I had the pleasure of working with three fine fellow Library Freedom Project members on this paper, published last week in the peer-reviewed open access Canadian Journal of Librarianship. This was the first time I’ve written anything for an academic journal, and it was a delight. Thank you, Zotero group libraries!
Abstract In this paper, we consider what we identify as crisis surveillance capitalism in higher education, drawing on the work of Naomi Klein and Shoshana Zuboff. We define crisis surveillance capitalism as the intersection of unregulated and ubiquitous data collection with the continued marginalization of vulnerable racial and social groups. Through this lens, we examine the twinned crisis narratives of student success and academic integrity and consider how the COVID-19 pandemic further enabled so-called solutions that collect massive amounts of student data with impunity. We suggest a framework of refusal to crisis surveillance capitalism coming from the work of Keller Easterling and Baharak Yousefi, identifying ways to resist and build power in a context where the cause of harm is all around and intentionally hidden.
I’ve been debating whether or not to share this for a few days, but ultimately I’m going to in the spirit of library disorientation. This is a story about your credentials and experience being devalued, and outright ignored, to make someone else feel better about their actions.
After a recruiter contacted me to invite me to apply to an open director job, I went through a few rounds of an interview process with a library that will go unnamed here. I mostly applied not because I’m looking to change jobs, but because I had never been headhunted like this before. It’s a very flattering experience. Long story short, though, I did not make it to the final round. The municipality in question, of course, did not inform me of this outcome, but I heard what happened through the grapevine.
I was very surprised, then, to receive a call from a trustee one morning this past week. This trustee informed me that they had moved ahead with other candidates and assumed I had heard this news from HR – nope. They proceeded to see if I would be interested in the job soon to be vacated by the finalist, so they could “soften the blow” for that person’s current boss (at another nearby public library) by offering me up as a potential replacement. The job in question did not make any sense for me at this point in my career. And yet, the trustee said I needed more experience managing “a bigger town library” and that I would “make a great director one day.”
I *am* a director right now. Today. And for almost three years, I was the assistant director for the largest town library in Massachusetts, with three times the buildings and three times the staff as the library this trustee represents. I attempted to explain this, but it was clear that the trustee was not expecting my response and did not want to hear it.
Now, I could go on about my interpretations and feelings here, but this is a public blog, so I’m going to leave you with what I’ve already said. I am relieved this trustee will not be my boss and I’m fine with the outcome, but the only way we will move on from trash behavior in the field is if we call this stuff out when it happens.
(Note: I’m stealing this idea from Ashley Blewer because it’s a good one, and because I think it’ll be a useful exercise in a year that was especially tough to wrap anyone’s head around.)
We’re down to the last 48 hours of 2020, and I’m not joining in the chorus of people saying we’re sure to have a better 2021. I’m not sure we will, frankly, and I’m not sure which spheres of existence (personal, social, political, economic) folks are expecting to have that better year in. And better in the eyes of what beholder? I’m at least aspiring to spend my time and energy differently, but I’ll get to that. I remember thinking 2019 was a pretty tough one, too, between a shitty living situation and some, let’s say, occupational ups and downs.
For some context, in February 2019, one of my colleagues was killed in a fatal bike accident about a mile away from the branch I’d just spent the last 6-8 months helping renovate. At the time, I was riding my bike just about every day, and we’d often lock up next to each other outside the building when I was working over there. Less than a year before, while riding my bike about two miles away from the scene of my coworker’s accident, I had been knocked unconscious and woke up in the ER with a severe concussion and a broken arm after a motorist slammed me into a fence before driving off. In the months following her death, a series of disappointments at work got me thinking it was time to leave, and opportunity presented itself, and I took it. I regret how that went down, but we managed to get that water under the bridge for the most part.
Within half a year of changing jobs, though, it was clear I’d done the whole “frying pan into the fire” thing, which I can describe no further in a public blog post at this time, but suffice to say it was incredibly stressful and disheartening. Meanwhile, Chris and I were still living in an apartment in Jamaica Plain that had been a nonstop nightmare since we moved in. After contending with a broken oven for a month, clogged plumbing, broken laundry machines, and general fuckery from our landlord, we discovered we were also paying over ten times as much for heat in our apartment as the units on the lower levels because of a faulty boiler that the owner had neglected for 3+ years. The heat intermittently stopped working throughout November and December and we had to call Boston ISD on New Year’s Eve (which we spent at home, because we were both so worn out by 2019).
We moved out of that place in mid-January and I posted something on Twitter at the time along the lines of “Goodbye, terrible apartment. I hope getting out of this cursed place brings us better luck for 2020.” And we all know how that worked out!
So, that said, 2020 wasn’t the worst year for me personally by a long shot. 2019 may have been worse. 2016 and 2014 certainly were. 2020 was strangely a lot like 2009 for me, which had its ups and downs, a world in the throes of another type of societal crisis that did have a much more dire impact on my economic prospects. But in the spring, I spent a good amount of time watching Chris play Halo and chat with his friends, which was how many evenings went down when I first moved to Boston and had zero dollars and no one to hang out with. I also spent hours upon hours wandering around my neighborhood, just as I did back in the Great Recession days.
