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.


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.