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

On alienation

Honestly, I came to library school as a professional development decision, not out of any real passion to fondle decaying books or work closely with children. You see, after having spent my undergrad years in Bloomington, I had been killing some time working in service and flirting with the idea of pursuing a PhD wholesale, hoping that, at any moment, some life event would transpire and clarify what I was “supposed” to do. This three-year period of wheel-spinning and ruminating resulted in an appropriate degree of quarter-life angst, and in a moment of “I can’t take it anymore!” I considered the prospect of returning to school to pursue an MLS, and subsequently, a job as a librarian. No matter that my motivation and my goals were vague, I applied in December and enrolled a month later. The whole thing happened pretty fast: in the span of a week I went from working 45+ hours/week on my feet as a barista to taking ten hours of classes and sitting at a library service desk for eight more. It was an odd downshift in pace, and I had unwittingly brought a few too many expectations into the program: I had idealized library school, anticipating an intellectually stimulating atmosphere that would serve as a practical synthesizer for my disjointed interests and abilities. I was disappointed.

Looking back, of course, I can’t really solely blame this program for not meeting my expectation of fulfillment–that was simply displaced existential anxiety. Still, though, I can’t honestly say I’m happy with my time spent on the academic side of this program, and I don’t think I’m alone. My difficulty with it stems from a lot of what was mentioned byTessa, Dean and Catherine in their earlier blog posts: it’s an odd mixture of feeling over-burdened with minutiae, bored with redundant or irrelevant material, and maybe a sense of futility/fatality in the shadow of the university-cum-corporation. A lot of people just seem kindabummed; even some of the faculty come off as totally disinterested in their participation in the program. After a semester and a summer in classes, I’m left feeling some of that same ennui that drove me to library school in the first place. Of course, this could be a personal predilection for cyclical self-flagellation, but I still think there’s a shred of universality here: we can’t help but feel alienated from our coursework, and I mean that in both the emotional and the Marxist sense.

As Catherine notes in her post, we’re students in a program run by a corporatized university whose prime motive is capital. If we’re being really cynical (hell, let’s just go with it), the courses we take have no real “value” in the eyes of the Trustees beyond what we pay for them and the symbolic gesture towards continuing the fine field of library science. Conversely, the value I’ve gleaned from this program has mostly come from experience here at the Reference Desk (and with its librarians), critical interactions with other students (always outside of class), and small, skill-based, workshop-like classes and sessions. In order to un-alienate us from our program work, why can’t library “school” instead be more like a library “apprenticeship”? Why should a youth services librarian have to take a course on the History of the Book because it’s the only one that fits with her work schedule? Why don’t we read some critical theory and bring that to bear on our library work instead of spending two hours on an activity that just illustrates that categories are arbitrary? It depends on what kind of librarian you want to be to know what is involved in becoming one, so why are we trying to academically homogenize a heterogeneous group? What would it take for “becoming a librarian” to mean a critical, fulfilling personal engagement with reference services/cataloging/digital librarianship/etc. instead of the ticking-off of requirements on the way to a degree? Can we make that shift happen? I’m doubtful, but it’s important to frankly appraise the structures that be, is it not? And as for me, nothing has ever been quite as motivating as a healthy dose of pessimism; now that I know fulfillment won’t necessarily come from this program, it’s my responsibility to fight to seek it out wherever I find glimmers of it, be it at the desk with an affable patron or in a conversation with a like-minded colleague. If you’re feeling that, too, maybe we aren’t so alienated.

-William McHenry

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:

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

Baffle Library School

Over the past few months, I have been reading and enjoying a lot of The Baffler [1], a magazine that bills itself as “a journal to blunt the cutting edge.” I’ve found this magazine’s salvos to be consistently engaging, provocative, and incisive. Take, for instance, David Graeber’s essay on animal play, in which he pokes fun at evolutionary theorists’ efforts to explain animals’ fun away in rational, economic terms. Some other articles that immediately come to mind:

But what does The Baffler have to do with libraries? Well, if I had one regret regarding library school, it would be that I didn’t pursue my wish to turn my subscription to The Baffler into an independent study course. I’m mostly kidding, of course, but I daresay the magazine has influenced me as a librarian perhaps as much as library school itself. To give an example, I’m inclined to think that parts of the library school curriculum focus rather myopically on “information” as a theoretical concept, to the extent that we can easily lose sight of the ineliminably political dimensions of the regime of information capitalism within which we undertake the work of librarianship–and, by extension, the ineliminably political dimensions of that work. Reflecting on this view of mine, I find echoes of Evgeny Morozov’s excoriation of tech criticism appearing in The Baffler, especially where he writes, “The lines demarcating the technological and the political cannot be drawn by those forever confined to think within the technological paradigm; one needs to exit the paradigm to get a glimpse of both alternative explanations and the political costs of framing the issue through the lens of technology” (para. 43). Just imagine what library school could be like if it had more of The Baffler‘s verve, perspective, and spirit–and if we, the students, were the ones to make it happen!

