Category Archives: library careers

In The Sweatshop Or Reaping The Lottery Win

Are you feeling overworked these days? Do you feel the pressure to publish, present and serve on a dozen different committees? Does it seem like you are trying to do the work of two librarians, and that you just never have time to get much of anything truly constructive done? If so, welcome to the “Ivory Sweatshop”. That’s the term used in an article in this week’s Chronicle [Paywall Alert!] to describe the current academic workplace – or at least the way it feels to many faculty. What the article really attempts to do, is to frame the way today’s junior faculty feel in comparison to those who went through the tenure process a decade or more ago. The consensus of those interviewed appears to be that faculty are under much more pressure now to produce – and are being held to a much higher standard than colleagues who have already achieved tenure. I hear from academic librarians who know they aren’t keeping up with the latest news and developments as well as they should because they are challenged to find the time. This is reflected in one of the comments in the article: “This job has gotten a thousand percent harder than when I started out,” says Mr. Bergman, who began teaching in 1967. It takes a lot more time now, he says, for scholars to keep current with advances in their discipline.”

In the very same issue of the Chronicle there is a personal essay [Paywall Alert!] that presents a quite different picture of what it is like to work in academia these days. The author, a tenured faculty member at a rising research university, shares the process he went through in working out a midlife crisis resulting from that perennial question – what should I do with the rest of my life. His ultimate epiphany about his lot in life and what to do about it could be described as anything but feeling like working in a sweatshop. He writes:

That led me to the moment of clarity I had been searching for: I woke up to the fact that achieving tenure and promotion are like winning the lottery. With the odds against landing a tenure-track job in the humanities growing longer every year, I had hit the proverbial jackpot and been granted an opportunity that very few people have: the freedom to pursue my own interests on my own terms. Within the constraints of my job obligations, I could do whatever I wanted with my life.

That’s sounds like a pretty good deal. Who wouldn’t like to be in a position where they have many options and could take advantage of any of them. How many of you feel like you’ve hit the lottery in your position? Or do you feel like you are working in an academic version of a sweatshop? Which is it in academia? Depending on what you observe and who you talk to you will hear both versions. More likely you’ll hear from someone who feels like they are in the sweatshop complaining about a colleague who they believe has hit the lottery. It’s the “why I’m I working so damn hard while that co-worker seems to be barely doing anything at all?” I don’t know if the difference is simply an outcome of being on the tenure track versus having survived it. There’s no question that those on the track are feeling enormous pressure to succeed. But it would be a bad case of generalization to suggest that everyone who has made it shifts their career into neutral.

I have a good friend at a research university that has a very rigorous tenure process. Although he received tenure two years ago I’ve noticed no slowdown in his work or research agenda, and if anything he seems even busier. The difference I observe is that the pressure has shifted from external – exerted by a tenure process – to internal – the pressure one puts on oneself to achieve beyond the normal expectation. I wonder if there are also differences in perceptions based on being on the front line versus being in the administrative office. I know that reference and instruction librarians can feel overwhelmed trying to keep up with the demands placed upon them. I can also tell you that it’s no picnic for administrators these days, especially when we are all expected to be doing much more with fewer resources.

My own philosophy is that it’s always better too have to much to do than not enough, and it’s not that hard these days to come up with more than enough to keep the pressure cooker on medium to high range. Doing so doesn’t have to mean that you are working in a sweatshop though. In fact, I think that on the average day, a faculty member or an academic librarian, no matter how many deadlines there are, no matter how many committee reports are due and no matter how many classes there are to prepare for, is incredibly fortunate to have a challenging and rewarding career – and that’s why so many new professionals seek to enter this arena despite the odds of landing a job and why many who are past the age of retirement refuse to leave [Paywall Alert!]. And when you compare the work of many employed in academia to those individuals performing jobs where there is considerable physical labor or unpleasant or dangerous working conditions, you can’t help but conclude that those of us working in academia are more lottery winners than sweatshop toilers. How would you describe your situation? Sweatshop loser or lottery winner?

Does Where You Work Define Who You Are As An Academic Librarian

The great thing about our higher education system is the enormous diversity found in the approximately 4,000 institutions that offer degree programs. Having too many options is sometimes a challenge, but a more significant issue in American higher education is the disparity between the have’s and the have not’s. The same could be said of academic libraries. Some have incredible resources while others subsist on a shoestring budget. I’ve worked in both environments, and I’ve enjoyed both though I now tend to think there are greater benefits to working in the latter. For one thing, it forces you to be much more creative in how you attack problems because the luxury of just throwing money at them isn’t an option. The victories, when they come, may be small but are far sweeter and rewarding. If you are or have been in this situation, or if you’ve ever been part of a team that’s turned around a challenged academic library, I think you know what I mean.

