Collaboration Moves at the Speed of Trust

To work in higher ed these days is to grapple with institutional change. There’s no escaping it. Within our organizations, we’re experiencing structural, financial, curricular, pedagogical, or technological change — likely some combination thereof. We are working in a turbulent time. 

This turbulence churns up doubt and creates strong ripple effects: suspicion and fear, not to mention low morale. Yet successfully navigating these waves of institutional change requires confidence in our leadership, in a shared vision, in our ability to collaborate. 

You’ve heard that saying, collaboration moves at the speed of trust? We asked some librarians for their thoughts on the trust problems they’re seeing and how they’re building trust with their colleagues. Given the subject matter, we opted to anonymize this post. 

Have thoughts you’d like to share, too? Drop us a line in the comments. 

Have you seen the trust-in-higher-ed problem playing out in your past/current institutions? How so?

Response: One of my Directors of Libraries did not exactly instill trust among library staff. The Director claimed to be transparent in their decision-making, but library staff questioned their direction, with questionable decisions on budgeting, hiring, and new library services and technology. When asked respectfully, the Director was evasive and somewhat confrontational. This distrust feeds into work culture, creating a culture of fear and suspicion; it’s not a great place to work when that happens.

Response: At my institution, we had a very unfortunate situation play out with a partner that has seemed to pit the university vs. the local community. It was a PR nightmare, to say the least, and although the university is an anchor in this town and area of the country it’s severely wounded the local trust. As an example – social media posts that have nothing to do with said situation get comments about it because folks are so upset.

Response: As the budget situation at my public institution has worsened since the pandemic, we’re seeing very low levels of trust by faculty and staff in the upper administration. Several new administrators have come in over the past few years who have said they value communication, collaboration, and shared governance, though they have embarked on new, costly initiatives without input and now seem surprised at the pushback they’re receiving. While it can absolutely be true that higher educational institutions can be slow to change, especially if feedback is truly sought and accommodated, I think that often the lack of transparency and collaboration ends up dooming new initiatives from the outset, making things harder for faculty, staff, and ultimately for administrators.

What has undermined your trust in your past/current institutions? 

Response: At both my past and current institution, a boys club mentality has undermined my trust in these institutions. When sitting on committees at a campus level, it’s disappointing to spend time and energy in those meetings but feel like the men in the room, and in positions of power, already have an agenda and we are there simply to go through the motions. It feels both difficult to make progress and is frustrating to think that your ideas (and ideas of your colleagues not in this club) are dismissed and not taken seriously. 

Response: One thing that has undermined trust where I’ve worked is fake consultation. This is where library staff have been consulted on decisions, or appear to be part of the decision-making process in some capacity, but when recommendations are proposed, the decision seems to have been made from the start, as they would have been without consultation. When this happens over, and over, and over, trust is undermined.

Response: In my institution, the stark contrast between our leader in libraries and the broader administration (president, provost, etc) undermines the trust in the latter. Our Dean of Libraries is clear, transparent, and refers to a “life-work” balance instead of the other way around. We feel supported by them, and know that they are a staunch advocate for the Libraries in the many broader campus meetings they take part in. 

The president and provost, however, are not as transparent. Once asked (or sometimes forced to an answer by tuition-paying parents) they willingly talk about things like the university budget and the new process about hiring. But they didn’t choose to speak about it on their own. Without explanations, there has been a new admin hired right at the end of spring semester last year (so, once most faculty left) and now there is a new position in the provost’s office, which has also not been elaborated on. That position was posted at around 4:15pm on a Friday. It’s like they either don’t see the optics problem, or they simply don’t care. 

Oh, and did I mention we’re moving to a zero-based budget university-wide with mere weeks to submit, with an administration that prides themselves (overly so) on being data-driven? It doesn’t exactly build any trust whatsoever. 

Response: I’ve also been struck by a boys club mentality in a previous institution, which was coupled with a lack of transparency from the president and head of finance about budgeting. The impression I had was that the president knew best how to allocate funds, and the library was far down the list of priorities for him. It was difficult for us in the library to plan from semester to semester because we could not trust that resources would be available for us to do our jobs, and morale was (not unexpectedly) a challenge.

What has fueled, reinforced, or stabilized your trust in your past/current institutions? 

