The Business of Library Services

Last week, I became unexpectedly agitated while reading an article for a class on manuscripts and special collections.

The article described a historical researcher’s relationship with a special collections archivist as fundamentally an exchange of social capital. Therefore, the author claims, researchers who develop relationships with archivists benefit from that connection or are otherwise disadvantaged.

Near the end of the text the author offers an anecdote as an illustration of when this exchange presumably “fails” from the perspective of the patron: a young scholar, a Ph.D. student, comes to the archives with a fuzzy idea for a project, seeking materials related to this topic. The scholar explicitly requests specific materials related to this emerging project, and the archivist provides those materials. The scholar, however, leaves the exchange feeling disappointed that the archivist had not taken greater interest in his project or helped him to define his research question based on potentially useful materials in the collection(s). The scholar sees the archivist as the gatekeeper of privileged information, inaccessible to those users with whom the archivist does not have an established relationship.

But the real disappointment for the scholar, it seemed, was not that the archivist didn’t perform these particular tasks, but that the archivist didn’t perform the emotional labor that would make these tasks possible. “Emotional labor” is a term used to describe the unacknowledged, unpaid, and often-feminized labor that is required of service industry workers. While it may seem counter intuitive, in this sense, the archivist, like many people who work in service (myself included), spend a lot of time and energy in their workplace providing (unacknowledged, unpaid, untrained) emotional labor in their daily exchanges and interactions with patrons.

Reference librarianship is undoubtedly service work. Reference librarians and public service assistants (like me) are expected to maintain an approachable and personable disposition for good reason: patrons should feel welcome to ask questions without the fear that they’re a bother or that they will be judged. Within our circle of public service assistants and supervisors, I’m grateful for the frank discussions that we’ve had about the emotional labor that goes into the routine performance of public service; we’ve agreed that no one can be expected to hold a perky smile through every single shift. And, as I acknowledge the weight of service work, it’s also very important to me that patrons feel respected and heard.

Unlike food service or classroom teaching, I’m not working for generous tips or glowing student evaluations, but I am, in a sense, trying to “sell” the library’s resources and the skills required to navigate them. And it’s the sharing of skills and collaborating with patrons (also emotional labor) that makes most of my exchanges at the reference desk positive and enjoyable, some even leaving me energized, euphoric.

When I put myself in the position of the archivist in the author’s anecdote, I’m reminded of the numerous times in teaching, in serving, and at the reference desk that a student, customer, or patron has asked something of me that I do not owe them or, perhaps worse, they’ve expected something of me without explicitly asking for it. When the expectation in the business world (or the university classroom) is to satisfy the customer at any cost, I’ve had a tendency to allow my personal boundaries to fall away in service to another. At the first hint of dissatisfaction, I’m bending over backwards to anticipate and interpret the customer’s needs and desires. By force of habit, I’ve carried some of these tendencies from the other world into the library, and certainly, I’m not alone. This is where I start to wonder how and where to draw the line between public services at a library and customer service in a business.

What distinguishes one kind of service from the other? What can I do as a librarian-in-training to emphasize the interactional nature of reference service and to move away from the business-like transaction wherein the reference worker is positioned as the gatekeeper of resources (as the young scholar imagined) and also as the customer service worker who must sell their good service and their positive emotional state for the sake of the patron’s satisfaction?

I’m not sure that I have concrete answers to these questions, but at the very least, we can start by naming emotional labor for what it is and then providing space to account for it and setting limits on how we employ it, all as a form of self-care and burnout prevention.

Here are a few readings that I’ve recently come across that may be useful starting points in approaching these questions:

#critlib chat: Working from within the system to create change
The library as a stuck place: Critical pedagogy in the corporate university
Work for hire: Library publishing, scholarly communication, and academic freedom
Into the Caldron: Neoliberalism, Ideology, Education, and Life Itself

-Leah Cover

Disappointments in the Edu-factory

In reference to Tessa’s much-appreciated post about mental fatigue and self-care, I would have to diagnose myself as nearly burnt to a crisp on the burnout scale. My burnout, however, is specific to a particular type of library setting: the Great American University. To be perfectly honest, I find myself exhausted by the increasingly corporate culture pervading campus. Just the other day at the Research Assistance desk, I was approached by a student with her intro-level history assignment in hand and upon reading the document for context, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Along with requirements and expectations, the project was prefaced with an overly utilitarian justification for assigning a research-oriented assignment.