I’ve also known academic librarians who work in the former and would never consider a position at the latter because they like the prestige associated with being at their well-off institution. That’s not to say they dislike their jobs but stick it out for the prestige, but they might not consider the possibilities afforded at less well-off libraries. That’s also not to suggest they see their well-resourced academic libraries as problem-free havens. Those libraries also have their share of difficulties and challenges, though they might be significantly different ones than what those at poorly-resourced libraries are encountering. And by all means, I’m not suggesting our colleagues who enjoy working at a prestigious institution are snobs. Having an abundance of resources – even despite the economic challenges of the past two years – is an asset, and I know well the advantages it can offer in allowing the library to make a difference for the academic community.

But do we define who we are in the field of higher education by where we work? This question was the subject of a short essay by David Evan titled “Going Home”, in which he visits his alma mater for a reunion and contemplates the contrast between it prestigiousness and the place where he teaches which is far less well resourced. He writes:

Like a lot of academics, I’ve had the interesting experience of working at institutions that are much less prosperous and prestigious than the one where I earned my degree…My undergraduate institution is rich and has been for a long time. Although its endowment has shrunk in the past couple of years, it could come close to supporting its entire generous annual budget through conservative spending of its endowment income. Even 29 years ago, when I was about to start as a freshman, it had physical and instructional resources that beggar those at most institutions. The faculty teaching load is 2-2; the average faculty salary is nearly twice that at my current institution (and my current institution pays quite well, relatively speaking). A degree from there has, beyond doubt, been a foundation for my subsequent career.For a long time, I had a strong urge to return to work at a similar institution—a rich, selective liberal-arts college with highly talented students in a desirable location. My first job was at a much less rich (not rich at all, actually), noticeably less selective liberal-arts college in a location that many young faculty members would find less compelling. None of my subsequent jobs have been much different.

While this section of the essay makes it sound like Evan regrets his employment decisions, nothing could be farther from the truth. He goes on to write about how much he has enjoyed and learned from all of his different experiences at the four institutions he has worked in his career, though none of them carried the prestige of his alma mater. He concludes by sharing what’s he’s learned over the course of his career and offer this as advice to others:

Prestige is an immense factor in the academy. We are acculturated by the “big brands” of higher education, and many of us were taught to measure our value by our professional proximity to those big brands. I am convinced that this is one of the main reasons so many academics are unhappy. They were highly talented, motivated students at the most prosperous and accommodating institutions in higher education. Being removed from that rarefied context can be a rude shock, and enduring it can be hard for many people. But there’s a lot to do in higher education that doesn’t depend much on prestige or even institutional wealth. There are a lot of worthy missions in colleges, and a lot of excellent places to have a fine career. I wish I’d figure that out earlier.

At ALA Annual there were several programs directed to newer-to-the-profession librarians. Many of the speakers and attendees were academic librarians. I attended one where the panelists were all new to their jobs and just starting their careers, and at another I was a panelist where we were all well-seasoned academic librarians reflecting on our career paths, and offering advice to newer colleagues. At all of these programs there were both presenters and participants from all types of institutions, both well and poorly resourced. The question of whether it is better to pursue a position at one or the other never came up. In fact, most of those new graduates still seeking their first position indicated they’d be willing to work just about anywhere; institutional prestige or the lack thereof was certainly not on their minds. Had it come it up I would have wanted those who attended these programs to know that where you work, as Evan eventually discovered in his career, should not define your status as an academic librarian, nor should any academic librarian feel inferior or unhappy because he or she doesn’t work at a “big brand” college or university. The rewards of being an academic librarian can be discovered and achieved at almost any institution – just as being at a prestigious one is no guarantee of job satisfaction.

This Librarian’s Blog Name Says It All

In a recent Sudden Thoughts and Second Thoughts I asked – in a not so direct way – what ACRLog readers wanted us to write about – and a few of you shared your thoughts – though I really didn’t expect that. One comment in particular stood out and I wanted to share it with ACRLog readers. This one comes from Elizabeth, who writes:

I’m a newly graduated LIS student trying to break into the world of academic librarianship. I’m having an extremely hard time getting interviews, so I would love a little real-world advice. Most of my classmates are still unemployed, so I know there are many of us out there who love some first-hand advice on getting a job and what being an academic librarian is really like.

What made me most want to mention Elizabeth’s comment was the name of her blog, which tells you everything you need to know about her situation and her interest in the topic: The Adventures of an Unemployed Librarian.

Just the fact that we have a new-to-the-profession colleague coming up with a blog name like that should somehow concern us. It’s encouraging to know we have enthusiastic folks who want to break into our world of academic librarianship, but it’s disappointing that we have so little to offer them. Let’s see if we can help Elizabeth and her classmates by responding to her two questions: (1) advice on how to get a job and (2) what it’s like to be an academic librarian.