Before lockdown began, I managed to squeeze in two trips – one to Brooklyn with Chris for my birthday weekend, one to Nashville for the Public Library Association Conference. I spoke at PLA to more people than I ever had before, and I spent a good chunk of time not far from where the Christmas Day bombs went off…ugh, that poor city. I think the last live show I caught was Opeth at the stunning Ryman Auditorium, flanked by library pals. When I left Boston for that trip, covid was an increasing rumbling; by the time I got back, the Biogen thing had happened and the mood and response was noticeably changing, at least at the local level.
I had been selected to speak at the 2020 SXSW Interactive, but then it was cancelled for the first time in the festival’s history. Then other conferences, a few months off, started to cancel. Then we sent all of our students home in the week leading up to spring break. Then the grocery shopping with masks and gloves and the going-absolutely-nowhere-else-for-any-reason began. And then it became clear that not everyone was working at a library or for a town, city, or college that took this as seriously as my employer thankfully did. So I did what I could to try to help people fight to stay home or at the very least negotiate safer work conditions.
The first major effort I helped with was insisting that the Boston Public Library close all of its locations and allow its employees to work from home with no docked wages or furloughs. A group of area library workers in the New England Radical Reference Collective Slack channel worked together on advocacy with the assistance of other community supporters and the stalwart efforts of the BPLPSA union. We were successful. From there, a loose collective of activists from that group as well as the broader “Library Twitter” world joined in the fight. We targeted institutions and municipalities, imploring them to #closethelibraries. We wrote and called governors, mayors, college administrators, directors, and trustees. We put the pressure on our professional organizations to take a stronger, pro-worker stance. As time went on and restrictions started to be reversed, we adapted the advocacy and campaigned to #ProtectLibraryWorkers. I believe we saved lives. I also believe we challenged our organizations to make an effort to speak in more transparent language about workers and the importance of their health, safety, and livelihood; I’m not sure what difference that has made or will make yet, but if it gets even one fewer person to assume there are invisible elves stocking the shelves and not, y’know, humans with immune systems, I guess that’s something.
In May, I co-hosted and co-organized a conference called #LibRev(olution), a day-long series of presentations aimed at exploring “collective resistance & communal resilience” among library workers. It would not have been possible without an amazing team of speakers, moderators, and co-organizers. We tried to keep the conversation going via Discourse but have since moved to Slack. A bunch of us also contributed to libraryworkers.net, a resource site for people looking for help with their own advocacy and campaigns. When I was personally targeted by the board of trustees of one Boston-area library, I admit I did dial back my outward-facing efforts. But through #LibRev, the Library Freedom Project, and the state and regional associations I’m part of, I still will fight for library workers.
Meanwhile, at work, I tried my best to take advantage of the situation and soldier on. We converted to a new ILS at the beginning of summer, replacing a horrendous excuse for one that was making the simplest tasks (like placing holds!) impossible. This meant we joined an area library network and now have our cataloging outsourced (we are a team of 3) and access to Overdrive. This was not nearly as painful as it could have been, and the fact that we weren’t physically open was a blessing. I believe I weeded around 11,000 books from the collection (14,000 of our total had never circed in 20 years) and the majority made their way to Better World Books – praise be to student workers. I reconfigured the downstairs layout of the library, moving 3D printers out of our space and over to the shops and expanding our sewing area setup. More furniture changes are coming once the shelves cleared by weeding are removed; all of these decisions were made based on results from last year’s strategic planning survey. The student workers and I did an aggressive deep-clean of the workroom and we began organizing and cleaning the archives, a room left to fester for several years.
When I was at home, I worked on improving our website and moving us over to the college’s Linux server. I spent an untold amount of time gathering stats and putting stat site logins into a Pinboard list. I cleaned up our record of current subscriptions, negotiated with just about every vendor, rolled with budgetary punches, and got us up and running with OCLC’s hosted Ezproxy. We also had a huge amount of scanning and digital book buying to do as physical reserves weren’t available this past semester. I’d say the big problems at the library that are within a certain range of fixable have been fixed.
On a more personal level, the apartment we now live in is such a vast improvement over the last place, I can’t even tell you. My cats have been lovely and hilarious, and Avey’s brush with death in October was devastating but has me so grateful for every day I wake up with him half-smothering my face. We were fortunate to visit our families and a select group of friends a few times over the summer, and we had two vacations to Maine that involved lots of kayaking and bike riding. A few days spent at Drakes Island Beach and in Denmark (the Maine one!) were especially perfect. The summer was gorgeous and I’m missing it dearly. We squeezed in one last trip before we got too freaked out, to a three-season cabin in New Hampshire for Chris’s birthday. As I mentioned yesterday, I got to read a ton of books this year (a ton for me, at least). Many of those happened in front of a fire with WMBR streaming on our crappy Bluetooth speaker. And I started a new weekly radio show, Outback Witch House, broadcasting live on bkfst.org from 9-11 PM EST most Fridays.
Less fun to report is the amount of injuries I sustained this year. I broke my foot in August (it was dumb and involved a shopping cart), I fell off my bike and got pretty banged up in October, and I threw my back out at least three times, most likely because of the physicality of weeding, scanning, boxing, and shifting books. I haven’t been able to see a chiropractor since we moved, but I got a bunch of back exercises and stretches from the latest doctor I saw that are saving my shit.
