ALA, guilds, and employment

Meredith suggested a while ago that the ALA needs an economics education, given its apparent total inability to see that the current supply of librarians has decidedly outstripped demand, particularly on the entry-level.

I’m not an economist (I’m dismal, but not quite that dismal). I did, however, take a very valuable course from Greg Downey entitled “Information and Labor” last semester, and I’m going to share a bit of one of the articles we read, because it frames the problem well and suggests realistic (if sometimes ugly) solutions.

The article is Chris Benner‘s “‘Computers in the Wild’: Guilds and Next-Generation Unionism in the Information Revolution” (abstract here if you scroll down a bit) and you can find it in Uncovering Labour in Information Revolutions, 1750–2000 edited by Aad Blok and Greg Downey and published by Cambridge University Press. Read the article yourself; it’s a good one, and I’m only going to distort it, I’m sure.

Benner points out that a raft of soi-disant web-design and programming “guilds” popped up amidst the employment uncertainty of the dot-com boom. Though they served moderately well to pass on skills, get word out about open jobs, and afford networking opportunities, they were nowhere near as effective as, say, the early unions or the medieval guildhalls. Why? What were the guildhalls doing that the new guilds didn’t or couldn’t?

Medieval guilds kept their fingers in four pies, according to Benner (page 194):

  1. Association control: deciding who gets to work at a particular trade, and how they have to do it, as well as preventing labor oversupply;
  2. Workplace control: owning the tools and the shops, setting prices, and limiting production;
  3. Market control: protecting a monopoly over the product; and
  4. Working with the state: getting charters from local authorities and paying bribes fees to keep them sweet.

I won’t spoil the article by giving you Benner’s thoughts on how modern guilds measure up. (I do want you to read it!) I’m more interested in how ALA measures up.

Note that the first two aims crucially involve limits on labor to avoid drowning the potential market with oversupply either of labor or of product. Benner as well as several other folks we read suggested that this is a key element in retaining power as a worker. Only makes sense, really; if you’re in demand, you hold the trump cards. As more people enter your profession, your value decreases.

So. If you believe this reasoning, a proper guild with its members’ interest at heart absolutely must not drum up a bunch of new apprentices when journeymen are going begging; all that does is depress the labor market and reduce the guild’s power. This is, not coincidentally, exactly the behavior from ALA that folks like Meredith and me are objecting to.

Do I think the ALA needs to start closing library schools and badmouthing the profession? Of course not. I loathe the idea of turning people away from education, even if it would help my individual standing in the job market.

I do, however, think that SLIS curriculum reforms are overdue, even though I tend to disagree with Michael Gorman (who advocates them) on what shape they should take. I’ve enjoyed my tenure in library school, but let’s face it: it’s been frighteningly intellectually timid and contentless as often as not, especially in the courses that supposedly represent the core of the profession. (Have I said so to the Powers That Be? Indeed I have.)

This is about controlling the size and quality of the labor supply. (A commenter at Meredith’s suggested that the MLS isn’t the mark of a quality employee. It should be. It bloody well should be.) Teachers do that. Doctors do it. Lawyers do it. The ALA probably can’t institute similar state-run certification programs at this late date (such things do exist on the state level, but they entirely lack teeth), so it has no choice but to beef up the rigor of its educational institutions. The ALA accredits library schools. The ball is therefore in the ALA’s court.

As I’ve said previously, I also think that the ALA needs to stuff its librarian-shortage rhetoric in the nearest trash receptacle. Fundamentally, it doesn’t help. Unlike a lobby group, a group of laborers is valuable and powerful in inverse proportion to its size. (Relative to the demand for that labor, at any rate.)

Now, ALA might argue that political lobbying is part of its job. I agree, and so I believe would Benner; that fits neatly into his fourth aim. And ALA might argue that it can’t lobby effectively without claiming to represent a large population. I disagree. It isn’t typically numbers that make the difference in today’s lobbying climate; it’s voice, and that ALA has in spades when it decides to employ it. ALA doesn’t need to puff up its membership to have impact. I would additionally argue that dumping truckloads of unprepared newly-minted MLSes on an unforgiving job market is not going to help ALA’s membership numbers one iota. Are the cries of “What does ALA do for me?” not already resounding?

An interesting twist for ALA might be attacking the problem from the other end: defining “library” as “place that employs librarians.” You staff your reference desk with untrained volunteer interns? Sorry, no ALA library accreditation for you. I know, I know; the ALA doesn’t accredit libraries. Well, it could. And such “workplace control” would be a fascinating (and, I think, not entirely unrealistic) way to stem the tide of deprofessionalization.

Those are my recommendations in a nutshell: toughen up library schools, quit herding people in the doors of library schools, keep using voice in places of power to talk up librarianship, and define libraries in terms of librarians rather than materials. (After all, a haphazard pile of books, CDs, and DVDs isn’t a library. Librarians make libraries.)

So if you agree with any or all of these suggestions, what should you do? For a start, if you’re going to ALA Midwinter—I’m not. You can get some dialogue going that I can’t. Feel free to rip off anything I’ve said; I don’t even care about being credited. It’s more important to get some balls rolling, because the ALA has got to step up before the people it purportedly represents are marginalized further.