My not-so-original primary piece of advice is to start getting library experience early and often in your developing career. Take advantage of every opportunity to land an internship (in the Philadelphia region several academic libraries offer them) or possibly a part-time position. It may offer only limited professional experience, but more importantly you’ll be getting exposure to the environment and people. You need to start building your network early. If your region has any sort of local library association for academic librarians (in the past the Philadelphia region has had a number of informal groups that were not affiliated with ACRL) try to get involved – or at least attend meetings. It’s a good way to start connecting with other academic librarians who can provide advice and support. In my academic libraries course (which I’m unfortunately not teaching for the first time in seven years – being replaced by a full-time faculty member – for now) my project assignment requires the students to get out to academic libraries to interview librarians. If Elizabeth had an assignment like that at some point in her LIS education I don’t think she’d be asking, post-graduation, what it’s like to be an academic librarian. Our future professionals should be finding out the answer to that question while they’re in the LIS program. Meredith gave some advice that could help with respect to positioning yourself for letting potential employers know who you are and what you’ve accomplished in your career path to date. I advocate starting a portfolio of your work early on in graduate school, and keeping it up to date and accessible to potential employers.

Elizabeth, if you and your fellow unemployed students have heard all that advice before, you have my apologies for my failure to provide enlightenment. Let me see if I can do better on your second question. I could go on for several thousand words on what it’s like to be an academic librarian. In fact, I have. My first piece of advice is to take a look at an article I wrote a few years ago titled “Passion For Academic Librarianship: Find It, Keep It, Sustain It–A Reflective Inquiry”. PORTAL: LIBRARIES AND THE ACADEMY 3(4):633-642, October 2003. I think it will give you my perspective on what it’s like to be an academic librarian. But there are many perspectives, which is why you can help yourself by using time you may have now to go to academic libraries in your area to meet and talk with academic librarians. I know this sounds like an awkward thing to do, but I’m sure most academic librarians would be glad to have a cup of coffee with you and tell you about their job and their take on the profession. Try not to be totally random though; try to get recommendations from an experience colleague. So if you have any contacts in your area (if you don’t get in touch and perhaps I can find a good one for you) ask that person for some advice on good folks with which to chat.

A final thought about Elizabeth’s blog. I think it can help to have a thoughtful blog. As a potential employer I might like to see if someone is intellectually curious, and what sort of issues they are thinking about through the posts they write. If a potential job candidate is expressing an interest in academic librarianship, how is that reflected in their blog posts? I’d consider re-thinking the title of the blog. It might be better to have something with a more positive spin that reflects an interest in academic librarianship. What about “The Adventures of a Future Academic Librarian”? Or if you are really interested in what it’s like to be an academic librarian, start writing some profiles of academic librarians and what they do. Call the blog something like “What it Means to be an Academic Librarian”, and use it to learn about the profession as you explore the issues of the day.

What other advice do ACRLog readers have for Elizabeth and her classmates?

Don’t Let It Bring You Down MJ

MJ, I rarely, if ever, regret anything I’ve written, but I read your comment and if my post causes you to doubt that I am really passionate about academic librarianship, or if it leads you to question if you are making the right choice about wanting to pursue a career in academic librarianship – that I would really truly regret.

I wrote about passion primarily to explore just what we mean when we talk about being passionate about our jobs. I pointed readers to a NYT article that got me thinking about whether we are really passionate or merely satisfied with our choice of profession. You do hear the “P-word” thrown around quite a bit when academic librarians talk about their work (well, maybe you’re not seeing signs of it at your academic library). But I ultimately decided that it is of little consequence whether what we call “passion” would meet the criteria of a passion expert such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

As an LIS student planning for a career in an academic library I can imagine that much of the news these days about higher education and academic libraries could be a downer for you. If it isn’t someone predicting the demise of the traditional university it’s someone else telling us the future academic library will be a room full of technicians controlling the content of some massive digital library. But I want to express my opinion that I continue to see a bright future for academic libraries, but that we just can’t take it for granted. We have some hard work ahead of us if we want to maintain our relevance amidst the doom-and-gloom outlooks.

