Sunday, May 15, 2016

The 21st Century Library Worker: Post-Conference Reflections & Musings

Having spent many years teaching prospective library technicians, I have wrestled with the issues of power, gender, and inequity that I have seen operate within the library field and my responsibility to address these issues in a jam-packed undergraduate program. I often felt alone in my struggles to confront these issues. Certainly, there are not many who teach in library undergraduate programs amd fewer who view that role as being responsible in exposing problematic social library-centric practices.

On May 13th, at our provincial conference, (BC Library Conference 2016: Disrupt  and Transform), our final keynote,
 Harsha Walia, blew open the doors on the politics of gendered labour. Some attendees described the experience as 'uncomfortable', 'political' and 'powerful'. Should the library community act on this, it may be an important moment in our profession. By exposing the normalization of inequity and confronting the political sphere that libraries occupy, we might actually be able to cut a new path in the pushback against the marketization of the public sphere. While the task is enormous, the simple act of just talking openly about our own workplace inequities carves out a new and exciting (if not challenging) space in the discourse of librarianship. I was greatly encouraged by the response of the audience and I am heartened by their interest in this area.

Below is a summary of my own presentation around the future of library education and library work.There is some interesting overlap of ideas with Harsha's presententation (validating for me, certainly). I have edited my original to present a better flow.

In recent years, I have been studying the role of higher education and labour, and their intersections in the library field. I see two significant events that are defining our workplace experiences and educational needs:

1. Technology changes demands for skills

2. Shifts in what it means to be a “waged” worker 

We have to think about our roles within the context of a "technologically-mediated world" and this means that the "waged labourer" is changing. Technology is the ultimate driver of this monumental shift. We are no longer making things or,  even, moving them around. Rather, we are creating 'cultural' products (eg. Fashion, design, music, content services, podcasting, illustrating and much more). It is our collective creativity, our feeling, our cognition that is our labour. Labour that is not material, labour that is not 'muscle power'.

Increasingly, the division of work and leisure is no longer cleanly divided. What we do frequently becomes entangled in our subjectivity of who we are. Most significantly, this is becoming a norm in how we perform work. 

“The worker is to be responsible for his or her own control and motivation within the work group without a foreman needing to intervene, and the foreman's role is redefined into that of a facilitator.” 

While some of us, by virtue of our personal disposition and professional roles cannot separate our labour (our work) from our personal lives, even those who may not be treated (monetarily) as “professionals” find themselves always working - always thinking about problems and solutions.  Our work has become inextricably linked to who we are.  This is very powerful because it fuses our work with our identities in ways that we, as subjects (our consciousness, our being) self-regulate.  For example, a supervisor or boss may not instruct you to “go home and think about how you can link TOR with your latest service model” but, as you are walking the dog after dinner, this is exactly what you do. It may mean you perform some research after your walk or write a blog post about the benefits of TOR. This might be an enjoyable problem to chew on but it also means that you may not be thinking about the next novel you want to read. Further this immaterial work that you are not directly compensated for is part of what society is becoming increasingly and economically dependent upon.

The discussion of immaterial labour, informed by  technological development, is important to preface any discussion about education, skills, and competencies because these are informed by the complex social processes that shape our everyday experiences. In other words, to understand what skills and education library workers will need in the future, it is necessary to recognize the broader societal shifts that shape what it means to paid worker in the 21st century.

Libraries Re-imagined

Inevitably, libraries are being reshaped as part of technological disruption. This disruption is inextricably linked to changes in ideologies like a shift from the welfare state to free market capitalism and, since the Thatcher–Reagan era, neoliberalism.

Neoliberal ideology (social practices and ideas that restructure institutions towards capitalistic interests), infiltrates the public sphere, changing libraries to be another aspect of the marketplace. For example, consider how some public library systems have converted their "Chief Librarian" positions to "CEO" or how library patrons have been converted to "customers". These shifts in language carry very powerful meaning that shape the ways we perform our practice. This, in turn, has an affect on the ways in which library spaces are conceived and shaped, generating possible tensions in what libraries are and what they should be.

Siobhan Stevenson (2016) describes the library as a “space where people can "critically engage with the issues of the day in a way that is separate from the market and the state" (p. 195).