Response: In the last year, the institution I currently work at has brought in a new president, provost, and CFO. When sitting in the crowd for the president’s remarks upon the announcement of her hire, I felt hopeful about the future of the institution. Both the president and provost have done the work of showing up for events across campus, making time in their schedule to come to the library and listen to our ideas and concerns, and have communicated transparently about their work and external factors impacting our institution. I have seen the impact of this energy, on the dean of our library, the people I supervise, and colleagues outside the library. While our campus and budget problems aren’t completely solved, there’s a new level of trust that has re-energized us and made us feel a little more hopeful. 

Response: Transparency; give me the reasons why a decision is being made. I don’t necessarily have to agree, but at least I can see the reason and I don’t have to guess or speak with colleagues for their opinions, which fuels gossip and can worsen work culture.

Response: I echo transparency. The gossip at my institution is out of control because the higher-ups are making moves without making sure that folks understand where those moves come from. I’m not saying that everything needs to be qualified and explained; I am saying you need to consider how things look to everyone that works under you, and make decisions about how to explain your actions.

What have you done to build trust with colleagues and teams? 

Response: I’ve thought about this a lot. I’m a big fan of confiding in others and being vulnerable. I think this helps build long-term relationships that are built on a solid foundation of trust. Honesty and empathy, which can be common in long-term relationships, are huge components of building trust. 

Response: My past professional experiences have shown me the importance of consistency in building trust. As a department head, I work to consistently show up for my team and for people within the library. In my current context, that plays out with me being on-site, keeping an open door and drop-in policy, and having frequent conversations with the department about workload and capacity. I do my best to communicate what I know, build consensus and make collaborative decisions as much as I can, and celebrate successes. I feel like it’s always a work in progress and maintaining trust is a verb, not something that can be attained and then you can coast. 

Response: The open-door policy I have with members of my department has been crucial for the team to build trust in one another, especially with half of the entire department being new in one year. I know I can go to anyone’s office with a question, even our chair, and either get an answer or have a discussion on where we might find said answer. Us newbies have also been trying to build rapport with other departments in the library, which have historically been a bit siloed. 

What kind of institutional change are you encountering?

To kick off our institutional change theme, we asked some librarians this question: In the New Year, what kind of institutional change are you encountering? Are you looking forward to it, dreading it, or some kind of in-between feeling? Given the subject matter, we opted to anonymize this post. If you have thoughts on institutional change, sound off in the comments or reach out to us to do a guest post!

Blogger 1: At my university, we have a fairly new president and provost. This has led to a complete overhaul of the way that positions are approved, along with a number of other changes. There has been a lot of faculty rumblings that ultimately came to a head with a letter from anonymous faculty to the President, listing both their concerns and rumors that had been swirling around the new administration. It was brought to everyone’s attention via a faculty senate motion. I shared some of the concerns, but there were also portions of the letter that were either untrue or petty in comparison to the real concerns. I did not feel it was representative of all faculty. 

As you might imagine, this caused an absolute tizzy throughout campus. Faculty senate motions are public, so the letter was seen by everyone; even the student newspaper reported on it. The senate ultimately held an all-faculty meeting to go over the concerns, which are being compiled into a report (minus the rumors). There had been discussion at the library about administration, but this really brought it all into hard focus. A good portion of our department meetings have been spent on compiling and articulating our own concerns, which focus on the (lack of) communication from admin and staffing, since that aforementioned position approval process has slowed the hiring process down considerably. In my opinion, the whole debacle could have been avoided with a better communication strategy. Maybe needless to say, but it’s caused a lot of dread and anxiety overall for me; I do hope that it leads to change in the new admins’ approaches, though. 

Blogger 2: I almost feel like the question might actually be what institutional change aren’t we encountering. In some ways, this year just seems to hold more of the same as the last few: a steady trickle of folks leaving all levels of positions whether for retirement or other positions and places; continuing enrollment troubles; growing budget challenges; and so on. These issues certainly aren’t new (or unique to my institution) but it does feel like they’re really piling up. On one hand, these converging and intensifying challenges are just adding a hearty dose of uncertainty and instability to the burnout and morale issues we’re already confronting. On the other hand, though, I do respect how the new university leadership seems to be addressing the challenges head on, rather than letting issues continue to fester. I admire how library leadership is transparent about the challenges and the decision-making processes being used to address them. I also appreciate how leadership is so far framing our organizational response to the (yes, mounting and increasingly consequential) challenges as opportunities for innovation, not just setbacks and hardships. Of course, they absolutely are setbacks and hardships — let’s not kid ourselves. But it helps to remember that we might actually be able to do something about it. 