So, from all of this, what did I learn, what did I take away? Well, I’m enormously privileged to have been able to take as many vacations as I did, to stay healthy and keep away from dangerous circumstances as much as possible, and to have the time to read, walk, and focus. I learned that management is a two-way street, and if people aren’t receptive to being managed, that’s not necessarily an indictment of the person doing the managing. I learned that you can never be too careful with separating your personal and professional identities as much as possible online. It was reinforced for me that you have to find ways of celebrating your own victories and congratulating yourself in the absence of external appreciation (not gonna lie, this post was a little bit that for me).
In terms of allocating my energy differently in 2021: I apologize for the vagueness, but I’m going to stop bringing horses to water they won’t drink, or at the very least I’m not going to try to get them to drink it as often as I have been. In non-work-but-professional matters, I’m going to try to listen, follow, and assist more than to lead–except in matters where white female gatekeepers desperately need to be redirected. I’d like to publish something in an academic journal. I’m going to keep myself open to changes, possibly big ones. I want to keep reading, walking, and writing as much as I have in 2020. I’m going to keep trying to figure out how to get better at sewing, and I’m going to get better at all the other maker-y tech we have lying around the library.
Above all, I’m thinking back to how in the days after the aforementioned library renovation was finished but before the death of my co-worker, my boss and I fantasized about having a “quiet year” – not trying to do anything amazing or new or special, just managing things as best we could. It was no one’s fault that we didn’t get that in 2019, but I’m hoping I might try for one in 2021. 2020 wasn’t personally that bad in many respects, but I know I worked harder than I should have, and took things out on myself more than I deserved. No matter what happens at the levels I can’t control, I hope I can be a little nicer to myself next year.
I gave my five-minute talk about rapid change and strategic-planning-that-isn’t-really-strategic-planning this week, and there were two big takeaways: 1) that people who aren’t librarians actually kind of want to just talk about library stuff, so I didn’t need to try to reframe the narrative for them and it may have been more accessible if I hadn’t and 2) the premise probably sounds like bullshit because there is a huge leadership crisis in general right now, and libraries for suuuuure in particular. Let’s unpack why I’m saying that.
The year of covid was like one of those fluorescent lights you sit under and every single acne pockmark you’ve had since the age of 12 is made visible. The long-standing toxicity and ineffectual leadership present in the field was so thoroughly, utterly exposed for what it is, and instead of trying to cover up the ugliness, there were many people in positions of power that chose to lean into the light, to bask in it. I’ll give you some specific examples without naming specific institutions because lord knows I don’t need anyone else baying for my blood at the moment. We had libraries try to get rid of all of their staff during a pandemic, ignore hundreds of community members, and indicate that automation was making their jobs unnecessary anyway – these efforts were led by librarians. Not McKinsey consultants or their icky ilk. We had libraries open for curbside pickup when everything was closed except grocery stores and hospitals. We had professional organizations and administrations pledging allegiance to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” but not fully understanding what that means and condescending and punishing members for attempting to improve that understanding. In one professional org I’m part of, when I brought up concerns about language in a policy/procedures doc that came off as racist and ableist, my qualifications and experience as a manager were questioned and it was implied that discussing power imbalances in the workplace was merely a new fad.
We live and work in an era of unprecedented shameless self promotion and absurd reward systems. The proud display of the mundane to the remarkable are often indistinguishable. We reward our students with badges for coming to the library and we offer our explicit approval to colleagues by endorsing them for completely obvious skills on LinkedIn. It is hardly surprising then that we seek ever more accomplishments to enumerate and share. The often derided but always noticed annual Library Journal Movers and Shakers list is probably the most clear example of rockstar librarian bullshit, with apologies to those have moved and shook here in the room, of course. If I had a fiver for every time I saw announcement of yet another event featuring a panel of Thought Leaders, I could buy Congress a round of beers.
I am a library director, but I try really, really hard to not engage in bullshit. I try not to make my colleagues do bullshit tasks. I try not to invent unnecessary work or problems for people. Rather, I listen to and observe the needs of our users instead of defaulting to tried-and-untrue library operations because “that’s just the way we’ve always done it” (shudder). This is what drove me to co-write a book for ALA Editions and give the talk this week. But I know when I speak to fellow directors, I’m probably not preaching to the choir for the most part. Hey, I’m sure most of them think I’m some weirdo manic pixie 25-year-old from Bah-ston (cue that sound from the Sam Adams commercials), so I can rag on them a bit if I want. Let’s be real, though–what I have written in the book and presented about on the topic is better spent on people who aren’t in conventional leadership positions (or in leadership at all), and I want to embrace this heterotopic idea as a defense for how the bullshit and toxicity at the top of (and throughout) many institutions can undermine what I’m suggesting at the outset.
In another stellar turn in that same CJAL issue, Sam Popowich points out something that I feel is at the twisted core of so many of librarianship’s problems:
“…any conception of social justice as a goal of intellectual or academic freedom can only take the form of an affirmative rather than a transformative model of redress (see Fraser and Honneth 2003, 74), in which minor adjustments, like Indigenous intern positions or statements of LGBTQIA+ solidarity, are seen as affirming a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) while leaving the fundamental structures of marginalization and oppression unchanged. The way to achieve social justice, in this view, is through recognition, statements of solidarity, or rhetorical commitments, rather than through material transformation of the structures of injustice themselves.”
