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.

Celebrate Your Cheerleaders!

Last month, we had a small reception in our library to celebrate a handful of individuals who are strong supporters of the library and promote the use of library resources and services by students, faculty, and staff. Despite being new to this library this year, I was familiar with this program, because the “READ” posters featuring last year’s recipients and the books they chose to highlight were hanging in the library. Now, those posters have been gifted to the individuals featured on them, and replaced on our walls by the new honorees’ posters. Starting this year, we are also adding the books chosen by the honorees to our collection, with a bookplate stating who they are and why they were recognized by the library.

It’s nice, right? I certainly thought so. People like to be recognized for their efforts. So I thought about how we hadn’t done anything official like this for the faculty and staff who really championed the library at my former job, even though I can easily name a dozen of our “cheerleaders” off the top of my head, even after being gone for a year now.

There are a lot of little ways we can thank the faculty and staff who make our jobs easier (by promoting the use of the library to their students and among their colleagues) and make our jobs harder in the good way (by increasing traffic to the library, making requests for collection development or instruction, utilizing our services, and so much more).

There are no-cost ways to recognize our “cheerleaders,” like posting about them and their work on our social media accounts, building displays centered around them, or simply writing them personal thank-you notes (and, if appropriate, copying their supervisors to extend the recognition beyond the library). There is also sometimes the opportunity to get involved in a project or service that is important to that faculty member, like assisting with a student group they work with, or volunteering library space for meetings of a committee or group they serve on at an institution where space is a hot commodity. Many institutions have a “kudos” system, where you can submit a person who is worthy of kudos and they receive some sort of recognition or reward for having a positive impact.

There are low-cost ways, too; our READ posters and small reception with cookies and coffee was not an extravagant affair (and everyone responds well to cookies and coffee). Purchasing copies of the faculty member’s publications to include in the library’s collection (if this is not already a given at your institution) is nice, and I would even ask them to sign the library’s copy, to make it a little more special. Even a simple gift (bookmarks seem like an appropriate choice, but use your imagination!) at the end of the year (calendar or academic) given out to a selected number of individuals in the institution who have supported the library in their own way would be a nice gesture of appreciation.

So in the spirit of the season of giving thanks, and giving gifts, consider implementing ways of celebrating those who celebrate you and your library!

Ending the year with questions

It’s the end of the year and all the things I expect are happening. Students are camping out in the library, I’m working on end-of-the-semester recaps,  and I’m already thinking ahead to 2020. With the way the holiday lines up, I’ll leave campus before finals are over and graduation has occurred and when I return, it will be empty and quiet. Like many people, I’m looking forward to the break, turning on my out-of-office email and basking in several meeting-free days in a row.  

As I gear up for this last week, I’m leaving 2019 with a lot of questions. Asking questions is part of my job but recently my questions have gotten harder to easily answer. You might have read my post in October, which raises a lot of questions about my type of librarianship. But beyond that I’m also thinking about: 

  • What does space mean to us?
  • What does it mean to be productive in a capitalist society and what space lends itself to being productive?
  • Where is my research agenda going? 
  • Where is my research project going to take me in 2020? 
  • How do we, as libraries, promote ourselves to students? Does it actually work? 
  • What is the spectrum of experiences in the library that we want our students to have?
  • How do you push back against the idea that a scholarly article is always reliable? And how do you do that in just 50 minutes? 
  • What should reference in an academic library look like? How is that tied with our instruction?  
  • Is it possible to lead transparently?
  • How do we tell a compelling story to administrators? What data do we need and how do we tell the story if we don’t have it? 
  • Will we recruit enough students for our new class

I’m lucky I can talk through these questions with my friends in academia, my supervisor, my formal and informal mentors, the students I work with, and my colleagues. While sometimes it feels strange to have so many questions and so little direction on how to answer them, I wonder if this means I’m getting somewhere. Or maybe I’m just getting more seasoned. But I’m ready to unpack these questions in 2020. Stay tuned to see what I discover.

What questions do you have as we end 2019?


Featured photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

Five Healthy Coping Strategies for Dealing with Rejection in Academic Librarianship

Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash

“Do not fear failure but rather fear not trying.”

