Reflecting on contract work and precarity

Like many others, as the year is coming to an end, I’ve been in a reflective mood. Last year around this time, I was anxious about graduating, the job hunting process, and the potential for un/underemployment in the spring.  A lot has changed since then. I left the city I lived in for over a decade to start my first academic librarian job. There’s been lots to celebrate! But I’m still kind of feeling anxious about the future. 

My job is a “contractually limited appointment,” meaning it’s a fixed-term position with an end date. I still have many more months to go before my contract ends, but it’s something that’s frequently on my mind. In particular, whenever there’s discussions about long-term projects and planning or relationship building, I become aware of the temporality of my position. I think, will I be here next year?

While I was in school, I was warned that it may be several years before I find an ongoing permanent position, as lots of the jobs out there are part-time, or full-time contracts. According to Brons, Henninger, Riley, & Lin (2019), 46% of academic librarian jobs advertised on the Partnership job board (a Canadian library job board) were precarious. It seems like contract work is or becoming the norm for many early career librarians. When I was job hunting, I framed these positions in my mind as opportunities to get my foot in the door or a chance to try a new aspect of librarianship. But now that I have my foot in the door with my dream job(!), I am realizing that contract work is more challenging that I had thought.  

In their article “Job Precarity, Contract Work, and Self Care,” Lacey (2019) points to financial insecurity and the emotional and mental costs of precarious work. In particular, their discussion about the cyclical stress of acclimatizing to a new organizational culture and place, including establishing relationships, resonated with me. Being on a contract means, you’re constantly looking for work, trying to orient yourself to a new job, city, and leaving behind relationships. 

I’m very lucky in that I didn’t need to move far for my current position. It’s only a short bus or train ride away, although some days it feels very far.  I’m also very lucky in that I have super supportive colleagues who have gone out of their way to make me feel at home and a valued member of the library. I feel guilty about not focusing on the present and being fixated on the future, thinking about when I should start job hunting or where I’ll be living next year. 

What has been helpful is knowing that I’m not alone in feeling this way. I’m encouraged by the growing conversations about precarious work in libraries. For example, I’m excited about projects focused on contingent labour in libraries, archives, and museums like the Collective Responsibility: National Forum on Labor Practices for Grant-Funded Digital Positions, the Precarity in Libraries research project, or the @OrganizingLIS twitter account.

Looking at the current climate with the rise of the gig economy, it feels like part-time and contract work in librarianship is not going to go away. But, I’m also feeling very hopeful! I am looking forward to learning more about shared experiences of precarity and collectively working towards better conditions for library workers.

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