Popowich hits a nerve that comes up in the discussion of the recent Association of Southeastern Research Libraries (ASERL) panel “Why Did I Leave the Profession? A DEI Perspective,” something I want to force everyone from several committees I serve on to watch. (As I said on Twitter the other day, “Believe it or not, antiracism isn’t just a passing craze your ‘intergenerational workforce’ is into right now.”) We repeatedly see a lack of desire for change, especially within the DEI context; change would mean a massive amount of power shifting, tons of difficult conversations and open interpersonal conflict, and accepting discomfort and forcing ourselves to feel it instead of blaming seen or unseen forces or making it about us (I’m a cisgender white middle class lady).
Now, I want to pause here for a moment and point out that change can itself be total bullshit, in the way that word is often thrown around. I talked to a lot of people this year and I’m sorry to say I’ve forgotten which lovely soul among them shared the term “weaponized innovation” with me, a great example of that being the aforementioned library that thought it should fire everybody during a pandemic and replace them with Roombas. It is not, however, bullshit to analyze the brokenness and bias of existing structures and to commit to tearing them doing and doing better. It’s not bullshit to be self-aware and honest about what we’re fucking up and to own the responsibility for fixing it.
This is true of things other than just DEI, where we are content to make statements all day long and mention amazing Black speakers we caught who “just have so many things to say that are important right now” in the affirmative fashion Popowich describes but shut down when self-critical analysis or redirection of resources is expected of us. I also can’t remember who said this year that libraries are great at creating problems for themselves, but man, was that any more obvious than in March when people were like, having patrons put their library cards in a basket and then using those trash collecting claw things to pick them up, trigger holds, and bringing stuff out to people’s cars in full hazmat gear while the rest of the goddamn country was in a lockdown and contending with a massive PPE and cleaning supply shortage? That’s what the early days of curbside were like. When I called out the absurdity, they did not like that. Who was this bitch from Massachusetts and why was she haranguing us in northern California? WELL SORRY BUT EVERYONE IN YOUR TOWN HAS LOST THEIR FUCKING MINDS, SO SOMEONE FROM SOMEWHERE HAD TO SAY SOMETHING.
This is all to say ideally we need better leaders who don’t pull bullshit like that, but we also need heterotopic structures that allow leadership throughout the profession instead of hierarchies that place one person unerringly at the top(s). I’m not sure if I’m advocating for flat org charts, at least not at this particular moment, but rather there needs to be a distribution of power that doesn’t tie up the biggest decisions with one person and maybe a board that are pretty disconnected from the day-to-day realities of boots-on-the-ground work. We also probably need to stop expecting sweeping, meaningful change from the traditional sources of power and influence in the field (I’m looking at you, state/regional and national organizations). Anyone who reads anything I’ve written or has seen me rant on a stage for five minutes to an hour (all 2 of you) knows I’m a huge fan of strategic plans, but I need to point out a critical caveat there: I am not a fan of the smoke-filled room approach to them. What you’re going to get out of a plan written with the director and the board, or the director and a dean or whatever, behind a closed door is a ton of people who go “wtf is this” when you try to do anything–not because people are change-hating sticks in the mud, but because you didn’t ask them what they thought and your conclusions probably make no sense with what they’re seeing in the day-to-day.
I want to go back to a point Leebaw makes that is also essential to creating plans that aren’t C-suite bullshit:
“…the principles to which we wish to adhere are not always reflected in our current practices, and in some cases might not be possible to achieve even if we diligently try… This misalignment between principle and practice has created uncomfortable dissonance for our staff… [T]he “growing chasm between our stated values and practices” is “ultimately alienating library workers” (Nicholson, Schmidt, and Slonowski 2019).
How do we get better alignment between principle and practice? We need to stop hogging the decision making for our practices, and stop defaulting to doing the easiest thing because “tbh my calendar is a garbage tornado for the rest of the month and I just want to get this over with.” We also need to stop defending bullshit takes in the field and start walking the fucking walk. It’s 2020 and we still have dinguses on the Trash Tank who can’t see how letting the Nazis use the meeting room is in conflict with our professed value of access and welcome to all. In fact, I think we might have more dinguses saying this shit now than ever before. I don’t have an answer to everything and please ignore anyone who has ever said they did, but y’all, librarianship is deeply screwed up and acknowledging that is a good first step as any. We have such enormous importance and potential, but with ineffectual diversity messages, rampant toxicity in our workplaces, and the vice grip of doing more with less, we must know we aren’t delivering on that promise. These heterotopias give us a chance to step around the baggage and imagine what could be, and they might be our only shot at saving us–not from ourselves, but from our leaders.
I mentioned in my last post that I’m working on condensing the ideas of the book into a 5-minute lightning talk for the Blank consortium. The slides and a pretty-much-final script of my talk are below. It was interesting to target this beyond just libraryland–I hope the ideas resonate with other educators as well.
