On “repository rat”

I’d like to welcome my good colleague Shane Beers to the biblioblogosphere. Shane took over my duties at George Mason, and has done a lot better with them than I ever did. I’m happy to see other repository managers blogging, and thrice happy to see Shane.

He brings up something that I’ve heard from other people as well: annoyance at my insistence on the phrase “repository-rat” to refer to librarians who manage institutional repositories. Some of that is me, and some of it is deliberate and calculated rhetorical strategy. It seems worth picking apart.

The “me” part, I confess, is of a piece with my steadfast refusal to take myself and what I do too seriously. Back in the day, I called myself a conversion peasant. Now I’m a repository-rat. I’m stubborn about this, and I don’t anticipate changing it… but I also recognize that it leaks into how I refer to other repository managers, as well as the specialty as a whole, and I see how that can feel like disdain.

It isn’t. It takes quite a bit of dedication to stick with IRs, and an impressive array of skills to manage one well. (I’m not saying I do, mind. Not for me to say. But I’m steeped in this field, I know whom I respect, and I know what they are capable of.) Moreover, these dedicated, skilled people have to persevere in the face of widespread ignorance, apathy, and even opprobrium directed at them, never mind lousy software and badly-stacked odds.

Which leads me to the rhetorical-strategy bit. I feel like a rat in the wainscoting, ignored and despised and isolated. Why shouldn’t I? Why should I be any prouder of what I do than my employer (which has partially defunded my service), my profession (which barely acknowledges I exist and makes no effort to support me), or the open-access movement (which openly insults me when it doesn’t ignore me)? Why should I pretend to support and respect I don’t actually have?

And why is it uniquely my responsibility to redress these issues? If the institution I work for, the profession I have joined, or the open-access movement I am part of would like me to stop referring to myself as a rodent, howsabout they toss me a bone so I can move up the animal taxonomy a bit?

Like the immortal archy, I see things from the under side. There’s use in that, I maintain, just as there’s use in colleagues such as Shane asserting themselves to raise the profile of our work and the esteem in which it is held. I’m on their side, I truly am—I just approach the work from a different angle.

insects are not always
going to be bullied
by humanity
some day they will revolt
i am already organizing
a revolutionary society to be
known as the worms turnverein

—Don Marquis

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.