Saturday, November 2, 2013

Peeling back the layers

It has been too long since my last post but my reasons have been good ones.  I began a doctoral program and I have been deeply buried in literature.  The results have already been life-affirming because I am developing a toolkit to help me to better understand the dissonance that I both observe and experience.  I am now ready to share some of the things that I am thinking about in the hope that others may feel inspired to examine and discuss these things as well.  This is not a research piece, it is an editorial examination in preparation for further work.  There is a body of literature that discusses issues that I will mention below but my goal, here, is to first bring some of the issues to light in anticipation of deeper analysis.

As part of my journey, I am reviewing "codes" and policies that we use in the profession of librarianship and how the use of such tools shape the ways in which we operate.  These instruments are political and powerful but are often hidden from view.   I am keenly interested in how it is that the majority of library employees (technicians, assistants, clerks, etc.) remain on the periphery of library discourse, despite the fact that they act as the "face" of libraries as front-line workers.

There is much discussion around the "de-professionalization" of librarianship and the "up-scaling" of library support staff.  This is not surprising as libraries, like many public sector institutions, are falling prey to neoliberal practices that emphasize efficiency and effectiveness as the only means in which value can be measured and rewarded. The effects of this movement are seductive.  Libraries become subject to decisions and actions that subtly undermine the philosophical frameworks that shape library services.   For example, librarians act to uphold the principle of "intellectual freedom", yet they, themselves, are not free to practice such freedoms.  The most obvious example of this would be the introduction of a code of conduct at Library and Archives Canada that instructs employees to adhere to  a "duty of loyalty" that limits their freedom to even discuss what it is they do in a workplace which "belongs" to Canadian citizenry.  However, freedoms are challenged in many other ways and in many other environments.  Interestingly, those who are subject to these conditions may not be aware of how their situations are problematic because the contexts are complex and closely tied with existing politics and power relations in the workplace. Many library workers have not had the privilege of being exposed to the theoretical frameworks that can provide some basic tools to respond to these pressures.  In addition, they are not in positions to challenge the dominant views of their library culture (views that we also perpetuate in our service to our communities).

Library culture comes with its own very interesting attributes including a class system of its own.  As librarians with master's degrees continue to move into "coordinating" and "managing" positions  and away from front-end work, the hierarchical nature of the workplace is further solidified.  In tandem with these changes come divides between the library "elite" and non-elite.  Those occupying positions in the upper echelons of the workplace are more  privy to the instruments of financial and managerial control and, additionally, exposed to a different work culture as members of decision-making teams.

The evolution of New Public Management and its neoliberal ideologies are frequently taken up as being the only rational ways in which libraries can demonstrate that they are not a "burden" on the public purse.  However, the byproduct of such an approach to management has lead to the incredible outsourcing of library work.  There are some very persuasive arguments made in favour of such practices that underscore the need to survive through fiscal restraint. Such arguments make it very challenging to insert a critique because money becomes the centre argument that trumps discourse in areas of values, theory, and, even, philosophy.

One of the effects of our present situation relates to the notion of "de-professionalization" and concern about the future of the profession and, more importantly, the future of libraries.  Through processes of fueled by managerialism and a lack of open and honest discussion about its limitations, we have been unable to reveal how the structures in our workplaces inform directions which may not be congruent with what we understand to be the "right" way to operate.  Freedom of information, for example, cannot be reduced to something as simple as providing access to a body of material in a library.  Freedom is grossly more complex, operating on various assumptions including our notions of what it means to be "free".  This is understood in the workplace when librarians struggle with voicing their concerns regarding their own practice.   For instance, it becomes difficult for librarians to disassociate themselves from their organizations in order to act independently of the brick and mortar institutions in which they are employed.  This is an important point because this hampers library professionals from offering a critique to practices in the profession.   There is no "space" for safe discourse.

What is most fascinating to me, as a researcher, is the contradictory nature of what library folk perceive as their core values and what they find themselves subjected to in their own environments.  Yet, in order to have a candid and realistic understanding of the future and the role of libraries, there is call for open discussion of this dissonance.  There is a call for less exclusionary practices that further divide the "elite" and the "practitioners".  Practitioners, of all levels, experience the seismic shifts in technology and community engagement that can inform practice.  In addition, the insertion of theoretical frameworks can help us to understand how these changes might be addressed as we move forward.  We would have something to "hang our hat on" that takes us beyond rationalization into the realm of what is right, what is needed, and what is relevant.


Stephen K said...

Neoliberal ideology is absolutely not the only way for libraries to show they are not a burden. I think we have to counter the narrative that it is.

That said, one of my favourite writers is John Ralston Saul. He has written rationalism extensively on how overrated it is, and in his book On Equilibrium, on other qualities, such as ethics and commmon sense, that could stand in its place.

Unknown said...

Thanks for taking the time for posting this, Christina. We have a real opportunity in our public sector libraries right now. We can learn from the best of management theory that has something valuable and important to say about effectiveness, efficiency, transparency, accountability, and human resource development -- but falls short when applied in real-world contexts undermined by class divisions and the need for maximizing shareholder value. By applying our professional values of openness, freedom of expression, and inclusiveness to our workplaces, along with progressive organizational development practices drawn from contemporary management theory, I believe we can do something different and important -- for ourselves, our organizations, and for our communities.

Kevin (

Wendy W. said...

Conference session, please, with plenty of open discussion at the end.

I am currently researching a related spectrum of interests, exploring how a library's organizational structure and culture determine the success of its mission to provide access to information as a means of achieving upward mobility with regards to its own staff. My views have been informed by business management, Weberian theory, and the work of George Ritzer.

I hope you will continue to share your findings with us; I am eager to read them.

pip said...

After witnessing how public libraries are run and the servile roles Techs fulfill I decided I did not want to be a library worker after all.

Unknown said...

You're definitely on to something very critical here Christina - look closely at the language being used in library management environments. As obvious as it sounds: Language carries meaning. For example are there differences between the term 'customer' versus 'citizen?' If matters default to consumeristic speak, do the terms 'access' or 'freedom of information' also change?

As for professional roles, clearly professional 'librarians' have are getting weeded out within many library environments (some were due for a change, while others have remained confused and dazed at the rate of change and have found themselves doing many other roles re community development, social media engagement, etc..). Further, library collections are now becoming largely outsourced to distribution companies and e-book suppliers and this is having serious implications for depth and breath within public library collections - meaning there is none!

The fact that you haven't received a lot of responses speaks volumes about the timidity of employees and/or their employers to share their thoughts.

All the best with it!

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