Btw, if you’re thinking this all sounds an awful lot like strategic planning, that’s because it is. 🙂 On one hand, I’m trying to make the idea sexier for people who roll their eyes at the term; on the other, the process I’m describing will make for a great strategic plan.
You might be asking yourself, “Okay, why is a librarian talking to me about change?” Well, does anyone know where this is?
That’s the Johnson Building of the Boston Public Library, and this photo was taken in 2010 or so.
This is the same area of the library today. You can orient yourself with the dome-shaped windows.
This kind of huge transformation has been happening in libraries all around the world. Libraries don’t just change their look and feel–they also have been keeping up with changes in technology and their communities, which have grown increasingly rapid in the last 30 years.
Libraries that have succeeded in adapting to change have one thing in common: they are continuously asking and seeking answers to these three questions, all while keeping their communities at the heart of the process:
This can help in many contexts: in classrooms, businesses, and for individual use as well. I want to note that I am saying the word “user” as a catch-all for community members, students, co-workers – all the kinds of people we do things with and for.
What do we value and aspire to be? This is high-level, conceptual stuff – your vision and mission. What do you care about and why? This isn’t just a time to praise yourself. What are you not doing? What’s not working and how can you fix it? Social infrastructure, to be welcoming & safe, and to be inclusive & do outreach are library examples; I would guess some of these resonate with you as fellow educators as well.
What do our users want? Where are you putting your energy–does it connect to what they want? In libraries, people want our help accessing information, community space, and creativity and learning opportunities. Even if we think we know what our users want, we still need to ask them.
How do we make stuff happen? The following steps are what I’d tell librarians to do, but I’d be willing to bet the same advice would work in many other types of situations. As I mentioned, we need to ask our users what they want, and we need to involve them in the process of creating and embarking on our goals. We stop doing more with less, meaning we figure out what we value, who we are, and what our users want, and use that to allocate our resources more appropriately. Last but not least, we need to view this process as continual – it’s not linear, it’s circular.
With self-awareness, we know how, where, and what to change. Even if we don’t know what will come next, or know what the long-term impacts of the current change and uncertainty we’re in right now will be, we can figure out who we are, what our users want, and what we mutually value.
I’ve been trying to explain the situation in Woburn to folks who are outside the Massachusetts library world and it’s getting tough to do so succinctly, but here’s an attempt at pulling together what’s happening. tl;dr: A library director with a questionable past is trying to union-bust and furlough 17 of her employees not for budgetary reasons but because, in her words, “many skills of library staff do not translate to the digital world of the pandemic” and an increasing number of people both in the city and in the wider library community are begging to differ.
This is quite a story, and I want to stress a few things before we get started: 1) I do not represent the views or speak as a representative of my employer here or in any other context online, aside from the necessary stuff like having my CV and LinkedIn up to date. If you take issue with the contents of this post, I am solely responsible for them. Please DO NOT contact my employer, whose name I have specifically retracted from this post, right now; they are busily contending with anti-student ICE shenanigans and safely reopening the campus for the fall. Send me an email at callan.bignoli AT gmail DOT com 2) The sources I refer to throughout are people that I do not wish to identify here for fear that they’ll be retaliated against, as I already was during the weekend of July 4 (more on that later). 3) I am not deliberately spreading dis- or misinformation. Everything I am reporting here I have heard from multiple reliable sources. But it is also all second hand knowledge, and therefore I am prefacing all of this by saying the following post is made up of credible allegations. That being said, I acknowledge that I misstated information regarding the circulation desk at Dedham Public Library in a recent letter to the editor of the Woburn Daily Times. The desk there was not destroyed, but was allegedly unexpectedly moved to a different location in the library, making it difficult for staff to do their work. Multiple sources say that parts of the circulation desk in Woburn were also removed, some found in the dumpster. This was an unintended misunderstanding on my part.
Before coming to Woburn, Bonnie Roalsen, a 2007 LibraryJournal Mover & Shaker, was director at another Boston-area library, Dedham. I don’t know all of the details, but staff report many issues with her managerial style, particularly around miscommunication. There was also an investigation about her conducted by the town which still may be ongoing. If you look through the Dedham Trustees minutes from Ms. Roalsen’s time as director (the end of 2016 to Spring 2019), you’ll immediately see eyebrow-raising things like staff being silenced at meetings and the police being called on staff members. More on those trustees later.
As is often the way of the library world, that didn’t prevent Ms. Roalsen from getting the Woburn job. According to staff from Dedham and Woburn, once she got there, she created a new assistant director-level job for a fellow named John Walsh who went to library school with her and worked with her in Dedham. This was instead of a head of the understaffed reference department, which only has two people in a city of over 40,000 (at similarly sized nearby libraries, this number is more like 6-10; on the whole, Woburn is woefully understaffed compared to peer libraries). I’m bringing this up because what Ms. Roalsen and, presumably, Mr. Walsh call an innovative focus on technology and digital services appears to be impacting the value, or lack thereof, they place on staff.
Folks at Dedham and Woburn have both said Ms. Roalsen and Mr. Walsh want to replace staff with machines, and it seems plausible–after all, nothing says “I want to replace my staff with robots” quite like “having bad relationships with staff, furloughing them, then giving a talk at Computers in Libraries about replacing staff with robots” –but that’s not the only thing they’re replacing them with. Fast forward to the last few months.
