When Did Efficiency Become the End-Goal?

Earlier this week I read the latest Library Trends article by Karen P. Nicholson, Nicole Pagowsky, and Maura Seale, Just-in-Time or Just-in-Case? Time, Learning Analytics, and the Academic Library (also available via the University of Arizona Repository. If you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this blog post and head on over to that article because it is well worth your time.

It’s an exploration of time, in fact, and examines the relationship between academic libraries’ adoption of learning analytics as a crisis response to the “future of academic libraries” discourse that has been around as long as libraries. One of the very first blog posts I ever wrote was in response to this constant state of crisis and dire warnings of the future. Nicholson, Pagowsky, and Seale describe this existential fear as the “timescape of a present-future, whose primary value lies in staving off the risk of a library-less future” (2019, p.4). By existing in this “present-future” we seem to be responding to a known-future, one that we must make changes to adapt to fit, rather than a future of our own making that we have the power to shape through organizing, taking actions based on values, and a concerted effort to create change as a profession.

I so appreciate the authors linking the notion of time to power, because time is being used in such a way that renders us powerless. We’re somehow always working against a constantly ticking clock, trying to be more productive and more effective and more efficient. But when did education become about efficiency? When did we collectively decide that our library instruction programs should be about teaching the most classes, reaching the most students, providing badges, or highlighting major initiatives. Learning is messy. Teaching have can impacts that are small but significant. If we are constantly living in a present-future of what our libraries will or will not be then we are unable to exist in the moment in our libraries, classrooms, and interactions with those around us.

The irony of the popularity of future-casting in libraries AND mindfulness is not lost on me. One is constantly urging us to look forward, mitigate risk, and plan against predictions. The other asks us to be present in our current state, maintain awareness of ourselves and those around us, and work to cultivate a sense of balance with the world. Is the push towards mindfulness a response to our ever-anxious existence as libraries looking toward the future? Is it the answer? Or do we need something more?

I suspect that mindfulness / awareness of the present is a start, but that it should then lead toward present action. What can I do in this moment to make things meaningful for myself, my colleagues, my library? The push towards making work, particularly instruction work, more sustainable tends to edge towards standardization, or, as Nicholson writes, the McDonaldization of Academic Libraries, again because we are looking towards a future rife with cost efficiency concerns, doing more with less, and proving value. It may appear to be programmatically sustainable, but ultimately sustainability relies on people, and people burn out. People get tired of teaching the same lesson plan over and over again. People get fed up with the distance between themselves and the students at the other end of that online lesson. For our work to be truly sustainable it needs to also be sustaining to our needs as people who entered the work of librarianship, specifically teaching librarianship, to help others.

So what can a present-aware, meaningful practice of librarianship look like in the current academic library?

Recommended Reading: White Fragility

I spent most of last weekend home sick with a cold, sniffling under blankets and cats, though the unexpected bright spot was the time to finish a book that was so fantastic that I can’t not recommend it. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo, floored me with its honest discussion of the role that we white people play in maintaining the racist systems in our society.

From the first page of the first chapter DiAngelo pulls no punches: “White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result, we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage.”

DiAngelo makes a compelling case for why white people must push through our discomfort and learn to talk about race. She reviews the history of racism and white supremacy, and points out that the focus on individual acts of racism as perpetrated by bad actors sets up a binary that prevents white people from discussing racism at all. Throughout the book DiAngelo shares examples from her work in antiracist trainings to highlight the ways that white people — including herself — behave in conversations with people of color and conversations about race. Most importantly, she reminds us that “the antidote to guilt is action” (p. 143), and shares concrete suggestions to help white people resist white fragility and white solidarity, and to push back against racism in our society.

I feel strongly that this book should be required reading for all white librarians. As has been much discussed in recent years, librarianship remains over 86% white, despite years of advocacy and efforts to attract and fund students of color in LIS programs and hire librarians of color. And while librarianship remains predominantly white, the undergraduate population in the U.S has only continued to diversify. I work at a large public college that primarily serves New York City residents, and our student population is reflective of the city we’re in. It’s critical to my work that I learn about and practice antiracism. I’m also a chief librarian, and I want to especially urge my fellow white library directors and managers to read this book; we are responsible both to our campus communities and our library colleagues to interrupt our white fragility and strive for a more inclusive workplace.

There are lots of ways to learn about racism and antiracism. I am still learning, though I can share what’s been helpful to me. A few years ago I attended a three-day antiracism workshop that was a good place to start with both learning more about the structural racism of U.S. society and to begin having conversations about race. I also read a lot (probably not a surprise!) — as librarians, we are terrific at doing research, finding resources, and extending our learning. Searching online for antiracist resources should bring up numerous lists of resources on race and racism generally. Twitter has afforded me the opportunity to listen and learn from people of color in librarianship, academia, and activism. I also attend a white antiracist discussion group which I find incredibly valuable because, as DiAngelo demonstrates so well, talking about race is hard for white people, and we need to practice in order to get comfortable with our discomfort.

