Friday, June 02, 2017

Full-Time Library Staff: A Community Investment

Icons on a green background: human reading in black, a grouping
of people in gray. Text reads: "Full Time Library Staff: A Community Investment"

Lately there's been an underlying theme of the value of staff in online conversations I've encountered. If you haven't already, please go read "Grit? Git!" by April Hathcock, this tweetstorm on the realities of salary compensation by Lisa Hinchliffe, and "The Emotional Labor of Librarianship" by Julie Jergens. I'll wait.

EDIT 6/7: AND OH CRAP PLEASE READ "Vocational Awe?" by Fobazi Ettarh.

These posts have refueled some thoughts I've had for awhile on the social sustainability of librarianship: namely, recruitment and retention. And a few recent posts on a Facebook group I follow have underscored the reality of a large portion of librarianship today: working at several jobs with few hours, sometimes volunteering (I'm sure when some imagine a part time employee, they think of an employee juggling 2 twenty-hour positions; but in my conversations it's more like 4-7 different jobs at 5-10 hours per week each). Doing this wherever you can find a library job, sometimes thousands of miles away from your support network, driving up to 2 hours to get the job you found. Not being able to afford to take trips to see family or friends, little to no sick or vacation time, not qualifying for employer-offered insurance. When a sustainable, full-time librarian position opens up, you might be passed over for any number of related and frustrating reasons: Little to No Real Experience, Job Hops, Why Would This Person Want This Job When They Live Far Away?

The hiring end has its own frustrations with this reality. Often, really great candidates turn into beloved employees, only to leave less than a year later because they finally got that full time job. While it's true that money is saved in the form of the former employee's wages, job searches are extremely costly and it can be difficult to get people to cover the desk or other duties when you're down a staff member during this process. Sometimes it's "easier" to just get rid of the position.Which is totally understandable when budgeting-slashing time comes around, if we're being honest.

This is not a sustainable model, and it's not a model where productivity and morale thrive.

I have to take a second to recognize my vast privilege here. Coming from the education world, my former employer took a chance on me for an full time children's librarian position and for that I am both stunned and grateful.(To be fair, like a lot of candidates, many of whom I'm sure would be great fits for your library, I have no safety net with which to base my life around a part-time job and so would not have even gotten into the profession otherwise).When in search of a new opportunity, privilege smiled on me once again and I was able to snatch up a rental that afforded my small family some space and that I could cover on one salary until my spouse got a job. It took me 18 months to pay off the credit card debt from my move, but I did it. I can pay my bills, have okay insurance, and I accrue more sick/vacation time than I did as a front line staff member, which adds an additional level of sustainability to my job. I have a well-read blog where people share things I say, and I have the liberty to say them as myself and not my employer. That said, I understand my duty as a privileged person to not turn away from the lived experience of my fellow library staff; to not minimize their experience by telling them to stop buying avocado toast (that's a meme already, right? No link needed?) and to call on others in power to improve our collective situation.

Now, I understand reasons why part-time staffing works best sometimes-- to cover desk time in the most flexible way; to keep staff costs down to allow more budget for other parts of the library; I'm sure the list goes on, but the money part is huge, when you consider you can get two to four bodies for the price of one. While I have been following and trying to wrap my head around this growing trend of business models in libraries, I would feel remiss not to point out that each of those bodies is a human being who studied in the probable hope of finding a full-time job. NOT TO SAY, as is so quickly argued, that these human beings studied to work in a library and feel extremely entitled to an immediate full time job because they want one. Just, as mentioned above, it is reasonable to imagine that if each of these people was in search of a full time job, and they received a part time job, they are STILL IN SEARCH of a full-time job and can leave at any time. So you'll have to start the hiring process all over again. And onboard. And mentor. And they might leave anyway.

In this day and age, there are very few people who are in student debt who are cool with taking a part-time job without it being a means to another end.

If you are a manager, supervisor, director, or other position of power, please consider advocating to your Board, city, or other fiscal entity, that you need full-time library staff. Full-Time Library Staff Members are Community Investments. It should go without saying, of course, that all staff members are valuable investments, and I hope if you are working in a library you feel that. You should. I say this in an attempt to approach the "costliness" of full-time staff from a more positive angle.

So how can we talk about this from a fiscally responsible standpoint?
Here are some possible gifts you are giving your community by turning your professional library positions into full-time staff positions.

Improve Recruitment and Retention: If you're hiring, you may get a larger pool of qualified applicants if the position is full time. If you're not, it's likely your full time employees have the job they most likely were looking for, and have the room to settle in. Your community will have time to get to know your library staff, and your library staff will become a part of the community, if only because there are enough hours a week they're together for that to happen.

Focus on the Community and the Work: A full-time job can likely result in an employee catching onto the work culture, programming cycle, etc quickly by the very nature of being there more hours. Once comfortable in their basic expectations, they can focus on the work. Not saying that being full time automatically increases productivity or dedication-- social sustainability is a multi-faceted issue-- but one may be more likely to focus on the big picture, where they fit, and how they can best serve your patrons when they're not worrying whether they can pay rent or if anyone will notice that they take extra leftover cookies from the break room for dinner.

Time is Money: Offering an employee more hours can help them decide to stick with you rather than taking an additional job to help pay the bills. This may allow their schedule to be more flexible, especially when given notice, to work different days/shifts since they wouldn't need to worry about getting to another job.

I understand that the points raised above don't take into account family or child care possibilities or other issues, and are assumptions synthesized from conversations I've had an witnessed over the past few years. But hopefully that doesn't completely invalidate this entire post, because as I've stated above, our current model based on our current assumptions appears unsustainable.

So: what else can we do? How can we help ourselves? How can we keep current and new library employees engaged to grow the profession as a whole?

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