Acknowledging the wear of uncertainty.

This week’s midterm elections were a rollercoaster for the US. There was a ballot proposition in California that was was really close to home for my library: Proposition 6, which if pass would have repealed the recently enacted gas tax (SB1). The $5.1 billion raised from the the higher gas tax will go to repair and maintain transportation infrastructure across California. The institute my library is a part of gets a fraction of a percent of the money raised from that tax to perform research, an often overlooked and necessary component of any big program. If Prop. 6 passed, a steady form of funding for the institute and my library would disappear overnight. As soon as SB1 was signed into law, we had muted celebrations because it seemed politically certain that a proposition to repeal it would be on the November ballot. As I started developing new services and expanding operations for the library to help track and disseminate our research, I knew that we couldn’t fully commit or plan until the election and we had a better idea of our available resources. It became clear that until this week, that there would be limited financial commitments because we needed to see the result. The voters in California rejected Prop. 6 and the gas tax repeat by a 10 point margin, transportation in the state is valued, and I brought in a dozen donuts to the library to celebrate. (And if you’re not from California, you might not fully understand the California proposition system, which can be interesting. C.f: The infamous Prop. 13, the less infamous Prop. 187, Prop. 209, and Prop. 8.)

So now I have a better idea of a path forward and can start doing things that had to be put on hold until we knew the budget situation. Thanks, California voters!

My particular example is pretty acute and extreme. Most people’s work mission isn’t hanging in the balance of a voter initiative (and we’ve learned never assume anything about an election until the votes have been counted), but it seems like the current trend in workplaces is agility because you need to respond to priorities that might drastically shift in a moment’s notice. In a recent workshop on librarian peer review here at Berkeley the question was raised, how do you account for not accomplishing tangible things with deliverables because the mission changed? (The answer was note that.) And while my mission changes with political shifts that often lead to funding or research priority changes, this kind of continual change seems to be rampant all over. For libraries, it makes long term planning and thinking extremely difficult which is a major part of our core mission. That big idea you have to improve instruction? Put that on hold because you’re going to be a liaison to a new subject since that librarian just left. Have a research idea about publishing models and digitization? That’s great, but right now the focus is on assessment. (I’m making these examples up, FYI.)

More stable, less capricious funding models would make it easier to plan, but that’s not how things happen in 2018. It seems like dealing with constantly evolving missions, regular crises for new funding sources, and all the requisite competition (in terms of actual fighting for funding and balancing priorities) is just the way things are for now. It’s time we open acknowledge it and that it’s exhausting to work like that at times. It’s wearing. And since we’re a society (and profession) hell bent on quantitative metrics, recognize that these impacts are super hard to measure because it’s a kind of void.

Putting the U in unions: The power in a union is people.

I started this post when I was in a membership meeting for my union local. I’ve been thinking unions a lot since there’s been a lot of energy in the air: The recent AFSCME/UPTE strike across UC, which received support from several other unions. I helped organize a demonstration for my union, which included a march to the Chancellor’s Office. (In case you didn’t know, my union went out of contract in October.)

Last week American Libraries published an article called Unions 101. It starts with my union’s struggle for a new contract and then goes into why libraries need unions. The one quote that really stood out to me was from Aliqae Geraci:

“If you think the local union is bad, if the leadership is incompetent, there’s only one way to change that, and it’s to participate in the democratic process.”

I’ve seen (and participated in) how much work it takes to democratize a union, but it is more or less the same work needed to democratize government. When people talk about “grassroots”, they mean people – the rank and file, your neighbors, citizens, whatever. It’s you. You are the grassroots.

One of the things that’s become painfully clear to me since I got really active in my union is that they are an important mechanism for feedback within your workplace and community. Have concerns about some institutional policy? Unions are a great mechanism to address them in a way that has more traction and influence than an individual. One recent example is when ATU Local 689 workers shutdown the notion of special trains to protect racists at the Unite The Right rally in DC. There’s an established process and relationship between unions and workplaces, which can be effective if members are engaged. I think it’s something that people take for granted or ignore, which is why many unions are faltering. They might be bureaucratic or calcified, which means they need democracy more than ever. (Kind of like the USA…) When people say, “What can the union do? It has no power.” I fight everything in my being not to yell back, “NOT WITH THAT ATTITUDE!”

And unions are just one mechanism for engagement that feeds into others like community groups, religious organizations, professional groups, or political parties. Want to make a change and help canvas, get out the vote, or whatever? Unions are doing that. Don’t like the political stance your union takes? Let them know and get involved in the process making those endorsements. It will carry more weight and influence than a social media post. (I finally joined the Sierra Club just to help push out their weird pro-parking agenda and go for something actually green.) Unions, like the other groups, are part of the whole system and I feel like that’s something that people forget. My union, UC-AFT, cares deeply about higher education and lots of other policies that affect higher education – like housing and taxation.

