Thoughts on Academic Librarianship, part 2

General Disclaimer: My soon-to-be FPOW is by no means unique when it comes to academic libraries. After talking, and sometimes grumping, with librarians from many different academic libraries, I have come to the conclusion that MPOW is the middle of the pack when it comes to both good and bad organizational themes. It is not my institution that drives me insane at times, but they way academic libraries work in general. For many of these problems, it is simply the size of the organization that works against it. These observations are based on my experiences in my academic library. Your experiences may vary.

I have written this post so many times in my head that when I finally was able to write it, I could not articulate the words. I have always wanted to be more transparent about MPOW in this space, but I never felt like that was an option. I am leaving my library now and I no longer have to play the politics that keeps up outward appearances above all else. I do not see this post as bridge burning by any means. I think it is honest, fair, and I hope the administration accepts it in that spirit.

The introduction leads me right into the first issue: lack of transparency. One of the most frustrating things about this issue was that my administration was usually under the impression they were being transparent. As long as things looked ok from the top they must be ok. The problem was often a communication breakdown somewhere on the totem pole and the people on the bottom are rarely asked if everything is actually going OK. When you have an organization of any kind that is large, transparency is hard simply because it must travel through level after level of employees. We did receive meeting minutes from all the managerial type meetings, but they were bulleted lists of decisions and explained nothing about the why. I am not asking for a tome, but if the decision effects my work or me, I want to know why certain things were decided, not just the outcome.

Transparency can be a hit or miss affair. Sometimes things were handled fabulously. I think our original Strategic Directions process was very transparent with information coming out in many different formats and with many opportunities for participation from the library. However, I am sure there are differing opinions about it from someone who was displeased with the flow of information. Transparency is sometimes about perspective.

Transparency was even more complex when it involved a mistake or something was not going quite right. Then everyone was talking about it, except all the managers, and we peons were all left wondering why no one would just own up. The first step is admitting you have a problem. The second is actually addressing the issue.

Academic libraries want to be innovative, they think they are, but processes keep them from ever doing anything remotely cutting edge. In order start a new, innovative project you have to, at the very least, complete the following steps more or less in this order:

  • You have a brilliant idea, X, and you tell your boss about it.
  • Boss tells you to research X to see if anyone else has successfully done X because you need proof of concept and ROI first. (This immediately assures you that X is not a new idea since what you are conducting is a literature review of research articles.)
  • You present findings to managers/admin and argue for X being implemented.
  • Your managers/admin decide it might be worth trying so they create a Task Force to investigate the idea and write a report.
  • The Task Force does the research and writes a report.
  • The report goes to admin and they approve it.

  • Admin creates an Implementation Committee.
  • Implementation Committee goes over report, does more research, makes more plans, and writes their own report.
  • Report goes to admin.
  • Admin approves of monies to spend.
  • Implementation Committee starts the process of actually implementing X.
  • All these process often take a year at the very least. By that point, anything you wanted to do is so past being new that everyone is already doing it – except academic libraries. We make committees for everything and the committees are rarely efficient. It is also hard to have transparency when so much of the work of the organization is spread out in countless committees. Sounds a lot like ALA, yes?

    Academic libraries are very inflexible when it comes to traditional roles of librarians or allowing librarians to grow into different jobs. Once you get hired to do a job, that is your job. You may get work duties added to your position, but you will rarely get to recreate yourself, even if it meets an expressed need at YPOW. If you grow as a professional, the only way to move into a new position is to move up, often into management. There is no way to move sideways, to become more expert at something and be compensated or promoted in the same fashion as if you were moving up the ladder of the organization. Not everyone wants to or should be a manager.

    My work situation is a perfect example of this. I was hired as a Social Studies Librarian. I was hired to do collection development, reference, and instruction, but over time I became more interested in technology and training. There was no one on staff to do troubleshooting, exploration, and training of staff in regards to technology. We had a Systems Department, but that was not their job nor did they have time to train people. At first I did the extra stuff because I loved it and I argued that we needed a full time person to do this job. Training was added to my current job, for which I was compensated, but I still had regular duties to do. I was doing, in my opinion, two full-time jobs and eventually, I was doing neither well. I was only one person, after all. I declined a renewal of the training duties so that I could focus on my core job responsibilities. I told my managers that I was unable to do what I considered two full time jobs with limited time in a respectable manner. It was my way of telling them, I would be a band-aid for this problem no longer.

    There is still no one doing technology training at MPOW, nor will there be any time soon though the need is most definitely there. It is just not a priority. In my previous post, I said that there was always money in the bank and there was, for things. There was never money for people. We could always buy books, furniture, and shelving, but rarely new people. In my opinion, we need the people more and they are more important than things. Unfortunately, budgets do not work the way we would like and thus, no new positions. If my admin had moved me into a different position, they would have had to hire someone to replace me in my old position. I am assuming that there was just not money for everything and admin made a hard choice.

    In the end, I just do not think my personality and big bureaucracies are a good fit. I am continually frustrated by the red tape, the sacred cows, the lack of transparency, lack of flexibility, and the politics. My library was great for me because it allowed me to find something I love, technology and teaching. With monetary support to go to conferences with infinite networking opportunities, I was able to make enough contacts to enable me to seek my own career path. I will be eternally grateful to my first professional job for the fostering I received. I have outgrown my position and so it was time for me to move on. Baby or not, I have been considering my options for a long time.

    –Jane, needed a little more room to fly