I have a motto in life and work that has been coming in especially handy lately – chin up, head down. This is a clear manifestation of my southern upbringing, where maintaining a good disposition while not drawing too much fire/attention (e.g., “kicking up a fuss”) in any context is something of a religion. This is easy enough when things are copasetic, but recent currents have me considering the even-keelness of my reactions to workplace duress more closely. It is no longer news that tough times all around are hastening what has been characterized as the “new normal” in librarianship. While all of us are experiencing it a bit differently, my personal new normal is this – along with every other employee in the UC system, starting next month I will receive a sizable pay cut in the form of furloughs for the temporary (re: foreseeable) future. Brian Mathews at Ubiquitous Librarian, another recent UC transplant, recently posted on his response to the situation, which is to donate any free time created by the furloughs to library schools and organizations, etc. This is a graceful gesture and a good reminder that, unpleasant or no, a less lucrative job is much better than no job at all (not to mention a nod to the fact that, for new job/skill seekers, the wheels keep turning even in a morass).
Last year I wrote about manners and hospitality in librarianship from the perspective of one who spent a great deal of my day at a public service desk at the OU Libraries in a relatively sanguine budgetary climate. This post discussed directing the cult of politeness outwards to improve the library user experience. In my transition to E-Learning Librarian at UC Berkeley over the past year, while the user experience is still the end-all-be-all of what I do, much of my professional focus has shifted internally. I now devote significant time to the staff side of technology, teaching, and learning, which involves connecting with colleagues to encourage cross-library educational and technology initiatives, not to mention a lot of external collaboration. As a result, I observe campus and organizational dynamics much more closely, which offers me a different perspective on the strain many of us are experiencing in the current funding crisis (not to mention the ongoing perceived/actual digital transition affecting libraries in general).
My sense is that, although they might eventually start to feel less dire, the lean years are here to stay – my own organization received a 20% budget cut this year, unlikely to be a distant memory for some time to come, if ever. In academic libraries in general, this means that our funding structures and working models are simply going to have to change. Economic crisis as the immediate catalyst for this means that, at least initially, said change is likely to be reactive/defensive rather than creative/interactive. Stripping down, cutting back, and shaving off means that from here on out, a focus on productivity and consolidation is going to be increasingly apparent. I don’t mean productivity just in the assembly-line sense, but in terms of the culture that informs how we accomplish the work that we do individually as well as collaboratively.
Negative workplace dynamics are easily exacerbated when times get trying, which is why I’m trying to approach the productivity question from not only from a do-more-with-less angle, but by strategizing around how to respond gracefully to the series of constraints shaping our organizations. It is in this context that I wanted to reflect on the most practical, productive manifestation of my personal cult of manners, something I think of as unconditional collegiality. Unconditional collegiality goes like this:
1. neither complain excessively nor talk shit about others
2. maintain a pollyanna attitude to a reasonable degree
3. focus on what is solvable rather than irreparable
4. resist and reject pecking orders, unspoken hierarchies, down-nosing, pitting, judging, comparing, or stacking anyone or anything against anything or anyone else
5. dish only constructive criticism
All of this can be reduced to a simple, golden, working rule – be posi, not judgy.
I recognize that occupational negativity is a risk of working just about anywhere in any capacity. I remember being mystified to find that I had made an unintentional nemesis in the snowcone hut where I sweated out four summers of my teenage life, something about ice block placement or allegedly shirking my syrup-refilling duties. Coworker is one rung above stepsibling and two rungs above cellmate on the ladder of potentially fraught non-elective human relationships, and being thrown together in a shared productive space can open unimaginable cans of worms. The reason I am against all resulting manifestations of workplace drama is because, not only do they accomplish precisely nothing, they are compounded by the strain of times like the present.
Academic libraries, especially tenure-track systems, are susceptible to the darker aspects of academe’s competitive culture, yet we remain rooted in an ethic of service, support, and mutual curiosity. We all hear (or have our own) horror stories about enmity, undercutting, and occupational rudeness, but to what purpose? Librarians were not put on this earth to scrutinize and consume each other, but to forward the knowledge capacities of our communities and users. Factor in the funding situation, and we now have a rather dire incentive to figure out exactly how best to stop getting in each other’s way.
When I recently presented on collaboration at an ALA preconference for reference managers in Chicago, participants were preoccupied with workplace dynamics, dismayed or heartened by how personnel in their organizations seemed to be dealing or not dealing with various cost-cutting, consolidation, and reduction measures. Without exception, how people communicated through the stress was either making or breaking the situation. Competition may be a natural aspect of working, but, sartorially speaking, in profession with no profit imperative it hangs on us like a burlap sack. In contexts where taking something away from a coworker literally means more money, success, adulation, etc. for you, maybe I get it. But seriously – I became a librarian precisely because I was uninterested in this kind of dynamic.
Unconditional collegiality plays a little differently in every working culture. Early on at my present job, I received an excellent piece of advice – at Berkeley, it pays to have thick skin. At the time I had difficulty interpreting this, but I have discovered that all it means is that my present context is simply a little fierce – here, critical questioning is a way of life, and it pays to cultivate the skill of not taking things personally and maintaining an objective distance without conflating the emotional and the professional. This is an important lesson, the ability to distinguish critique from criticism while still maintaining collegiality.
An ethic of mutual support and respect in an organization can be made more apparent by the present crisis (precisely when it is most needed). I was recently a few minutes late to an uncharacteristically prompt and totally packed staff forum on our budget situation (“Berkeley time” usually means that everything starts exactly and precisely ten minutes after it is scheduled). I found a seat and spent the next hour sitting on my hands waiting to learn how many of us were likely to get laid off – UC projections had been terrible, and no one really had much of a sense of what was to come. As the meeting wore on through various specifics and cost-cutting measures, I became increasingly perplexed by how essentially unstressed everyone seemed to look, and wondered what I was missing. Turns out, I had missed the most important thing of all – the first words out of the director’s mouth had been “we will manage to avoid layoffs for the next fiscal year.”
That is what you call getting to the core of the message. Despite the worst-case-scenarioing we had all been doing on a personal level, it wasn’t a sense of individual relief that was most apparent to me in this moment. Rather, it was the recognition of collective relief – a sincere feeling of “we’re all in this together” had existed long before we received word that there would be no layoffs. This is a perfect example of the term community of practice, and I truly believe anyone in my organization would rather have taken more furloughs than see someone else lose their job. The financial conundrum is affecting each organization differently, straining weak links and shining harsh light on rough spots – this type of collective support should be the one constant.
Like the banks and auto firms that keep crashing and burning, academic libraries are still dragged down by the weight of our own complexity and made complacent by an inflated (albeit well-intentioned) sense of our own importance. As research, literacy, and education moves on with or without us, we all face huge, and I mean huge, paradigm shifts. While the cuts we receive now may heal, I hope they also leave scars that remind us that the assumptions and safety nets we hold onto about librarianship are now no longer only rhetorically a thing of the past. We are all about to have to be very productive for a very long time, meaning that cultivating more of what makes working together easier – those qualities that alleviate the sensation of wanting (or having) to go it alone – are the deceptively simple elements of achieving the focus necessary to hold together as we redefine.
Thanks to Lia for her deft editorial help on this one.