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Not the Future of Work in the Library

So I mention a management guru I’ve never heard of and suddenly I’m besieged by him. A kind reader sent me the link to yet another Seth Godin piece, this one in Time Magazine‘s vapid feature on the "Future of Work." (The link was accompanied by one to this humorous skewering of said feature, if you’re interested.) This sort of business prediction tripe is beloved of some librarians, including some librarians who might try to force their intentions upon you, so it might be worth checking out to arm yourself against the enemy. As Sun Tzu says in the Art of War…actually, I have no idea what he says, since I haven’t read it, but there’s probably something appropriate there.

According to Time and their hardy band of prognosticators, in the future, work will be high tech, highly stressful, highly conditional, poorly compensated, and completely dispensable, with no perks, no benefits, and no chance of retirement. Yay! That is, if you have do the kind of "work" Time and the insipid management gurus are actually talking about: relatively well paid financial work for large multi-national corporations. So, not the sort of work librarians do in the first place, which is one reason why it’s a big mistake to pay attention to these management gurus or the librarians who find them so compelling.

Consider Godin’s piece, since he’s the one who has made a "fanboy" out of one librarian blogger. (Ugh, what a painful word to write.) Here’s the penultimate paragraph in full:

"When you do come in to work, your boss will know. If anything can be measured, it will be measured. The boss will know when you log in, what you type, what you access. Not just the boss but also your team. Internet technology makes working as a team, synchronized to a shared goal, easier and more productive than ever. But as in a three-legged-race, you’ll instantly know when a teammate is struggling, because that will slow you down as well. Some people will embrace this new high-stress, high-speed, high-flexibility way of work. We’ll go from a few days alone at home, maintaining the status quo, to urgent team sessions, sometimes in person, often online. It will make some people yearn for jobs like those in the old days, when we fought traffic, sat in a cube, typed memos, took a long lunch and then sat in traffic again."

Hmmm. Fighting traffic, sitting in a cube, typing memos, taking a long lunch, then sitting in traffic again. Does that sound like what you do now? Except for the long lunch, that doesn’t sound a whole lot like my job. Maybe my adminstrative assistant has a job like that, but one would have to throw in a lot more meetings to make it sound anything like what I do.

Look at the alternative, though, the kind of work that it’s obvious Godin desires: everything and everyone measured, monitored, calculated, and controlled. This isn’t anything new of course, and probably even Godin knows that. This is just another version of Taylorism, the ultimate McDonaldization of economic life. It’s the goal of the bosses since there have been bosses – to make you do their bidding in all ways at all times and to make you as dispensable and dependent as possible. Anyone who thinks this stuff is new is obviously ignorant of economic history for the past couple hundred years, but then again Time‘s demographic isn’t exactly historians or intellectuals.

Here’s the ending: "The only reason to go to work, I think, is to do work. It’s too expensive a trip if all you want to do is hang out. Work will mean managing a tribe, creating a movement and operating in teams to change the world. Anything less is going to be outsourced to someone a lot cheaper and a lot less privileged than you or me." The banal tautology that the only reason to go to work is to do work is, of course, completely mistaken. There are all sorts of reasons to go to work that don’t involve either work or "hanging out." Developing social ties, engaging in civic conversations, and much more can happen at "work."

However, it’s the last couple of sentences that are especially telling. Work will be "managing a tribe." Thus, if you’re not "managing a tribe," then – I hate to break it to you – you’re just part of the tribe being managed. You won’t be working; you’ll just be the one worked. You won’t be "creating a movement," either. You’ll be the one standing without an umbrella when the results of the "movement" are dumped on your head. The final sentence makes it very obvious what sort of people Time and Seth Godin think do "work." People who "work" are the well paid and privileged. Everyone else is just the one who has to do stuff once it’s too poorly paid or poorly privileged to count as work. Maybe then it’s just "labor." Whatever it is, you’re already doing it.

