We’ve been experiencing some staffing issues on my team in recent months. While these issues have been difficult to navigate, they are (fingers crossed) temporary and the end is in sight. (Maybe I’ll knock on wood, too, for good measure.) At the same time, though, we’re confronting broader and more lasting budget, staffing, and workload issues across my organization. While the particulars of these challenges might be specific to my institution, it seems that we’re all dealing with related barriers, delays, and diversions (or full-on road closures, perhaps, to take this metaphor further) across higher ed. It’s my turn to coordinate a collaborative post and I’m curious to hear from my fellow ACRLoggers about how they’re working through some of the questions and dilemmas inherent in this difficult landscape. Readers, we’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences, too, in the comments.
How does communication around budget and staffing challenges happen at your institution? What about those communication practices works well? What changes to communication practices do you think would be helpful?
Angie: I think greater transparency and assessment is needed around the question of whether to invest in new hires or improve compensation for existing staff. Offers for new hires present certain challenges to compensation equity. But for lots of reasons I can imagine this a path of least resistance compared to a process of examining the inequities across existing staff compensation–nevermind the additional workload distributed to staff as a result of turnover. It’s also tricky, though, when transparency is intertwined with needs for confidentiality. And conversely, when transparency of that inequity can exacerbate morale issues inherent in this. Practices that could be helpful might focus transparency around the factors influencing both ends of these decisions. I also think it will be imperative to address those factors through the more diverse and complex lens of individual equitability over systemic (in)equality.
Hailley: Our institution is facing budget challenges so it has been a topic of conversation in just about every group I’m a part of. Our Dean has been good about providing budget updates to the Leadership Team (which I’m a part of) and through regular email updates to the entire library. Even if the news is “There is no new news” it’s good to feel like we know as much as we can, at a moment where things are constantly changing and shifting. I think a challenge that exists in these situations is finding the right balance; you want folks to feel like they are “in the know” but you also don’t want to overwhelm with information or constant updates. Finding that sweet spot with frequency is a challenge and I think so much of it depends on the situation, the organization, and the trust a leader (or leaders) have with their people.
Jen: I agree with Angie and Hailley that transparency and frequency of communication are key considerations here. I’m happy to say that leaders in my library system are practicing both; they’re regularly providing information on what’s happening within the library organization and across the university. My institution is huge and I think size, as Hailley alluded to, can be a complicating factor in all this. Despite any leader’s best efforts, there are bound to be gaps and oversights in communication. Inevitably, some of us won’t be privy to the details and confidences of those top-level or nitty gritty conversations yet we still feel the effects of them–budget cuts or staffing shortages or what have you–on a regular basis, even daily. That contrast can make it easy to feel overlooked and undervalued. I think it’s important to remember how important it is for us to speak up. I, for one, know I can sometimes get tunnel vision in my middle management position (that also includes daily service desk responsibilities and instruction), just trying to uphold our team’s responsibilities and meet users’ needs. I sometimes forget that administrators aren’t seeing what I’m seeing and that the on-the-ground perspectives I can offer are essential. And administrators, even those with the best intentions, may sometimes assume or forget to ask how their difficult decisions are playing out in the day-to-day reality of our work. It’s up to us to tell them.
Justin: Agreed with everyone else for the need for transparency and communication. Our University Librarian and other members of the library admin team regularly present to our Librarians’ Council on current and upcoming staffing changes and challenges. This gives librarians context and a chance to ask questions about any staffing issues coming up in our library system. As well, every winter our University Librarian shares her budget presentation with all library staff. This gives us a great look into the direction of the library and any budget constraints that present challenges. Again, this gives library staff the opportunity to ask questions and get greater clarity on the library’s budget.
Is your organization experimenting with any new models or practices to address staffing issues? What ideas would you like to try if you could?
Angie: In addition to an increase in staff turnover, my library (and probably yours) is finding fewer candidates applying for the positions that we can advertise. At the convergence of these two realities, effects on staff workload and hiring practices certainly require rethinking. In hiring, I’ve been asked to consider what experience and skills I can realistically expect to attract, for example. What represents a full time need, and how do we address that need when it is not? What at a given moment do I have the resources to train for, or train quickly enough? And that answer may be different at different times. Current approaches to developing position advertisements as well and how we maintain current position descriptions has involved a lot of rethinking and re-translating skills, and seeking experience that might fall outside of the traditional library contexts. I recently advertised and hired a license specialist position, in which for the first time we explicitly sought legal expertise in the requirements. Also a first, I included my general counsel in the interview process, and learned that it is not uncommon across the University to find professionals with law degrees not working as lawyers. As librarians, with many diverse credentials and career backgrounds, this should not surprise us. Take advantage of (in the best sense, and equitably compensating for) the fact that many people may seek to leverage their careers and expertise in different ways.
Hailley: One of the hats I wear in my role is helping to coordinate our reference services. One commitment we as coordinators made this spring was if we lose librarians, we won’t try to stretch ourselves thin by covering desk and consultation gaps. We got to put this promise into action at the end of February when one of our colleagues left for another job. We reviewed the schedule, used our reference data to identify the popular times at the desk, and made the decision to cut back on hours. We worked with folks to rearrange a few schedules, with an eye towards creating a consistent experience for our users and student employees. It felt good to have the data to make an informed decision and also to not ask folks to do even more with less (a phrase I’m never really a fan of).