Roy T. Bennett

I put myself out there. A lot. I’ve lost count of the number of awards and scholarships I’ve applied to throughout my education and career. I do remember that I was rejected for every single one of them. I really love and recommend this free webinar by Dr. Kate Drabinski on dealing with rejection in academia. One of ACRLog’s former First-Year Academic Librarian bloggers, Quetzalli Barrientos, also wrote a fantastic post on getting rejected in the library world. While more and more of us are beginning to talk about rejection in academia, it’s still a fairly taboo topic that’s difficult and requires radical vulnerability to open up about. So this month, I want to discuss developing healthy coping strategies for getting comfortable with rejection. Here are five of my strategies for dealing with — and accepting — rejection in academic librarianship:

Keep an affirmations file

An affirmations file is a place to keep track of your successes: an e-mail congratulating you on a recent project from a colleague, an award you’ve won or been nominated for, and the positive things students and colleagues have said about you, for starters. Your affirmations file can be physical or digital; use whatever format you know you’ll return to when you need a quick hit of confidence and shot of self-esteem.

Be vulnerable and ask for help

I am a firm believer in the power of radical vulnerability. I think one of the bravest things we can do is ask for help. Whether you’re workshopping a potential journal article or writing a conference proposal, another person’s feedback can be invaluable as it lends a new lens to your work that can help you see things in new or different way and/or how you might improve your work. Find folks who are in your corner and are willing to help you with your work before you submit it – then return the favor when you’re able to, especially to new professionals!

Talk about it

Talking about rejection is crucial. Talking about the things we’re ashamed and fearful of or that are simply taboo is a way to take that power away from them while creating a space for others to share their stories and experiences as well. Ask your colleagues about how they deal with rejection.These conversations about rejections can also lend to new ideas and collaborative partnerships. You never know what might be born from a rejection!

Collaboration over competition

It’s easy to see our colleagues as our competition when we have a scarcity mindset (the belief that there will never be enough, thus our thoughts and actions stem from a place/fear of lack.) Capitalism encourages this. Academia does too, convincing us that our colleagues are our enemies, rather than potential allies and advocates, to keep us from building collective power. While not everyone has our best interests at heart, many of our colleagues could be fantastic co-conspirators, collaborators, and partners in projects, papers, or proposals. I would especially encourage more seasoned librarians to reach out to early-career librarians and ask them what their research interests and career goals are, with the end goal of partnering on a paper or project in mind. On our own, we can only do so much. Together, whether as collaborators, co-conspirators, and/or as a collective, we can create real change.

View rejection as a learning opportunity and keep going!

After being rejected for so, so, SO, many scholarships to attend conferences, I finally started asking for feedback on what would make my application stronger from the awards committee. Thanks to their generous feedback, I learned a lot about what I could do to not only write better statements but to make myself a stronger candidate for awards and scholarships. Finally, this year, I was awarded my first conference scholarship – the ACRL/NY 2019 Symposium Early-Career Librarian scholarship award! 

Discuss further

In the comments section, I encourage you to share what feelings rejection brings up for you, as well as your own tips for coping with rejection.

Karina Hagelin is an artist, community organizer, and Outreach and Instruction Librarian and Diversity Fellow at Cornell University Library. You can find them tweeting about critical librarianship and cats under @karinahagelin or more about their work at KarinaKilljoy.com. They can be reached at karina.hagelin@cornell.edu

Liasion Bricolage: Making Do, Gaining Responsibilities and Burnout

My work dramatically changed when I dropped scholarly communication for liaison librarianship last Spring. It has not been a clean break. I was a functional specialist with liaison duties at Utah State and I find myself a liaison with functional duties at the University of Washington. In part because my former job gives me an area of expertise that is helpful to the departments I serve. This has made me think about the role of expertise in our climate of academic librarianship. What are we expected to know for faculty and students? What should a reference librarian know about specialties and how do we balance these different experiences?

The idea of the two roles of academic librarianship, split between functional and subject related expertise, is something explored in library literature since at least the 1980s and 1990s. Sometimes, this is the introduction of “non-librarians” into library employment (Lihua and Guogang 2013) but more often this distinction has been brought up in the changing roles of subject librarians. Most fundamental to my understanding of my role as a humanities subject librarian has been the decreased emphasis on subject expertise as a requirement, as indicated in reports like Ithaka S+R’s Rethinking Liaison Programs for the Humanities from July 2017.

In this report, Cooper and Schonfeld comment that because of demand-driven acquisitions “the role of subject expertise is less needed for selection of general materials” as librarians have moved from a traditional “bibliographer” role into liaison positions (2). The transition from subject librarian to liaison librarian marks a departure from the subject expertise once necessary to build large reflective disciplinary collections into a sort of go-between between department and library. This isn’t to suggest that subject expertise is completely unnecessary for our positions only that it is less important in our most traditional role as collection managers. Cooper and Shonfeld suggest that having subject expertise is important for helping provide the services libraries are growing in specialized and research-oriented areas. An example is that knowing how a discipline does research is essential to meeting student and faculty expectations (2). Furthermore, this expertise can blend into more functional areas according to Cooper and Shonfeld such as “geospatial, statistical and data, digital humanities, and other forms of expertise, including undergraduate instruction and information literacy,” beyond the traditional expectations of reference librarianship (2).

