Book Review Contributing Editor

Book Review: Library Trends Issue: Labor in Academic Libraries

Diverging from only reviewing books, Matthew Weirick Johnson explores the recent issue of Library Trends.

About this Review/About this Issue

Diverging from the common practice of the book review, I’ve chosen to engage with the most recent issue of Library Trends (Volume 68, Number 2, Fall 2019) on Labor in Academic Libraries. This issue covers theoretical perspectives on labor in academic libraries, including an analysis of temporal labor in academic libraries and a discussion of material and immaterial labor through autonomist Marxism; it includes articles on the experiences of librarians of color, arguments over tenure, faculty status, and the MLS, and the involvement of librarians in their unions. This journal issue feels particularly timely as higher education workers have, in recent years, received national attention regarding labor issues, including unionization (e.g. St. Cloud State University Librarians being laid off, the Long Island University faculty lockout, the National Labor Relations Board arguing that graduate students are students before employees, and nontenture track researchers at the University of California unionizing). According to the issue editors, it also arises from “a need for a thorough assessment of the conditions of labor in the contested terrain of libraries and higher education” (p. 104). 

About the Editors & the Authors

This issue of Library Trends on Labor in Academic Libraries was edited by Emily Drabinski, Aliqae Geraci, and Roxanne Shirazi, each contributing in equal parts (as per their acknowledgements in the introduction). 

Emily Drabinski (twitter | website) is currently the Critical Pedagogy Librarian and liaison to the School of Labor and Urban Studies at the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York (CUNY). Drabinski is also the series editor for the Gender & Sexuality in Information Studies series from Litwin Books and co-edited Critical Library Instruction (published by Library Juice Press) with Alana Kumbier and Maria T. Accardi. Drabinski has previously presented and published on the Long Island University (LIU) lockout. 

Aliqae Geraci (twitter | website) is the Assistant Director for Cornell University’s Catherwood Library. Geraci is a co-author of Grassroots Library Advocacy from ALA Editions Special Reports, and a co-author of “Normalize Negotiation!” from In the Library with the Lead Pipe. She has previously been a labor union researcher, public librarian, and Industrial and Labor Relations Research Librarian.

Roxanne Shirazi (twitter | website) is the Dissertation Research Librarian at the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center, CUNY, though perhaps a more apt title borrowed from her Twitter bio is “Dissertation Deposit Sorceress.” Shirazi is a founding co-editor of dh+lib

Authors featured in this issue are established writers on labor issues in academic libraries. For example, Karen P. Nicholson (twitter | website) has written several other articles on time in academic libraries and higher education, including “On the Space/Time of Information Literacy, Higher Education, and the Global Knowledge Economy,” which won the Library Juice Press annual paper prize. Nicholson and Maura Seale (twitter | website) co-edited The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship, and Seale has published extensively on topics related to critical librarianship, several of which were also published with Rafia Mirza (twitter | website).  Sam Popowich (twitter | website) has written previously on libraries, labor, and Marxist theory and has a new book out from Library Juice Press: Confronting the Democratic Discourse of Librarianship: A Marxist Approach. Kaetrena Davis Kendrick (twitter | website) conducted a previous study on academic librarians’ experiences with low morale, and Ione T. Damasco (twitter | website) has written on the tenure and promotion experiences of academic librarians of color. Kelly McElroy (twitter | website) has also published extensively on topics related to critical librarianship.

Let’s Hit the Highlights

“Within this, the theme of the issue is Labor in Academic Libraries but the focus seems to be primarily on Labor and Academic Librarians.”

In their introduction, the editors situate the importance of this journal issue, especially given “renewed attention to the social and economic conditions of our work” (p. 103). They specifically push back against viewing management as “benevolent colleagues” (p. 107) and instead encourage readers to be “against management” (p. 107). I appreciated this framing for the issue and for library workers generally. However, it seems ironic to argue this stance in the introduction then follow it immediately with an article about trying to make management a little bit more ethical through critical management studies. Similarly, the issue also includes an “observational and analytical essay” from the position of a past library director and current associate vice chancellor (p. 297). On the other hand, many librarians serve as supervisors for undergraduate and graduate student workers, so how do we practice being against management when we might not be The Management but are still managers? Within this, the theme of the issue is Labor in Academic Libraries but the focus seems to be primarily on Labor and Academic Librarians. 

