“That is not dead which due dates can deny / and with strange aeons e’en fines do not apply”
This eldritch couplet derives from an obscure prophesy titled only “The Five Years" which blasphemously hints at the dread "future of Libraries" foretold elsewhere in the awful Biblionomicon. Although that most famous of grimoires makes frequent allusions to this cataclysmic event, this verse represents the most direct extant description of the horrors that will be visited upon creation when the mysterious “Five Years” have passed.
“That is not dead which due dates can deny / and with strange aeons e’en fines do not apply”
Two Order Papers released this week paint a bleak picture of library closures at the department of Fisheries and Oceans - a process euphemistically termed “consolidation”.
Order Paper Q-266, a 37-point inquiry worth reading in full, delves into the specifics of consolidation with precise questions about the DFO’s digitisation programme. The Department has argued that this is an ongoing, intensive effort which will revolutionise service delivery while offsetting the loss of redundant materials from its collections. Instead, the figures show that digital titles comprise less than one per cent of the DFO’s collections.
And what of the digitisation programme itself, whereby unique DFO materials are to be made remotely accessible to the public? It sounds like an austere process; staff are described as using “multi-function office equipment” to digitise materials “as part of their tasks”.
These tasks, in recent years, have also included overseeing the closure of 7 of the DFO’s 11 branches while negotiating to discard tens of thousands of items from their collections. It all amounts to a near-impossible undertaking for a library system with fewer than 30 full-time staff and only one dedicated digitisation specialist.
Only four of the 11 libraries were granted any additional resources to support digitisation in 2012/2013, when consolidation efforts were at their peak. These additional funds comprised only $168,318. Another question asks how many staff have been specifically trained for digitisation every year over the last ten. The DFO declines to give numbers, saying only that:
"a set of digitization best practices for the libraries of the Department is provided to the staff, who receives on-the-job training on applying them."
The shorter Order Paper, Q-238, asks a fairly simple question:
(a) was the general public given the opportunity to salvage or obtain library materials which would otherwise have been discarded during the consolidation process;
(b) if so, through what media or methods, and when was this opportunity communicated to the public; and
(c) on what dates and times did the public, or will the public, have that opportunity?
For each of the eleven libraries, the answer is substantially the same:
While there was no formal outreach to the general public, opportunity was provided to universities, libraries and other local partners. When items are being integrated into the library at the [name of receiving institution] there is an opportunity to identify surplus material, which is put on display and available to the general public.
I must admit I’m not quite sure what that means.
After long speculation, Library and Archives Canada have at last confirmed that are in talks to outsource AMICUS, Canada’s national union library catalogue, to the private sector. Negotiations are at a fairly advanced stage; yesterday LAC issued an Advance Contract Award Notice detailing their proposal to contract the work out to OCLC. While it has become clear in recent years that LAC no longer possesses the capacity to develop robust digital solutions in-house, and while AMICUS’ decrepitude has increasingly been the target of frustration and embarrassment in recent years, questions still remain over a number of specifics proposed in the tender. Not least:
- "…the Service Provider’s externally hosted solution will replace the existing LAC implementation of the NUC for all public access and library contribution and data sharing functions."
- "While LAC currently hosts its growing collection of digital objects internally, on its own servers, in the future, LAC may consider utilizing the Service Provider to host some or all of its digital objects…"
- "It is further anticipated that the Service Provider will provide services and/or operate internal systems that will support the Last Copy Network." (NB: the LCN is the official name of LAC’s hastily-contrived successor to its now-defunct ILL service)
- The Contractor’s library systems software, databases and documentation will remain the property of the Contractor. Any configuration of the Contractor’s systems specific to LAC’s requirement and any specific custom code relating to the development of linkages from the Contractor’s systems to LAC’s internal systems for the purposes of undertaking the work will be done by the Contractor and will remain the property of the Contractor.
In an age where other jurisdictions are moving toward distributed, collaborative, open source, robustly public infrastructure to support digital librarianship, Canada’s continued drive to further fragment and privatise information services seems all the more disappointing and short-sighted.
This morning I was humbled to learn that I was named a “Mover and Shaker of the Year” for 2014 by Library Journal. I have been overwhelmed by the kind congratulations I have received and I extend my sincere thanks to all who have taken the time to offer well-wishes. I am very proud to be a part of this community. I would also like to thank the friends and colleagues who nominated me for this - I’m not at all sure I’m worthy of the honour, but the fact that you thought so means a lot to me.
In a spirit of proactive disclosure, I have appended below my full responses to the Library Journal interview for the award (NB this was given before LAC had implemented improvements to the Code of Conduct in December of last year).
What was your path to librarianship/career trajectory? And how did you get involved in issues of freedom of expression and access to information?
I guess you could say my devotion to libraries began early - I grew up in rural Virginia, and as soon as I started displaying an interest in reading my mother began taking me to the library at least twice a week to load up on books. I was a ferocious reader; books were my constant companions, and I’ll never forget how blown away I was by the realisation that I could read something in a book and then somehow make use of that information to effect change in the wider world. Learning to do something, to make something, to broaden your horizons, to explain something to others - it still kind of blows my mind, to be honest. So I carried that attachment to knowledge and libraries forward through my life, until the last year of my History MA in Scotland when I was offered a job placement as an archivist in Aberdeen University’s Rare Books and Special Collections department. That got me interested in archives. I really enjoyed the work and being able to make such direct use of my training as a historian, but it wasn’t until I moved back to the States a year or so later and took a job on the reference desk of the Mount Vernon City Library that I really went “wow…this is it, this is for me”. I loved reference work, but I also realised just how much information-seeking behaviour was dominated by decisions being made out of the user’s sight - by libraries, by vendors, by search engines, or by the simple omission which takes place when important information is never made available to begin with. So I think my dedication to intellectual freedom, or to keeping the public good at the forefront of information policy, flows from the ways I myself have benefited from free access to information…and from some of the real inequities or shortcomings in access to information I’ve seen both through studying history and through reference work. My archival training is also a big influence - archivists think carefully about how issues relating to access, accountability, and evidence are tied to the ways we record and share information. Freedom of information and expression are crucial. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this century will be beset with pressing challenges for our societies and the world we live in - our ability to find creative, inclusive solutions to those problems hinges directly on the degree to which people are empowered to think for themselves and contribute to broader discourse around the difficulties that we ultimately must face together.