One’s education in library school is in good part what one makes of it, however trite that may sound. At its best, library school gives us indispensable practical experience and know-how; it affords us the opportunity to become a part of a community of professionals and the space to consider the world of libraries and the issues it faces with (relatively) fresh eyes and to reflect ultimately on what we want the work of librarianship to be. These are the things that make library school worthwhile, even while library school (like any academic institution) also has its distractions, from the drudgery of writing on uninteresting topics to the pressures to accept as given certain ideas and arguments that should be controvertible. For myself, it has admittedly taken a concerted effort on my part to look past these small distractions to focus my attention on what I find interesting, engaging, pertinent, or otherwise useful. However, to have the freedom to make one’s education here one’s own: I regard the thought of this to be both reassuring and liberating, especially as a librarian who sometimes feels disaffected with the zeitgeist prevailing in Library Land today.

It is a freedom, too, that can make one’s education in library school more enriching and relevant. I’ve ventured far beyond the confines of the library school curriculum during my studies here. I’ve drawn upon my “outside” interests and research to inform my work as a student and a librarian, for instance by bringing ethical philosophy and the idea of human dignity to bear on management theory. Come to think of it, given the interdisciplinary nature of the library school curriculum, shouldn’t we feel free to baffle library school and to determine for ourselves what falls inside the scope of our studies and our librarianship?

-Dean Ericksen

[1]: IU Libraries does not appear to have a current subscription to The Baffler, although IU Libraries does provide online access to issues from 1988-2010 and to an eBook version of No Future For You, a collection of salvos from The Baffler that was published in 2014. There are also two other, older collections of essays from The Baffler that are available through IU Libraries: Commodify Your Dissent (1997) and Boob Jubilee: The Cultural Politics of the New Economy (2003).

Saying Goodbye

Tracking down full-text online access to the correspondence of Giuseppe Garibaldi. Banging out that 10-page report you saved until the last minute. Putting your jeans on after eating an entire pint of ice cream. Some things in life are just inherently difficult.

Saying goodbye is pretty high up on that list for me. While I’ll admit that not every moment of my time here at IU Bloomington has mirrored the picturesque conclusion of a classic Disney film, the experiences and opportunities this university has afforded — as well as the amazing people I’ve met — have shaped me into the capable, passionate librarian who now faces the prospect of leaving all those things behind.

While I could write endlessly about the creative, intelligent, engaging librarians and library students I’ve had the honor of working and building relationships with while here — and I sincerely hope you all know who you are — I’d like to focus this final Spring 2016 blog post on the privilege it’s been to edit the work of some of those very people.

If you read my first blog post of the school year, you might remember the somewhat grandiose plans we (myself and Nicholae Cline, Scholarly Services Librarian) outlined: To paraphrase, we wanted to create a space where we (the public service assistants of Wells Library) could talk about what being a librarian means to us. To be perfectly honest, I had no idea what this was going to look like. I listed a few ideas librarians had already posed and hoped that would be enough to get us through the year without too many kinks in the system.

I never could have imagined what this change would actually inspire, the enthusiasm I would see from so many bright young minds. Not only did we share our thoughts on what it means to be a librarian — How far do our duties extend? Have we turned into automatons? How do you measure the value of a library? — we told you about the lessons we’ve learned so far, talked about exciting new innovations in our field, shared our fears about life after IU, recommended some excellent reads (Asian/Pacific American works here, other blogs here, comfort reading here, graphic novels here, queer books here, and short stories here), and wrestled with tough questions about the past as well as the future of librarianship.

What I’m trying to say here is I think somehow, without any real direction, myself and my fellow public service assistants really did what we set out to do. I think this blog became the written embodiment of the passionate, critical, jumbled brains that truly belong only to those people brave enough to call themselves librarians.

-Kaitlin Bonifant

Humanizing Librarianship: A Reflection on the Need for Reflection

IM Patron, Hear Me Ask: Hi, I was trying to access an article from the Journal of Underpaid Adjuncts called, “I Wrote This: Hire Me, Please? Pretty Pretty Pwease?”, but OneSearch keeps turning up thousands of articles–just how many articles like this can there be?? Halp!!

IM Librarian, Destroyer of Weeds: Hi there, thanks for holding. Could you repeat your order?

No doubt, online services like our “Ask a Librarian” chat reference can be very convenient in a pinch. Need help finding an article or two for a paper on the fly? You’re in luck–reference operators are standing by, eagerly awaiting your next text or instant message! Yet, speaking for myself, I have to wonder what can get lost in the process of making reference services maximally convenient and efficient, whether it be in the name of promoting “information access” or some other favorite pastime. I ask, in particular, how some of our ideas on librarianship–our reasons for being librarians; our values, our visions, and our ambitions–contribute to the dehumanization and devaluation of librarians and patrons alike.