And in closing, all this union stuff has made me think more about the role of professional associations and what I need or want to get from them. I’ve talked before about my feelings on SLA’s lack of advocacy when it comes to the profession. I’ve kind of cooled my enthusiasm for SLA because of that and because I realize that union activism and agitation can also support and defend the profession. We talk about wanting to make librarianship more diverse, but a concrete action to take for that is fighting for a new contract for 300 librarians that pays enough so that single people with student debt don’t have to work side jobs to be able to afford to work here. Our asking for academic freedom in our contract has demonstrated why this is an issue for all academics, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. (Please sign our petition if you support academic freedom for academic workers!) We talk about the need to advocate for new publishing models, and unions can work together to push legislation like the recent AB2192 to do that. I think worker/union solidarity is a very important part of supporting your institution, particularly the public sector. Again… if you are concerned about the segregation of racial and economic classes in the Bay Area because of the housing crisis, supporting local unions fighting for fare wages and access to housing is an actionable step to that end. Unions, unlike professional associations, are bound to support the individual collectively – the worker. Professional associations never seem to figure out if they are for the individual or for the institution, which can at times be problematic.

There’s definitely room for all groups, but I think some people who are disaffected, frustrated, and want change should really consider getting involved with their union (if they have one – or start one if they don’t) because that’s where change can really start. And of course if you’re in the USA and a citizen, you voted today because that’s one of the most important steps to change. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

We’re all in this together.

Radical Librarians Revisited: What’s next?


[crass] flickr photo by RHiNO NEAL shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Back in 2015 I wrote about being radical through our actions, not just or words. This week I was reminded of that post when somebody in a union setting referenced “radical” R. David Lankes and I quipped, “I guess crossing a picket line is pretty radical.” They didn’t know the story and I had pretty much forgot about it too, except not enough to just say, “oh him” when his name was mentioned.

Looking over that post, I found it striking how far things have progressed. Today at ALA, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden has a keynote discussion with Michelle Obama. Critical librarianship is a pretty well known and established concept. I mean, even SLA has a Diversity, Inclusion, Community & Equity (DICE) Caucus now. We as a profession still have a long, long way to go to really be diverse and inclusive but I think we’re on the path there. We’re more conscious of who’s on stage, who’s in the room, and who isn’t but should be. People are finally listening and doing stuff. We just need to keep doing it.

And then I think about our actions. Man, 2015 seems like a completely different timeline. But I know more librarians are engaged in actions, but we all need to be active and to see how we all play off one another. I’m still involved with SLA, focusing on creating opportunities and support for students and new professionals, paying it forward to all of those librarians who helped me stick it out for a decade. That’s just one piece though. Locally I am more active in our union because that is another concrete way to give back to the profession. I want to have a vibrant and diverse profession, so I am working on making it accessible to people by fighting for living wages and adequate professional development. Putting a philosophy into action. That’s one thing union bargaining across the board has taught me: it’s not just having good ideas and dreams of utopia, you need to have concrete steps to get there. It’s sometimes iterative but it’s a start. It’s an action.

So I think a lot of us have been activated in this post-Trump era because we recognize that being idle isn’t an option. That gives me hope, but we have to keep fighting. Keep it up.

And of course for the history lesson. In the last post I talked about the iconic punk band Crass. This picture is for the single of “Asylum” with the b-side “Shaved Women” (which was about French women who were Nazi collaborators). “Asylum” or “Reality Asylum” was also supposed to be on their first album Feeding the 5000 but the Irish pressing plant refused to press the record with it because the song is straight blasphemy. So the first pressing has blank space or silence labeled “The Sound of Free Speech” going into “Do They Owe Us A Living“. And in typing this whole thing up, man… every song is still powerful and relevant 40 years later. So, go listen to it.

Conferences, professionalism, and all those unwritten rules


Conference flickr photo by Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Next week is the SLA 2018 conference and I’m already starting to worry about packing. What am I going to wear? What’s the weather going to be like. Do I need to wear a suit? Are any of my suits clean? What about shoes? Will it be monsoon weather?

These are things I ask myself before any conference: How many days will I be actually conferencing? (How many work outfits do I need?) What will the weather be like? (Do I need layers? Will it be hot?) Am I presenting/running a meeting? (Do I need a suit or something else kind of nice?)

Conference attire and conduct is so hard to talk about in terms of professionalism because it’s a nebulous definition and often used to exclude people. Oh you’re too casual? Unprofessional. Oh you’re wearing a suit when nobody else is? You’re out of touch with “professional norms”. You’re wearing heels? Trying too hard. You’re wearing flat? Not professional enough. Let’s also not forget that professional dress norms are historically inherently sexist.