Could you briefly explain/describe the role of the Information Policy Committee of British Columbia Library Association? I’m assuming that it is similar to ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and the Washington Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Interest Group.
The Information Policy Committee (IPC) are a standing committee within the wider British Columbia Library Association (BCLA). Our official mission, as it stands, is “to advance the interests of citizens and library users in gaining and maintaining affordable and equitable access to information, and to ensure that the public interest is safeguarded in any government decisions relating to information policy.” So in a way we are broadly similar to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, but we tend to focus more on the policy side of things. That means we look closely at decisions being made by influential groups within society - especially government entities and internet or telecomms companies - with a view to understanding how those decisions will affect access to information for the public at large. Following from that analysis we do what we can to steer policy in a positive direction; one of the things I’m really proud of is the plurality of approaches the committee has been able to take in pursuing these goals. These range from sharing our own commentary and analysis with allied organisations, working with journalists to shape media coverage or raise awareness of contentious issues, working directly with politicians to advance policy goals, working with other library and archival associations to build consensus and cooperative action around matters of mutual interest, and working with allied organisations outside the traditional library field to advance important information policy issues the library community at large isn’t quite ready to tackle yet. The IPC is helped in this work by BCLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, which deals directly with freedom of expression and censorship issues. We are also proud of our good relations and partnerships with local and international advocacy groups - OpenMedia, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, and others, which have enabled us to be part of some really great work. The IPC is very well supported by BCLA’s leadership in our efforts, which I’m very thankful for. BCLA is a great organisation to be a part of.
What were some of the outcomes of your work speaking on behalf of librarians and archivists in Canada in regard to the code of ethics and the government locality requirements? The more specific the answer—numbers, statistics, etc—the better.
There were several major outcomes to the work around the Code of Ethics specifically, and I think they fell into two broad stages. The first centered on raising awareness: following the initial disclosure of information about the Code, I worked with journalists at both national and industry-specific media outlets - the CBC, Ottawa Citizen, Academic Matters, and others - to write or promote coverage around the issue. I managed to get hold of the training documentation which accompanied the Code, which was in some ways even more absurd than the Code itself, and share that through my blog. There was such public interest in the story that I was able to give an interview for CBC Radio’s “As it Happens” which generated a lot of attention. Alongside the media blitz, the issue was raised formally during debate in the House of Commons, which was really a watershed moment because the government ended up being quite embarrassed by the story. We were working behind the scenes with other civil society groups to encourage them to promote the issue as well. That pressure, and that embarrassment, helped contribute a few weeks later to the resignation of the Librarian and Archivist of Canada under whose leadership the the policy was developed. That’s what triggered the second phase of the effort, which involved working with other Canadian heritage and library organisations to develop a formal statement on the qualities we expected of the next Librarian and Archivist of Canada. Thanks to a lot of hard work from many people we were able to put together a statement that was endorsed by more than 24 groups including virtually all the national, provincial, and territorial library and archival associations as well as organisations representing historians, genealogists, and universities. I think it was a real achievement and a great precedent, and we’ve used that statement to keep up pressure on the government as the search for a new Librarian and Archivist of Canada continues. But really one of the best outcomes, as far as I’m concerned, is that the whole debacle has created some space for a a wider debate around freedom of expression within libraries, and I think that’s sorely needed.
It struck me as odd that librarians and archivists, who as a profession typically standing up for access to information and free intellectual discourse for others, had to defend their own right to freedom of expression. I wonder if you could comment on how that experience has impacted you personally and professionally?
I think I can say, hopefully diplomatically, that it has been an eye-opening experience. A big part of my personal mythology revolves around libraries being the good guys, in a manner of speaking, and so to see not only a library but the most important library in the country imposing these grotesque, almost Orwellian restrictions on its employees was devastating. It was more so because the nature of the restrictions meant that the people affected couldn’t even speak out about what was happening to them. My natural reaction to seeing people get bullied is to get angry, and this was no exception - I was furious. The more I worked to raise awareness about the situation at Library and Archives Canada, however, the more I realised that restrictions on librarians’ freedom to frankly discuss their work are actually quite widespread. Some are tacit, and some are formal, but really there are a lot of people in libraries who feel that they will face professional approbation if they talk critically about difficult library issues - ebook licensing, say, or approaches to income inequality - in public. I have run into a bit of this myself. So on one hand many people have embraced my work because of what it’s seeking to do, while in other circumstances I tend to be treated a bit guardedly because I’m a guy who’s frequently talking critically about uncomfortable things. Ultimately the experience has strengthened my resolve to stand up for the right of everybody in libraries - patrons and employees alike - to be treated with respect and dignity.
What advocacy work have you been involved in recently? What projects are you taking on in the next two years?
The main focus of my advocacy work recently has been around internet privacy. This is something I’ve been interested in for a long time, but the recent revelations from Edward Snowden and others regarding the sheer scale and pervasiveness of corporate and government surveillance of internet users’ private activities and communications have really added a degree of urgency to the effort. So right now I’m looking at raising awareness of small-scale, usable tools that libraries can implement to give their users a better measure of privacy and security on library computers - basically what I’d like to see is kind of a strategic framework that public libraries can look to when and if they decide to start thinking a bit more broadly about protecting user privacy. It’s not such a hard sell if there’s a concrete plan of action people can look to for an example. That’s my main focus right now - if we don’t let the government snoop into our patrons’ borrowing records, why on Earth would we be comfortable with non-consensual third-party surveillance of what users are doing on our computers? When we take away patrons’ choices about how they can access information - which we do every day through the restrictions we place on library computer use and the partnerships we cultivate with vendors - we need to be sure the decisions we are making for our patrons are ethically sound. There’s some soul-searching to be done here.
