I’ve been in libraries for ten years this year. Ten years, which feels like both yesterday and a long time ago as well. There’s much to say about all of that so here’s my attempt in a multi-part series to reflect on ten years. Part one is careers, capitalism and the patriarchy.
The first thing I need to say is, I’ve had two permanent jobs in ten years. That’s right just two – I’ve gotten through the rest of the time with casual work and contracts. There’s a whole blog post in all the feels I’ve gone through around that situation which I’ll write, eventually. And I know it’s not just a library profession issue but let’s just say it’s been tough and I’ve often considered walking away, if I could ever work out what I want to do.
When I decided to become a librarian, it was because I loved books and between editing and librarianship, it seemed the more stable profession. Oh how I laugh now about that naivety because getting work in this industry is tough. There are more people than there are roles. For ten years I’ve read the ALIA employment trends report and looked for the promised land of “boomers retiring™” but although this has started to happen, the jobs still aren’t there. The industry is shrinking, caused by a range of issues including funding, outsourcing, and automation.
At my graduation, the keynote speaker talked about librarianship being a skill needed in the future. And it’s true – our ability to curate, analysis and contextualise information should see us in many non-traditional industries, as well as in libraries (whatever they look like in the future). But library degrees from my experience don’t seem to provide the broad level skills needed and unfortunately as an industry we are still far too much tied to the romanticism of libraries to really adapt.
Libraries are conceptually a very romantic idea. Everyone (in theory) is allowed in, and within the four walls is a representation of all human knowledge to a greater or lesser extent. Libraries, even more so than galleries or museums capture people’s imaginations. And yes libraries can and do play an important role in providing access to information, which is a core principle of democratic society.
While all that is lovely, it’s built a mythology around librarianship that is very bad for the industry and the people in it. It makes librarianship out to be a calling, not a job: you’re a freedom fighter doing something big and important. But the truth is, the myth doesn’t hold up in reality.
Burnout caused by “vocational awe” amongst librarians is very real. My own experience of it was brutal and I’ve watched friends and colleagues go through the same heartbreak. It’s appalling to me that we as an industry we could want this. But we feed off vocational awe, manipulating idealistic newbies into the belief that they can change the world.
As a profession, we are deeply rooted in the patriarchy with all the gender stereotypes that go along with it. From my own experience, we particularly love the imagery of women in libraries as the “lady bountiful”, centring women as nurturers, doing the emotional labour for their workplace and their communities. It’s not necessarily intentional but all of us continually re-enforce this because of how we have been socialised to understand the world.
The #critlib movement has done much to raise the knowledge of the patriarchal and colonial mindset that forms the basis of library and information services. But it is often individuals who advocate and highlight these concerns both in their workplaces and in the broader industry.
Professional associations should be on the front line of this movement but while they seemingly embrace it on one level, they also largely continue to re-enforce the status quo. Earlier this year ALIA released the diversity trends report, which among other things recommended that we need to hire more men, in the interests of diversity.
The same report highlights pay inequality and across all sectors of GLAM there is one. Unsurprisingly (though depressingly), it’s not women who get paid more, despite making up 84% of the industry. The fact that in a predominately female industry one exists at all is infuriating, while it’s equally alarming that it’s not being addressed.
As a career-long member of ALIA I was deeply offended by the report, feeling it was demeaning to women who turn up everyday and keep the industry running. I raised some concerns about it with ALIA but was told it is about diversity and not equality – as though they are not two sides of the same issue.
Their extraordinary bad take on this and other recommendations in the report shows, an organisation out of touch with its members; history, and societal context of the industry they advocate for. How no one thought that telling a predominantly female profession that it would be a better industry if it hired more men, shows a level of disconnect that is both astonishing and distressing. I’m certainly not suggesting that ALIA was anything other than unthinking but it also fits the patriarchal mindset to devalue the role of women, even in an industry that is predominately female.
Libraries, I believe, think that because we hire more women, we are somehow above all this and we have dealt with these issues and are all about female empowerment. But this is clearly untrue. We know gender oppression in libraries is very real, women in the industry face harassment particularly from the community, and from my own experience that library tech and leadership is disproportionately male in comparison to their participation in the industry.
Female library leadership and libraries sit within the patriarchal system and abides by the same rules. Women have only as much power as the system grants us and we play our roles in re-enforcing the gender roles we have been told to play.
While all of that might sound unendingly depressing… There’s an upside.
Once you go through the fire and emerge singed and cynical, it’s still completely possible to function, engage with the industry and be good at what you do. In fact, I believe now without the emotional baggage of trying to make the world a better place I’m way more effective. Sure, feeling like you are just a cog in a big fat capitalist wheel is no way near as much fun, but it is safer and does give you a clear-eyed perspective on your value.
While I dislike intensely the idea that we are commodity, in a neo-liberal capitalist system when you’re unemployed, you need to get very real about things – including your value. For me, I recognised my value and, in fact, what all the years in libraries had taught me, by looking at my skills from a broader perspective then just libraries. What I found was real bankable skills that make me employable in the age of information.
My skills include developing and implementing processes and systems, people management, relationship development and maintenance; tech skills, information gathering, organisation and dissemination, as well as analytical, problem-solving and creative thinking skills. These (and many more) are needed and useful skills that all librarians have but we are not encouraged to shout them from the rooftop or think of them pragmatically.
Recognising these skills means I’m more confident in my abilities, and have been able to thrive in a completely new sector. I’m now in a non-traditional library role, where I rarely see books but it suits my skills, and challenges me everyday and in all the ways I love.
If there’s anything I could hope for going forward is that we lose romanticism that ties us down and actually focus on our knowledge and skills and all the ways we can use them. For a million reasons we’d all be better off and we might just have a chance to really change the world.