The coming adjunctification of academic librarianship

The Loon has been rather disturbed by the strength of her own reaction to the Alabama job ad—a reaction so strong that it caused her to forget her usual rule about direct links to and named mentions of phenomena she doesn’t approve.

She is an irascible bird by nature, no doubt about that, but she also knows that she never reacts so strongly to an isolated incident. It’s always patterns, with the Loon: patterns of behavior, incidents that accumulate like algae blooms in polluted lakes. Worst of all, she can’t shed the anger until she articulates the pattern as best she can.

So she’ll have a go at that, because repressed anger is as hard on loons as on anyone else. By way of not burying the lede, here is the pattern the Loon believes she is seeing:

  • At Research 1 institutions in the US and Canada, there is a still-small but growing movement toward casualization and deprofessionalization of academic-librarian labor.
  • The cost of professional librarian labor relative to the cost of Ph.D-credentialed labor substantially drives this movement. Because of the well-known massive oversupply of Ph.Ds, particularly in the humanities, Ph.D-credentialed labor is worth even less on the job market than is the already-undervalued MLS. Indeed, the adjunctification of undergraduate teaching that has helped undermine tenure serves as an emulable model for academic libraries.
  • The lone bachelor’s credential, of course, is also becoming more competitive with the MLS. Again, cost and commitment are the drivers, and crucially, this is not just happening in library IT, where there may be a more solid skills argument to be made.
  • Cleverly and insidiously, current labor displacements are happening in marginal or marginalized areas of librarianship, not (usually) areas the profession considers core to its identity. Scholarly communication is the canary in the coal mine here, though digital-humanities support bears close watching as well.

Where is the Loon’s evidence for what admittedly sounds like a conspiracy theory? Well, consider a few things—and the Loon is making a considered decision to name at least some names:

  • The Taiga Forum drumbeat for the last several years has been “fear for your jobs, academic librarians.” The Taiga Forum consists of associate university librarians and higher from (mostly, though the Loon thinks not exclusively) Research 1 institutions. The Taiga Forum has given no guidance whatever about what librarians who wish to keep their jobs should do, suggesting that the avalanche has already started and it is too late for the pebbles to vote.
  • Rhetoric about library schools “not doing their job,” a perennial in library discourse, is getting louder and more public from these very same Taiga-ites of late. Convenient whipping-post, not so? If they can convincingly blame library schools for not producing good-enough librarians, they deflect scrutiny from their own hiring and management practices.
  • Jeff Trzeciak’s firing spree at McMaster University Library started with a scholarly-communications librarian, the Loon recalls. The Loon didn’t consider that anything but a sad and scary coincidence at the time, but in light of The Ivy League Institution, Alabama, and two or three other de-MLSed job ads she’s seen in scholarly communication, repository management, and metadata management of late, she’s ready to call “pattern!”
  • Even more scarily, no library administrator at a Research 1 institution anywhere has so much as quibbled with Trzeciak’s reign of terror, replacement of long-term MLSes with (cheap, disposable, and submissive due to their awareness of their disposability) short-contract postdocs, and avowed intention to continue such replacements. Are you kidding the Loon? They’re setting Trzeciak up with nice fat bully pulpits to preach MLS-labor casualization and deprofessionalization from, and they’re defending him as he does so.
  • Trzeciak’s isn’t the only library-administrator discourse suggesting that academic librarians need to be taken down a few pegs. The Loon recently skimmed a conference paper she found thoroughly repulsive, essentially a collection of militaristic metaphors supporting the idea that academic-library administrators need to take less input from their librarians and (bluntly) crack more whips over them.1 Delightful stuff, truly. For certain values of “delightful.”
  • As for rank-and-file librarians at R1s… the Loon is resisting yet another cliché Martin Niemöller paraphrase. Suffice to say, they aren’t scholarly-communications librarians and they don’t particularly believe in open access anyway (not least because it is potentially disruptive to existing librarian roles), so they mostly aren’t raising Cain profession-wide about this. (The Loon notes with admiration, incidentally, that Trzeciak’s library is fighting him on every front they can. Those librarians are taking a bullet for all of academic librarianship, the Loon believes, and she hopes they win, wounded though they are.)
  • The other academic-library perennial, tenure/indefinite-appointment for librarians, is still rumbling like a banked volcano. Concretely, the Loon knows of one R1 library that has suspended all hearings for indefinite-term librarian appointments, um, indefinitely. “For budget reasons,” naturally, but without the least hint of under what conditions such hearings might resume. Never waste a good economic crisis, they say. Should a betting pool start vis-à-vis date of resumption of hearings, kindly place the Loon’s stake on “the thirty-second of Octember.” Once again, any reaction from other administrators, or the larger profession? Nary a peep.
  • Quite a few digital-humanities centers at R1s are running off postdocs, usually with contract terms of two years or less. When will MLSes get into the action? Will they? The Loon isn’t sanguine—and let’s not pretend this has anything to do with academic preparation; plenty of academic librarians have advanced degrees and records of published research in the humanities. Bluntly, libraries have to commit to the continued employment of MLSes; they needn’t commit to postdocs, because casual short-term labor is how the postdoc game works. The Loon fully expects that in two to four years, the DH-center postdocs themselves will figure out they’ve been had, as the nirvana of stable academic employment once again eludes their grasp.

