Gavia Libraria

New-hire messianism

Academic librarianship is starting to feel some of the same pressures that have ravaged tenured academia: labor casualization and deprofessionalization particularly, but also the evolution of a much-heralded retirement wave into a wave of position reductions. (Ou sont les Bowens et Rudenstines d’antan? Today’s, in librarianship, seem mostly to be in ALA.)

The Loon cannot believe that librarianship will escape unscathed in a relentlessly anti-labor, anti-education political and economic climate. How big a surprise is it, really, that some institutions and even some librarians want to turn library labor forces into Mc… Donald’s? She only hopes that librarianship responds more intelligently to the threats, external and internal, than academia did, and now and then she sees some reason for hope on that score, though she must admit she more often sees signs that make her despair.

All this labor disquiet is difficult and complicated to unpack. The Loon finds herself extremely interested in unpacking it, but dismayed by the sheer magnitude of the challenge. For now, the Loon wishes to call out one particular bit of thinking about the library workforce that strikes her as loony (and not in a good way): new-hire messianism.

The new hires will save us! Be they fresh MLSes, IT professionals, or rescued Ph.Ds and other alternative academics (the Loon despises the “feral professional” monicker; the Loon is feral, library staff without MLSes are not), they will be the salvation of our ailing academic libraries! As soon as we can hire, we’re saved!

So much is wrong with this notion the poor Loon hardly knows where to begin.

For the sake of argument, then, she will begin by asking what exactly is wrong with the existing library workforce, that it needs such urgent rescue? If the issue is that this workforce hasn’t reskilled appropriately for changing times, how much of the fault for that belongs to libraries that neither require nor remunerate reskilling? Such libraries may well try to hire fresh talent instead of fostering it, but such newly-hired talent will either stagnate just like the old, or race for the door once realization dawns that the library will not help their skillset or career progress.

How many librarians have kept up, do have novel relevant skills that their libraries are simply overlooking, their eyes on shiny new hires? A parable: A high-level academic-library administrator, deeply impressed by a conference presentation, turned to one of his librarians to say, “We need more librarians just like that in our library!” The librarian, who already possessed similar skills and had begged library administrators to help enhance them and put them to better use, left that library shortly thereafter. What else could she possibly do? The Loon wonders whether the administrator understood his loss, which extended to far more than the mere skills he was panting after.

This points to another weakness in some (thankfully, not all) library organizations: job-description rigidity and pigeonholing. Can “the e-serials librarian” work the desk now and then, or help out with metadata? Can “the reference librarian” turn his hand to a little cataloging? Can “the systems librarian” sit on a scholarly-communication committee, if she asks to? If they can’t, despite demonstrated interest or aptitude, the libraries they work for are not allowing their workforce to reach its full potential.

The Loon doesn’t necessarily hold with forcing people to work in areas they aren’t best-suited to, mind you, though she does think moderately positively of mandatory cross-training. (The Loon would be a horrendous reference librarian, and a worse bibliographer. If she were corporeal, that is.) She does hold with helping people follow their interests and expand their professional skillsets and awareness beyond the confines of their on-paper position description, and she is uncomfortably aware that many library staff are thwarted in precisely these aims by their own libraries. What a waste! And a waste that hiring new folk will not assuage; if anything, existing librarians with novel interests can only be morale-damagingly insulted and disheartened when a newbie is hired with an ink-wet MLS or Ph.D to do something they know themselves able and willing to do.

The Loon also observes that small libraries with small staffs who have no choice but to cross-train have some of the most engaged, brilliant, big-picture-savvy librarians she knows, whereas when she thinks about deadwood, she thinks about sprawling disconnected systems with gigantic staffs. The Harvard self-study hints at this quite a bit, for example (and the Loon only brings this up openly because she greatly admires Harvard’s libraries’ courage and honesty in writing that unsparing report and allowing the world to read it). She does not believe this is coincidence.

Another commonly-adduced reason for new-hire messianism is change resistance in an existing workforce. The Loon is utterly bewildered by this. What exactly do library administrators think happens to hapless new hires brought into a library that fears, hates, or resists change? Especially when they’re brought in at the bottom of the hierarchy and abandoned to their own devices, as too many hapless new hires with novel skills are? The existing organization isolates them, insults them, despises their new-broomism, refuses to grant them the least scrap of political capital or assistance, and finally chews them up and spits them out, that’s what. Nor do relations between the organization and its leaders warm as a result; there is nothing so petulantly put-upon as a librarian who feels overworked yet sees a new hire in a position he doesn’t believe should exist.

(Worst of all is when the new hire bypasses normal hiring procedures. The Loon wishes she hadn’t seen this, but she has. Way to ensure that nobody trusts the new hire, library leaders.)

The Loon will have to write an entirely new post on lack of scaffolding for new hires in change areas, as this post is already overlong. For now, she will merely comment that a new hire without a budget, a staff, a supportive reporting chain, and other resources necessary for success will not succeed in creating change. The Loon shouldn’t need to say this, of course—have we learned nothing from the institutional repository?—but she knows she does need to.

Change management is an organizational issue. Organizations cling to equilibrium; it is their nature. One pebble—even a few pebbles, and in these budgetary times the Loon can’t imagine a library able to throw more than a few pebbles—won’t disturb a lake much, no matter how hard they’re thrown. Library leaders who want to change their libraries need to take responsibility for doing so, not palm it off on new hires.

McDonald’s University Library, crammed full of revolving-door new hires with no organizational scaffolding for them and the change they are apparently supposed to bring, is in big, big trouble. The Loon will observe its devolution with interest.

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2 thoughts on “New-hire messianism

  1. Matt

    I’ve seen similar situations in IT organisations, both the ignoring skills and interests of existing staff in favour of hiring a messiah to save us all, and then plunking that person down in a really hostile organisation with no meaningful support. The inevitable outcomes of the latter are either burn-out or a rapid exit on the part of the Chosen One.

    Suspect it’s pretty common across many many fields, and having hit it from both sides it’s now something I watch for very carefully when considering career moves.