe­cial­ized tasks, rel­a­tive­ly high and low-paid work­ers per­form the bulk of library duties inter­change­ably, regard­less of how much for­mal train­ing (in library school or the dis­trict head­quar­ters) they’ve received. On week­ends and evenings, a sin­gle employ­ee may oper­ate the entire branch for peri­ods of time. The dis­tance from sys­tem head­quar­ters and small size makes for infor­mal and famil­ial rela­tions that mask the hier­ar­chy of wages. The mod­est foot­print of the library cre­ates a ratio of pub­lic to “pri­vate” work space of about ten to one. In effect, there’s no place to hide from users. Being open to the pub­lic at large brings to bear on the branch’s work­ers a large and fre­quent­ly sur­pris­ing num­ber of requests for assis­tance, often beyond the tra­di­tion­al scope of the library. Cir­cu­lat­ing books and videos, assist­ing with com­put­er pro­grams, and field­ing stu­dent ref­er­ence ques­tions are the bulk of it, but not uncom­mon are solic­i­ta­tions for med­ical advice, pleas for wel­fare resources, and more del­i­cate inter­ac­tions with the men­tal­ly ill, senile elder­ly, and row­dy teens. We are proxy social work­ers, rela­tion­ship coun­selors, secu­ri­ty offi­cers, and teach­ers, but often fum­ble through the­se roles given the lack of for­mal train­ing. The social val­ue of our efforts is of course not reflect­ed in our pay­checks. Main­te­nance and order­ing of mate­ri­als round out the work load, although clean­ing the branch is left to house­keep­ers who come in overnight. The sur­round­ing area is afflu­ent enough that the branch is not staffed with a secu­ri­ty guard.

Sev­er­al years lat­er, at a cubi­cle in the main library of a large research uni­ver­si­ty. The build­ing, itself divid­ed into dozens of small­er depart­ments, spe­cial col­lec­tions, and insti­tu­tions, is one of sev­er­al libraries spread across cam­pus. Hun­dreds of employ­ees work for the library, per­form­ing spe­cial­ized tasks in a divi­sion of labor only intel­li­gi­ble by com­plex orga­ni­za­tion­al charts. A small army of stu­dent work­ers sup­ple­ment the more menial work flows at very low wages. In addi­tion to those of us who direct­ly oper­ate the library are aux­il­iary work­ers – secu­ri­ty guards, jan­i­tors, and food ser­vice work­ers in the library café. The divi­sion of labor is extreme. An indi­vid­u­al worker’s tasks may be as rote and repet­i­tive as shelv­ing or mark­ing books all day, or as stim­u­lat­ing and cre­ative as devel­op­ing dig­i­tal archives or assist­ing schol­ars with price­less rare books. A cat­a­loguer may work for decades with­out encoun­ter­ing a library user, while a ref­er­ence or instruc­tion­al librarian’s job is premised upon inter­act­ing with them. The size and com­plex­i­ty of the library neces­si­tates a thick admin­is­tra­tive lay­er. Work­ers may form friend­ships with­in and across work units, but the con­vo­lu­tion of the work­place resists coher­ent col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty and self-orga­ni­za­tion. End­less pro­pos­als to improve “work cul­ture” and orga­nize staff social events are symp­to­matic of this con­di­tion. A much larg­er per­cent­age of the library’s foot­print is non-pub­lic – hous­ing spe­cial col­lec­tions, tech­ni­cal depart­ments, offices – and the divi­sion between those who work in pub­lic and pri­vate areas is reg­is­tered in both stress and pres­tige. In this anti-union South­ern uni­ver­si­ty, wages are gen­er­al­ly low, although they can vary wild­ly, with librar­i­ans, depart­ment heads and those attached to spe­cial projects with rich fund­ing streams tak­ing home far more than most staff, espe­cial­ly aux­il­iary work­ers who toil near min­i­mum wages.

