Monday, June 01, 2009

Colliding Agendas

In response to today's Library Journal article on the future of the MLS/MLIS degree and all that it encompasses including the theme of deskilling ---- The Committee of Concerned Librarians would like to bring attention to a published study by Dr. Roma Harris and Victoria Marshall. Even though technology speeds along in nanoseconds and is often touted as an impetus for library 'reorganization' ---- agendas and economies more accurately describe the reasons for these 'changes.' Interestingly, not much has changed since this study was completed, now more than a decade ago!

Reorganizing Canadian libraries: A giant step back from the front.
Library Trends, Winter98, Vol. 46, Issue 3

A few excerpts appear below:


The nagging question of who does what in libraries has been exacerbated in recent years by significant restructuring initiatives, driven by ongoing budgetary pressures and constant technological change. In the study reported here, senior administrators as well as middle managers and front-line librarians in public and academic library settings were asked to describe the nature of organizational change in their workplaces and how new technologies affect or fit into the pattern of restructuring.

In the 1990s, libraries are undergoing unprecedented change deriving from a combination of accelerating prices of library materials and space, an enormous increase in the amount and types of materials available, and rapid developments in electronic technologies (Cummings et al., 1992). Library decision-makers have employed a number of common strategies to manage this change, particularly with respect to the deployment of staff. For example, following the passage of Proposition 13, a limitation on property tax that severely curtailed the revenue of local governments, Willett (1992) found that, although managers in four California libraries varied in their ability to represent their organizations well to funders and maintain good relations with their staff, all of them attempted to deal with declining resources by restructuring library services, reducing programs and materials, cutting back on staff, and deprofessionalizing work (i.e., assigning tasks formerly done by professional librarians to less expensive nonprofessional staff). Similarly, Crist (1994) reported that six academic library administrators, who were interviewed about their approaches to organizational change, used managerial strategies that included reducing the staff complement, redeploying professional staff away from functional roles such as reference, and establishing work teams in order to flatten the organizational structure (i.e., reducing the proportion of managerial positions and pushing decision-making responsibilities lower in the staff hierarchy). Neal and Steele (1993) described similar methods in the Indiana university libraries, where reorganization was designed on the basis of the assumption that continued budgetary restraint and a move from "automated to electronic status" would involve a "contraction of staff size and greater expectations of staff" (p. 93). Each of these examples illustrates that current managerial practice in libraries almost inevitably involves staff redeployment, especially through the assignment of greater responsibility to staff working in the lower-paid, lower-status ranks of the organizational hierarchy. Too, as a result of the use of new technologies, these staffing decisions take place within a context where many of the traditional work roles performed by library workers are being altered significantly.

Expectations concerning what an investment in new technologies should achieve for libraries, and the perceptions of library staff as to the impact and efficacy of restructuring initiatives, have not been widely explored. Although several recently published papers suggest that libraries should be organized differently in order to respond to the stresses of a rapidly changing external environment, few provide any empirical evidence to support the efficacy of new organizational forms. Most rely on interviews or mail surveys of a few library directors, case studies of a small group of similar libraries or, in some instances, a description of the change process undertaken in a single library (see for example, Jacobson, 1994; Lawson et al., 1989; Shapiro & Long, 1994). In the study reported here, an effort was made to provide a somewhat more substantial base of observations about the perceived connections among restructuring, staffing, and technological change in libraries. The investigation involved face-to-face interviews with directors of academic and public libraries, followed by a survey questionnaire mailed to librarians working in major academic and public library systems across Canada. This project builds on the findings of an earlier study of retrenchment in Canadian academic libraries during the 1970s and early 1980s (Auster, 1991).

The Interviews

The recorded interviews with the library directors were transcribed, providing a rich source of background information about the motivation of senior decision-makers who bear much of the responsibility for the direction of change in their libraries. All seven were concerned about the future health of their libraries, both with respect to their financial stability and their political viability (within the setting of local government or the universities in which they are located). All suggested that libraries are losing their competitive edge due to financial cutbacks which have resulted in a decline in services and staff. All shared the view that the future of libraries depends on whether these institutions are able to capitalize on the opportunities presented by new technologies.

New Roles for Librarians. According to the directors, the situation facing libraries demands change; consequently, the proper preoccupation of professional librarians should be the management of change. A recurring theme in their remarks is that it is no longer enough for librarians to simply fit new technologies into the traditional framework of professional roles and activities because these roles and activities are no longer valid. As one of them put it, "the change that's happening isn't at all like the automation change we went through when we took something we did one way and did it another way. It's a fundamental kind of change to who we are and what we do." This type of reasoning justifies shrinkage in the proportion of professional librarians within the total complement of library staff. One of the directors claimed, for example, that rather than hiring new graduates from library schools, it makes more sense to upgrade library assistants because: "[New graduates] . . . don't have the kind of skills we need. There is no recognition that this is a political world and that librarianship is not a sheltered place where you can escape reality . . . we are customer driven . . . we are politics driven. This is not some kind of aristocracy."

Another director admitted that when positions become vacant she asks: "Is there some way to fill this job other than with a librarian for whom there is so much overhead?" All seven directors regard professional positions as a great expense to the library requiring major scrutiny, not only with respect to productivity but according to new criteria about the actual jobs to be performed. As one of them said, the distinction between librarians and nonprofessional staff has become "very blurred. The real difference is that the librarians get paid more." All indicated that, in return for the library's investment in professional staff, they want something more and different from that which most librarians were trained and once expected to provide. While each director used somewhat different words to describe just what that "something different" might be, all agreed that the correct role for professional librarians is to provide leadership and training, vision and goal setting, quality assurance, and performance measurement.