The Loon hasn’t discussed a potential elephant in the room: library IT. That one’s complicated, not least because an MLS-degreed librarian with tech skills often costs significantly less than someone with equivalent tech skills and no MLS. (Unfair? Absolutely! True? Absolutely! The techie-librarian’s MLS signals that non-library employers are not serious contenders for the techie-librarian’s labor, so libraries don’t need to pay librarian-techies the salary techies command in the larger labor market.) Still, the institutional-repository job ads that the Loon keeps bringing up like a loon-chick’s lunch at least suggest that IT-related positions aren’t immune to attempted deprofessionalization. That The Ivy League Institution seems to be having trouble hiring this way strikes the Loon as a smallish ray of hope.

The Loon suggests that library administrators at R1s look at the damage that faculty did to their own profession by casualizing undergraduate instruction before they get too gleeful at the stunt they’re (so far) getting away with. Taiga Forum pronouncements indicate that it isn’t just rank-and-file librarian jobs that Taiga participants fear for, but their own jobs too. Well, Taiga, the Loon thinks you’re right to fear, and she thinks your own hiring trend as demonstrated above is precisely why. Why should university administrators you yourselves are teaching not to value us value you?

Finally, the Loon pleads with those administrators to tell her—no, no, telling is meaningless; show her, rather—why she’s wrong about this. Why this isn’t the pattern. Why the pattern is something else entirely.

Please. Please. The Loon begs you. Please.

  1. Jones, Phillip J., and George J. Fowler. “The Limits of Democracy in Academic Libraries in a Revolutionary Age.” Presented at ACRL 2011. The authors’ positions and employers are listed in the paper.

17 thoughts on “The coming adjunctification of academic librarianship

  1. Ian

    There has been one benefit to Trzeciak’s scorched earth policy: other libraries now have the benefit of the super awesome folks who used to work @ Mac…

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      True, but having been damaged by dicey employment situations herself, the Loon can’t find it in her to celebrate the mental damage Trzeciak did to them, and that he continues to do to the brave souls who remain under his so-called leadership.

      Nor is she thrilled about the damage Trzeciak is doing to all of academic librarianship. More Macs is the last thing anyone needs—but that surely seems to be where matters are headed.

      All the Loon can think to do is yodel about it.

  2. Mita

    Thanks for this post. Two thoughts immediately come to mind.

    First, I really appreciated the call of attention to the fact that “no library administrator at a Research 1 institution anywhere has so much as quibbled with Trzeciak’s reign of terror.” Add to the fact that the library administrators of Taiga feel it necessary to remain anonymous and it’s hard not to conclude that there is a a tribalism among those in library leadership positions that is antithetical to the very values of scholarship that University Administrators are supposed to uphold.

    The second point is a little more tenuous but it may fit in the pattern that you are starting see: “Jeff Trzeciak’s firing spree at McMaster University Library started with a scholarly-communications librarian, the Loon recalls.” Is it just a coincidence that I recently received an email from The Adam Matthew Group promoting their latest “resource” a collection called “First World War: Personal Experiences” that “contains a large amount of material from McMaster University so it is very strong for Canadian material. “

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Wait… so… you think that rather than digitizing in-house, McMaster is… what? selling the (exclusive?) right to digitize collections? letting them be digitized by for-profit companies? the former seems skeevy, the latter not so much, necessarily.

        1. Nick Ruest

          No. It is actually a combination of the two.

          I believe I can publicly say that the project(s) have a 5 year exclusive right to all the content. However, we get to present 10-20% (depending on which contract) of the content during the embargo. Once the 5 years are up, we can do whatever we want with it.