In the first article in this journal issue, Danya Leebaw provides an overview of mainstream management, including its incorporation in libraries, and argues for an engagement with critical management studies. Leebaw then employs critical management studies to think about strategic planning. While this article is perfectly fine, it doesn’t seem to fit with the goal of being against management given that it seems more like a gentle reform rather than an antagonization of management. To illustrate this point, Leebaw clearly demonstrates her own position: “I consider myself committed to critical librarianship but also cognizant and respectful of management challenges and constraints” (p. 117). This seems to specifically demonstrate what the editors refer to as “a critical challenge: our collective perception of management as benevolent colleagues” (p. 107). Further demonstrating a position with which I disagree, Leebaw refers to Melvil Dewey as “one of the profession’s most prominent early leaders” (p. 114), without any criticism even despite ALA recently removing his name from a prominent award

“Further, librarians in her study talk about how they continually put off their own significant projects until the summer only to have large projects handed down from management, such as system-wide projects.”

Karen P. Nicholson discusses how academic librarians “recalibrate” to be “in time” with faculty, students, and management, whose time is valued or prioritized differently in the time-based power relations of higher education (p. 131). She argues specifically about the ways that the neoliberal university and librarianship as gendered labor impact the timing of work for librarians. For example, academic librarians’ work often follows the pacing of courses, especially with regard to one-shot instruction. Nicholson conducted a qualitative study involving semi-structured interviews with twenty-four librarians from the U15 group of 15 public research universities in Canada. Further, librarians in her study talk about how they continually put off their own significant projects until the summer only to have large projects handed down from management, such as system-wide projects. To counteract this issue of timing and specifically of constantly reacting to the timing of others, Nicholson calls for librarians to encourage collective action, which “offered participants a means of resistance” (p. 147). 

Sam Popowich argues that Italian Autonomist Marxism can help libraries understand the restructuring of library workplaces in the neoliberal university, specifically involving automation, implementation of technology, and changing workflows. Popowich considers how the library is involved in the production of workers and the reproduction of culture: “we are also and at the same time engaged in ‘cultural’ labor involving the creation of a disciplined, intellectualized workforce suitable for the immaterial labor they will be engaged in when they enter the labor market” (p. 163). I think this is an important framework for critical librarianship, which succinctly reminds us of the stakes of our work. Popowich concludes by encouraging librarians to resist our cultural and economic system through “subversive self-activity” and “open political challenge to the existing order” (p. 171). 

Kendrick & Damasco provide an expansion of Kendrick’s 2017 study on low morale, specifically interviewing academic librarians of color. In this article, the authors analyze data from interviews with seventeen academic librarians from the United States and corroborate many of the results of the 2017 study while also identifying differences in low morale for academic librarians of color. Specifically, librarians in this sample experienced stereotype threat, the threat of being judged based on stereotypes, and deauthentication, hiding or reducing aspects of minoritized identities in order to blend into a primarily white environment. Additionally, Kendrick & Damasco identify seven “enabling systems” specific to minority academic librarians: diversity rhetoric, whiteness, white supremacy, racism, career or environmental landscapes, politics, and collegiality. The authors point out that four of these are specifically related to race. It’s also interesting that collegiality is an enabling system, reminding me of the editors’ introduction and their argument that collegiality is enacted to “advocat[e] for a false neutrality” (p. 108). 

Zack Lischer-Katz looks at the immateriality of digital labor through an engagement with the practices of media preservationists. Lischer-Katz shows how analog video preservationists employ measurement tools, personal aesthetic taste, and institutional knowledge in attempts to recreate an authentic copy that is always imbued with the choices of the preservationist or digitizer. I found the article to be incredibly technical at times to the extent of being overwhelming for someone without a background in this kind of work. However, the article presents a discussion of the immaterial and invisible labor produced in digital projects, which appears contrary to my own view of digital projects as the “shiny things” that attract grants or public attention.  