I could probably write a few posts full of stories that would help you understand what it is that I love about my work. Instead, my suggestion is to go back and read my article on “passion for the profession” from that 2003 issue of portal. If you read it I think you’ll see there is a great deal to look forward to as a future academic librarian. But let me share just one story. Even though I’ve been an academic librarian for a pretty long time now, one of the things I really love about the job is that it constantly presents new challenges. At my library I’m responsible for leading our scholarly communication effort. We’re an ARL member, but we don’t have the luxury of having a dedicated position for scholarly communications and copyright. So it is part of my portfolio, but scholarly communications can’t always be at the top of my priority list. But here we are and it’s Open Access Week. So I wanted to do at least one thing to create some awareness on my campus. So I asked my colleagues in our Instructional Technology Center if I could make a presentation about author rights at their montlhy user group meeting scheduled for the week of October 19th. They said yes. The problem is that I didn’t know a heck of a lot about author rights, and I certainly had never talked to faculty about the issues. But I discovered there’s a ton of information out there, and between videos, author agreement examples, sharing my own stories about using the author addendum and getting them to tell their stories about being ripped off by publishers because they just signed the agreement without thinking about it – we had a pretty damn good conversation – and what I shared really opened up their eyes to some new possibilities. This was incredibly rewarding, and I’m sure this kind of thing is happening for other academic librarians on a pretty regular basis. How many jobs are there where you have this kind of opportunity?

I’m not sure what is going on at your library, but no matter where you work in this profession you’ll run into some negativity in your workplace. It’s unavoidable. But don’t let it get you down, and most of all don’t judge this profession based on what’s happening at your library or the people who work there. In the academic librarianship course I’ve taught for a number of years the student project involves an in depth study of a single academic library. The one thing I tell students at the start is to not make the error of assuming that all academic libraries and librarians are like the ones that will be encountered during the project. That’s why I started having regular discussion breaks where everyone shares stories from their project libraries. That way everyone starts to understand that each academic library presents a different set of challenges and opportunties – and an entirely unique set of library workers who will be incredibly different from the one library you’ve experienced. If I could suggest one thing to you it would be to make visits to other academic libraries in your region, talk to the academic librarians who work there, and start to gain different perspectives on the profession. It’s just not healthy to learn about academic librarianship by limiting yourself to a single institution. Get out there and meet other librarians and find out what they are doing and what gets them excited about their work.

So am I passionate about what I do? Well, I should be watching the Phillies play the Dodgers, but I couldn’t resist taking time to respond to your comment. It’s a small personal sacrifice of sorts but right now it seems more important than a baseball game. It seems like the right thing to do if you are trying to convince a colleague to look at the bright side.

Satisfaction For The Profession

Back in 2003 I authored an article titled “Passion for the Profession” in portal: Libraries and the Academy. In this piece I shared my reasons for being passionate about our work and provided my rationale for why we do it – and why those contemplating a career in librarianship would do well to consider the academic sector. I waxed eloquently on the virtues of serving students and faculty, as well as the joys of being part of an academic community and a professional network. But perhaps I was guilty of overselling the concept of professional passion. According to some real passion experts maybe I should have written an article titled “Satisfaction for the Profession” or “Finding Meaning in the Profession” because for most of us that is about all we can hope to achieve.

Real passion, it turns out, is rather elusive. According to experts true job passion is a state of total involvement and complete immersion. A truly passionate academic librarian is fully absorbed in the experience. How absorbed? Picture a teenager playing his or her favorite video game. Hours can pass totally unnoticed. While I often have days when I’m wondering where the morning went and occasionally have one where I literally lose track of time – an occupational hazard that leads to showing up late for appointments – most days pass just about right and rarely does boredom strike. When I occasionally check Facebook or Twitter during the work day it seems that some colleagues are frequently changing their status, reporting their top five kung-fu movies or sharing quiz results that indicate which Star Wars character they are. A passionate academic librarian would be so immersed in their work that he or she would not only not have time for such questionable diversions, but would be so caught up in their work that they would hardly even contemplate stopping for a little break. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with the occasional social network visit – it may even be beneficial in giving our brains a needed rest. A truly passionate academic librarian just wouldn’t go there.

While I enjoyed thinking and writing about being passionate for academic librarianship – and it made for a good article title – in hindsight I’d say that while most of us certainly enjoy our work and are challenged by what we do, passion may be too strong a word. I’m certainly not the only academic librarian who has gone on record expressing their passion for the profession (see here). But perhaps it’s not necessary to be passionate about academic librarianship at all. According to the experts, feeling a sense of control over one’s work situation and having work that one is able to master while taking on challenges that afford the opportunity to grow are the foundation of feeling satisfied with one’s job. Being completely immersed (obsessed?), if that’s a sign of passion, is not necessarily required for workplace happiness or professional success.

So if you do find yourself in a position of speaking with a potential, future academic librarian what should you tell him or her? Should you pull all the stops and go with the “P” word? Or is knowing just how elusive real passion is a reason to put the kibosh on introducing it into the conversation? In thinking this over I conclude that it’s fine to go with passion. If I tell someone I’m passionate about my work I think he or she gets it – I really like what I do and look forward to doing it. From there it’s a matter of elaborating on the reasons why I know so many colleagues who, like me, have practiced this profession for so long. Ultimately I think it does go beyond just being satisfied about or finding meaning in what we do. What is it that explains our passion for the profession? If you have a chance, try reading the article.