Gavia Libraria

The exits (A)ULs don’t see

(Any resemblance of the title of this post to a justly-famous science-fiction short story is wholly intentional.)

Ithaka has a brief report out on “talent management” in academic libraries. The Loon feels considerable cognitive dissonance at thinking of herself as “talent,” all things considered, but she does count herself one of the ones academic libraries lost—most likely for good. (Life is endlessly weird; the Loon will not absolutely deny that something could happen to bring her back—but she is happy and productive where she is at present and still deeply skittish about academic-library environments, so it does seem a long shot.) So, some musings about Ithaka’s findings.

New-hire messianism is clearly in full force at many ARL (“doctoral” in Ithaka parlance) libraries. That’s what “doctoral directors are… interested in making additional investments in re-staffing and are relatively less interested in devoting additional resources towards reskilling” means. Ithaka doesn’t draw a clear line between this and any talent exodus, but the Loon is happy to: hiring smart, energetic people and setting them up to fail and/or forcing them to stagnate is not a recipe for keeping them. They will leave! They should leave!1

The Loon smiled a beaky smile at Ithaka’s pianissimo incredulity at library managers’ ad-hoc, unsystematic methods of keeping tabs on staff morale. For what it is worth, Ithaka, those results ring entirely true to the Loon. After all, no few of these are the same people who cook ARL Spec Kits, consciously or not; such as those have a lot invested in appearances. Academic-library culture is also well-known for silencing dissent (see also, please) and leaving problems to fester lest someone express an emotion that is anything other than shiny happiness. In short, the Loon’s strong sense is that many of these managers, infected with conflict avoidance by library culture and/or their own inclinations, simply don’t want to know if anything is wrong. If they know, they might have to admit to what they know, which threatens their own and their workplace’s self-image. If they know, they might have to do something about it, and doing something about it might involve risk or conflict! Ad-hoc information-gathering methods make it easy not to know: simply don’t talk to those most likely to say something is wrong.

(No one at the Loon’s library jobs ever asked her what challenges she was facing and what help or resources she needed. Not ever. Not even once. Ithaka might take this into account when slicing the data by “high performers;” at least one of the Loon’s workplaces would certainly not have considered her one. Her present workplace, by way of contrast, asks her every year at minimum—it is part of the normal annual review process—and in practice much more often than that. Moreover, the Loon’s answers are listened to seriously, and where possible addressed.)

Worth considering for future researches is what, how much, and whom those managers miss by not canvassing more systematically and objectively. The Loon’s hypotheses regarding “whom,” just for starters: Coordinators and their difficulties. Those in dumpster jobs. Those in poorly-designed hybrid jobs. As for those unfortunate loudmouths vulnerable to the library shuffle—the Loon was one herself, so she has some standing to opine—as suggested above, library managers actively avoid talking to them, much less heeding their challenges (in several senses of that word).

What and how much those managers miss? A lot, naturally, but the Loon thinks the boundaries of what gets missed may be patterned, especially after looking at the chart of managers’ opinions about why people leave. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that chart is almost certainly epic nonsense comprised partly of the absolute necessity that departing librarians not burn bridges, partly of the already-discussed tendency for academic-library managers to minimize awareness of problems and challenges among (or facing) their staff. By all means, Ithaka, do a companion study asking librarians why they left their last workplace. (Please ask for the primary reason and two or three secondary reasons; the Loon thinks you will learn much more that way. Also, do this with text responses and content-analyze them; don’t throw radio buttons at people because your list will miss things.) It might prove the Loon wrong, but the Loon doesn’t think it will!

What might turn up in that companion study? Well, here is one Loonish guess: Coordinators and hybrid jobsters and dumpster jobsters and new-hire messiahs (especially new-hire messiahs) will often leave for a different constellation of reasons than, say, your typical reference librarian or cataloger. Those reasons will likely include feeling unable to do good work, feeling marginalized by colleagues, feeling unheard by management—you see where the Loon is going: situations that typify underresourced librarians in underappreciated, often novel, niches. Why don’t their managers know this? Because all these things are dangerous to say to academic-library managers, even (especially?) in an exit interview. It is no coincidence that the top two responses in the “why do people leave?” chart are easily construed as polite, socially-acceptable lies.

Incidentally, the Loon is grateful that Ithaka openly acknowledged that talking to (A)ULs does not present a comprehensive picture of library-as-workplace. She agrees, and she hopes her musings prompt ideas for additional modes of investigation and additional phenomena to explore.

  1. One of the jobs the Loon once held is open for the third time in a decade, and that’s with a two- or three-year hiatus before one search! One could try to blame that rate of turnover on the job tenants, the Loon supposes, but Occam’s Razor points elsewhere.

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