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Making Years of Service Meaningful – My thought on #hlth

By now, I believe almost everyone in the library-land would have heard about the Harvard Libraries Town Hall meeting debacle. (If not, see this post by Tom Bruno.) Like everyone else, I don’t have an inkling about whether the reorganization going on at Harvard is going to succeed or not.  But the news somehow made me think quite a bit about this :  As the library staff work at the same library for many years, how can ‘____’ make the years or service meaningful as their contribution to the library beyond mere loyalty?

This is a tough question as years of service doesn’t necessarily equate with how much contribution you make to the library you work at.  It’s a tough question because improving on whatever you learned already is almost always more difficult than learning it first time. This is also a tough question whether you are a library employer or an employee (fill the ‘____’ above with either library or the library staff) as this is something both an employer and an employee should work together.

As a library employee, I think about this more and more as I am getting out of the new librarian phase. Being a professional librarian for more than 3 years now, it is hard to argue that I am still new at this point. I try hard not to settle in the everyday work that is familiar to me and not to get comfortable with the status quo. I try to keep taking up on a new project that would improve library’s services and operation even if no one is asking for it. I try to learn new things even if that would not affect the work I do immediately because I know that in the long run, there is a good chance that the stuff I am teaching myself today would be come in handy.

What I am trying to is to meet the challenge of how to make my years of service meaningful. I want it to represent the amount of experience and knowledge I have as a librarian, not the mere number of years I was staying at one place.  That is a tough call.  Many librarians face this challenge in one way or another, as they gain more experience at their workplace unless they are continuously hopping from one job to another for higher rank/salary, which will also make it inevitable to learn some new skills and assume new responsibilities).

Now shifting the focus from employees to employers, even to observers who do not know the internal workings of the Harvard libraries system, what made the librarians and library staff at Harvard most upset about the town hall meeting seems to be the feeling of betrayal, aside from the unclear meeting agenda and the lack of answers to obvious questions. It appears that many Harvard library staff were loyal to their workplace (legitimately perhaps considering its collection size and scale of service) and took pride in working there, which is reflected in many staff’s long years of service (i.e. low rate of staff turnover). However, the unclear messages from the top and the impending layoff announcement seemed to have demoralized them, as shown in one of the comments in this LJ article “After Furor, Harvard Library Spokesperson Says ‘Inaccurate’ That All Staff Will Have to Reapply” :

“I acknowledge that change is inevitable, but what I feel, after yesterday’s meeting, was the unnecessary devaluation of the librarians and library assistants, many of whom have worked at Harvard for decades and are experts in their particular field or have particular skills. I didn’t feel we were valued as employees or as persons. So many of us asked after the meeting yesterday, what was the point of the it? Why call a meeting when there are no answers ready for our biggest questions? Was the purpose of it to instill fear? Because, sadly, that was the main result. Fear for ourselves and for the future of one of the best library systems in the world.”

In her blog post “on #hlth and bearpoking,” Jenica Rogers pointed out why the years of service argument would work against the library staff in the re-organization situation rather than in favor. As she correctly notes, effectiveness, relevance, skills do not correlate to years of service by themselves. To the management, this argument has no real merit.

This is a valid point. In times in which permanent jobs are a joke, asking loyalty for employees is an absurd idea. The flip side of it is, however, that it would be equally silly for employees to think that loyalty itself would have any significant meaning (beyond maybe the fact that the low staff-turnover rate will save operating costs related to hiring replacements), particularly when the employer goes through re-organization (based upon the belief that the ‘past’ operation was not optimal ).

But nothing is ever so black-and-white. As a 100% observer, I would have liked to see what systematic incentives and measures Harvard libraries are creating in order to help its staff to continuously improve their skills and knowledge in their jobs. More so when they are planning a big layoff and asking all their staff to submit a summary of their skills and qualifications. (I am not even going to comment on how bureaucratic and utterly ineffective this sounds like. )

I believe that experienced library staffs are not just employees with the long-years-of-service tag on them. Some of them may be chair warmers. (Yes, we have all seen chair warmers!)  ‘But’ many of them are the precious enablers in library operation and the best deliverers of quality library service.  This is not a ‘sentimental’ argument. Losing these people will cost the organization no matter how hard it is to quantitatively measure its impact.

You may say those people with good performance will be saved one way or another. But what I am saying is that an organization has the responsibility to beclear about what it values in its employees.  As an employer, an organization may ask for and demand whatever qualifications it sees fit for employees to be equipped with. But it would help employees if an organization can state them clearly and, if possible, provide concrete steps to take to actually attain that goal.