In some ways, I believe that this meets our users where they need us; they need experience in digital humanities for example because of burgeoning scholarly interest in many humanities disciplines. But we also have to think about our ongoing budget constraints and “do more with less” attitudes, that have dominated libraries, and the public sector as a whole, following the economic slowdowns of 2001 and 2008. Gwen Evans, in a chapter on using student staff to do programming work, connects this to Claude Levi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage (Evans 2011, 229). Levi-Strauss writes:

The Bricoleur is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project…but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions of destructions. (Levi-Strauss 22)

Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1966, 22

Bricoleur has no real English equivalent but Levi-Strauss likens it to “handy man.” The connections between this and contemporary library field are clear. We make do with what we have and, when it comes to liaison positions, we have risen to meet the challenges without the means to hire staff to cover all the needs. Instead the transition away from traditional subject librarianship to liaison librarianship has opened reference librarians to a world of new technologies and responsibilities. In this case the “whatever is at hand” happens to be the liaison librarian positions we find at every academic library, as the library moves away from the PhD Librarian bibliographer. Undoubtedly, this leads to the doubling up of positions as institutions, especially those with large FTE but small budgets, combine positions beyond what might be possible for a single person to handle.

Unfortunately, I think that it is necessary in a lot of ways, as Cooper and Shonfeld state, to understand how research is being done in our fields is to be conversant in new technologies and research applications. Yet much of this is grounded in how we talk about librarianship and assess our success. When I was rolling these thoughts around in my brain, I was struck by my colleague Veronica Arellano Douglas’s post from last month on Efficiency and library assessment where she asks “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.” The same can be asked about specialties, when did the library become about how many specialties we can match each librarian to? What complicates this further is that ff the expectation is to do as Cooper and Shonfeld state and have a little expertise in all the potential skills needed in a subject area, where do the functional specialists in the library or around campus come in? In other words, at what point are we patching together our house as bricoleurs as opposed to building a new one as an engineer? Is such a system sustainable over long periods of time?

This is hyperbole because no one is asking librarians to be experts in everything, but it is not far from the expectations placed on us from either the doom-filled future or our own role in the academe. From my personal experience, I have seen that many of these bricoleur jobs fall onto younger professionals who struggle to keep up with all their tasks and responsibilities as well as balancing promotion and tenure (if their institutions have that). Young professional adept at balancing those different tools and constructions will invariably be asked to take on more projects with the same, and perhaps less, resources at their disposals until they can’t afford to take on anymore. Furthermore, the taking on of many more responsibilities has been used to combat perceptions of imposter syndrome. For myself I know that becoming an expert in digital humanities (whatever that might mean) gave me the gravitas to work closely with teaching faculty even though I felt clearly that I was not one of them. This could and does, if not checked, lead to burn out.

I have been frank with colleagues at both institutions and on Twitter about my own burnout and my steps to prevent burnout from happening again. As a new professional, three years feels like a lifetime but its relatively new in terms of a career, there is always pressure to be this bricoleur. Especially to make do with an increasing amount of responsibilities and expertise with little return in resources or time. How many of us are asked to drop something when picking up slack? Yet, I am confused as to whether or not this is our expected role in the future of being a liaison. Expectations from our departments range from pure collection development, to the teaching of library databases, to the teaching of research skills, to, finally, the teaching of subject specific knowledge. This last quarter I taught a session on writing program notes for performances which blurred the lines between research expertise and subject specific knowledge. This does not branch too far from my positional expectations, but it changes what I can do for my department. The same can be said about more functional types of library work. Without proper guidance, which I have been lucky to have thus far, liaison librarianship can easily go out of control with an investment in each student and faculty research direction. Where does being a liaison stop and where do the functional experts begin?

Being at an institution with a wealth of experts around the library and campus makes this decision a little more complicated. How often am I expected to bricolage my way through a liaison experience rather than pass users on to my more knowledgeable colleagues? For assessment purposes, I might want to do all that I can. This has been, and I believe will continue to be, unclear in many liaison programs. It is not a fault of individual liaison programs but rather, as noted in much of the literature, that the role of the liaison is changing, and we don’t quite know where it will end up. Along the way we might leave a lot of burned out liaisons in our wake.