The role of the professional librarian is becoming redundant. Other levels of staff can do their jobs. The need is for managers. The key roles are in management. Unless librarians can become managers they are faced with extinction. Paraprofessionals can do most of what professionals used to be needed for. . . . Catalogers are today's dinosaurs and librarians are becoming tomorrow's dinosaurs.

With respect to reference, it is not clear that increased user independence necessarily leads to an improved outcome. Some investigators report that, while users may be capable of working more quickly and getting better results through the ability to search electronic resources, many may not be able to make the best use of these resources without a librarian's assistance in choosing the correct database, constructing searches, and finding the best subject headings (see, for example, Bucknall & Mangrum, 1992; Mendelsohn, 1994; Kramer, 1996). Nevertheless, some library administrators appear convinced that there is little need for professional librarians in the future provision of direct reference service to users. One of the directors in this study remarked, for example, that, with proper training, library technicians could be taught to handle reference questions "without running to mommy." This remark betrays disdain, not just for the technicians but for the persons to whom they might turn for help. "Mommy" suggests that the next level up the staffing hierarchy is occupied by women. Implied in the remark is the implication that traditional professional roles are "women's work," thus not too important and probably overrated. This is echoed in the comments of another of the directors who observed that

some of the things about what librarians are supposed to do really puzzle me. All the cachet involved in cataloging and selection. . . . It's not enough. It's a larger thing that makes a librarian. And it's got something to do with management, and commitment, and analysis, and adapting to change, but it doesn't have to do with those little things.

This minimizing of traditional professional functions in the language of senior managers is a means by which they can protect themselves from accusations of professional betrayal. If the work traditionally performed by higher paid women in the library system is really over-rated, "little," or silly, it makes good sense to pass it on to other women who are a little lower-paid, and who can, with training, take on increased responsibility. This leaves professional librarians with an opportunity to embrace a less infantilized or feminized role, that of "manager," which, we are given to understand, is bigger, more important, and more far-reaching. Hence, fewer people should do it, only those who remain in a select managerial cadre at the top of the organizational hierarchy.

Fueled by financial constraint and opportunities for the application of new technologies, a radical restructuring of library work is underway. A recent study by Leckie and Brett (1997) reveals that, of all the work roles performed by librarians, the opportunity to be in direct contact with patrons remains the most highly regarded, yet the work of librarians is rapidly being reorganized in such a way that this opportunity for contact may become increasingly rare. As the data from the present study reveal, when para- and sub-professional staff are "empowered" to assume more front-line tasks formerly carried out by professionals, librarians are leaving behind what, for many, are the most significant roles in their work repertoire, thereby taking a "giant step back from the front."

Auster, E. (1991). Retrenchment in Canadian academic libraries. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Canadian Library Association.

Bucknall, T., & Mangrum, R. (1992). U-search: A user study of the CD-ROM service at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. RQ, 31(4), 542-553.

Crist, M. (1994). Structuring the academic library organization of the future: Some new paradigms. Journal of Library Administration, 20( 2), 47-65.

Cummings, A. M.; Witte, M. L.; Bowen, W. G.; Lazarus, L. O.; & Ekman, R. H. (1992). University libraries and scholarly communication. Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Dunkle, C. B. (1996). Outsourcing the catalog department: A meditation inspired by the business and library literature. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 22( 1), 33-44.

Hardy, C. (1990). Strategies for retrenchment and turnaround: The politics of survival. New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Harris, R. M. (1992). Librarianship: The erosion of a woman's profession. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Harris, R. M. (1993). Information technology and the deskilling of librarians. In A. Kent (Ed.), Encyclopedia of library and information science (vol. 53, pp. 182-202). New York: Marcel Dekker.

Jacobson, S. (1994). Reorganization: Premises, processes, and pitfalls. Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, 82(4), 369-374.

Kramer, E. H. (1996). Why roving reference: A case study in a small academic library. Reference Services Review, 24( 3), 67-80.

Lawson, V.; Miller, G.; Niemeyer, M.; & Slattery, C. (1989). Information technology: Impetus for organizational change in libraries. Show-me Libraries, 41( 1), 11-15.

Leckie, G. J., & Brett, J. (1997). Job satisfaction of Canadian university librarians: A national survey. College & Research Libraries, 58( 1), 31-47.

Mendelsohn, J. (1994). Human help at OPAC terminals is user friendly: A preliminary study. RQ, 34( 2), 173-190.

Moon, B. E. (1988). Reorganization of libraries: The United Kingdom experience. LIBER Bulletin, 31, 85-98.

Neal, J. G., & Steele, P. A. (1993). Empowerment, organization and structure: The experience of the Indiana University Libraries. Journal of Library Administration, 19( 3-4), 81-96.

Oder, N. (1997). Outsourcing model-or mistake? The collection development controversy in Hawaii. Library Journal, 122(5), 28-31.

Shapiro, B. J., & Long, K. B. (1994). Just say yes: Reengineering library user services for the 21st century. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 20(5-6), 285-290.

Willett, H. G. (1992). Public library directors in the organizational environment: Four case studies. Library and Information Science Research, 14( 3), 299-339.

Winter, M. F. (1988). The culture and control of expertise: Toward a social understanding of librarianship. New York: Greenwood Press.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If children's programmes can be delivered by parent-volunteers

If non-librarians can answer reference questions equally effectively

If collections are outsourced

If cataloguers are replaced by machine-generated records

If an MBA is the degree required to run a an information institution

Where do librarians fit in?

What impact would their absence have?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009  

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