So looking forward, I suggest any library that goes through re-organization should ask this question: What kind of system do you have in place to help and enable for your staff to stay relevant, skilled, effective, and efficient over the long period of time? What are the standards you would like to see in your staff in terms of skills and knowledge? Why are those relevant skills and knowledge in your organization in light of its mission and vision? What kinds of initiatives and activities would you like your staff to work on and be engaged in on a daily basis?  Communicating clear answers to these questions alone would greatly alleviate the concern of library staff during any reorganization process.  I hope that Harvard libraries staff would use this reorganization as an opportunity to ask these questions and get satisfactory answers.

Reorganization can be painful. But reorganization without a clear vision and goal and the road-map to achieve the goal would be disastrous. I am worried about the possibility of library re-organization done in the absence of clear vision and strategies. I am concerned about the possibility that libraries may dive into reorganization in lieu of establishing first assessing clearly where they want to go and how they plan to get there.

Sadly, the data from Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2010: Insights from U.S. Academic Library Directors doesn’t make me feel so optimistic. (See this blog post “My peers are not my tribe” by Jenica Rogers and despair. 65 percent of US academic library directors confirmed that their library does NOT have a well-developed strategy to meet changing user needs and research habits!)

I do so hope that this is not the whole story. But are you surprised at this finding?

2 Comments

  1. Jane Lamont says:

    Thanks for this post.

    On the upside, the Harvard Library Transition team has said that staff who lose their jobs will receive training to help them get jobs at Harvard which may require new skills. Also if Jane Doe’s job is redefined in such a way that she has most, but not all, of the skills needed training will be offered so she can learn those new skills.

    Previously, those offers of training have been inadequate. That said, this is a new management team making these decisions, so it’s not fair to penalize them for things they didn’t actually do.

    In times in which permanent jobs are a joke, asking loyalty for employees is an absurd idea. The flip side of it is, however, that it would be equally silly for employees to think that loyalty itself would have any significant meaning

    I agree with you here. However, staff are being told that their loyalty is important and necessary. First we had 3 years of doing less with more. My library head, and others, told us that our loyalty to Harvard’s library system & patrons would be the thing that got us through budget cuts & understaffing. Some people left, some people stuck it out.

    Now we’re being told yet again that staff are important, we’re what makes the Harvard libraries a world class institution etc. My library head said we needed to “take a leap of faith” and trust that the transition team is going to do great things.

    I think one reason staff freaked out is because the administration has been telling us that our loyalty to the Harvard library institution is valuable. Last week it was made brutally clear that they don’t care.

    I really wish that seat warmers at upper levels of the library will be affected by this layoff. Sadly, some the worst offenders are seemingly untouchable and will probably remain.

    One thing I think would be helpful is for someone to talk with staff about how new technology can improve the services they provide. A true collaboration between staff and management would be wonderful. Unfortunately, right now staff are told to just figure it out, and when they run into problems upper level management chastises them for being resistant to change. They’re not resistant, they want to learn but they’re not getting support for that.

    On a final note I think it’s telling that neither Helen Shenton or Mary Lee Kennedy has offered apologies, or even sympathy, for staff who were stressed and upset by Thursdays discussions.

  2. I am so glad to hear that the reorganization at Harvard includes staff training and re-training. I hope the efforts would succeed and many library staff would benefit from it. Thanks for mentioning that as it was not known much outside Harvard library staff I guess. : )

    I wrote that paragraph you cited feeling cynical; it’s a bottom-line that we do not really want to think about either as an employer/manager or an employee. The fact is we all want to work at a place where loyalty is valued and employee’s continuous career growth and skill/knowledge building is encouraged and rewarded. The reality is, I hate to say, that there are chair warmers who do want to absolutely no more than the minimum of the job. And there are some of those organizations that rarely promote their own employees, hardly support their continuing education in any substantial way, are never clear on what skills and values they want from their employees (lack of mission and vision tied to everyday work tasks), and even fear their career growth worrying whether they would leave the current employer despite lack of incentives/rewards. Loyalty for those bad organizations would be pointless. I am also guessing that is the kind of place where maybe chair warmers prosper.

    Probably as long as we are all humans, the loyalty argument will never cease to be played by both employers and employees. But what is important is to make that something meaningful. The retention of employees is of great value to an employer. It cuts down HR costs; a low rate of staff turnover contributes to the stability of its operation; the knowledge and skills of employees are valuable assets of an organization. But an organization has to be conscious about how to retain those assets within it and to find a systematic way to promote/encourage/reward their growth. It’s all in its benefit in the end. If not, it will inevitably suffer the continuous loss of talented people or the continuous failure to attract them in the first place. I just hope Harvard libraries won’t make that mistake while going through their reorganization efforts.

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