The Woburn Public Library, along with countless others throughout the state and nation, sensibly closed its doors to both the public and staff as COVID-19 took its first pass at Massachusetts in March. Unlike their neighboring libraries, though, for some amount of time during the building closure, they’ve been using volunteers to do home delivery of books and many other tasks while claiming there is no work for library staff to do.
The following screenshots show library staff attempting to help from home, being told there was nothing to do, and being removed from contributing to the library’s Facebook page.
One volunteer group that worked with the library is Social Capital, Inc., a well-known org in Woburn that helps provide opportunities for at-risk youth. According to multiple sources close to the situation, they previously had a long-standing positive relationship with the library, but retracted the volunteers they had sent to the library when they found out they were working in lieu of staff instead of in support of them. In other words, when they found out they were doing this work instead of staff employed by the library, they said no thanks.
Speaking of long-standing community partnerships, sources say that library administration put enough pressure on the Library’s 24-year-old Friends group for them to begin the process of dissolution in June. Considering the impacts of this, it’s a cruel attack on the city’s residents, particularly its children. The loss of support for museum passes, the Teddy Bear Picnic, Woburn Reads, and other Friends-sponsored events leaves a hole in the community that robots seem pretty unlikely to fill. (I’ll note that the trustees have said that the museum pass program will continue but now funded by city money. This seems like a poor allocation of resources, given the amount of financial turmoil the trustees point to elsewhere.)
Around the same time came the announcement of the furlough of 17 of the library’s non-administrative employees, despite a documented increase of the library’s FY21 budget. The following is a screenshot of the library’s union lawyer explaining exactly what was proposed by the city:
According to the union and library staff, none of the city’s other departments are being targeted for layoffs or furloughs. The thing I want to draw attention to in the above, though, is the idea that this furlough needs to happen “until such time as there is more work available at the library.” Here’s what’s going on at fellow Minuteman Library Network libraries in the area:
In a widely distributed email, the executive director of Minuteman, Phil McNulty, said, “I just think that collectively we are not in any shape to meet this demand level without deploying very extensive pickup hours… I think we can make a very compelling case that there is very strong patron demand and that we can meet it – if we have the staffing levels and organization to do so. As to that organization, it is becoming clear that page is the fundamentally most important job in the library now and we are all going to have to be pages and that circulation is our world this summer and we will all have to be circulation librarians.”
Everyone I know working in libraries around Boston is telling me about days where they can’t keep up with circulation traffic, phones ringing off the hook, and email and chat reference questions piling up by the dozens. When they aren’t all being circulation staff, they’re still offering hours of programming and activities for all ages from home each week. Saying there’s not enough work to do at the library right now is, simply put, a lie. It’s also frankly insulting to our colleagues who are scrambling, with slashed budgets and furloughs they tried as hard as they could to avoid, to keep up with patron demand.
As the union and city continue to find a path forward, an advocacy group on Facebook, Support Woburn Librarians, has drawn over 1,700 members both from the city and beyond, including many library workers like me who are standing in solidarity with Woburn’s staff. Numerous Woburn residents have been trying to get in touch with Ms. Roalsen, who is not returning phone calls and emails. The trustees decided to not meet for their scheduled July 7 board meeting or in August, and a kerfuffle around the June meeting’s Zoom password not being made publicly available prevented members of the community from attending. Instead, Ms. Roalsen and a handful of Woburn trustees have taken to accusing the members of the Facebook group of engaging in a “deliberate campaign of misinformation,” being “unhinged from any reality,” and “threatening” and “slandering” in the Woburn Daily Times.
“I saw that Ms. Roalsen and Ms. Seitz (library trustee) both said in editorials that many of the public’s concerns are based on misinformation, and I would welcome any responses or information they can provide,” reads one letter to the mayor, director, and trustees shared in the Support Woburn Librarians group. “Unfortunately, those same editorials fail to identify or respond to any specific pieces of misinformation beyond some controversy around the circulation desk. The op-eds are mostly vague generalities and empty rhetoric while the more egregious questions and concerns are left unaddressed. Until the community members get the answers they seek, they have a right to keep asking important questions and voicing their concerns, and the library administration, board of trustees and city officials have a responsibility to address them.”
A letter jointly written by a number of library workers in the area specifically focused on Ms. Roalsen’s insistence that “many skills of library staff do not translate to the digital world of the pandemic:”
Library employees in neighboring towns like Winchester and Burlington were providing remote reference help, Zoom storytimes, book clubs, and activities for tweens and teens. These libraries had no trouble translating to the digital world. We have questions for Ms. Roalsen to “set straight.” Why do you hold your employees in such low esteem? Why, unlike fellow directors, did you decide they were incapable of doing work in the “digital world” without giving them any chance? And why are you not standing up for them now?
The availability of subscription products from for-profit, private companies that many libraries also subscribe to is not all that library patrons expect and deserve for their community. Providing streaming video or ebooks is not “groundbreaking” when most fellow Minuteman libraries have been on that “cutting edge” for a decade. Ms. Roalsen is again using a narrative of “innovation” to shift focus away from leaving her staff unemployed during a pandemic.