More broadly, and at least tangentially related to the above, we’re experiencing a spate of public-private partnerships between libraries and private-sector bodies here in Canada which may be detrimental to libraries and our users in the long run; some of that may need unpacking in the coming year. There are also a number of pretty unenlightened legislative moves here in Canada aiming to compromise the openness of the internet, and a number of sinister international trade treaties that aim to do the same and to impose pretty heinous new copyright strictures to boot - *cough* TPP! - so there’s a lot of work to be done there too.
There’s too much to choose from in the realm of information policy these days; there’s never a shortage of work, it’s more a matter of figuring out how best to focus one’s efforts and resources so as not to get overwhelmed or succumb to despair. Not to be too melodramatic or anything.
What’s the best thing you’ve learned from your successes? What about from the projects or efforts that didn’t turn out exactly as you’d hoped?
The best thing I’ve learned from my successes, such as they are, is that there are a whole lot of people out there who really care about libraries, about freedom of expression, about free inquiry, and that they sometimes crop up in places you wouldn’t expect. Last year I wrote a piece for the Tyee, a prominent Canadian independent news outlet, on the budget cutbacks at Library and Archives Canada and their consequences. It had almost slipped my mind when word reached me that it had ended up one of the Tyee’s top five most-read stories of the year! Tens of thousands of people read that piece, which on the face of it wasn’t exactly about the most headline-grabbing issue, and that was really encouraging to see. It’s always such a pleasure to meet other people who are interested in these issues and to hear their perspectives and the way they’re advancing advocacy in their own communities. Especially within Library and Archives Canada, I’ve met so many great people who are really struggling to do their jobs in the face of huge challenges because they believe in the work. Raising awareness about the conditions they face is a motivating factor for me. And just getting to hear the stories of people who have benefited from free access to information, especially getting to participate in those interactions myself on the reference desk…the impact of that on my life is difficult to overstate. This has all taught me to persevere by sticking to my principles - and a very important component of that effort is to never cease re-examining what those principles are and why they are important.
Failures? Too many to recount! Sometimes you win the battle and lose the war, as it were. With the Library and Archives Canada issue, for example, we kept pressure on them for so long to reform their management culture and policy directions, but when all was said and done, even though the chief architect of the institution’s worst recent decisions was forced out of office, many of those decisions and policies - including the Code of Conduct itself - have remained in place in spite of nigh-universal condemnation. So there is a lot more work to be done.
After these disappointing experiences, however, Canadian librarians are realising more and more that if things here are going to get better, we may have to build the solutions ourselves as a community and move away from our reliance on monolithic central institutions and organisations to get things done. Think about in the States - if the Library of Congress were to just stop maintaining the LoC Classification system, for example, what would you do? What if they decided they weren’t going to catalogue titles they receive through legal deposit, or that they were going to dramatically reduce the quality of their catalogue records? Those are the sorts of questions we are having to confront right now in Canada, and it’s a steep learning curve. But I’m optimistic. In the final analysis I think we’ll see that some of these “failures” have in fact contributed to us getting wiser and building better, more resilient, more distributed solutions for the future.
What sort of work do you do as a librarian at Burnaby Public Library? (I’m looking for just a brief answer, such as teen librarian, adult librarian, providing programs, such as …)
Any and all kinds; I work in every branch, on every desk that I can. The one constant is that I am always working with the public. The front lines!
Where do you go from here? Are there any issues or challenges you’re eager to take on? Will we see you as BCLA president?
I would really like to see librarians taking their place at the forefront of digital information policy advocacy, because we have invaluable perspectives to contribute to these debates and a long, proud tradition of advocacy in the public interest. Right now the bulk of the work specific to the digital realm around issues like copyright, digital rights management, internet censorship, free access to government information, and the like is being done by non-library groups like EFF and OpenMedia, and while I hugely admire their work I would love for that to change. But in order for that to happen, library advocacy needs to become more self-aware, more sure of itself, and less naive. Banned books week is great! But the really dangerous efforts at censorship right now aren’t book challenges - they’re enacted through policy changes far from libraries themselves. Too often the real threats to free expression and free inquiry pass unremarked by libraries until it’s too late. So I’d like to see library advocacy become more confident. We need to get our hands dirty - only ever talking about things that make people feel good is a strong temptation, and one that tends to be borne out in professional culture. That often leaves us at a disadvantage when we need to confront real, pressing issues. Attitudes like this are perhaps unlikely to propel me into the loftiest reaches of power, but we’ll see what happens!
Tell me something about yourself that’s not related to librarianship, such as your passions, hobbies, causes, etc.
I’m an extremely bizarre person. One of the things I really like is cycling everywhere, which is handy because I never bothered to learn to drive. I also like collecting books, but I’d really rather distract you from how out-of-control that habit is getting, so I guess I’ll draw attention to some other hobbies. The less-weird among these include cooking, anything to do with good beer, writing and playing music using my growing collection of instruments…and historical European martial arts. That’s a fancy way of saying “fighting with heavy and dangerous swords”. Helps keep things in perspective.
A newly-released Order Paper provides disturbing insight into the chaotic, poorly-managed “consolidation” of libraries at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
The initial question, posed by MP Lawrence MacAulay , asks:
With regard to the consolidation of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ library system, for each…[location]:
(a) how many items from the library’s collection have been retained for consolidation in another regional·library;
(b) how many items have been (i) deposited in other federal government collections, specifying which collections, (ii) offered to libraries outside the federal government, specifying which libraries and how many have been accepted, (iii) sold, (iv) discarded;
(c) for each location, how many items have been digitized, distinguishing government of Canada publications, other government publications and items other than government publications;
(d) for each location, what have been the costs associated with discarding surplus items; and
(e) what are the file numbers of any contracts or invoices for the removal and disposition of discarded material?