Anyone looking to this guy or his myriad compatriots for insight into libraries is so wrongheaded that contradiction shouldn’t even be necessary, but I’ll give it a try. It should be obvious. Libraries don’t operate like businesses, and they sure as hell don’t operate like the large corporations so beloved of management gurus. (I should note that the "librarian" blogger I got the Godin piece from last week works for a corporation and not a library. It’s curious how many people who don’t work in libraries try to tell us about what libraries should be like.) The way big corporations have always worked hasn’t been at all analogous to the way libraries work, so why should changes in the way big corporations work have anything to do with changes in libraries? That’s a logical leap the businessy librarians never manage to justify. They get so caught up in the world of CEO-speak they don’t realize they’re not a part of that world. At all. And never have been. These businessy types are so excited by the platitudinous rhetoric of the gurus that they haven’t noticed how absurd it is to compare the local library to a large corporation.

The other question begged is whether this is the sort of world we want at all. Godin and his fellow seers completely lack normative judgement, which is yet another problem with this management crap, and the most annoying one once you get past the unscholarly standards and general lack of scientific rigor. (See this article for a few examples of the low standards of some popular business books.) This stuff isn’t rigorous enough even when applied to corporations. It has nothing at all to do with libraries. Regardless of that, we can still question the conclusions and say, "you know, I don’t think I want to work in a world like that, and it turns out I don’t have to."

Libraries, especially public libraries, have a civic function. They are never going to be the high tech, high stress, fast-paced bastions of whatever glib management utopia currently burbles from the lips of the gurus. Libraries are not governed by the same cut-throat, rabid-animal approach to human relations that corporate CEOs and management consultants are. For example, lately I’ve read several news articles on public libraries and their various efforts to help the unemployed find jobs. These unemployed are probably also not the type of already privileged workers Time has in mind, but it turns out they are actual citizens of our country, and as such count as actual human beings in our civic institutions.

Corporate CEOs and management gurus don’t have to think about the unemployed, the displaced, the left behind, who become merely statistics to them. For better or worse, libraries do, because libraries function as civic institutions and not as private enterprises that operate as if they have no civic obligations. While the Godins of the world celebrate the erosion of civic life, the Taylorization of the workplace, and the McDonaldization of the worker, libraries – as public entities and civic institutions, in their model and their practice – resist this constant pressure and try to ameliorate its effects on our communities. If you value that function of libraries, then playing along with the management gurus and the business-speak is undermining and destroying the very thing you claim to value.

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Comments

  1. guest says:

    “While the Godins of the world celebrate the erosion of civic life, the Taylorization of the workplace, and the McDonaldization of the worker, libraries – as public entities and civic institutions, in their model and their practice – resist this constant pressure and try to ameliorate its effects on our communities.” That was very well written and poetic to my ears!

  2. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    Escaping the corporate environment was the best thing that ever happened to me. It got evil with a new CEO and he drove employee morale into the ground. Who did he think made his damn widgets? Money isn’t everything and academia has been a blessing. Very little stress and a lot of fulfillment.

  3. Whappa says:

    Nice links.

  4. Stressed out public librarian says:

    You wrote: “Libraries, especially public libraries, have a civic function. They are never going to be the high tech, high stress, fast-paced bastions of whatever glib management utopia currently burbles from the lips of the gurus. Libraries are not governed by the same cut-throat, rabid-animal approach to human relations that corporate CEOs and management consultants are.”

    No public libraries are governed by taxpayers in cities with huge budget deficits. Their staff is being cut because libraries are lower on the totem pole than police and fire services. In the meantime those larger numbers of unemployed people coming to libraries are being served by smaller and smaller staffs. If you think that makes for a low-stress environment I invite you to work a day at my reference desk.

  5. rfhcp says:

    Amen, Stressed out public librarian.

    Staff size is getting cut to the bone, floor plans are beinf opened up i.e. no more reference desk, “easy” self checkout replacing circ desks, etc.

    The real kicker is that management has moved all tech services out into public areas so that we will be available to the public on an ad hoc basis.

    Guess what the director’s top two complaints are: 1)You are not paying enough attention to the public and your response time is slow because you have your nose stuck in a book and 2)Your time in getting materials processed is dropping off. Both of these have to turn around.

