Musing on Maintenance

I’ve been on sabbatical for almost six months, which has temporarily alleviated my need to use the New York City subway system with any regularity. This has come at almost exactly the same time that the subways (and the rail systems that use Penn Station) have experienced a sharply increasing wave of delays and failures. I love the subway, truly — it’s near the top of my list of reasons why I live in NYC — but I’m very grateful that I don’t need to ride it regularly right now. The subway unreliability plus hot summer temperatures are an especially awful combination, which makes this week’s news that the governor plans to allot funds for a fanciful bridge-lighting project on the city’s river crossings seem particularly ill-inspired. The subways are failing for the same reasons many other infrastructures fail: deferred and delayed maintenance. That these failures are happening at a time when the subway has hit a high in popularity and use is no surprise, too. The solution is more funding for maintenance, which the state and the city can’t seem to agree on, an impasse that leaves commuters stuck, too.

Yes, New Yorkers are obsessed with public transit (and I will admit to being more obsessed than many), but what does this have to do with libraries? As I was writing this post I remembered that I’d written about The Maintainers conference last year, thinking a bit about the conference’s discussion of maintenance as the opposite of innovation, and how to make space for both in our libraries. But this week, with cascadingly ridiculous subway news, I’m thinking about maintenance of infrastructure that can be critical and is sometimes too easily ignored.

Any organization or institution needs maintenance, including libraries. Like subways, the more popular we are in libraries, the more maintenance we have (and, I would argue, the more deferred maintenance can snowball). At the beginning of the semester our circulation desk has a rush of students checking out reserve textbooks; with the midterms and finals week rush comes more trash for our custodial staff to clean up; the more pages students print, the more often we need to repair or replace the printers. We try to allocate resources appropriately to accommodate busy times, but that can be tricky given flat or declining budgets. And with increasing popularity also comes a need for not only maintenance but expansion — we are absolutely struggling with that at the college where I work, which has seen nearly a 50% increase in enrollment in the past decade (and with expansion comes a neew for more maintenance, too).

Much of the work that we as librarians do is also about maintenance: continuing to meet the needs of our communities by offering services and resources that they need for their academic work. This work can be invisible, sometimes, because our community may not see the work as it happens (for example, in technical services). Invisibility can also be a result of the tendency of institutions to privilege the additive for planning and reporting. When we pull together our goals and targets each year, the tendency is to focus on what we’re doing that’s new. But the maintenance work for continuing services and resources is important, too, and I try to make sure that doesn’t get left out of our goals and reports.

One form of maintenance that I’ve tried to make time and space for during my sabbatical is for my professional and research self. A few times each year I update my CV and professional website, keeping track of what I’ve worked on both to share it (e.g. links to articles in my institution’s repository) and to make it easier to do my own annual report each year. Research, too, is additive: collecting new data, analyzing and interpreting it, and sharing the results. When time is short it’s easy to dump those files into a folder (bonus points for media files with unintuitive filenames!) to be dealt with later. It’s all too easy to let this kind of maintenance pile up, even for those of us who generally enjoy organizing physical or digital files. I’ve done a fair amount of professional and research file management during my leave. It’s been great to have some time to focus on this kind of maintenance, especially for the research that my colleague and I have been working on for many years.

I’m not sure how to resolve my concerns with maintenance in our libraries and for ourselves as librarians, other than to try to keep the focus on these maintenance tasks when we’re planning and reporting. How have you integrated maintenance into your work in libraries?

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