The­se two expe­ri­ences illus­trate the vari­ety of forms library work takes, and they are only a lim­it­ed sam­ple. A more for­mal clas­si­fi­ca­tion would dis­tin­guish not only between types of tasks, but also con­sid­er the edu­ca­tion­al and cul­tur­al deter­mi­nants of work­place hier­ar­chies. An impor­tant ini­tial dis­tinc­tion is between librar­i­ans, who typ­i­cal­ly have sev­er­al years of spe­cial­ized grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion, and all oth­er library work­ers. Librar­i­ans gen­er­al­ly enjoy high­er salaries and greater auton­o­my and pres­tige, and more poten­tial for advance­ment into admin­is­tra­tive ranks. (Although it’s worth not­ing that, due to a glut of library school grad­u­ates, many work­ers with library sci­ence grad­u­ate degrees labor in non-librar­i­an posi­tions.) Less restrict­ed by bur­den­some edu­ca­tion­al and cul­tur­al pre­req­ui­sites, non-librar­i­an work­ers are more het­ero­ge­neous racial­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly. Although many of the­se posi­tions (often ter­med “para­pro­fes­sion­al”) bring home decent pay, at the low­er end they approach min­i­mum wages (an acquain­tance who worked at a pub­lic library in New York City had many co-work­ers who received food stamps and Sec­tion 8 hous­ing vouch­ers). Para­pro­fes­sion­als are exclud­ed from library pro­fes­sion­al asso­ci­a­tions and tenure pro­tec­tions at aca­d­e­mic libraries.

Spatial and Functional Division of Labor

The intro­duc­tion of new tech­nolo­gies into libraries con­tin­u­al­ly scram­bles the divi­sion of activ­i­ty. Nev­er­the­less, a gen­er­al typol­o­gy of labor can be out­lined. Least vis­i­ble to the aver­age library user is a stra­tum of spe­cial­ized pro­fes­sion­al and tech­ni­cal activ­i­ties, per­formed by work­ers often teth­ered to com­put­ers in cubi­cles and offices. Acquir­ing and clas­si­fy­ing mate­ri­als, assist­ing admin­is­tra­tive plan­ning, main­tain­ing cat­a­logues and library sys­tems, dig­i­tiz­ing print mate­ri­al, and main­tain­ing spe­cial col­lec­tions all fall into this cat­e­go­ry. More vis­i­ble are ref­er­ence and instruc­tion­al work­ers, usu­al­ly but not always librar­i­ans, who assist users in find­ing and inter­pret­ing infor­ma­tion, fre­quent­ly now in the form of nav­i­gat­ing the inter­net. Those who per­form pub­lic ser­vice, cler­i­cal, and man­u­al labor are far less like­ly to have the sta­tus of librar­i­an.  The­se work­ers han­dle and cir­cu­late the phys­i­cal resources not yet ren­dered obso­lete by dig­i­ti­za­tion. As the “front line” of the library, they often must per­form “extra-library” respon­si­bil­i­ties librar­i­ans are rarely called upon to face. Final­ly, labor in aux­il­iary sites and func­tions con­nect­ed to the library but not “of” it: secu­ri­ty guards, baris­tas in library cof­fee shops, gift store clerks, jan­i­tors, etc. The­se types of activ­i­ty are dis­crete nei­ther in the­o­ry nor prac­tice; a sin­gle work­er may tra­verse sev­er­al areas, and dif­fer­ent units of work­ers, per­haps sep­a­rat­ed by con­ti­nents, may con­tribute to the same process.

Being on the front lines, ie in pub­lic ser­vice areas of a library, adds stress to the job in two ways. Like oth­er ser­vice work­ers under the thumb of con­tem­po­rary man­age­ment prac­tices, work­ers in pub­lic areas of the library are sub­ject­ed to unre­al­is­tic demands that go by euphemisms like “ser­vice excel­lence” or “ser­vice ori­en­ta­tion.” This impor­ta­tion of busi­ness ide­ol­o­gy may vary in its impact on day-to-day expe­ri­ences, but it nev­er­the­less legit­i­mates increased sur­veil­lance and dis­ci­pline. The per­son­al­i­ty of the work­er who deals with the pub­lic is up for scruti­ny to a high­er degree than that of a cubi­cle-bound library work­er.

