Gavia Libraria

Examining assumptions in a zero-sum job environment

The Loon saw a blog comment the other day on a post about the changing mix in the library workforce that read (the Loon’s paraphrase), “Digital stuff is all very well and we need to do it, but are we really going to reduce reference and instruction to compensate?”

Though highly tempted to yodel and embark on her fearsome neck-extended flapping-wing attack, the Loon smoothed her feathers and returned to her nest to think it over. (Per the Loon’s general practice, she does not link directly to posts or comments she cannot praise.)

Several assumptions underlying that comment bear examination. One is, of course, that reference and instruction are their own thing, independent of “digital stuff.” This distinction, if there truly is one, will likely blur. If librarians are teaching students to manage their research data as well as find the data and publications of others, is this not still instruction? If librarians answer involved questions about data licensing, is this not still (admittedly specialized, for now) reference?

Still, reference and instruction are generally organizationally distinct from “digital stuff,” and precisely in organizational issues lies the meat of the comment and its assumptions. The Loon would unpack those assumptions thus:

  • “Digital stuff” is not core to the library’s mission; it is a recent add-on, a frill.
  • Reference and instruction are sacrosanct. All academic libraries offer these services. They are core to the library’s mission.
  • Therefore, positions devoted to reference or instruction or both are likewise sacrosanct. No library will reduce them.
  • Therefore, no “digital stuff” position can take the place of a reference/instruction position; “digital stuff” positions must always be add-ons when budgets permit.

The Loon despises the first assumption with all her wizened avian heart, but is too cranky to fight it verbally rather than through praxis. She is equivocal about the second, but is willing to accept it pending more dissenting evidence than she has. The latter two assumptions, however, strike her as not only wrong, but dangerously wrong—dangerous for both librarians and libraries—in an environment where positions are zero-sum, where no position can be created without another being eliminated.

That, too, is an assumption, but the Loon thinks it mostly a fair one. Few libraries she knows of are growing in full-time-equivalents, and those she does know of are quite small. Many libraries are under hiring freezes; some are actively reducing staff complement. There are no extra positions kicking around to be allocated to “digital stuff.” So for every “digital stuff” position, an equivalent elsewhere in the library will be eliminated. Somehow.

Reference and instruction are not immune to this. Nor should they be. Libraries put their labor dollar (or currency unit of your choice) where they need the investment, where the return—in influence, prestige, reach, approval—will be highest. The Loon would argue that many libraries are overinvested in traditionally-construed public service; libraries who believe that traditional reference and instruction positions are sacrosanct may well be incurring frightening opportunity costs, as other ways to cement their position on their campuses pass them by. Other opportunities are out there, and yes, many of them involve digital materials.

This is not to say that one always sees anything so simple as a one-to-one position swap, of course. Dedicated positions are only one way “digital stuff” enters the library workplace; position reconfiguration (formal or not) is another. The Loon thinks of position reconfiguration as a swap in time spent by the library as a whole on a given service. The smart librarian, in the Loon’s estimation, gauges her own time spent, and asks herself how much of it represents growth areas in librarianship generally and in her own library particularly. A too-small percentage may place that librarian at job risk, as she competes with librarians capable of different.

The Loon worries for reference and instruction librarians who believe their positions are immune to time and tide. No librarian position is—no, not even those of the much-derided souls who do “digital stuff.” (Ask the Loon about her five-year forecast for US institutional-repository managers, do.) She also worries for library-school students who encounter unconsidered assumptions they are not yet savvy enough to evaluate about the profession’s emerging job mix.

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