The response is chilling. The government reveals that the DFO offered a staggering 84,067 items to other libraries, including universities, but records indicate only 221 of those items were accepted - that’s about one out of every 380 items. Many of the DFO libraries reported that it is simply “unknown” how many items were accepted by other institutions; the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John’s, by contrast, indicates that not a single item of the 28,177 it offered found another home.
It is worth noting that items were offered to these external libraries only after being offered to other government departments; the response indicates that not a single item was accepted into the collection of any other federal institution or department, apparently including Library and Archives Canada. In other words, these items - all of which were bought and paid for with taxpayer money - have been lost forever from public ownership.
The document also reveals that of the seven closed libraries, only one kept a record of how many items it discarded - the others responded to the question about how many items they discarded (that’s “threw away” for laypersons) with the single word “unknown”.
Perhaps the most astonishing revelation, however, is the government’s response to the question about how many items were digitised - it reads, simply:
"The Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ systems do not enable us to determine the number of items digitized by location and category."
In other words? Digitisation, the much-touted panacaea being used as a catch-all way of dodging criticism for throwing away taxpayer-funded information, is being carried out in such a haphazard way that the government has no idea how much has been digitised, what collections digitised materials originate from, or even what those materials are.
Among other things, May has raised the prospect of the Library and Archives Canada Act — a sweeping and seldom-mentioned piece of legislation that, interpreted broadly, might be considered to govern a quite extraordinary range of activities relating to disposing of government informational holdings by individuals and departments. It is, insofar as such a thing exists, the Magna Carta of Canadian federal recordkeeping legislation.
No government or ministerial record, whether or not it is surplus property of a government institution, shall be disposed of, including by being destroyed, without the written consent of the Librarian and Archivist or of a person to whom the Librarian and Archivist has, in writing, delegated the power to give such consents.
Astute minds might wonder about the definition of the term “record” here — it is given elsewhere as “any documentary material other than a publication, regardless of medium or form”. This would certainly seem to include raw research data, but excludes any formal publication. Publication, in turn, is defined as:
“any library matter that is made available in multiple copies or at multiple locations, whether without charge or otherwise, to the public generally or to qualifying members of the public by subscription or otherwise. Publications may be made available through any medium and may be in any form, including printed material, on-line items or recordings”
This distinction between records and publications is why section 16 is important. It reads, very tersely:
Despite the Surplus Crown Assets Act, all publications that have become surplus to the requirements of any government institution shall be placed in the care or control of the Librarian and Archivist.
Curiouser and curiouser! Would this not tend to indicate that oversight for all library materials being culled from federal departments should properly have flowed through the person of the Librarian and Archivist of Canada? As far as that goes, the aforementioned article makes the interesting assertion that Elizabeth May has in fact “spoken to the current Librarian and Archivist of Canada” whose response has led her to believe that the Library and Archives Canada Act has not been followed with regard to the disposition or culling of materials at recently-closed Federal libraries. I imagine this would be with regard to one or both of the sections cited above.
Following on from this, May’s assertion that she has spoken to the Librarian and Archivist is most interesting; Canada does not, in strict point of fact, currently have one. Hervé Déry is now, quite literally, on borrowed time; his is an interim appointment, and one that has actually exceeded its statutorily mandated maximum 6-month term to boot. A couple of months ago term was extended, apparently indefinitely: I have written about this at more length elsewhere.
What will come of all this? I think that the government will contend that May misunderstands the Act, and there’s really nobody to gainsay them on this. In spite of the (very) sweeping powers invested in the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, the Library and Archives Canada Act does not really provide any practicable provision for meaningful oversight of those powers. It also does not provide meaningful or transparent penalties if the auspices of the Act are not respected.
This is all, of course, part of a feedback loop of sorts. Any discussion of cuts to Canadian knowledge infrastructure inevitably brings us back to questions about the savage and disproportionate cuts to Library and Archives Canada’s own budget in recent years. When a country invests wide-reaching oversight for government accountability and information management probity in a single institution, and then ensures that the institution is so poorly funded that it cannot possibly exercise its own statutory responsibilities in this regard, there is bound to be a collapse in transparency.
All too often, this results — as in Canada at present — in huge, fiscally irresponsible losses of taxpayer-funded public information like those we have seen recently at the DFO and Health Canada among others. When such a situation arises from a government that it is legendarily obsessed with propaganda and suppressing information that could portray them in a bad light, not to speculate in terms of deliberate engineering seems disingenuous at best.
*The beauty of this is that the public’s very means of doing so is ever-increasingly circumscribed by Canada’s arcane, ancient Access to Information legislation and the government’s own increasingly alarming tendency to hamstring the regulatory bodies tasked with maintaining and providing access to records.
The attached order paper, dated 19 June 2013, is a response to parliamentary inquiry Q-785 regarding the closure and consolidation of federal departmental libraries. Appended are responses from every ministry; the document is searchable.
The question reads:
With regard to government libraries: (a) since January 1, 2012, which departments or agencies have closed, or will be closing, their departmental or agency libraries; (b) what is the rationale for each closure; (c) what evaluations, studies, or assessments were conducted and used to make the decision to close; (d) what are the dates and file numbers of those evaluations, studies, or assessments; (e) what are the plans for the disposition of the holdings of the libraries; (f) what evaluations, studies, or assessments were conducted and used to make decisions concerning the disposition of holdings; and (g) what are the dates and file numbers of those evaluations, studies, or assessments?
Of particular note are the responses regarding plans for identifying and disposing of library materials at the affected departments, especially in light of recent controversy over library closures and cutbacks at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Library and Archives Canada (LAC). In almost all cases, departments pointedly avoided revealing what, if any, rationale they followed in identifying or assessing what materials in their collections would be discarded. This raises real questions about the degree of planning and thought that went into what has been, by all accounts, a haphazard and rushed process.