The same cir­cu­la­tion and ref­er­ence work­ers also labor in a less pre­dictable, often more stress­ful envi­ron­ment. With the defund­ing of social ser­vices, the library is one of the few open-door providers of resources left to the pub­lic. Library work­ers are well equipped to han­dle requests for infor­ma­tion, includ­ing pro­vid­ing access to com­put­ers for job and wel­fare appli­ca­tions. They are nei­ther trained nor pre­pared to be the proxy social work­ers they become by default. Pub­lic libraries in par­tic­u­lar can wind up serv­ing as day shel­ters for the home­less, and after-school child­care. Although aca­d­e­mic libraries can read­i­ly restrict access, pub­lic libraries, for prac­ti­cal and polit­i­cal rea­sons, can­not. The polic­ing of “legit­i­mate” ver­sus “ille­git­i­mate” library uses devolves to front­line work­ers and secu­ri­ty guards. The­se rules can turn on absurd dis­tinc­tions. Home­less peo­ple may sit at library tables as long as they like, but only if they stay awake with a book or paper open in front of them. They may bring in one bag but not two. Teenagers may not use the library before the end of the school day. Chil­dren must be accom­pa­nied by an adult, but old­er sib­lings don’t count. Poli­cies vary from library to library, but every­where the enforce­ment of arbi­trary rules inevitably leads to con­flict between library work­ers and library users. Nat­u­ral­ly many work­ers resent hav­ing to per­form the func­tions of day­care work­ers and police offi­cers on top of library tasks. A cyn­i­cal divi­sion opens up between often under­paid library work­ers and those sim­ply in search of shel­ter, heat, air-con­di­tion­ing, or bath­rooms. This cyn­i­cism feeds back into the log­ic of aus­ter­i­ty that has elim­i­nat­ed social ser­vices in the first place, ren­der­ing the library yet anoth­er patho­log­i­cal pub­lic site of unde­sir­ables.

Cer­tain­ly not all inter­ac­tion between library work­ers and users is neg­a­tive. Indeed, the oppor­tu­ni­ty to serve the pub­lic in a non-com­mer­cial­ized space can be a source of sol­i­dar­i­ty and joy. Shared expe­ri­ences of frus­tra­tion and grat­i­fi­ca­tion among front­line work­ers can exac­er­bate anoth­er divi­sion with­in the ranks of library work­ers. At a large pub­lic library I worked at, it was expressed as an upstairs/downstairs divi­sion, with all the con­no­ta­tions of an Edwar­dian estate. The first floor housed the cir­cu­la­tion, chil­dren, and young adult depart­ments, in addi­tion to a secu­ri­ty stand and gift shop; upstairs were the admin­is­tra­tive suite, librar­i­an offices, and spe­cial col­lec­tions. Pol­i­cy changes sent down from above were met with skep­ti­cism and often ignored, “upstairs” being short­hand for aloof igno­rance. The phys­i­cal and cul­tur­al dis­tance between floors allowed for a degree of “coun­ter-plan­ning” on the cir­cu­la­tion floor.

A third labor/spatial divi­sion in addi­tion to pub­lic and pri­vate in libraries is that of com­mer­cial­ized space and ser­vice work. It has become a com­mon prac­tice for new and ren­o­vat­ed libraries to include cafes and gift shops in promi­nent loca­tions. Not only do the­se spa­tial con­ver­sions bring com­mer­cial trans­ac­tions into what are typ­i­cal­ly non-com­mer­cial insti­tu­tions, they also lit­er­al­ly bring food ser­vice and retail work­ers into the library, side by side with tra­di­tion­al library work­ers. The­se new­com­ers should be, but are most often not, con­sid­ered library work­ers prop­er. The dif­fer­ence between check­ing out a book and ring­ing up a muffin is scant, and the polic­ing per­formed by a library assis­tant and a secu­ri­ty guard main­ly a mat­ter of degree. Yet the­se ser­vice work­ers are often delib­er­ate­ly sep­a­rat­ed from library work­ers prop­er. Out­sourcing café labor to food ser­vice con­trac­tors, or rely­ing on vol­un­teers to staff a gift store erects a wage and orga­ni­za­tion­al fire­wall between work­ers. Uni­forms and irreg­u­lar sched­ul­ing rein­force this arti­fi­cial divi­sion. Faced with either a rear­guard strug­gle again­st library com­mer­cial­iza­tion or a pro­gres­sive strug­gle to uni­fy all work­ers with­in the library’s walls, library work­ers’ orga­ni­za­tions have cho­sen nei­ther.