Concerned library workers in the Woburn area
One would think that with a newly created assistant director for technology position and what looks like an organizational dedication to providing innovative new services, the staff would have the resources and empowerment to be trained and ready for whatever this “digital world of the pandemic” has in store. As a person who helped a staff of 100 beef up their tech skills in the years before we found ourselves in this current moment, I can tell you it’s possible to get just about every library worker prepped, ready, and comfortable for the “digital world.” Am I saying 100% of them will be pumping out professional videos and web guides? Of course not, and it’s never going to be like that anywhere. But I would have worked with them to figure it out, using a list like this one plugged in LibraryJournal of tasks for public library workers to do from home. And now, with libraries in Massachusetts reopened for curbside pickup, there is no excuse.
Not only do we have accusations of spreading misinformation and no lines of communication with the decision makers, and not only do we have a library director who’s selling her own staff short, we also have the work and voices of advocates being threatened. Just after we created a Change.org petition in support of the library’s workers, we found out that Ms. Roalsen requested all of her staff’s email address passwords be changed, locking them all out of their inboxes and contact lists. While there may not be a connection, it comes off like more union-busting behavior, cutting off staff from their main means of communication with each other, the city, and the union.
And, circling back to the Dedham Board of Library Trustees, they weren’t too happy with my involvement in the business up in Woburn, so they sent this to the brand-new president of my employer on or around July 4:
I am currently on the Board of Library Trustees in Dedham, an elected position I have held for the past seven years. I am writing to you today because I am extremely distressed by Blank College’s decision to insert themselves in matters related to the Dedham Public Library, as represented by their Library Director, Callan Bignoli. Ms. Bignoli, not only serves as the library director of Blank College but, as you might be aware, is the head of #LIBREV(olution) a protect and pay library workers group. Ms. Bignoli has been using her platform as Library Director for Blank College to push out through social media outlets, discussion groups, Change.org petitions and letters, fabricated accusations regarding Dedham Public Library’s former director, now the Woburn Public Library Director. In addition, Ms. Bignoli has ignited a smear campaign against the Woburn Director and also the Dedham Library Trustees by encouraging and then amplifying these accusations that have been officially proven untrue. It is unclear to me why Blank College, through their Library Director, is taking this action.
In March, 2020, the Dedham Public Library Trustees fought to ensure their employees would be paid their full salary when the library’s doors closed due to the COVID19 pandemic. When they returned to the library to work one day a week on June 15, 2020, they continued to be paid fully. Not all libraries or municipalities have been as fortunate as ours and furloughs have taken place. However, it is abundantly clear that most people in this country have been effected financially by this pandemic. For [Blank] College, through their Library Director, to harass and bully public libraries that find themselves unable to sustain their budget is disgraceful. As an elected official, I understand I have little recourse, but I urge you, as you are represented through your Library Director, to stop engaging in this less than professional manner.
Nameless (to me, at least) member of the Dedham Board of Library Trustees
That was a great time! Luckily, my boss could see through the gaslighting here as my personal web presence has nothing to do with my position at Blank. I also can’t help but point out the absurdity of calling me a harasser and bully of libraries that can’t sustain their budget when the Woburn Public Library received a budgetary increase, yet is still pursuing these furloughs. But I was nowhere near standing alone. This week, the Minuteman Library Network’s executive board issued a stern warning to the Woburn trustees, mayor, and Ms. Roalsen explaining their concerns about the library’s administrative behavior and future as a network member:
The majority or the entirety of Woburn’s non-management staff is in the process of being furloughed or laid off as of July 17, 2020 for reasons other than lack of budgeted funds. It is the considered opinion of the Board of Directors of the Minuteman Library Network that these staff members are knowledgeable, capable and dedicated librarians and library assistants…
The Board of Directors will bring before the Minuteman Membership as a whole the question of whether the Woburn Public Library is continuing to act as a viable member eligible for continued membership.
Letter from the Minuteman Library Network Board of Directors
Before long, the Woburn trustees were denouncing the MLN Board, a group of nearly a dozen library directors and administrators who represent some of the busiest and most well-loved libraries in New England, for spreading misinformation:
So that’s where we’re at! The union was supposed to meet with the city again today, but that was postponed. I’ll leave you with the words of another member of the advocacy group, urging us to now focus on the irresponsibility and negligence of the mayor, director, and trustees regarding the questions and requests for information from community members:
By characterizing concerned community members as “unhinged,” [the trustees and director] are showing the lack of respect they have for the community they are supposed to serve. By characterizing the staff as incapable of adjusting or disgruntled, they are really revealing the director’s lack of leadership and inability to connect with caring people who have served the Woburn community long before she showed up. By continually describing community discourse as a campaign of misinformation, the Trustees are actually revealing the lack of transparency and back-channel dealings that have been in since the current director was hired; not to mention a coordinated plan to gaslight the citizens of Woburn and turn attention away from the real issue.