    It would be nice to quit, but economically, that ain’t going to happen for a long, long time.

    You are right AL, there is no stress here, we just jet off to martini filled conferences comped by our employers three or four times a year.

    BWAAAAA HAAAA HAAA HA HA

  6. rfhcp says:

    That should read “floor plans are being opened up”. I do apologize for the error of my ways.

  7. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    Does the library director still have an office with a door? Yeah … thought so. That’s the problem with management – hopelessly out of touch while they work Monday through Friday, 8-5, with nary a weekend or evening in their schedules. That was one problem I had with my brief sojourn in PublicLibraryLand – the folks in administration had always been in administration, had never worked the floor and didn’t know s**t about public service. The dippiest among us in library school went directly into administration, too. I would love to see our mayor, city council and the public library’s administration try working on the floor of our main library. Their poor little brains would explode.

  8. rfhcp says:

    Actually, the director floats around with her iphone (we have ten year old hp desktops that I keep working with chewing gum and duct tape) saying that the whole library is her office. That is when she is jetting off to a conference to meet up with the AL, pound martinis, and find out new ways to cut the budget and increase productivity.

  9. Dances With Books says:

    It also exists in public education, where I did a stint before graduate school and library school: bozos not part of the profession trying to tell us how to do our jobs even though they would never dream of doing it themselves.

  10. fiend of the pl says:

    well said, AL. wish i could buy you a martini. all through my Library Admin. class I kept thinking “but we’re not a business”!

  11. ProudinMaricopa says:

    I’m proud to say that our Director started as a Page and worked his way up — even on the bookmobile so nobody can say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

  12. Purple Cowgirl says:

    I have to confess I actually kinda like some of the ideas in Seth Godin’s book, Purple Cow.

  13. workedup says:

    I have been a reference librarian, clerk, page, and cataloger. At my last job in a town of 23,000 I was Director and cataloger and worked a reference shift. Perhaps you don’t know as much about your director’s background as you think you do.

  14. rfhcp says:

    “Perhaps you don’t know as much about your director’s background as you think you do.

    The director has an associates degree in management and is the mayor’s cousin.

  15. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    ” Perhaps you don’t know as much about your director’s background as you think you do.” Well workedup, it’s like this: most of us can spot an idiot in a half-second. Doesn’t matter what they do, they’re pretty easy to identify. And never forget the Peter Principle, applied vigorously in too many work situations.

  16. Lea says:

    “Libraries, especially public libraries, have a civic function. They are never going to be the high tech, high stress, fast-paced bastions of whatever glib management utopia currently burbles from the lips of the gurus.”

    This is exactly why I want to go to library school and become a librarian. I want to continue connecting people with information they need — I used to do so as a newspaper journalist — and in the three years since I left newspapers I’ve learned just how ridiculous the business world is. I don’t expect the library world to be any less bizarre than I find the business world, but at least I’ll want to be there.

  17. Mr. Kat says:

    The library world is like a a boyscout troop that has brought one leaky canoe and only have plastic spoons for paddles. Perhaps the canoe could make it across the lake, if only the lirbarians would stop arguing about whether the spoons should be used for paddling or used for bailing out the seepage. and it would really help if management could stop removing librarians and putting in more baggage…This current economy will probably drown the entire institution before it’s over.

    Luckily, librarians can swim, so when this one sinks we’ll see what they are smart enough to come up with next.

  18. workedup says:

    NotMarian:
    Unless you, yourself, are the idiot.

    rfhcp: I am sorry for you. Not a good situation to be in.

  19. Our managers biggest threat... says:

    Libraries have been here for 5,000 years and the only real threat to our existence comes from our own leadership tossing taxpayer money away on stupid new ideas and trips to conferences where they share more stupid ideas with other clueless folks. We have collections, facilites and patrons. Quite pandering and serve our beloved taxpayers!

  20. Uh huh says:

    I’ve heard plenty of stupid new ideas from people in my library who are not managers.

  21. booboo says:

    “Perhaps you don’t know as much about your director’s background as you think you do.”

    The director has no library experience or education, but you know, he likes books. He also knows a lot of people in this town.