Automation and Instability

The dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed labor and rewards of librar­i­ans, para­pro­fes­sion­als, and aux­il­iary work­ers are not sta­ble. Deskilling and out­sourcing touch each area, con­form­ing to at-large trends: aside from some high­ly spe­cial­ized func­tions, library work­ers find their activ­i­ty more and more inter­change­able, poten­tial­ly and actu­al­ly, with mass­es of oth­er work­ers, or replaced out­right by machi­nes. Com­put­er automa­tion, begin­ning in the 1970s, and dig­i­ti­za­tion of print and video resources begin­ning in the 1990s have weak­ened the library’s monopoly on infor­ma­tion pro­vi­sion and brought many library tasks into con­for­mi­ty with prac­tices com­mon across sec­tors. Book cir­cu­la­tion artic­u­lat­ed through com­put­er ter­mi­nals, bar­codes, and data­bas­es varies lit­tle from the labor of a gro­cery store cashier. Pages repli­cate the rote man­u­al labor of retail stock­ers or Ama­zon ware­house order pullers. Cat­a­loging and ref­er­ence work finds res­o­nance in IT and call cen­ter work, respec­tive­ly. In my expe­ri­ence, this process of automa­tion was felt most pow­er­ful­ly in the past fif­teen years as a turn from mate­ri­al and inter­per­son­al inter­ac­tions to a mere “mind­ing of the machi­nes.” Facil­i­tat­ing access to the inter­net and dig­i­tal resources – whether dig­i­tal audio­book files for tech-savvy sub­ur­ban­ites or online job appli­ca­tions for the work­ing poor – is now the pri­ma­ry, or even sole activ­i­ty at many libraries. For the work­ers here, mon­i­tor­ing banks of com­put­ers and self-check­out ter­mi­nals has replaced the sen­su­al and intel­lec­tu­al activ­i­ty of libraries past.

Out­sourcing fur­ther threat­ens the sta­bil­i­ty and secu­ri­ty of library work­ers. Exter­nal out­sourcing is not lim­it­ed to the sub­con­tract­ing of secu­ri­ty and food ser­vice labor pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned, but extends to high­ly skilled and spe­cial­ized library work such as cat­a­loging. Entire pub­lic library sys­tems have even been pri­va­tized by local gov­ern­ments and hand­ed over to com­pa­nies with the same raider men­tal­i­ty and zest for labor sup­pres­sion as char­ter school oper­a­tors. Inter­nal­ly, much work is out­sourced to vol­un­teers and extreme­ly low paid part-time high school and col­lege stu­dents (often work-study arrange­ments). This low-wage or unpaid labor is often poor­ly done, cre­at­ing more unac­knowl­edged work for reg­u­lar staff.

Although many forms of library work remain unchanged or only slight­ly mod­i­fied, library work­ers, like work­ers in gen­er­al, face a sit­u­a­tion of tech­no­log­i­cal flux and increased pre­car­i­ty. Our inse­cu­ri­ty is com­pound­ed by an ide­o­log­i­cal call­ing into ques­tion of the very exis­tence of libraries.

Wages, Organization, Competition

As dis­cussed above, library work­ers range from librar­i­ans with solid­ly “mid­dle class” wages and social pres­tige to inter­change­able temps mak­ing min­i­mum wage. Wages, work­ing con­di­tions, ben­e­fits, and job secu­ri­ty vary wide­ly. Gen­er­al­ly, high­er wages cor­re­late to high­er union den­si­ty. In my own wage his­to­ry, I made $14,000 a year more work­ing rough­ly the same job in the North­east than in the anti-union South. When libraries are union­ized, affil­i­a­tion and con­fig­u­ra­tion of the union can vary. Often a library is but one work­site in a larg­er local rep­re­sent­ing a munic­i­pal work­force, col­lege, or uni­ver­si­ty. Libraries with unusu­al­ly large work­forces may con­sti­tute their own local. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, the union is just as like­ly to rein­force divi­sion as it is to build sol­i­dar­i­ty across the divi­sion of labor. Dif­fer­ent unions may rep­re­sent librar­i­ans and para­pro­fes­sion­als, or may ignore some library work­ers like house­keep­ing or secu­ri­ty alto­geth­er. Even with­in the same local, dif­fer­ent bar­gain­ing units may nego­ti­ate at cross-pur­pos­es or accept gross­ly unequal wage and ben­e­fit struc­tures. It’s obvi­ous­ly dif­fi­cult to gen­er­al­ize the expe­ri­ences of library work­ers in their unions, but suf­fice it to say, as in the labor move­ment at large, union rep­re­sen­ta­tion does not nec­es­sar­i­ly cor­re­late with mil­i­tan­cy or an orga­niz­ing hori­zon beyond wage and work­ing con­di­tion demands.

How do library work­ers relate to their unions? As tru­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive bod­ies? Anoth­er lay­er of bureau­cra­cy? A remote abstrac­tion, only thought of when fil­ing a griev­ance or prepar­ing to strike? In lieu of an objec­tive sur­vey, I’ll describe sev­er­al sit­u­a­tions I expe­ri­enced, or that my friends expe­ri­enced, in union­ized libraries in the urban labor strong­holds of the North­east, where I live.