Seale & Mirza interrogate the requirement of the Master of Library Science (MLS) beginning by exploring conversations around the MLS requirement for Executive Director of ALA. The authors discuss different arguments around the requirement for the MLS and credentialing in a feminized field that’s predominantly white. They explicitly state a resistance to providing solutions within this article but suggest a movement away from credentialism and professionalization: “Removing the MLS requirement in and of itself does not speak to these broader issues around how, and whose, labor is valued. Instead, we suggest thinking about how feminized work and feminist ideas such as interdependence and care might lead to an academic librarianship that does not rely on credentialism or professionalization to demonstrate its worth” (p. 265).

Hartnett et al and Rachel Applegate both discuss, in their respective articles, the role of tenure for academic librarians and the enduring nature of debates about the role of tenure and arguments for faculty status, including the standards for faculty status approved by ALA in 1971. Hartnett et al argue that there are few differences in compensation between librarians in tenure-track and nontenure-track positions. Further, they found that there was “no consistency between how tenure-track and nontenure-track positions are viewed between institutions” (p. 289) and even within institutions this is unclear. 

Meanwhile, Appelgate appears dismissive of arguments around compensation: “This writer is disenchanted with spending valuable research time and effort on painstaking, pointillist, examinations of benefits. Much attention has been paid to this, and it seems disproportionate to the practical results. Consider money and working conditions. Base salaries are set primarily by disciplinary history and by market conditions. Some disciplines have historically been more prestigious, demanding, and attractive; some disciplines have a glut of qualified people” (307). In her argument about disciplinary history and market conditions, Applegate seems to ignore the impact of being in a feminized profession on salary and benefits, a topic discussed in this issue and elsewhere by many of the included authors. To this point, Applegate makes incredible generalizations throughout the article without support for her claims (e.g. librarians don’t write letters of recommendation, advise students, or serve as instructor of record). The issue of compensation is simply yet another—though possibly the most striking—demonstration both that she is out of touch with academic librarians and their labor issues and that her positionality and philosophy are contrary to workers’ demands (or at least contrary to my own philosophy). Applegate is actively dismissive of workers’ concerns about compensation, especially around salary, which is the focal point of many recent (e.g. University of California Librarians’ contract negotiations referenced by Phillips et al in this issue) and current (e.g. University of California, Santa Cruz graduate students striking for a cost-of-living adjustment) disputes between workers and management.

Luckily, Applegate’s article is immediately followed by kynita stringer-stanback’s discussion of her six figure college loan debt, which continues to increase because her compensation as a librarian is incompatible with this debt. She specifically calls for LIS leaders to interrogate their role in oppression, including institutionalized racism. One recommendation she provides is to cede power as a way to counteract the homogeneity of the profession, particularly in light of the ways that the diversity of librarians at an institution are in mismatch with the diversity of the student body. 

Kelly McElroy and Phillips et al discuss experiences with union organizing as librarians. McElroy provides comparisons between organizing and librarianship and reflections on building a faculty union in the wake of the Janus decision, the US Supreme Court decision precluding public sector unions from collecting dues from non-members even if they’re still represented by the union. McElroy relates work with the union to work in the library, such as arguing against neutrality arguments employed against libraries and unions and employing the “rubrics of support” from structure tests to the work of librarianship (p. 341). Phillips et al outline their process for making their union more participatory in an attempt to bounce back from low participation and a union controlled by a select few. They discuss how particular issues came to the forefront for librarians to bring them together in the union while also recognizing the difficulty of librarians who were loyal to the institution and of counteracting vocational awe.

All-in-all, the articles included in this issue of Library Trends are timely, important, and necessary, providing theoretical and practical approaches, analyses, and recommendations for improving the conditions of labor in academic libraries. 

Featured image by Mahendra Kumar, via Unsplash

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The expressions of the writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

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