dear leader

Louisville bread line 1937There’s a lot going on in the world. Scrolling through my Twitter stream lets me skim across the top of it, dipping in here and there, saving an article, but mostly skimming. It’s oddly comforting, when things seem to be falling apart, to skim the surface.

But a tweet from a provocateur I don’t follow keeps coming up as people who I do follow throw up their Twitter hands (wings?) in frustration. A Library Leader thinks we should should embrace the gig economy, stop hiring full time library workers, and let a thousand gig jobs bloom. Because if you have a lot of gig jobs, you can be your own boss and make lots of dough if you hustle enough! Also, you will free yourself from the tyranny of the stable job and its “lack of flexibility.” Wake up, sheeple! It’s what those youngsters want! “The future workforce has less appetite for monotony as their grandparents.”

No kidding! Life is so not boring when you have a pile of school debt, no home you can afford, a looming climate catastrophe, and the thrill of not knowing what tomorrow will hold! A job? Three jobs? A fantastically exciting puzzle of what to do for child care when you have no idea what your schedule will be tomorrow? So flexible! But that absurdity isn’t what made me pause long enough to try and put my thoughts into words. It was the word “monotony.”

I worked in the same library for over thirty years. But that’s not actually true. I had a desk in the same building  . . . well, that’s not totally true, either. I had . . . the same work mailing address for over thirty years? There, that’s the most monotonous thing in my library career.

The reason I could have that address for over thirty years without being bored was because it wasn’t the same library year to year. We had new students, new faculty, new academic programs to serve all the time. We worked inside the same brick walls, but we took down shelves, renovated spaces, added group study rooms and whiteboards because we observed and talked to students about what they wanted in our brick-and-mortar space – and everything they had to say was fascinating. We had abstracts and indexes to explain, then CD-Roms, then databases, and always, always the still-unsolved mystery of how to help students locate themselves in the work they were trying to as they tackled research assignments.

In those thirty years the card catalog was retired, Gopher and WAIS and FTP came along, rumors of hyptertext were murmured, the web happened, and after that the rise of monopolistic platforms that ate it. In those thirty years we had no website, then a website designed by a student, then a much larger website that we had to redesign every few years, meaning more conversations with students, more observations. I created a series of guides and stapled them and put them in a rack, then learned enough html code to concoct messy webpages, then mastered an open source database program, and all that before we used Libguides to tell each other what we had told students in our sessions. (“Oh, look – you remember that session you had in the library? There’s a guide for your course. Let’s see what it recommends.”)

I proposed and developed and taught new courses and kept trying to make them better. I advised students, each bringing a new set of issues to my office. I learned about copyright and open access and digital humanities and publishing platforms for open access on and on. The paycheck grew in thirty years, and though it never made me wealthy it arrived monotonously every month. The health insurance kept growing more expensive and more limited, but it was there when we dealt with things like back surgery and cancer and more mundane illnesses that could have bankrupted us, as has happened to so many Americans.

How much more exciting life would have been if I’d been seeking work non-stop, never knowing what I’d be doing where the next meal would come from! Actually, no – the grind of gig work is its own kind of monotony. The anxiety of always seeking work and never knowing security is not the kind of “flexibility” anyone wants. I’m guessing even entrepreneurial library leaders have had a steady paycheck at some point in their lives.

I suppose there are library organizations that inhibit flexibility. I’m sure there are workplaces where learning isn’t encouraged, where trying on new roles isn’t easy. I’ve heard things that make me think “yeah, I’d never survive there.” But that’s a management problem that won’t be solved by creating a floating, precarious, disconnected and unsupported workforce. It can be solved, but only if workers have some power of their own and use it.

I tend to think libraries are proof that we can have nice things, that the cult of market forces can be studied and put into its proper place, where the idea of the public good still exists and thrives. I also think – along the lines of Heraclitus’s notion that you can’t step into the same stream twice – I may have had the same mailing address for decades, but I was always, always learning my way around a new library.

We were told the “sharing (sic) economy” and gig work was a form of liberating entrepreneurship when, in reality, it was a way for corporations and shareholders to shuck off the cost of labor while inflating stock prices so wealth could be safely stored offshore, away from the boring and monotonous work of paying your fair share. We’ve been told technology would fix the routine and boring work of learning in classrooms that hadn’t changed in a hundred years (sic). (Betsy DeVos wasn’t the first to say it – but it fits her blow-it-all-up philosophy. Bring on the teaching machines! The surveillance systems! Make public education a thing of the past!) For as long as I’ve worked in libraries, I’ve been told they are doomed if we don’t do something some Harvard Business Review article said we must do.

And look. We’re still here. Or rather, we’re still stepping, every day, into that library that flows around us, learning new things while serving the public good remains our latitude and longitude. Our permanent address.

(Photo of a queue of black residents of Louisville KY waiting for distribution of relief supplies during the 1937 Ohio River flood by Margaret Bourke-White courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

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