Jen: Managing the multiple long-term absences on my team these past few months has meant that I’ve needed to take over primary responsibility for many key circulation workflows. Historically, I’ve done these jobs rarely, if at all, so I’ve had to learn or re-learn a number of procedures — and make room for them in my schedule. Thankfully, as I mentioned, my small library is part of a huge system so I’ve been able to ask my colleagues at other locations who are already skilled in these areas for guidance when needed. This is a clear advantage of a large organization like mine. While each of our locations and populations is unique, there are certainly similarities in positions and responsibilities, making it easier to get help. It makes sense, then, that there’s talk about how we might share work and positions across locations–whether as a way to fill a gap while someone is away or as a nature of the position itself (and a cost-saving measure). Still, though, as long as we have physical spaces and students on site, we need people here, too. And with such lean staffing already, I struggle to think about new ways to reorganize our team. There’s a limit to what we can do with only so many hours in the day and so much on our plates already. I think we need to be realistic, as Angie and Hailley are also suggesting, about reducing hours or programming or what have you. At the same time, though, I’m thinking about ways to better recognize and reward the range of responsibilities my colleagues have, at both individual and structural levels. How can I show my appreciation better? How can I support their work better? What can I do to enhance their decision-making power?
Justin: At the University of Manitoba Libraries, we’re moving to more centralized and universal positions, both with library technicians and librarians; there’s less emphasis on specialization. This allows library services to be spread among a greater pool of staff and while subject specialty and expertise still plays a role, for certain services it’s easier to spread the load among the full complement of our librarians. One issue we’ve had with librarians is with leaves – both research and parental leaves – and retirements. These create holes throughout our library system, which other librarians have to cover, which is especially problematic if specific libraries or departments have fewer librarians. We’ve begun hiring leave/vacancy replacement librarians who are hired on terms, with the intent to cover for positions which are temporarily vacant due to leaves or retirements. As an entry-level librarian, these term positions are great to get experience, but you always have an eye to getting a permanent position. Regardless, it’s a good ‘stop-gap’ to not only get more entry-level librarian positions, but also to help continuing librarians manage their workload.
Veronica: Staffing issues were one of the major drivers of the dissolution of our liaison program and department in 2021. People were retiring or moving and we weren’t getting those positions back. We didn’t have a 1:1 ratio of liaisons to colleges, much less departments, and workload imbalance among librarians was a huge area of concern. Our liaison program was unsustainable so we dissolved that department in favor of 3 functional departments: Research Services, Teaching and Learning (which I oversee), and Collections Strategies and Services. This gave librarians the opportunity to focus on a functional area of expertise and allowed for more consistency around services.
When staffing issues mean workload issues or budget issues call for hard decisions, how do you, your team, or your organization adjust expectations and/or (re-)prioritize?
Hailley: I’ve been thinking about this a lot as a department head. When I meet one-on-one with folks in the department, I continue to ask them about their workload and where they are placing their time and energy. This gives me a pulse on the unit and I have a better sense of what we as a team can do (both in the short and long term). I’ve also been better about extending timelines and deadlines. Everything doesn’t have to be done immediately. I’m trying to be better about thinking through the semester rhythms and the larger priorities for the library and assign work accordingly. Finally, I think talking about workload and uncertainty as a team is so important. We have to acknowledge that things are difficult and the team might need to make difficult decisions in the upcoming months. If we are able to come together as a team and set our sights on what is important, I think that helps make prioritization clearer.
Jen: Hailley’s comments about getting a sense of the big picture and practicing open communication for shared understanding about priorities in order to make these challenging decisions resonate with me, as well. I’m reflecting on the kinds of questions I’ve used to inform this kind of prioritization and it seems that they center around considering the stakes involved… Who will be impacted? How and to what degree? Is this central to our mission? What are the trade-offs? What is lost and what is gained?
Justin: Being in a liaison librarian position, I’m not typically involved in high-level decision-making regarding system-wide priorities due to staffing or budget challenges. I would hope that decision makers from all levels of academic libraries weigh and measure priorities and make a short- and long-term plan to address the questions that Jen poses. I really appreciate the times when I have the chance to provide input and feedback into addressing our library’s overarching mission, goals, and priorities,—and especially when there’s internal and external pressures, whether that’s staffing or budget—it feels rewarding to help guide the direction of your library.
Veronica: I have a colleague who introduced me to the idea of “right-sizing,” as in, when you lose people to new career opportunities, retirements, or budget cuts, you need to right-size your department. There is literally no way that 3 people can accomplish the same level of work as that done by 10 people. This is when departmental work has to change. Certain things will just not get done, and that is an indicator to the greater campus community that the budget sacrifices made by a library or university have an impact on library services and resources. As Hailley mentioned, it’s important to stay informed on the status of workload for the librarians you supervise (if you supervise) and ensure that they are doing the job they were hired to do, rather than the job of 2-3 people without additional compensation.
We’d love to hear how things are going at your institution and how you’re navigating budget, staffing, and workload challenges. We hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments.