Gavia Libraria

The exodus

The Loon knows many technology-savvy librarians. She also knows quite a few technology-savvy ex-librarians, where for the sake of argument “librarian” is defined as “person working in some sort of library.” (The Loon doesn’t know as many archivists as she’d like, but she suspects the pattern she is about to discuss may hold for them as well.)

How the gender breakdown of the ex-techie-librarian pool compares to the general librarian gender mix the Loon isn’t sure, and if she were sure she wouldn’t know how to read the result. She knows both technology and librarianship can be miserably misogynist, having herself witnessed sexist behavior as well as hearing wrenching stories from tech-savvy women and woman librarians (and the overlap between the two). She doesn’t know what the pipeline issues are, though, and she doesn’t know any studies thereof (if she’s missed any, please do point them out). She also knows that not all the tech-savvy who have fled libraries are women, of course.

What the Loon has noticed about those who stay is that they tend to be head-down coders who are agnostic about the problems they’re solving as long as they’re solving interesting (from a tech perspective) or useful problems. Almost any library can provide them with an infinite supply of such problems, and crucially, these folk don’t much mind the larger picture of technology in libraries or even technology in their libraries. They solve tech problems. It’s what they do.

Those who leave, the Loon cautiously hazards, tend to be larger-picture thinkers, by choice or by necessity. That, or to do their work (whatever it happens to be), they have no choice but to paddle the whitewater rapids of library politics. When they founder, when they find that they must fight their organization to do their job, eventually they leave.

To some extent, librarians in all segments of the profession need to fight their organizations now and then to get things done. Still, the Loon knows reference librarians who do reference all their working lives, catalogers who catalog, and their struggles tend to relate to incorporating outside-world change (new techniques, new modalities, standards changes) into the local environment. Difficult though this assuredly is, the librarian’s reason for being is rarely threatened, and a failed change effort doesn’t remove entirely the librarian’s ability to do useful work. A reference librarian barred from chat reference still answers questions via desk, phone, and/or email!

With web managers, with social-media advocates, with repository librarians, with systems administrators, with digitizers, the situation is qualitatively different. The repository manager who loses a fight to add repository-related services can lose a lot of the raison d’etre of her job. The web manager who loses the fight to adopt a content-management system may be thoroughly hamstrung in his effort to improve the library website. The systems librarian who loses the fight to migrate a bad ILS may have to pour many more hours than necessary or desirable into the existing one, blocking other accomplishments.

In all these cases, librarians are left wondering why they were hired and what they can possibly achieve, when no one respects their expertise or grants them sufficient decisionmaking autonomy and resource to do what they were putatively hired for. And then they burn out and leave.

How does this happen? How can it be prevented?

The Loon remains deeply fond of the Maloney et al. article on existing versus preferred (by high-achieving newer librarians) academic-library work cultures1. She believes this exact set of mindset mismatches explains a considerable portion of the exodus of talented technically-minded librarians.

Mark how this works. A techie needing change in a hierarchical organization must convince administrators without a great deal of technical knowledge, and sometimes with a good deal of animus against change generally and technology-related change particularly. Combine this with the poor planning involved in too many technology- and change-related hires (the Loon adduces her usual example: institutional repositories), and what else but burnout can possibly result?

Now consider the clannish library. Once again, the techie librarian needing change must force it through tech-averse and change-averse others, only this time a collection of others rather than a chain of them. Once again, change aversion and technology aversion can leave the techie librarian helpless to do basic, elementary pieces of her job. Once again, what can she do but leave for greener grass elsewhere?

The Loon cannot overemphasize how draining it is to fight nearly every single day for respect, for resources, for the prerequisites for quality work. Losing, almost invariably losing, is even more draining.

Additional issues not touched on by Maloney et al. that the Loon thinks relevant include new-hire messianism and poor assumptions across the profession generally about what is and isn’t core library work. Work not thought of as “core,” as much technology-related library work remains, is much easier for both administrators and clans to feel justified in brushing off.

Where do these librarians go? Well, some of them manage to stay within a library orbit, at consortia (where if one library is intransigent, another may offer worthwhile work) or with library vendors. Others leave librarianship entirely; the Loon knows several of this sort, and mourns their erstwhile presence greatly.

If the Loon were to suggest a palliative, it would be simple, if somewhat nonspecific: sometimes these people, like all people, need to win. If the libraries they work for can’t give them what they need, and once in a while what they want, both they and their libraries ultimately lose.

Removing barriers between smart, forward-thinking, skilled people and occasional wins is considerably cheaper and better for libraries than hemorrhaging them. The Loon desperately wishes libraries would awaken to this.

  1. Maloney et al. “Future Leaders’ Views on Organizational Culture.” College and Research Libraries 71:4 (2010), pp. 322–47

2 thoughts on “The exodus

  1. FantasyLibrarian

    As an ex-techie-librarian, I’d suggest another reason for leaving: the relatively small academic library in question may not need a techie librarian. When ILS administration and the majority of electronic databases are handled by a consortium, the duties of systems librarian frankly could be handled by someone with just an undergraduate degree. Sadly I did not recognize this until 6 months into it …

    1. Library Loon Post author

      Yes, this happens as well. The Loon thinks you might well have been fortunate, only to have wasted six months (plus job-search time). Some very loyal souls of her acquaintance have wasted years.