So my advice to new (and old) conference attendees – particularly those going to SLA next week – is this: Wear what makes you feel comfortable, professional, and powerful. If that means a suit – then do it. If that means jeans and tennis shoes, OK! Heels? That’s cool. You will be on your feet a lot, you will be wandering around rooms with unpredictable climate control, you might be outside with East Coast humidity. So do what works for you. For most people at SLA in particular, this veers from business casual to professional business attire (suits) and it will vary. If you don’t feel comfortable in a suit and you’re not on the executive board, you’ll probably be fine. (Even if you’re on the board, you’ll probably be fine.) If you feel more comfortable in a suit, then wear it.

Which then brings me to what we as colleagues need to remember – these rules (as describe above) are really arbitrary and these norms are really meant to discriminate against those who don’t know the vague rules. I recognize that I’m in a position of privilege because I’m established in my career and my organization, that I’m a kind of hip West Coast person working for a public university who dresses pretty masculine. As a result, I get a lot of leeway other people don’t get. If you’re from a more formal organization, remember your workplace norms are not universal. If you’re a more formal person, remember that your personal preferences aren’t universal. As we talk about barriers to the profession, we need to look at small things we can change now – and nonsense like “oh you must wear pantyhose” is low hanging fruit.

I still don’t know what I’m going to wear, but I also know whatever happens it will be fine. And if it’s not, I’ll know which colleagues are arbitrary snobs and need some help understanding that “professionalism” is often a form of gatekeeping.

See y’all in Baltimore!

More on Library Workers: What path is your position on?


Faculty Member helping a Student in the Stacks, 1948 flickr photo by lizkentleon shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

I am hiring a new circulation manager for my library. It’s a staff position. It will be posted any day and I know I will get lots of application that will reflect a wide array of library job seekers. Some will have lots and lots of circulation and tech processing experience, having worked for years in different libraries, but without an MLIS. Many will be enrolled, completing, or just finished an MLIS program with experience in research and instruction, or digitization projects, but no actual experience in circulation and tech processing. This is a circulation job but they aren’t really qualified for it because it’s a type of library work they’ve never done. (Most librarians are woeful when it comes to circulation.)

As I prepare to sift through the applications, it’s hard not to think about when I applied for this position 13 years ago. Everything was different here. We had more staff, no ILS, and a more traditional focus. I had been a student employee for a year and really loved the work. Applying for the circulation manager position was really my commitment to libraries (and I guess this library in particular – I’m still here). Less than a year after I was hired, the library director Dan Krummes pulled me aside and asked me what my career plans were. What did he mean? He bluntly said if I wanted to stick around this library for more than a couple years in that position I should go get my MLIS. Otherwise I should take some time to figure out what I want to do long term and work towards that. I applied to library school the next week.

When I was getting ready to graduate on and started applying for jobs, they had a librarian position here at my library ready for me. After a couple interviews elsewhere, they hired me on a temporary emergency appointment. (I’ve since applied for this job two other times.) The reason they were able to do that was because Dan made sure there was an unfilled librarian position that could be filled. When the offer was presented to me, it was clear that he saw me as the future of the library and wanted me to stick around. He had a similar history, starting here as a student employee, getting his MLIS, getting hired as a librarian, and then eventually becoming director.

When I was hired as a librarian, not only did I recognize I was following Dan’s path but also that I might be the last of a kind. That because it’s exceptionally rare for people here at this campus to be hired into the librarian series from a staff position without getting librarian experience elsewhere first. (When I made the leap, I definitely felt iced out by some of my colleagues who were staff and couldn’t make the same leap. I still feel residual guilt from the situation.) There are many people in library staff positions with their MLIS degrees doing good work, but for a variety of reasons it almost never happens that they then get hired as a librarian. In my library, this circulation manager position is kind of terminal for now based on our budget and organizational needs. I hope that will change some day and we can have more staff and more opportunities to grow, but right now I know what the budget will support. I make sure when I hire people that they know this is a job that will help build skills and provide a stable working environment, but it most likely won’t be a stepping stone to being a librarian on campus at this point in time.

So when people apply to these staff positions, trying to get their foot in the door for a librarian position – they are getting a foot in the door, just not the door they’d like. And as I’ve mentioned several times, all library work is important. So it’s not that we should value one over the other, but we need to acknowledge that this kind of how things are so that everybody is on the same page. Not everybody who earns an MLIS wants to be a librarian and all of the “rights and responsibilities” that come with that classification. One previous circulation manager here dropped out of library school when they decided that being a librarian was just too many meetings and committee work, and they’d prefer to move up the staff ranks and fix things. They weren’t really wrong.

Now in addition for us to be honest about the barriers and paths of different job ranks, we also need to think about how people can grow as professionals in whatever job. So if that is similar to the discussion Dan had with me where he asked my longterm plans, that’s not a bad thing. People don’t need to all aiming to be the director or the university librarian, but helping workers grow and thrive requires conversations about goals and wants. This will help them do their job better and be in a good position to get another job when they feel the time to do so (or the need arises). Fostering an atmosphere for honest discussions like that will hopefully minimize fractures and resentment, and help everybody feel valued in the organization.