Blogger 3: At my library, we’re having a hard time hiring librarians. It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly we’re not getting positions filled; some positions it seems like aren’t appealing enough to attract candidates (e.g. job responsibilities and/or compensation) and some may be because of institutional issues (e.g. timing of searches, which vacant positions are prioritized, length of time to complete a search, and failed searches for one reason or another).

Related to length of time, the hiring process is an arduous process, with many librarians on search committees, getting job descriptions and advertisements approved from our institution’s administration, and the longlisting, shortlisting, and interviewing. When this results in a failed search—whether that’s due to a lack of applicants or procedural issues—this only exacerbates the issue to get the position filled timely. This is disheartening, to say the least.

We’re trying different approaches to attract candidates, to put them in the best position to succeed and feel adequately compensated. While our library can adapt our hiring practices, we still have to operate within our institutional policies on recruiting. In the meantime, we continue to cover positions in different ways and have our fingers crossed that we can finally get a full complement of librarians.

Contract Positions and Leave Coverage for Academic Librarians

Contract and term positions are all too common for early-career academic librarians. Shrinking post-secondary budgets, demand for academic librarian positions, doing more with less, and persistent vacant positions means landing a permanent and continuing position can be challenging. Job precarity is a reality for many of our early-career colleagues.

Sajni Lacey, in the article “Job Precarity, Contract Work, and Self-Care,” convincingly writes that employers must do more to look after their precarious employees, including caring for and supporting contract library workers. Lacey’s powerful final lines read, “[w]e need to hold each other accountable for how and why we use precarious work in libraries.”

Lacey’s final line is prescient when looking at my library at the University of Manitoba. Several years ago, our librarians discussed our usage of contract positions to cover for librarians on leave– whether that’s research, administrative, sick, or parental leave. We were wondering if there was a better way to cover for librarians who go on leave than relying on term positions. A committee was struck to survey how other Canadian academic libraries handle leaves, document our current process, and to offer recommendations.

I volunteered for the committee since at the time, I recently obtained a continuing position; prior to this I was working in a term position. In this term position, I was in a newly-created position at our library: a Leave/Vacancy Replacement Librarian. These positions are intended to swap in and out of our different libraries, covering the duties of librarians who are on leave or for vacant positions. The job description is very general, as you could be placed in pretty much any library or unit in our system. Though on contract, it’s a faculty-level position, giving you a fair salary and health benefits, although you need to go through the faculty-level interview process to get the position—as well as each time to interview for future continuing positions.

Our committee’s process was to see what other Canadian academic libraries do to cover leaves—if anything—, identify the core work of librarians that needs coverage, and provide recommendations to how this work will best be covered. Some of the questions our committee asked were: What’s common at other Canadian academic libraries? What are the core duties that could (or should) be performed by coworkers and those by a replacement? Is there a way to transition from term to continuing positions? What would this look like for covering leaves?

One suggestion, and the suggestion that led to the committee’s formation in the first place, was to make the term coverage positions continuing. Since librarians on leave still receive their salary, this makes it difficult to hire continuing coverage librarians. As well, as someone who had recently been in this position, I couldn’t imagine being a coverage librarian permanently; it’s disruptive to move positions every six months to a year.

After our committee surveyed other Canadian academic libraries—many of whom do not cover leaves at all—and discussed various issues specific to our institution, we collaboratively wrote up our findings in a report and fine-tuned our conclusions and recommendations. Ultimately, we were going to continue with our faculty-level term positions for covering librarians on leave. Thankfully, these positions provide health benefits, vacation time, and PD funding, all things that Yoonhee Lee touches on in an American Libraries article, despite these positions being precarious.    