When asked what assessments the Department of Fisheries and Oceans conducted to make decisions regarding the relevance and disposition of their holdings, for example, the response was a single nonsensical sentence: “The options for disposition of holdings were determined in alignment with Library and Archives Canada’s authorities granted to the Department.” The response then goes on to tacitly acknowledge that no formal assessment was undertaken (see [g], page 29). Earlier in their response, the DFO also revealed that the decision to close their libraries predated any assessment to determine whether this represented sound policy (see [c], p. 28).
Many thanks to Lorne Bruce of the Ex Libris association for digging this up and passing it on to me.
The following is a guest post from a friend and former colleague who recently left the library profession for work in another field. We worked together for almost two years; towards the end of that time we talked a lot about her decision to leave the field. Selfishly, I tried to persuade her to hold on in the hopes things would improve - she’s one of the most competent people I know and I had hoped to continue working with her throughout my career. In the end, she moved on; it was the right decision for her, but, in my view, a loss for the profession.
Like just about everyone else who started library school, I began my MLIS with the intention of working as a librarian. I knew going in that the job market wasn’t wide open, but after graduating and becoming more aware of the precarious nature of library work in the lower mainland, I felt I had no choice but to accept a job in a different field. I’m not going to rehash all the reasons why precarious employment is awful for everyone involved; Myron and many others have recently done so, and I won’t repeat the excellent points they have raised. Instead I can explain why I am not willing to pursue library work at this time.
Let me start by saying that I am one of those fortunate people who could - financially and logistically - afford to take a precarious position. My partner has a full-time, stable job (though like many others he is on long term contract and does not have benefits) and I do not have children or any other circumstances that require I maintain a particular schedule. Even having established this, I do not feel that accepting an infinite period of precarious employment would help me achieve the things I want out of life personally or professionally:
- Consistency in day-to-day living - I enjoy my work, but it is not the sum of my being. I get a lot of value from the activities that I pursue outside of my employment, which make me a happier, more well-rounded person. These activities require regular and consistent time commitments. Having no regular schedule or ability to make even short-term plans would severely interfere with my pursuits outside of work and general well-being.
- Long term financial and family planning – I would not be out on the street if I took an auxiliary position, but I already I spent my 20s paying off student loans, living in cheap housing and working temporary jobs. I don’t want to do this anymore. This type of living simply doesn’t allow you to plan responsibly for the future, and once you hit a certain age and need to start making significant long term plans (e.g. children, major financial decisions) this lack of stability becomes much more significant. I know this is a reality for many people, and they make it work, but it is not one that I wish to volunteer for if I have the luxury of a choice.
- Quality of work - Beginning a new job is exhausting. You have to continuously process new information, build relationships, and make the best impression possible. It usually takes months to get past this “new job threshold” and feel settled in a new position. I cannot imagine never really settling in to a workplace, or that I’d do my best work under these conditions.
All that said, in order to be able to work as a librarian, I would have dealt with all of this for a certain period of time if it resulted in a reasonable possibility of moving into a full time position. This is really the crux of the problem: taking an auxiliary/short term library position in the current job market essentially means accepting these conditions indefinitely, and this is not something I’m willing to do. I understand the concept of putting your time in, but this only makes sense if there is light at the end of the tunnel. I have watched my friends as they have struggled to find jobs, and this does not appear to be the case with most of the available library work in the lower mainland.
The auxiliary system used by most public libraries doesn’t look much like an opportunity to get a foot in the door. It looks more like being crammed onto the front porch, with as many people shoved in next to you as possible, knowing that most of you have little chance of ever getting into the building. Ultimately, I am not willing to sacrifice my quality of life in every other area just for a job, regardless of how much I want that job. So for now at least, I have stepped away from the library scene.
There are many, many very talented and accomplished librarians working in the lower mainland so I doubt that my exit from the library scene is any great loss. But if I have moved on for these reasons, others probably have too, and still others may only be able to wait out the current conditions for so long. Having a limited number of jobs is one thing; people will keeping looking until they are able to get one. However, if the vast majority of available jobs are highly undesirable, qualified people - especially the most talented new professionals - will eventually stop applying for work in the field.
I love libraries and would love to put my degree to use as a librarian, so I sincerely hope that hiring practices in the lower mainland change so that I might have a chance of doing so while maintaining a reasonable standard of living. In the meantime, I feel I have no choice but to take my skills where they – and I – will be valued so that I can enjoy the quality of life that we all deserve.
(by S. Martin)
I. FRAMING THE DEBATE
Toward the end of last week, I started a conversation on Twitter about precarious employment and its harmful impact on the lives and well-being of those who have no choice but to accept it as a sole means of income. Initially I wrote briefly about some of the ways precarious hiring practises contribute to inequality and a lack of diversity in the profession; this essay should be viewed as a companion piece to that earlier post.
In the library world this kind of employment is usually referred to using an elaborate coded language designed to diminish the perception of its detrimental effect on individuals—positions are referred to as “on-call”, “auxiliary”, “term”, “contract”, “temporary”, “adjunct”, or the truly loathsome “casual”. Some such positions (“term”, “contract”, “temporary”, “project”, “seasonal”, “sessional”), which we might refer to as constituting “contract precarity”, offer a fixed income but for a fixed length of time, so that employees have to continuously re-apply for their own jobs even though they enjoy a temporary illusion of financial stability. These positions may or may not offer benefits. This situation prevails in many academic libraries of my acquaintance.
Other positions (“auxiliary”, “on-call”, “casual”) are nominally permanent, but offer employees no fixed income, no guaranteed hours, and often no fixed work location—we might refer to this as “auxiliary precarity”. This latter type of precarity is especially predominant in public libraries in British Columbia’s largest metropolitan area, where I live and work. Such positions almost never offer benefits.