This is so important — if you’re a white librarian I hope you’ll take the time to read this book, too. At just over 150 pages it’s a quick read, and DiAngelo is a clear and thoughtful writer. And if you’d like to get familiar with her work before diving into the book, I recommend this video:
Deconstructing White Privilege
and this article:
White People are still raised to be racially illiterate. If we don’t recognize the system, our inaction will uphold it.

Vocational Awe and Professional Identity

A few days ago, In the Library with the Lead Pipe published an article by Fobazi Ettarh titled Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves. Ettarh uses the term “vocational awe” to “refer to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” Her article masterfully traces the root of this vocational awe, from the intertwining history of faith and librarianship to our current state, where librarians are expected to literally save lives. Ettarh argues that vocational awe leads to some of the structural problems in our profession, like lack of diversity, undercompensation, and burnout.

I will admit that I initially felt some defensiveness when I started reading this article. One of the reasons I became a librarian is because I wanted to care about and be engaged with the mission of my work, and I do deeply believe in the values that libraries try to uphold. When I got past that initial reaction, I realized how Ettarh’s research allows us to talk about our profession more honestly. As the author clearly states, the article doesn’t ask librarians not to take pride in their work. Nor is it an indictment of our core values (although it does, rightly, point out they are inequitably distributed across society).  Rather, it encourages us to challenge the idea that our profession is beyond critique, and therefore opens up space for us to better it.

Although this is not its primary intent, I wonder whether this research direction will help us resolve some of our own tortured professional identity issues. I am among those who became a librarian partly out of passion and partly out of convenience. I didn’t feel called to the profession. Instead, I made a conscious decision based on my interests and the sort of life I wanted for myself. I knew I wanted to be in a job where I would be helping people, with the opportunity for intellectual growth, and that I wanted to have a stable job with a balance between work and my other personal interests. Librarianship seemed like a very natural fit. But the vocational awe in librarianship means that you’re surrounded by the idea that being a good librarian means being driven solely by passion. Heidi Johnson previously wrote about the isolating feeling of not being a “born librarian” here at ACRLog, and I remember this post resonating deeply with me when I first started to become self-conscious that my professional identity was built less on my sacred calling to it than some of my peers. I think that unpacking the vocational awe that makes us feel this way might help to dispel some of the professional identity issues that so many librarians, and particularly new ones, seem to have.

As I was thinking about this article, I also realized that my own version of vocational awe usually manifests when I’m talking to non-librarians. Telling people I’m a librarian produces surprisingly revealing responses. Some people respond a well-meaning, but misinformed, “how fun! I wish I could read books all day, while others respond with some variation of “but aren’t libraries dying?” I suspect that this is partially a result of the slew of articles that are published every year on the decline of libraries and the death of librarianship. After responses like this, I feel compelled to defend librarianship in the strongest terms. I talk about information literacy, intellectual freedom, public spaces, privacy, access to information, democracy, you name it. I turn into a library evangelist. None of my own hesitations, challenges, or frustrations find their way into these conversations. Several people have already written about the exhaustion of constantly defending and explaining our profession. But this article made me wonder if there is some connection between how often we find ourselves needing to defend what we do — to friends, to faculty, to funding agencies, to the public — and tendency to resist the idea that there is a lot of internal work we need to do to truly uphold the values we claim. Ettarh’s article made me think about how to balance these two ideas: believing in and advocating for my profession, while working to make it better for the people in it.

What does that look like? I’m not entirely sure yet. But I think it entails being more honest. It means advocating for our value, but not pretending that we can do everything. And it means contributing to a culture that doesn’t valorize martyrdom. For me, that means saying no if I don’t have the bandwidth for a project. It means using my all my vacation time, and stopping using busyness as a measure of worth. There is much more to the article than I can unpack here, and I hope that everyone will go read it. I’m looking forward to hearing other people’s thoughts on how vocational awe impacts our profession, and how we might work to stop using it, as Ettarh puts it, as the only way to be a librarian.

Maintaining in Academic Libraries

The spring conference season is in full swing, and one weekend earlier this month it seemed like there were conferences of interest to me all over the place, judging from the hashtags in my Twitter timeline: #PLA2016, #SAA2016 (Society of American Archaeologists), #OAH2016 (Organization of American Historians), #DifferentGames2016, and #AERA16 (American Educational Research Association), just to name (more than) a few.

