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?