After our research, discussions, and writing, we realized that the status quo is the solution – and that’s okay; “[p]recarity within and outside of libraries is tied to larger structural forces, and no one library or librarian can craft a universal solution,” Lee writes. We did thoughtful and intentioned problem solving, in earnest, and continuing to cover leaves with librarians on term was the most realistic answer to our committee’s question.  Sometimes the best way forward is to continue doing what you’ve been doing. Our committee did make progress, though; you don’t know if the way you’re currently going is the best way, if you don’t look deeper into it.  

How does your library handle contract or part-time library work? I’m interested to know if you get leaves at your library, and if so, whether your library covers for librarians on leave?

Focus on Institutional Change

The transformation of Higher Education institutions has been an ongoing journey, gaining momentum due to the sweeping changes triggered by COVID-19 and a growing awareness of existential threats like climate change, inflation, housing insecurity, and institutional discrimination. These shifts have left a lasting imprint on the way academic libraries operate, offer services, and stay relevant. During the pandemic, academic libraries often led the way by swiftly returning to on-site operations to ensure core services were accessible to students and faculty. The landscape has changed significantly, with many institutions experiencing dramatic shifts.

My personal experience, beginning at my institution in May 2020, reflects this turbulence. In just two years, I had four different bosses, each with their unique vision for my role and department. Additionally, we welcomed a new University President and Provost. As I prepare to transition to a new role after three years, our Library Director is also stepping down. My story is not uncommon. The importance of higher education and libraries is being reevaluated, and the changes brought on by remote learning have given rise to new service models and expectations. Many library professionals have opted for retirement, while the needs and expectations of students on campus have evolved. As colleges and universities redefine their objectives, adopt new technologies, and revamp their methodologies, libraries are prompted to adapt as well. This adaptability is crucial for libraries to maintain their role in the academic ecosystem.

In the coming year, the ACRLog team will share posts that delve into these areas and more, showcasing how different institutions and individuals are navigating change. We’ll highlight instances of tension, failure, and success, with the hope of inspiring our community to engage and share what’s working. We acknowledge that there’s no perfect formula for managing institutional change, but we believe that the insights we share will stimulate discussions and help us all support one another as we shape the “new normal” for academic libraries.

Libraries, in their pursuit of academic support, must remain agile, adaptable, and forward-thinking. Embracing change is fundamental to maintaining their role as essential academic partners. As institutions evolve, academic libraries have a responsibility not only to adapt but to thrive in the new environment, continuing their legacy of nurturing knowledge, innovation, and intellectual growth.

From Technician to Librarian

I graduated with my Library & Information Technology diploma in Spring 2013. I went to Red River College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, being the only library-related program in the province. I can remember, in a pre-interview to the program, one of the instructors asking me, “how come you don’t you get your MLIS instead?” Good question–I had thought about it, but there isn’t a graduate-level library school in my area, in my province even; I would’ve had to move.

I started in academic libraries as a library technician (‘library assistant’) in January 2015 at the University of Manitoba, and soon after began thinking about completing my Master’s degree. Two years prior, in 2013, the University of Alberta began an online, course-based MLIS program that students could complete entirely online. This program opened a door for me, where I could complete the degree part-time while continuing to work at the University of Manitoba full-time. I applied in Winter 2016 and started my Master’s program in Fall 2016. Of course, this was a busy time for me, working full-time, mainly evenings and weekends, going to grad school part-time, and with the birth of my son in 2017, my plate was full, but it was worth it—as after I graduated, I was doing the work I wanted to be doing.

Why had I been thinking of getting my MLIS so soon after starting work as an academic library tech? Immediately I saw the separation in job responsibilities of library assistants and librarians, and I knew I wanted to be a librarian to do the work of a librarian, things like library instruction and working on my own research.

There’s a major difference in the assigned duties to library technicians versus librarians. One of the major differences was technician duties were focused on day-to-day tasks, like staffing the public service desk, book pickup requests, and managing the reserves collection. As a tech, I would spend time making analytics reports in our ILS, Ex Libris’ Alma or contacting patrons with overdue fines. I also spent a lot of time troubleshooting and solving patron questions, either during shifts at the public service desk, on virtual reference, or helping a coworker. Sometimes these questions weren’t library-related, but I would do my best to find the right campus service or department that the patron needed; I don’t get those types of questions nearly as often as a librarian.