Sev­er­al acquain­tances have worked in major cities for very large pub­lic library sys­tems, where thou­sands of employ­ees are grouped into even larg­er munic­i­pal unions rep­re­sent­ing both white- and blue-col­lar work­ers at hun­dreds of oth­er non-library sites. The sheer size and com­plex­i­ty of the orga­ni­za­tions ren­der them remote, and the enor­mous dis­trict coun­cils are per­ceived to be absorbed in munic­i­pal pow­er pol­i­tics as much as or more than they are in rank-and-file expe­ri­ences. In one case, library employ­ees at a near­by com­mu­ni­ty col­lege are rep­re­sent­ed by a local small­er in scale, but like­wise con­vo­lut­ed by diver­si­ty of mem­ber­ship. Affil­i­at­ed with a nation­al teacher’s fed­er­a­tion, this union includes near­ly all of the college’s employ­ees, from tenured fac­ul­ty down to groundskeep­ers. Although this inclu­sive­ness strength­ens bar­gain­ing pow­er, it tends to mar­gin­al­ize work units that are dwarfed by the larg­er blocs of instruc­tors and office staff – such as the library. As a result, library work­ers’ rela­tion­ships to the union are ambigu­ous, and large­ly col­ored by indi­vid­u­al expe­ri­ences on the pick­et line or in griev­ance process­es, or for some younger work­ers, their polit­i­cal con­vic­tions. Final­ly, an aca­d­e­mic library with its own free­stand­ing union local, rep­re­sent­ing and account­able sole­ly to the con­cerns of library staff. Par­tic­i­pa­tion and atten­tive­ness to lead­er­ship activ­i­ty are far high­er here than in the pre­vi­ous exam­ples, obvi­ous­ly stem­ming from a small­er scale that flat­tens dis­tances between the rank and file, stew­ards, and lead­er­ship, and responds with greater focus to the speci­fici­ties of library labor.

Even at the entry lev­el, library jobs are com­pet­i­tive. This was the case even before the 2008 cri­sis, and has been exac­er­bat­ed since as aus­ter­i­ty forces cuts and clo­sures. Like the edu­ca­tion and non­prof­it sec­tors, libraries promise a lim­it­ed refuge from the bar­barism of the mar­ket­place. An aura of lit­er­a­cy, cul­ture, and democ­ra­cy draws many, and can com­pel work­ers to accept low­er wages than they might make in the pri­vate sec­tor. Many refugees from relat­ed pro­fes­sions (teach­ing, social work, IT) vie for jobs, as do lib­er­al arts grad­u­ates lack­ing pro­fes­sion­al qual­i­fi­ca­tions. In a trend cer­tain­ly not unique to libraries, there is a marked gen­er­a­tional dif­fer­ence between the class back­ground and edu­ca­tion­al lev­els of old­er and younger work­ers, as many new­er work­ers enter menial para­pro­fes­sion­al jobs hold­ing under­grad­u­ate or even grad­u­ate degrees.

An over­abun­dance of aspir­ing librar­i­ans is pro­duced by a grad­u­ate school indus­try issu­ing more degrees (Mas­ter of Library and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, or MLIS) than avail­able jobs. This glut is artic­u­lat­ed with a man­age­ment strat­e­gy of flex­i­bi­liza­tion and casu­al­iza­tion that replaces a sin­gle full-time librar­i­an with sev­er­al part-timers, or con­tracts librar­i­ans by the semes­ter or project. How to dis­tin­guish one­self from the  des­per­ate ranks of the librar­i­an reserve army? Unfor­tu­nate­ly, a com­mon approach seems to be to adopt the au courant man­age­ment rhetoric and style of inno­va­tion, entre­pre­neuri­al­ism, and com­pe­ti­tion. The image of the young, hip, tech-savvy librar­i­an is immense­ly appeal­ing to admin­is­tra­tors eager to demon­strate the con­tin­u­ing rel­e­vance of their insti­tu­tions. Flu­en­cy with social media, apps, and the like, although of debat­able rel­e­vance to libraries, plays well in the envi­ron­ment of tech­no­log­i­cal fetishism that exists across the man­age­ri­al class. Those of us on the side­li­nes of this con­ver­gence of hip inno­va­tion and neolib­er­al man­age­ment watch help­less­ly as book stacks are con­vert­ed to “dig­i­tal com­mons” resem­bling an Apple store, and fund­ing is divert­ed from keep­ing neigh­bor­hood branch­es open to social media cam­paigns and app devel­op­ment.

Twilight of the Library Worker?

