You are Not a Tinker Toy: Libraries and Reorganization

Posted on November 21st, 2011 by

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). But –

. . . wait, did you hear that? What is that strange . . . cricckcricckcricckWHOOSH . . . ah yes, the sound of a can of worms being opened. I think I’d better leave that discussion for another day. It’s a doozie.

Published originally on September 27, 2011, at Inside Higher Ed


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