Saturday, March 26, 2016

Resiliency & the Future of Libraries: Questioning Assumptions About Library Continuing Education

It has been a long time since I last made a blog entry and it has weighed on my mind for quite some time. It is not that the ideas have not been circulating. Far from it! I have been working on my doctorate which has pulled me into a whole new realm of writing, re-writing, and more writing....

However, it is time to resume my musings here in the hopes that it inspires some conversation.

Recently, I crafted an editorial piece for a library publication discussing some issues around library education and, through that process, I came to the conclusion that in the "sea" of learning opportunities, library practitioners continue to struggle with access to educational possibilities. That is not to say that there are not a plethora of webinars, moocs, and other low-cost options that focus on skill-based outcomes. By virtue of our education, training, and professional persuasions, library practitioners are very good at sharing their skills and knowledge. My concern rests with the growing need to expose, discuss, and explore the often complicated conditions that shape our working environments. These environments are shaped by global/national/local politics, economics and social agendas that ultimately affect the shape and character of library services.

Carnegie Branch, Vancouver Public Library
Discussion around the future of libraries is something we ALL need to engage in. However, we often find ourselves running to keep up with the now. While essential, skills training and development does not build in resiliency. Continuing education for many library practitioners is reserved for the privileged. The structural barriers to deep and meaningful continuing education persist for most people in this industry, creating difficulties that affect everyone. A simple example is access to conferences. As the cost of attendance climbs and professional development budgets stagnate or disappear altogether, those in the most marginalized positions are cut out.

Ironically, many of these people work the most intimately with library members. They see, first hand, the effects of globalization, economic uncertainty and broken social systems. Their experiences are an important part of the library narrative. Often these very workers are subject to the same structural inequities of the people they serve. Precarious work, in the form of "auxillary", "on-call", and "contract" positions, ensure that many of these employees exist on the edge of the organizations they work for, often being denied access to professional development support. The irony is that these people are the future of libraries. They are part of an undeniable shift in North American labour practice that excludes workers from benefits, guaranteed livable wages, and organizational belonging. Further, they are mostly women.

Surrey Public Library: A view within the City Centre Branch
Much discussion around the future of libraries centres around libraries as institutions -- brick-and-mortar spaces. There is an eerie silence about the future of the people who work within these spaces. We must be cautious not to mistake dialogue around professional development (that is often skills-focused) for the equally important and necessary discussion around the role of library practitioners in libraries of the future.

There is a large supply of rhetoric around the future of work that includes the influence of automation, artificial intelligence, global outsourcing, climate change and more. Far from unified, much of the general professional employment literature is grounded in what employers need. Employer need, particularly in a world where "short-termism" prevails, is not the only lens that should be used to contemplate the future. Library practitioners, from all levels and job descriptions, have a very important role in developing libraries of the future. However, by virtue of their positions and power dynamics in the workplace, they are often denied the means of participating in these conversations.

As I ponder how we create space for conversation for all individuals, I recognize that, as mentioned in earlier posts, library folk often do not have the ability to speak openly about their profession. As an educator, I am also acutely aware of how costs prevent many from gaining access to forums where they can share ideas and concerns. I wonder if it is possible to take advantage of technology to develop better communication networks that allow for grassroots discussion and action. I fear that even the newly proposed Canadian Federation of Libraries is a project that fails to encompass the grassroots contributions and considerations that are so profoundly necessary in building resiliency. Perhaps it is time to organize more, low-cost, open invitation "un-conferences".

While the values of individuals may comfortably align with those of the organizations they may work for, this is not always the case.  What do we do if there is a disconnect? What can we do? What should we do?

I have worked very hard to create a certificate program for library workers that attempts to create one possibility for building empowerment. More recently, I am experimenting with place making as a "way in" to thinking creatively about our future and its relationship to human need. I believe that the ways we wrestle with our social problems are highly subjective and iterative. For me, this suggests that the plurality of our experiences is not only inescapable, it is the only way we are going to be effective in developing a robust future for ourselves as individuals and for our organizations.

This means that we need a stronger investment in the intellectual capital of library practitioners. We need to make it part of a national library agenda. An agenda that is not defined by libraries as institutions but an agenda defined by libraries as organizations of people. An agenda that incorporates skill development but is equally focused on inclusive conversations about the role of library practitioners both now and in the future.  The politics of difference will always constrain our actions but this does not negate the need for expecting and supporting thoughtful engagement.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for so clearly articulating this need to disrupt our current narrative of library work and continuing education. Our current shared/dominant understanding of organizational inclusivity and access is limited by where and how conversations, that are officially taking place within our org hierarchies and cultures, are shaping the future of libraries. There are so many unheard and dismissed perspectives. Miigwetch, Babs

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