Maintaining in Academic Libraries

The spring conference season is in full swing, and one weekend earlier this month it seemed like there were conferences of interest to me all over the place, judging from the hashtags in my Twitter timeline: #PLA2016, #SAA2016 (Society of American Archaeologists), #OAH2016 (Organization of American Historians), #DifferentGames2016, and #AERA16 (American Educational Research Association), just to name (more than) a few.

But of all of those great-looking events, most of my conference envy (and associated hashtag-following) was reserved for #maintainers, hashtag for The Maintainers: A Conference, at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. From the description on the conference website:

Many groups and individuals today celebrate “innovation.” The notion is influential not only in engineering and business, but also in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. For example, “innovation” has become a staple of analysis in popular histories – such as Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

This conference takes a different approach, one whose conceptual starting point was a playful proposal for a counter-volume to Isaacson’s that could be titled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time.

From the tweets I caught this conference looked fascinating, and you can read more about it in the shared conference notes doc (with many links to full papers) as well as in the essay Hail the Maintainers published in Aeon by conference organizers Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell the day before the conference. And since the conference I’ve been mulling over this tension of maintenance vs. innovation, and how it might be expressed in academic libraries.

Like our transit infrastructure, libraries require maintenance work to function, work that touches every part of our libraries: facilities, resources, services (in alphabetical order, not necessarily order of importance). This maintenance work, while crucial, sometimes seems easy to forget, especially as annual reporting season rolls around each year. Do we report the maintenance work we do? If we don’t report it, administrators, faculty, staff, and students outside the library might not know it’s happening, so I would argue that yes, we should report it.

But maintenance can’t be the only thing happening in academic libraries — as technology, access to information, and higher education more generally go through changes, libraries do as well. One danger of focusing only on maintenance is that it might prevent us from trying something new that could bring real benefits to us as workers or to the communities we serve. Adding new (or making changes to existing) facilities, resources, and services can also bring new requirements for maintenance. Perhaps there’s legacy maintenance that’s no longer needed, allowing us to balance between continuing and new efforts within the constraints of our time and budgets?

I bristle when I read the phrase “do more with less” because I want to resist the overwork and burnout that can happen to all of us, especially when necessary maintenance work can seem invisible or underappreciated. And I think that innovation as a buzzword can sometimes be used to encourage us to do more with less, to believe that innovation alone will overcome the limitations of funding and time. But I also don’t think that flat or declining budgets mean that we shouldn’t change — I think it’s worth our efforts to figure out if there is maintenance work that we can stop doing that can allow us to try something new (which, if successful, will of course require maintenance of its own).

Is maintenance the opposite of innovation in academic libraries? Can we do both? Must we do both? To be honest, I’m still puzzling through my thoughts about this, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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