But of all of those great-looking events, most of my conference envy (and associated hashtag-following) was reserved for #maintainers, hashtag for The Maintainers: A Conference, at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. From the description on the conference website:

Many groups and individuals today celebrate “innovation.” The notion is influential not only in engineering and business, but also in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. For example, “innovation” has become a staple of analysis in popular histories – such as Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

This conference takes a different approach, one whose conceptual starting point was a playful proposal for a counter-volume to Isaacson’s that could be titled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time.

From the tweets I caught this conference looked fascinating, and you can read more about it in the shared conference notes doc (with many links to full papers) as well as in the essay Hail the Maintainers published in Aeon by conference organizers Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell the day before the conference. And since the conference I’ve been mulling over this tension of maintenance vs. innovation, and how it might be expressed in academic libraries.

Like our transit infrastructure, libraries require maintenance work to function, work that touches every part of our libraries: facilities, resources, services (in alphabetical order, not necessarily order of importance). This maintenance work, while crucial, sometimes seems easy to forget, especially as annual reporting season rolls around each year. Do we report the maintenance work we do? If we don’t report it, administrators, faculty, staff, and students outside the library might not know it’s happening, so I would argue that yes, we should report it.

But maintenance can’t be the only thing happening in academic libraries — as technology, access to information, and higher education more generally go through changes, libraries do as well. One danger of focusing only on maintenance is that it might prevent us from trying something new that could bring real benefits to us as workers or to the communities we serve. Adding new (or making changes to existing) facilities, resources, and services can also bring new requirements for maintenance. Perhaps there’s legacy maintenance that’s no longer needed, allowing us to balance between continuing and new efforts within the constraints of our time and budgets?

I bristle when I read the phrase “do more with less” because I want to resist the overwork and burnout that can happen to all of us, especially when necessary maintenance work can seem invisible or underappreciated. And I think that innovation as a buzzword can sometimes be used to encourage us to do more with less, to believe that innovation alone will overcome the limitations of funding and time. But I also don’t think that flat or declining budgets mean that we shouldn’t change — I think it’s worth our efforts to figure out if there is maintenance work that we can stop doing that can allow us to try something new (which, if successful, will of course require maintenance of its own).

Is maintenance the opposite of innovation in academic libraries? Can we do both? Must we do both? To be honest, I’m still puzzling through my thoughts about this, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

The end of the book as we know it, and I feel (mostly) fine.

I’m packing for an upcoming vacation and assembling my reading material. In addition to a backlog of unread New Yorkers, I’ll bring novels (mostly new fantasy and speculative fiction) that will keep me company in airports and at the lake. I’m trying to spend as little money as possible, and so I’m gathering Kindle books borrowed from friends, Kindle and ePub books borrowed from our local public library, and one eagerly awaited 561-page print book from my library’s collection.

As a librarian, I’m comfortable navigating the library eBook universe (or is it a minefield? asteroid belt? black hole?) for personal reading. Not all of our patrons find it easy, and not all libraries can make eBooks available to the extent that they would like. The subject inspires great pride in libraries, prejudice against publishers, common sense, and passionate sensibility –

  • In June, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that 12% of Americans who read (and what percentage of all Americans is that?) have borrowed ebooks from their public libraries, but half of those surveyed didn’t know that libraries offered that service. Those who do borrow ebooks from public libraries report frustration – with limited selection, long waits, and incompatible formats. If more patrons are going to use ebook lending services, we’ll have to have better relationships with publishers, and more titles and formats available.
  • New York Times financial columnist Ann Carrns describes her experience trying to save money by borrowing ebooks from her local library. She reports many of the same frustrations as the subjects in the Pew survey, but had more success when she stopped searching her library’s ebook collection for known items and instead browsed what titles were available. (I have also found this a great way to discover new authors, if you have patience to wade through the dross.)
  • Patrons are frustrated because, according to Barbara Fister, “large trade publishers think sharing is a bug, not a feature.” Ebook publishing models don’t value the culture of collaboration and cooperation that libraries are built upon. Academic libraries may have a slight advantage here, since we tend to work with academic and nonprofit publishers, who, like scholars, “think sharing is pretty much the point of publishing.”
  • Are we better off with ebooks or without them? Librarian in Black thinks we should break up with ebooks, because they are a bad boyfriend: “Libraries and eBooks aren’t shacking up anytime soon, not for real…not as long as publishers continue to falsely view us as a threat instead of a partner.” In contrast, Steven Harris argues that our relationship with print books is just as dysfunctional and codependent.
  • Is this the end of the book as we know it? Or do ebooks represent reading’s future? Speculative fiction has always contemplated the death of the book, according to English professor Leah Price, but “what [writers] never seem to have imagined was that the libraries housing those dying volumes might themselves disappear.” Let’s hope they’re right.