I have personally experienced a mixture of both types—in my 8 years in the field, I have worked both term contracts and “auxiliary” positions, always as my sole form of income. (I have never received health benefits.) Much of this piece will be informed by my experience of auxiliary precarity, as this is the predominant precarity which affects my sector (public librarianship) and my geographical region.
In trying to get this conversation started, one of the first things I noticed was that in spite of pretty good publicity (the hashtag was promoted by a number of influential writers about precarity with wide audiences, including Sarah Kendzior and Rebecca Schuman, as well as by many of my own contacts) the interest in seeing a conversation about precarity take place vastly outstripped people’s willingness to participate in such a discussion. Many wanted to see other people talk about precarity…but in spite of the large and increasing proportion of library work that is precarious, comparatively few were willing to share their own experiences. I feared this might be the case, but I forged ahead anyway and was pleased to see that several individuals did indeed choose to contribute. Some brave few were even motivated to write about the subject. Most of them, perhaps predictably given my readership, were information professionals. Their stories were heartbreaking.
II. THE FIRST RULE OF PRECARITY: YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT PRECARITY
Part of the problem with precarity is that our very inability to talk about it, especially in here in lower mainland BC where it is absolutely systemic, contributes to it being entrenched perpetually. “Nobody is complaining”, allege employers, “so the system must be working well”. And indeed, how could the precariat possibly complain? This is one of the seductive qualities of precarious hiring from an employer’s perspective; its very nature encourages those so employed to bite their tongues, appear uncritical and fawning towards employers and superiors at all times, and to climb over their colleagues in the hope that they might be one of the fortunate few who is anointed into a Real Job. Others expressed doubt as to their own precarity—"well, I’m doing alright now, and although I could easily lose that stability I see that others are suffering more, so I’d better just sit this out".
I suspect there is a degree of that kind of thinking colouring people’s participation—the notion that one can’t be personally precarious because others have viscerally worse experiences. That’s another component of precarity; the drive to not complain, to accept one’s lot uncritically, is tied up not only with hopes of future advancement—on which topic Antonio Gramsci might have a thing or two to teach us—but also with the notion that since it could be worse, it’s not bad to begin with. Conversely, what I wanted was to see was a broader look at the whole ecosystem of employment practises that have seen the notion of a stable and even quasi-permanent position relegated to the realms of fantasy for, I would posit, most young people. “Young” is a sliding scale too - I’m 30 years old, and I know people in their 40s and even 50s who are precarious.
Most of my readers probably appreciate that my interest in precarity ties into my broader politics, but I do think it’s a phenomenon worth looking at in its own right—especially with eye-grabbing headlines like this week’s revelation that Canada’s wealthiest CEOs make in approximately 12 hours what the median Canadian earns in a year. Precarity, broadly defined, is one of the defining frameworks that give shape to income inequality, and income inequality does not result in (literally or figuratively) healthy societies. It’s universally corrosive; In discussing the matter I have tried to touch on some of the reasons why in addition to the “shock horror” stuff about personal circumstances. I was sad that more people didn’t feel empowered to share their own experiences, since I believe that without communicating the human dimension of the suffering inflicted by precarity we have little hope of communicating its detrimental nature to people with the ability to examine their hiring practises, but I understand why.
I would like to be clear, lest there be any doubt: I attach absolutely zero personal opprobrium to any person choosing not to participate in discussions of this nature; the risk is real, and the hostility towards people who draw attention to exploitation is pretty well-established throughout history generally and within information work specifically. Everyone is struggling, and I view us as all being inherently tied up with one another’s common well-being regardless of what approach we take to confronting it. For me, I only have the luxury of commenting for a variety of reasons related to my educational background, readership among the community, race, gender, and generally suicidal need to express my opinions about things that matter to me lest I go quite mad. Moving swiftly on from that latter clause, let’s take a moment to consider…
III. THE LIBRARY SCHOOL QUESTION
One argument I have heard expressed by a number of people—including my friend Jacob Berg—is that precarity is a natural or even inevitable response to a hyper-saturation of the job market with qualified MLIS holders encumbered by debt and therefore desperate for any employment, however defined. This is an interesting point; there have been discussions elsewhere about how this dynamic plays out in other fields, notably academe.
I think that one of the most perverse incarnations of false justification for precarity is the related notion (usually only expressed behind closed doors) that precarity is perhaps the only compassionate response to job market saturation in library and information services. It is not; it perpetuates it. You are only responsible for how you treat your own employees, not the great mass of individuals nominally qualified to work for you—dividing one job into three, or four, or six does a disservice to your organisation, your users, and your employees. In my view libraries need to hire fewer people, support them, and invest in them; I believe you would see a transformation of service delivery and organisational culture. More on this anon.
The widespread uptake of precarious employment practices unfortunately lets the library schools keep getting away with ever-escalating class sizes, and that is monstrous. Recall that the job of a library school is generally not to help or strengthen the profession, but to generate prestige and profit for the university which hosts it through A) production of research and B) increased enrollment. When that perceived prestige is not tied to graduates’ employment rates (or, worse, is tied only crudely to the least fine-grained conception of employment possible without looking at the quality of life, or work, or even the sector in which graduates are employed) the criteria are instead “how intelligent and accomplished are the candidates a library school can ingest?” and “how many degrees can it excrete at the lowest cost without unduly compromising perceptions of the school’s prestige?”
None of this is especially contentious, I don’t believe, I’m just expressing it in an unusually caustic way. I’m a public librarian. I know a thing or two about modifying your metrics to suit the shape of the evidence you need to produce.
The library schools will not voluntarily reduce class sizes. Not now, not ever. That’s not their job; it would be tantamount to suicide for them to contemplate doing so of their own accord. Only if the stench of approbation in this small theatre of what the National Post describes as “the credentialism arms race" begins to negatively affect enrollment will library higher education begin to take questions of scale more seriously.