For me personally, the IM reference service merely foregrounds the impersonal, transactional form of exchange that characterizes much of our social interaction, a state of affairs for which IMs alone are hardly responsible (as anyone who has worked in retail or customer service knows first-hand). I find myself recalling a particular passage from Franz Kafka’s Amerika.[1] As the protagonist Karl Rossmann is about to get thrown out of Hotel Occidental (where he had just been fired from his job as a lift-boy), he ends up in the porters’ lodge. He observes the assistant porters, whose duty it is to dispense information of all kinds to the frenetic shuffle of the manifold hotel guests, with arms outstretched and hands grasping or signing impatiently. With guests always speaking over each other to get out this question or that demand, the assistant porters cannot afford to pause: They dare not stop the deluge of information spilling from their mouths, not even for the sake of clarity, until an exhausting hour has passed and they must rotate out, with nary a guest noticing the switch until much later. Behold, in all their glory, our information specialists avant la lettre!

In the porters’ lodge, we witness a perfectly efficient and bustling information system–along with the mutual dehumanization of guests and workers: Everyone is equally replaceable, equally disposable, as far as this system is concerned. What’s more, the system is not entirely imposed from without; rather, it comes into being, and stays in being, through the hurried exchanges that occur between myriad guests and overburdened workers.

I can’t help but suspect the current devalued state of librarianship is in no small part the product of the ideas and assumptions we ourselves have allowed to shape the profession: ideas on librarianship, on our social and historical circumstances, on human nature and the ways of this world of ours. How might we humanize librarianship? We cannot begin to answer such a question until we engage ourselves in thought and reflection. Almost 40 years ago, André Cossette wrote in his Humanism and Libraries, “Library science is still in a time of pragmatism. Librarians know how to do their work, but do not respond in a systematic way to the primordial question: why do this work?”[2] That question continues to endure for good reason. In striving to answer it, we might not simply reinvigorate our work with renewed purpose and meaning, but humanize it as well.

-Dean Ericksen

[1]: Franz Kafka, The Man who Disappeared (America), trans. Ritchie Robertson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 129-31.
[2]: André Cossette, Humanism and Libraries: An Essay On the Philosophy of Librarianship, trans. and ed. Rory Litwin (Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press, 2009), 17.

The Busy, Yet Critical, Librarian

I should preface this by establishing I’m an extremely busy person. Besides working roughly 17 hours/week on the reference desk, I’m also: a research consultant at Wells library; a center supervisor with IU’s Residential Programs and Services Libraries (supervising two different centers on campus); and an early-morning stocker at a retail location. Add all that to the normal duties and responsibilities of a master’s student and house-maker in training (I spend what little free time I have cleaning my apartment and cooking make-ahead meals for myself and my partner), and you’ve got yourself one over-worked, under-rested graduate student.

So I think it should be completely understandable when I say any emails I receive regarding events on campus, no matter if it’s the most fascinating and pertinent lecture DILS has ever offered, promptly end up in the digital waste-bin – to later be transported to that great trash-heap in the interwebs (or whatever sort of afterlife exists for those emails who truly believe).

But I digress. Suffice it to say, I know I don’t have time for these events; a quick consultation with my calendar invariably reveals at least one (if not several) conflicts with any given lecture, get-together, or concert. So it was with an email I received last week, informing me of a #critlib gathering put on by the Progressive Librarians Guild.

For those of you who (much like me circa three weeks ago) are unaware, #critlib is a movement among librarians seeking to discuss and address critical perspectives on librarianship, and to bring matters of social justice to the forefront in our field. Here is a link to #critlib’s website, which provides more information about the movement itself as well as topic schedules, recommended readings, etc. Twitter discussions, using the hashtag “#critlib,” currently occur every other Tuesday at 9 pm Eastern. Discussion topics range from library security (coming up September 22nd) to serving migrant populations.

While I was disappointed to miss the PLG-hosted #critlib gathering, especially as they utilized the Scholars’ Commons IQ Wall (pictured below), I was still able to participate (or at least follow along). And so can you, wherever you may be! Just log on to Twitter around 9 pm Eastern (6 pm Pacific / 7 pm Mountain / 8 pm Central), search for the #critlib thread using Twitter’s search bar, and watch (maybe even participate) as the discussion unfolds.

IQ-Wall in the Scholars' Commons
IQ-Wall in the Scholars’ Commons

I know what some of you are thinking: “That sounds great, but I don’t have time,” or “I love the idea, but I don’t think I have anything to contribute to that discussion.” Both as a graduate student who is extremely busy and as a middle-class white woman who has had little first-hand experience with discrimination, I can relate to those feelings.

But you’re wrong, and so am I. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, you’re not too busy to discuss these issues – even if it’s not via the official Twitter feed. While you’re sitting at the reference desk chatting with another librarian – chat about your experiences serving minority populations. When you’re at a dinner party and someone asks what you do for a living, talk about the ways in which you’re working from within the system to create change. As librarians, it is our duty and responsibility to serve each and every one of our patrons as fairly and equitably as possible. And that means acknowledging the ways in which our various systems make such service difficult.

It also means acknowledging we each have something to contribute to the discussion.

-Kaitlin Bonifant