Librarians have day-to-day duties, of course, but in contrast, there’s a lot more long-term planning and project work; you’re removed, in a lot of ways, from the on-the-ground functioning of the library. There’s a lot more meetings, a lot more opportunities to plan or change how the library works, and a lot less of ‘keeping the lights on.’

There’s increased decision-making throughout my role as a librarian. I would often as a technician defer challenging or difficult questions to my supervisor. Now, I have the latitude to make judgement calls on my own. When I was working as a public-facing technician, there was a real team aspect to the work. We would debrief about challenging reference questions or give background to something we anticipated in the coming days or weeks, things like popular reserve items or students needing to complete an assignment by speaking with a particular librarian.  

Although I work as part of a team of science librarians, there’s much more independence in how you structure your week/month/year as a librarian—not to mention the lack of shift work. Independence makes it natural to look ahead to advancing throughout your career, with my professional performance, professional development, research, and service as a major function of this. I have more of a growth mindset as a librarian, compared to my work as a technician.

I can remember helping to put together our health sciences’ library newsletter, with several librarians. After a year or so of this work, one of the librarians thanked me profusely for my help, and asked if she could write me a formal thank you letter if that would be useful. As a library technician, I declined as I didn’t think it would be useful. As a librarian, I look for those physical acknowledgements of volunteerism and accomplishment, to use in future performance reviews and promotion packages. As a technician, I didn’t have that mindset since those formal processes of career advancement weren’t a part of the job. But thinking back on that offer, a physical recognition of dutiful and intentional work, even as a technician, should’ve been a priority of mine. Technicians can have growth mindsets as well, and advance through their career, even if there aren’t the same institutional markers, like promotion in rank, available.

I wanted to become a librarian not only because of the differences in duties and type of work, but I wanted to challenge myself. Like most people in our profession, I’m a lifelong learner, always wanting to learn something new and to challenge myself. And because I’m challenged more often, I have increased job satisfaction as a librarian, in addition to the differences I outlined above: independence, decision-making in my work and the work of my library system, and career advancement.

Claire Hill (2014), in her study exploring work relationships between library technicians and librarians, found 77% of survey respondents mention a need to improve relationships between the two groups. Examples from respondents include a need for mutual respect (regardless of educational qualification), more library technician professional development, and modern reworking of library technician scope-of-work and career advancement. Based on my experience, I never felt a lack of mutual respect—in fact I felt recognized by my librarian peers for my work as a technician, such as the librarian offering to write me a thank you letter for my work. I do think there could be more technician-focused professional development, but it’s out there if you look for it (and if you have the time and/or funding).  

But there certainly could be more done in rethinking technician work and career advancement. Personally, I think along with rethinking technician scope-of-work, there needs to be a shift from seeing library technicians as “paraprofessionals,” only useful to assist librarians. I’m a big fan of the phrase “library worker,” to encompass technicians and librarians alike.

New models of academic librarianship, such as the functional specialist model, threaten to sideline library technicians, disrupting their work as the academic library shifts to prioritize and restructure librarian work, and putting aside library technicians. This is an area where technicians can be involved in decision-making, and by extension, demonstrate mutual respect. Technicians can bring their professional interests and expertise to the forefront of functional work. As argued by Hoffmann and Carlisle-Johnston (2021) who write about librarians, but certainly can encompass technicians as well, in current or future reorganization, we can keep in mind foundations of liaison library work by “building relationships, anticipating and meeting needs, and drawing on specialized expertise” (Conclusion section, para. 1).

While it has now been some time since I worked as a technician, I still draw upon those experiences as a librarian; and of course, I remember the dull and gruelling shift work in the late evening and over the weekend. I certainly won’t forget the work or those I worked closely with any time soon.

How many of you are library technicians? Once were library technicians? It’s a surprisingly common career trajectory for librarians to have been library techs. Leave a comment, I’d be happy to hear from you. If you’re a library tech thinking about getting your MLIS and want to talk more, get in touch!

Hill, C. (2014). The professional divide: Examining workplace relationships between librarians and library technicians. The Australian Library Journal, 63(1), 23-34.

Hoffmann, K. & Carlisle-Johnston, E. (2021, March 26). “Just like when i was a liaison”: Applying a liaison approach to functional library models. The Journal of Creative Library Practice.