To paraphrase, the main rationalization behind the assignment was to prepare students to meet the analytical and information-seeking expectations of the job market. Sound familiar? It shouldn’t be hard to recall instances where this type of education-as-job-prep rhetoric has appeared, whether it be in previous courses or even library instruction. And to be frank, I’m really sick of it. When did the Great American University begin to prioritize student marketability over intellectual cultivation? When did job preparedness rather than individual growth become the main goal of academic institutions? When did corporate values replace academic ideals within higher education?

The moment this existential shift emerged within the university setting can be observed if we take a brief sojourn into American history. In the early 1970’s, nearly three-fourths of college freshmen indicated college attendance was essential to them in order to develop a meaningful, more well-rounded philosophy on life while only a third indicated financial well-being as the prime motivator for admission. Since then, those fractions have dramatically swapped (Berrett). So what happened? In the wake of the Cold War, higher education underwent a major structural adjustment influenced partly by the broader socio-political shift toward free-market orthodoxy, economic strain, and an increasing linkage between university operational budget and industry-related contracts (Berrett). It is at this point that corporate culture hijacked the traditional academic values. Thus was born the edu-factory in which “students are neither ‘customers’ nor ‘consumers’. They are the ‘industry’s’ ‘inputs’ and ‘product.’ The purchasers of the products—private, corporate ‘employers’—are the customers” (Rhoades & Slaughter 14).

Thus began the desperate pitch for the continuing relevance of liberal arts education in the wake of this reorientation towards economic competitiveness of its products (i.e. students). Although corporate interests ultimately stand as the beneficiaries of university efforts, student recruitment is also important for drawing in enough raw product for the university-manufacturer to ultimately yield its finished goods. While higher education was once lauded for developing young people’s potential—to think, to question, to reason—today it is instead presented to students as vocational training, to the point that these corporate values become widely-accepted and even expected by students. As a part of this recruitment strategy, universities offer world-class amenities, among which the university library stands as a major selling point. At my most cynical (and trust me, I’ve been feeling pretty cynical these days), the academic library merely signifies a marketing hook on a university’s recruitment brochures. For the corporate consumers of the student-product, on the other hand, the library represents a reliable brand which provides a type of collateral to hiring said student-product. And Area Studies librarianship—the field I am (was?) interested in pursuing—then would allow the university to check off its “‘multiculturalism”’ box and prove its ability to form a globally competitive workforce to both potential students and corporate interests. So then, where does that leave us future librarians?

It is impossible to completely detach the work we do as librarians, even when engaged in library instruction, from the “context of contemporary labor, capital, and the corporatizing university” (Eisenhower & Dolsy 306). I do not deny that many librarians are engaged in critical pedagogies that at times serve as alternatives to this corporate narrative. But I have to ask myself if information specialists and their critical approaches to teaching and library practices are even making a dent in the prevailing corporate culture. These thoughts I have been grappling with as of late are perfectly encapsulated by Eisenhower & Dolsy’s line of questioning: “What kind of work does our defiant speech do? Is it defiant enough? Is it defiant at all, or simply the expected questioning spirit that is finally disciplined by power arbitrarily executed?” (314).

-Catherine Fonseca

 

Works Cited

Berrett, Dan. “The Day the Purpose of College Changed: After February 28, 1967, the main reason to go was to get a job.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 61 (2015). Accessed online: http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Day-the-Purpose-of-College/151359/

Eisenhower, Cathy, and Dolsy Smith. “The library as “stuck place”: Critical pedagogy in the corporate university.” Critical library instruction: Theories and methods (2010): pp. 305-18.

Rhoades, Gary, and Sheila Slaughter. “Academic Capitalism, Managed Professionals, and Supply Side Higher Education.” Social Text 51 (1997): pp. 9-38