With its con­no­ta­tions of lit­er­a­cy, democ­ra­cy, knowl­edge, pub­lic ser­vice, and free speech, the library con­tin­ues to enjoy con­sid­er­able pres­tige and sup­port. With­out the­se ide­o­log­i­cal and affec­tive invest­ments, the library may not have sur­vived the decline of the wel­fare state and neolib­er­al­iza­tion of the acad­e­my. The future of libraries and library work­ers is threat­ened by the con­ver­gence of two pres­sures. The­se pres­sures are typ­i­cal­ly seen as align­ing with con­ser­v­a­tive forces on the one hand, and pro­gres­sive on the oth­er, leav­ing work­ers with­out a clear polit­i­cal direc­tion of activ­i­ty.

From the Right comes the neolib­er­al aus­ter­i­ty demand that pub­lic ser­vices jus­ti­fy their fund­ing based sole­ly on mar­ket cri­te­ria. This pres­sure is exert­ed not only on pub­lic libraries and schools, but is felt in pub­licly-fund­ed aca­d­e­mic libraries and archives as well. Even pri­vate insti­tu­tions, which have seen their endow­ments dev­as­tat­ed in the 2008 cri­sis, are wring­ing their libraries for sav­ings. Although library clo­sures and lay­offs are con­sid­er­able, as impor­tant as the dry­ing up of fund­ing is the closer mon­i­tor­ing of library oper­a­tions and a fun­da­men­tal shift in atti­tude, demot­ing libraries from their sta­tus as com­mu­ni­ty neces­si­ties to lux­u­ries. Even if min­i­mal fund­ing streams keep doors open, work­ers’ pay and ben­e­fits are sub­ject­ed to greater scruti­ny. Right-wing and cen­trist politi­cians join with main­stream media to beat the drum of fis­cal dis­ci­pline in the form of work­er take-backs, wage freezes, increased pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, and ben­e­fit reduc­tions.

From “pro­gres­sive” quar­ters the ques­tion­ing of libraries takes the form of a tech­no-utopi­anism demand­ing free and open access to infor­ma­tion. From this ide­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, tra­di­tion­al libraries are out­dat­ed imped­i­ments to flows of infor­ma­tion, library work­ers the unjus­ti­fied gate­keep­ers of resources that want to be freely shared. The pow­er of this world­view is evi­denced by libraries’ uncrit­i­cal embrace of automat­ing sys­tems and com­mer­cial­ized dig­i­tal cul­ture under the guise of pro­gress and free­dom. Many aca­d­e­mic and even pub­lic libraries scram­ble to take their place as the quaint hand­maid­ens of Google, Apple, and Face­book, pos­si­bly ren­der­ing them­selves obso­lete in the process. Again, this pres­sure may not shut­ter library doors, but it con­tributes to work­er deskilling and the con­ver­sion of libraries into vast com­put­er labs and library work­ers into machine-min­ders.

For work­ers with more auton­o­my, espe­cial­ly librar­i­ans, access to pro­fes­sion­al and edu­ca­tion­al resources (such as train­ing in IT and “entre­pre­neuri­al” knowl­edge) may facil­i­tate the adap­ta­tion to the­se ide­o­log­i­cal and mate­ri­al pres­sures. Pow­er­ful pro­fes­sion­al orga­ni­za­tions and nation­al accred­it­ing boards are one bul­wark again­st library dis­man­tling, but ulti­mate­ly are them­selves sus­cep­ti­ble to the same pres­sures. Rank-and-file tech­ni­cal and ser­vice work­ers sim­ply wait for the ham­mer to fall. The eas­i­est respon­se is to close ranks with the man­age­ri­al and admin­is­tra­tive class in a joint defense of the library. The­se cam­paigns typ­i­cal­ly appeal to both the clas­si­cal val­ues of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy and con­tem­po­rary mar­ket val­ues, where libraries are rebrand­ed as incu­ba­tors of inno­va­tion. By col­lab­o­rat­ing in this way, library work­ers lose what­ev­er autonomous per­spec­tive they may have had, implic­it­ly accept­ing the hier­ar­chies of the work­place in a bid to sur­vive. Where and how an autonomous view­point might devel­op into an alter­na­tive polit­i­cal pro­gram, one that both defends the mate­ri­al inter­ests of library work­ers and devel­ops the lib­er­a­to­ry poten­tial of the library, is beyond the scope of the­se notes.


Image thanks to Thomas Guig­nard.

Author of the article

works in the education sector in Philadelphia.