Tinker Toy Story II

Posted on November 21st, 2011 by

Last week, I riffed on a controversy over a library organization restructuring that led to new positions being created, old positions being eliminated, and a handful of long-time library staff members being out of a job. Since I don’t know the details of that particular library, I made some general remarks about the need for library organizations to be designed for change and toward that end, to treat staff as professionals who can and do learn rather than as parts that are discarded and replaced when the library needs new skills.

There were a lot of interesting comments on that post, and I’ve been thinking about them ever since. My argument did not address a common situation: what do you do if you are new to an organization that needs change but the staff don’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 position.

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, selforganizing, 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.

Published originally on October 4, 2011, at Inside Higher Ed.

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