Some times I know I want to write about something important, but there are so many sides to the story I want to tell that I don’t know where to start and therefore I just leave it. I am still not ready to write a coherent, well-written post about this subject, but I figured I’d just have to dive into it anyway. Apologies therefore if this seems a little chaotic.
I have worked at my current library for almost 16 years now. It is a little unreal to think about it. I never thought I’d stay in any one library for that amount of time. There are days of frustration and irritation in any job, but most days I love it here. I love teaching, I love writing, I love doing research (even the days when I think “Why do I put myself through this? What’s wrong with me?!”), and I am very lucky to be working with incredible people who impress me with their skills, their knowledge and their work ethic every day. I can’t wait to hang out with them more on an everyday basis, not just seeing them on my screen for an hour a day.
The topic for this post is not about my nearest colleagues. It is about how we organise ourselves. The university library consist of 15 different campus libraries, and when the university merged with three university colleges (the one I belonged to was one of these three) five years ago, the leadership agreed that the university library would leave their reorganisation until a later stage. There were plenty of other issues to deal with first. Now that the faculties and departments have figured out most of their reorganisation issues, it is our turn apparently.
Before I move on I have to say that, this being my personal blog, of course all of these views are my own and it does in no way represent a wider view or express attitudes of any other member of the university library. There – that’s the disclaimer done..
There is plenty of literature available on reorganisation. I think almost everything I have read on the subject points to the downsides of these actions, such as employee involvement (or most commonly, lack thereof), communication mishaps, frustration, exhaustion and an ever deepening trust chasm between employees and leadership. The feeling of being completely run over or ignored is, I believe, the most common event in any reorganisation, and I would think that it is even harder to do this in an academic environment, where employees are usually highly autonomous and not as used to being ignored. No one can expect to have everything they want and to always have their opinions considered, and I do believe that the leadership is trying to do their best for the staff and organisation as a whole. It cannot be an easy job, and I appreciate the hard work they put in.
Reorganising a university library with 130 employees at 15 different libraries is no easy feat. There are different views on what the library’s role should be, what services we should offer, what kind of skillset and knowledge we should focus on, what role the library should have within the organisation (though everyone of course agrees that it should be a greater role than we currently have) or how we should spend our time. There have been two separate committees working on this before, and they have submitted their views on how the library should be organised. There have been consultative rounds and discussions for years. What I would find funny if it wasn’t so sad is that even though the committee reports have been moderate (I would even say low in some cases) in setting the bar for the future role of the library, one of the feedback on one consultative round was that the committee had over-reached in the role of the library, and being “too ambitious” [my translation]. When I read that I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Do we really want these people to decide our fate?
I have a lot of questions about this process: Who do we think we are? (in the real sense of the question, not the snide comment) What roles should the library have? What should we be focussing on? Do we want to remain in a “delivery on demand” kind of library or do we accept and embrace a role expansion? What can we say no to? How can we help the university deliver quality education and research? I just think that before we have answers to at least some of these questions, it is impossible to reorganise well. We have to know who we are and what we want before we can set an organisation that will also work to some extent in the nearest future. And yet, these discussions are not addressed in any joint sessions or seminars. There is talk now on what the role of the subject specialists should be, and how these roles relate to the library services. This is an important discussion, but how can we have that discussion while we have not talked about the big picture? What happens to the subject specialists and the librarians in the reorganisation? Shouldn’t we have that discussion on the roles before we reorganise?
I think my real problem is that I don’t know why the reorganisation has to happen. The number of staff in the library is reclining. The reforms by the current, neoliberalist government, have left us with less money to spend on resources, both people and access, and when librarians retire or leave for new jobs now, there is no longer a guarantee that they will be replaced. All of this is happening while more people than ever before has applied to higher education. During my soon to be 16 year at my library, the number of students have risen from 1600 to over 4000 at my campus. We have gotten one new position at the library during that time. We are six people, over 4000 students and 400 staff members, and we offer way more support and services now than we did when I started. The virtual library, courses every week, a lot more teaching and research support, library events and we are more involved in writing ourselves than we used to be. How long can we sustain this speed? How long before the chord snaps? How do we manage our physical and mental health at this pace? I fear that the reorganisation’s real purpose is to downsize library staff, and I am already exhausted just thinking about it. I love my job, I really do. I only hope that I’ll be able to keep doing it for a long time – in an environment that supports quality, knowledge, skill, empathy, competence and humanity, not just speed and efficiency.
My wish is that the library’s new organisation will be simpler than it is today. One director, the director’s staff, a coordinator for projects, and just sections based on geography. I want more autonomous groups and less bureaucracy, more grass root organisation in communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) and authenticity in collaborations – even if that means that the central leadership has less overview of the whole library organisation.
I highly recommend reading something about this subject, and especially Julia Glassman (2017) and Karen Nicholson (2019).
Glassman, J. (2017) The innovation fetish and slow librarianship: What librarians can learn from the Juicero, the Library with the Lead Pipe.
Nicholson, K.P. (2019). “Being in Time”: New Public Management, Academic Librarians, and the Temporal Labor of Pink-Collar Public Service Work. Library Trends 68(2), 130-152. doi:10.1353/lib.2019.0034.
Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.