Enrollment will not be affected until we start talking about the job market much more loudly and much more widely, including to current and prospective students - aspiring librarians aren’t stupid, after all. They do research before they go to library school. Much work has been done to raise the profile of what things are like in the real world, but much more needs to be done. That’s part of why I think we need to talk about precarity and what it means for a person.
I will say that I don’t believe the library schools are malicious—they are mechanistic, which may indeed be worse, but not malicious. I believe that it’s their job to see what they want to see, and if that entails ignoring economic reality outside of academe then I fear economic reality must be brought to them.
IV: LIBRARY PRECARITY—SELECTED HUMAN IMPACTS
I’ve referred to the “human dimension” of precarity, so perhaps at this point I might pull together some of the tweets which constituted the discussion itself. A complete list can be found on Twitter under the hashtag #precarityis.
Precarity is: can’t afford to get sick because you don’t get paid if you don’t work. What’s a “sick day”?
Precarity is: hustling for stability as an indigenous woman and being judged for my hustle by old white dudes who have fallen into jobs.
Precarity is: having people say you’ll always have some work because you’re smart, but you still don’t know where work will be in 3 weeks.
Precarity is: watching people you *know* are as poor as you cultivate “positive” personal brands out of fear, shame…and hope. A heady brew.
Precarity is: knowing that *any* ill fortune—getting your bike stolen, getting a cavity—means the collapse of your whole house of cards.
Precarity is: wondering if the money you spend to fix your bike, so you can get to work, will mean not being able to make rent next month.
Precarity is: when a zero sum game is the best possible outcome. This eliminates all memory of perceived success and results in apathy.
Precarity is: not feeling comfortable discussing work situations with colleagues within a profession.
Precarity is: missing one shift due to weather, another to holidays, and worrying about paying rent.
Precarity is: slowly selling what few things of value you have to offset incidental stuff like prescriptions, soap, etc.
Precarity is: borrowed time—praying the invisible signifiers of your poverty never become visible, but knowing it’s inevitable they will.
Precarity is: not being able to collaborate effectively with colleagues because of a fear someone might take credit for your work.
Precarity is: you work 4 jobs because you work when you can, regardless of what it does to your life.
Precarity is: co-renting a condemned house b/c that’s all you can afford & hoping that the black mold doesn’t screw up your health.
Precarity is: your boss having no problem pointing out that if you don’t work mandatory overtime that you can be easily replaced.
Precarity is: understanding that the footprints left by the precarious employment don’t disappear when one finds stable work.
Precarity is: my partner just took the first paid vacation of his life, at age 38
Precarity is: I’ve been working in libraries for 14+ yrs. As of Sunday, I will have health benefits for the 1st time ever…for 5 months.
Precarity is: what happens to the best minds of my generation.
Precarity is: interviewing each year for my job, fearing, justifying why I think I’m the best person to do the job I love.
It is a marked trend in librarianship (and elsewhere), in my experience, to dismiss such tragic stories as “whining” and to write the situation off as “just the way things are.” To such as this, I would ask: what does such a response say about a person? Are such individuals really the people we want at the reins of what is, at its heart, a caring profession? It is even more troubling to hear, as I have, these sentiments expressed by precarious workers themselves. How could we have become so inured to inequity that even those who suffer most from it accept it as inevitable?
A number of these stories touch upon broader trends—if you are interested in these, such as the inherent racism of precarious hiring or its serious discrimination against individuals of lower socioeconomic class, I discussed a number of them briefly in the previous post mentioned above. These are not trends we should be countenancing in libraries, whether explicitly or tacitly, and it is my earnest hope that employers who profit from the precarity of their workforce will do some real soul-searching about the well-being of their staff.
V: LIBRARY PRECARITY: SELECTED INSTITUTIONAL IMPACTS
Precarity isn’t just bad for employees, it’s bad for the institutions that make use of it. One of the ways this plays out, especially with auxiliary precarity in public libraries, is that it undermines the ability of staff to form bonds with the communities they serve—a real tragedy.
In an era of uncertain funding where libraries seem to be engaged in a perpetual and soul-destroying process of agonising over our own relevance (our users certainly do not seem to have any such qualms, but that’s another discussion for another day), a logical place to start addressing these concerns would be ensuring that the staff who actually serve our users every day—that is to say, the visible face of the library to its patrons—are both adequately supported to give their best at work and rooted enough in place that they are able to build the bonds which ultimately embed libraries in our communities. This, of course, does much to protect a library from the whims of a changing political climate; I firmly believe that patrons are your best advocates when it comes to questions of funding. Precarity hurts library budgets.
Speaking for myself, I take a very great deal of pride in providing patient, compassionate, and above all warm and friendly library service. It is one of the things I like best about myself. I cannot tell you how many times I have had a wonderful experience with serving a patron to have them say “I’m so glad you’ll be here—you’re so helpful, I’ll be sure to come see you next time I’m in” only to have to explain that I’m actually not here. Patrons don’t understand the auxiliary system; they just see “this person really helped me” and those nascent relationships are ruined by not being able to follow through on them. Worse, there have been occasions where I’ve established these proto-relationships only to forget them because I work at so many branches and I’m so fragmented. This causes me a lot of pain; it dehumanises people when you forget them, and it diminishes the library. Precarity undermines communities.
It would also be disingenuous for me not to discuss the impact that prolonged auxiliary employment has on the attitudes of employees themselves*. People enter the profession energised, passionate, committed to doing their best in a field of human endeavour which never promised to make them wealthy - all because they want to make a difference. They bring good ideas, new skills, fresh perspectives, innovative ways of thinking about problems, but the nature of precarity - particularly auxiliary precarity - means tolerating months or years in a position where there is no meaningful way to make use of these fresh skills because structurally the domains in which you may have the most knowledge are the exclusive purview of individuals with whom you have little contact and, owing to the circumstances of your employment, no meaningful opportunity to collaborate. If you have no guaranteed hours, after all, it is very difficult to take ownership of a project! Precarity is an impediment to innovation.