          All of the collections of are in house digitization projects.

          1. LibraryLoon Post author

            That’s not so bad. The Loon is a pragmatist rather than a purist about these things; sometimes there’s no other feasible way to get stuff done.

  3. Diane Hillmann

    This sort of thing isn’t new, unfortunately. In the seventies a library director at Syracuse University (his name was Warren Boes) got himself in trouble for firing all the catalogers (they had OCLC, after all–no need for catalogers). I’ve heard that ALA censured him for that one, but have never looked closely into the veracity of that report. He left SU to go to the University of Georgia, where he fired a bunch of librarians, replacing them with post-docs, and he also sold UGA’s copy of the Confederate Constitution (apparently the last straw). As I recall, the student newspaper made a huge fuss and he was ‘retired’ or ‘fired’.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Interesting. Thank you very much; the Loon didn’t know that and will investigate further.

  4. StevenB

    I don’t think it went as far as I would have liked, and these are challenging discussions to have, but the most recent LJ Future of the Academic Library Symposium (Bridging the Gap) [] was intended to create a forum where the library community could have conversations about the growing gaps of all types in this profession, whether it’s the gap between administrators and front line librarians, between LibSci faculty and practitioners, between research and community college libraries, between tenured and adjunct librarians…to instead focus on how we work together and create environments where library workers – not just librarians – create libraries that work better for students and faculty – which is why we also wanted to hear from our community members and had them join in as participants.

    It didn’t achieve everything the planners had hoped for but we believe that it did create some awareness of the gaps that the profession needs to address. I’m hoping there will be a continuation of this conversation. You accumulated a fine list of evidence to support your theory. Does the Bridging the Gap Symposium offer some evidence to the contrary – and are there other places you could be looking that would provide a different perspective? I’m not sure there is now – but I hope they’ll be more of it in the future.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Thank you, StevenB.

      Talk is good… but action speaks louder. The Loon wants to see some gloves-off confrontation of the Trzeciaks in our midst. The Bridging the Gap symposium didn’t have them. Librarians aren’t for the most part labor theorists, but we may need to become them.

  5. Brian

    This is an excellent post that asks some very important questions.

    I really appreciate you bringing these issues forward, but I sense that when placed within the larger picture of wage stratification and rationalization practices in the broader economy, that these are “natural” (in the Francis Fukuyama “End of History” sense of the word) trends for R1 libraries.

    Almost every R1 library has a bloated, highly paid group of senior librarians who have (for most intents and purposes) the equivalent of a tenured position. They’ve been paid on their years of service, and many of them are hanging on for dear life until retirement. Their seniority based pay has made their labor too expensive to compete with others for non-administrator library positions (vis-à-vis the recent grad) and they no longer possess the skills to transition to non-library employment (if they ever did).

    They’re stuck. And more importantly they’re in the way of the Taiga folks who want to reinvent libraries and claim their six figure administrator salaries.

    Your arguments against Jeff Unpronounceable are certainly valid and I agree wholeheartedly with the observations that you make in this article. Nevertheless, I don’t think that calls to preserve humane work environments or professional minimums will do anything to stop these trends. I’m pretty confident that these library administrators will eventually get their wish.

    You suggested that we might need to become labor theorists. Here’s my theory:

    Non-administrator academic librarians have two major options. They can collectively bring their labor together through unionization or some other vehicle for collective action. Or they can take the advice of Tom Peters and view themselves as businesses that should be positioned to maintain a competitive advantage over their colleagues in this zero-sum game.

    Given the aversion to unions in the United States and the inability of librarians to act effectively in any collective endeavor (see any “professional” library association), my personal effort, as a younger academic librarian, will be spent on the latter.

    Is this selfish? Absolutely.

    However, if younger librarians in academic libraries want to stick around for the long term, I think that they’ll have to develop the skills that these administrators want. If they don’t they’ll be just as stuck as their senior colleagues. The difference, of course, is that it’s highly unlikely that the younger folks will be able to ride the academic library gravy train into retirement.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Agreed on all counts. The Loon would only add that calling out nonsense such as Jeff Trzeciak’s can’t hurt either. Pour encourager les autres.

      Voice doesn’t always make a difference, but it’s at least worth trying, when one can do so with reasonable security. (Which is another thing many R1 librarians don’t have but should: freedom of speech critical to the profession, much less their administrators.)