ITP II Project Idea: Labor in Academic Libraries

For my ITP project I would like to focus on precarious and contingent labor in higher education,  specifically in academic libraries. In the hierarchy of scholars, academic librarians are marginalized and rendered invisible on multiple levels. Despite the fact that librarians at many institutions of higher education, including CUNY, are faculty members, they are considered second tier faculty members, likely due to their service orientation and to the apparently gendered nature of the profession. During the pandemic, librarians have been asked to continue working while their teaching faculty counterparts were working from home. Librarians have been called “essential workers” and are expected to provide unlimited access to materials, but a significant amount of library labor is done by disposable contingent library workers and libraries are chronically underfunded. This is unfortunately not talked about enough in the broader conversation about labor in higher education.

While there is a dearth of scholarly literature on contingency and precarity in libraries, there has been increasing interest in the topic on social media, at conferences, and in working groups within professional library organizations (including the Digital Library Federation Working Group on Labor in Digital Libraries, Archives, and Museums), so I think it’s a great time to work on this project.

I am not yet sure what form my research on contingent library labor will take, but I have a few ideas (also open to completely new ideas from the group!): 

  1. My first idea is to create concrete guidelines for management and coworkers of contingent workers about best practices when working with and advocating for adjunct librarians. This would be an extension of or supplement  to the Collective Responsibility Labor Advocacy Toolkit put out by the Digital Library Federation (though honestly I’m not sure how much I have to add to this – it’s a pretty great resource).
  2. My second idea would be an organizing resource for contingent library workers. There has been a push from some in the library community to create a national organization for contingent workers in GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums). I’d like to investigate what such an organization might look like and how digital tools might be used to spread awareness of the effects of contingent labor in higher education and to build connections with contingent library workers across the United States and with workers outside of the academy. 

  3. My third idea is perhaps slightly less practical than my previous two: a site that hosts oral history interviews of contingent library workers. I have experience with audio recording/editing and with oral history, so I would organize and record the interviews myself. 

2 thoughts on “ITP II Project Idea: Labor in Academic Libraries”

  1. This is very cool and very needed (but I am sure you already know that). I never realized the coalitional possibilities between workers at galleries, libraries, archives, and museums, but now that I’ve read it– it makes perfect sense! Some years ago I worked for libraries and a museum and witnessed the unique stress and isolation of contingent labor there (where I was it was a lot less noted than I’ve see in academia). I am excited to see what possible digital tools or platforms you will find to aid your cause!

  2. Love this topic, Jo. There’s lots to talk through about the directions you might head, including your own goals and trajectory– each idea has value. You might start by asking if there is something you can do to build upon the Collective Responsibility Toolkit– can you make a transformative addition? The second idea feels like there may be more space for you to explore the pedagogical thinking we’ll be doing together, and to utilize the context of ITP to lay the groundwork for a commitment you (or others) may carry forward (which can be a plus or a minus!). And the third idea would allow you to hone methods and skills, and do some work around consciousness-raising about the impact of contingency in library labor.

    In short– a very rich idea, and three good choices to work through. Looking forward to seeing this develop.

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