By the time you become, just possibly, one of the fortunate few who is anointed into a regular position…how fresh are the skills you brought with you? How much time have you had to devote to keeping those skills keen as you spent hundreds of hours commuting, without any holiday, without any rhyme or reason to your schedule, working at any time, seven days a week, year in and year out? Libraries could and should benefit from taking advantage of employees’ existing skills—and passions—rather than needlessly developing capacity in-house. This is not a covert argument for shifting the burden of professional development into the personal lives of staff, it’s merely a call to build on existing skills and aptitudes in ways that are fulfilling to staff and which further the library’s needs. Precarity means wasted effort and expenditure for the library.
I know of districts where there are crippling IT problems that auxiliary staff know how to solve, but where there is no opportunity for them to do so—and what would be the incentive for them to try? Would it mean someone else taking credit for their ideas? If the last sentences seem cynical, consider the ways in which precarity encourages a person to privilege cynicism in their approach to professionalism. Precarity is the death of collaboration.
And what of the effects on employees’ mental health as they eschew family obligations, deny their loved ones their time, postpone having kids or getting married because they know quite well that the neglectfulness which is structurally built into their lives would harm their families? Do such conditions make for passionate, engaged lifelong library workers? They do not. Those most likely to survive a protracted period of such precarity intact are those with external financial resources, and this is a major factor keeping librarianship from becoming more diverse. Precarity burns people out.
If precarious employees are ready and willing to make a difference, they are also intelligent enough to know that much of the conventional wisdom about “working your way up” in an organisation is no longer necessarily rooted in fact—the promise of advancement, of a meaningful pension, of external social support from the state, of home ownership and prosperous children and two cars in every garage are the blandishments of a bygone era. Many of the direct and indirect subsidies which made a middle class lifestyle possible even for people now in their 40s are not accessible to those in their 30s or younger. Precarity accentuates this sense of despair.
There is, unfortunately, a generational gap in thinking about this issue. Many precarious workers are young people; they live in the vivid present because to them the present is all that can be spoken of with any reasonable certitude. If one does not have dental insurance now, there is little sound reason, actuarially speaking, to assume one ever will. If one is not working towards stable housing now, there is no reason to imagine a time when a struggle to make rent will not characterise one’s life. This is to say nothing of the debt many, especially those from less high-income socioeconomic backgrounds, have incurred to put themselves through library school in the first place. Young people have seen the failure of conventional middle-class economic thinking writ large in a way that many individuals who have benefitted from no-longer-extant frameworks of prosperity find very difficult to viscerally appreciate. Precarity breeds resentment.
Again, none of this is terribly contentious. You get the best work from employees who aren’t worried about making rent or whether getting a cavity will bankrupt them - and who feel supported and encouraged in trying new things and sharing new ideas. Precarity structurally precludes those necessary conditions for human happiness and well-being. And if some of these ‘institutional impacts’ look suspiciously like ‘human impacts’ to you, you’ve made an important connection—human happiness and well-being have everything to do with the quality and breadth of service a library is able to provide.
VI: A WORD ABOUT UNIONS
I am an ardent supporter of trade unions, but it cannot escape my notice that many precarious positions, especially as regards auxiliary precarity, are unionised (conversely, many forms of contract precarity, especially the temp jobs so beloved of our own Library and Archives Canada, are not unionised at all). There are, to say the least, bound to be eyebrows raised when unions become so institutionalised that they become party to collective agreements which see a large part of the workforce relegated to positions which provide no income security or peripheral benefits whatsoever
I’m a structural thinker; for all my admiration of the labour movement, I can’t overlook the fact that for many precarious auxiliaries, and doubtless for others, their unions are one of two major forces (the other being their employers) keeping them locked in a zero-hours, no-benefit positions—all of which require a master’s degree—within systems which often hire at least partially based on seniority. There is very little incentive for people working within such systems to become active as shop stewards, for example, because to do so in an auxiliary economy confers only risk and no benefit—again, I am speaking in terms of actuarial reasoning here. There is no way to prove, after all, that your hours have been penalised for your union activism because auxiliaries aren’t guaranteed any hours in the first place.
In many cases, management sits outside the union in any event—a necessary expedient, perhaps, but occasionally a thorny one—and so has no power to bargain for auxiliaries’ rights even if it desires to. So while I would love to see unions take up the cause of the precarious, it’s not something I currently see happening as a broad trend in my sector.
VII: THE CASE FOR PRECARITY
I know “times are tough”. I know “cost is whatever the market will bear”. I know “it was no bed of roses when I started out”.
These are excuses, not justifications, and it is not my place nor my responsibility to account for precarity from an employer’s perspective. All I can say regarding this subject is that actions carry moral weight. Decisions about precarity are not faceless or without consequence. They represent a choice of one moral end over another. I understand that there are indeed economic reasons why precarity is attractive to employers. What I want to see is evidence that decisions about precarity are being made with a full understanding of its moral impact on the well-being of employees and institutions, to which end I hope this piece has made some small contribution.
I welcome other voices.
*Conversely, there is growing acceptance of the fact that paying employees fairly—and most particularly ensuring that all employees have an opportunity to lock in benefits—results in increased productivity and profitability. If one takes the tack of accepting the neoliberalisation of the library as inevitable (which I don’t) one could at least be evidence-based about it. The trick is treating employees’ well-being as a foundational premise rather than an optional extra, as libraries too often do.
NB: I love my job, I love the work that it permits me to do, and I love the library system I work for and the community I serve. I have never had cause to doubt the integrity or good intentions of my senior management (which has not always been the case over the course of my career) and I deeply respect them as ethical, thoughtful, caring human beings. This piece is about structural exploitation, however, and that goes beyond the walls of any institution.