However, our notions of what it means to be a “citizen” in a community are also being redefined. Citizens/members of our democratic society are increasingly seen as consumers and customers and part of “markets”. Our community members (and ourselves) are made responsible for our education, development, upward mobility, etc.  It is convenient, in free market capitalism, to make individuals ultimately responsible for their own self improvement. The costs and responsibility of being a good worker move from a collective responsibility to an individual one. Yet, as many of us will attest, there are profound structural barriers that can limit how we access education and training including time off from work and financial support. Not only, then, is library work changing, so too are its service aims.  Thus, the library is being re-imagined and re-invented as mixed use spaces that are looking less and less like "libraries" of the past.  

Since many of us were educated in a time when library work was focused on the handling of materials as part of a collections focus, the changing nature of libraries has significant implications for those who use then and for those who work in them. As mixed spaces increasingly focused on service provision, we have to ask what will those working in libraries look like going forward and what is to become of those who work in them now? This prompts questions about the profession, more generally.

A question I wrestle with as an educator, is who should be attracted/recruited to this profession? I am hoping for some insights in my current research that is studying how stereotypes of librarians in popular culture is a way in which people are “educated” about the role of librarians and what it means to perform "women’s work". Because these stereotypes remain incredibly prevalent and are most often generated by those outside of the field, I hope to understand how discourses of femininity In popular media in 2016, the stereotypes are not designed by “us” and they persist. One of my guiding research questions is: "How are representations of librarians contested and socially produced as a cultural struggle for professional recognition?"

Policies, shaped by government are an integral and highly political element in the struggle over how we talk and think about our field and our workplaces. Libraries, as cultural and public institutions are influenced by government policies by reproducing them and shaping their own to mirror government expectations. At times, library workers also find ways to "push back" and subvert efforts to move libraries in problematic directions. Doing so, requires tenacity, courage and knowledge. 

When we develop job descriptions and roles, we make assumptions about what kinds of people best serve those positions, including the kinds of experience, education, and training required. We make folks get library tech diplomas and master's degrees and we build hiring and training policies around assumptions about what these credentials embody. We often don't openly discuss and share our views about the role of class, race, and gender and yet these are important elements in shaping the ways we approach labour. 

Often I am tasked with anticipating what library education should look like in the context of these issues.  However, like many, I feel we are in highly disruptive times and I am very cautious of making assumptions about what specific skills will be needed. While I would contend that discrete skills and competencies can be dangerous in that they can give us tunnel vision when thinking about abilities (Just think of BC’s Skills for Jobs Blueprint and LNG), I also recognize that we have to do something to set out expectations.

While technical skills are important – we need to know how to be “technologically agnostic”, we need to know how to invoke tools that aid in protecting privacy and we need to be able to communicate and collaborate with our communities – we also need librarians to understand critical theory and policy analysis.  We need library people who can navigate “complex political and economic environments”. Further, we need library workers, at all levels, to have some flexibility in developing their knowledge and skills that is guided by open discourse on the problems and possibilities that exist for libraries.

Using the example from the BC Library Conference session Privacy Matters - When the police enter a library and demand information about library members, we need to be assured that our front line library workers not only know how to respond, but also know why their response is absolutely integral to the protection of the library as part of the public sphere. AND THEN we need to help our communities understand why we take on these positions because we are, after all, members of those same communities!

We need to understand that the work performed in libraries is increasingly “immaterial” and our focus shifts from handling materials to handling broader, more complex and pervasive societal problems including a shrinking middle class, limited access to affordable housing and post-secondary education, grappling with the effects of climate change, homelessness, mental health issues including a growing number who, in spite of our social connectedness, feel isolated, marginalized and alone.  The skills needed include a sophisticated understanding of what it means to be a human being in this world.  (Interestingly, our salaries do not actually mirror the tremendous cognitive weight of doing this work, but that is for another blog post...)

While technology is disrupting the way we understand labour, we acknowledge that libraries ARE also sites of disruption. Most profoundly, this disruption is their role as political spaces in the sense that they are one of the remaining sites for public discourse as a cornerstone to democratic society.

Stevenson, S. A. (2016). Immaterial labour, public librarians, and third-generation public libraries. New Library World, 117(3/4), 186-200. doi:10.1108/NLW-11-2015-0083


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Stephen K said...

I've just started reading a book by Paul Mason from the UK called Postcapitalism, which talks a lot about neoliberalism and capitalism and what comes next. I will read it partially with with libraries, and the roles they can play, in mind.

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