Member of the Support Woburn Librarians Facebook group
I don’t know about you, but I’m a whole heck of a lot more concerned about this failure of democracy than I am about cancel culture. As we’re seeing protestors jailed and injured for exercising their rights and we’re watching the impacts of doublespeak when it comes from the highest office in the country unfold in the form of stoked racial violence and unnecessary sickness and death, we need to be on high alert when we see the word “misinformation” tossed around when citizens are merely asking questions. We also need to remember that our elected officials have an obligation to their constituents and need to hold them to it. That includes listening, and not calling them disgruntled and unhinged when they’re just looking for answers.
There’s been a trend of articles coming out in major publications that are all about how excited people are to get back to their libraries, how resilient libraries are, all kinds of happy-go-lucky “we’re doing just fine!” stuff. It’s all well and good except for the fact that these narratives do nothing to a) tell the truth about the miserable realities that library workers are actually experiencing, and b) incite any kind of action to be taken in our defense.
Let’s start with the American Library Association, who have seemingly been going out of their way to come across as tone-deaf in this moment. On May 1, amidst thousands of layoffs and furloughs of library workers happening all around the country, ALA President Wanda Brown wrote a piece congratulating the resilience and stick-to-it-iveness of “librarians and library workers” in American Libraries magazine. There was no mention of lost jobs, slashed budgets, unsafe working conditions, managers censoring and punishing employees for speaking up for themselves, or threats of placement in riskier positions–in other words, none of what has defined this crisis for many of our colleagues.
Next up, we have a piece in PBS News Hour. The reporter did reach out to me to talk about the less savory parts of the story, but the narrative here is very much about the extra miles library workers feel like they’re expected to go because there’s no other options for their patrons. There’s a celebration of curbside pickup and enhanced social media use–and a more understandable and laudable effort to make the internet more accessible–but not much in the way of questioning why it is that libraries are the only shred of social safety left for citizens, and not much exploration of how austerity/disaster politics are currently decimating our field. Same went for this April 22 piece about Australia’s libraries in The Guardian, which quotes a public official who said, “The longer we keep our library branches closed, the deeper and more entrenched that digital divide will become.” Blaming library closures for the digital divide is like blaming our immune systems for succumbing to the virus.
A few days ago, an opinion piece written by a retired library worker ran in The Washington Post, titled “Local libraries will look a lot different when they reopen.” The author does mention furloughs, but says “some jurisdictions” have decided to do them and links to one system (this despite the over 5,600 layoffs and furloughs estimated via data collected in a tracking document, a number that is likely much higher but difficult to accurately count because of ambiguous reporting and fear of retaliation). What’s remarkable about this piece is that the writer is focused on the changes public libraries will need to contend with as they reopen, but doesn’t mention how a skeleton staff and the health risks to employees will impact those changes (I guess this is where our “librarians and library workers” resilience comes in). There’s also theorizing about print collections being supplanted by electronic ones, but no discussion of how impossible that feat is likely to be.
I’m sure there are other examples out there; feel free to share them with me and I’ll swipe at them, too. 😉 But I want to turn this to what I actually see happening right now, which is this:
Libraries are reopening to the public in states that are rushing forward to “get back to normal.” Workers at these libraries are scared for their health and safety, not only because of the covid-19 transmission risk but also because patrons are unpredictable, may not comply with rules, and may become violent and unruly, as has already been seen at public places and restaurants that are trying to operate “normally.”
The impacts I’ve seen on people who’ve contacted me or are posting about their experiences on Twitter are anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, sleeplessness, feelings of helplessness, thinking of leaving the field, contemplating quitting even during a tanked economy for the sake of their own safety and sanity, low morale, fear for family members, feelings that nothing they do will be enough to prevent furloughs or layoffs, and general malaise and purposelessness. Folks who have not yet been directly impacted (including me) are feeling a collective survivor’s guilt, and/or a sensation that the other shoe is going to drop at any moment.
In many states, libraries or their towns are acting in opposition to stay-at-home orders. The local offenders I’ve heard of that are engaging in this are the public libraries in Dedham, Watertown, and Cambridge; in Massachusetts, we are awaiting updates and a reopening plan from Governor Charlie Baker. These places are jumping the gun, and it leads one to wonder what’s motivating this: Furloughs and layoffs in nearby towns? Political or public pressure? (Or, at least in the case of Dedham, an embarrassing history of mismanagement and corruption?) In any case, we need to ask why both municipal managers and leaders of our professional organizations seem to think that putting our colleagues at risk is the most politically expedient thing to do.
Library workers are concerned about using PPE and cleaning supplies when there are still nationwide shortages of these items that should be prioritized for essential workers and people in vulnerable populations, such as in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and residences where there are sick or immunocompromised household members. They are also concerned about encouraging their community members to leave home and run errands before a determination of whether or not it’s safe to do that.
During the beginning and height of the #closethelibraries campaign, which started when many academic and public libraries were continuing to either operate as usual, refusing to provide telework options, or operating with scaled-down in-person services, it quickly became clear that many workers were being punished or threatened by library or municipal/institutional leadership if they attempted to speak about their unsafe conditions and stand up for their personal safety. As I was working with journalists trying to cover the movement, it was challenging to find people who were comfortable speaking on the record about their experiences for fear of retaliation. Leaders were exploiting the uncertainty and scariness of the job market to control these library workers and thus control the narrative of what was going on. And what was going on was not good, and continues to be very bad.
I’m only scratching the surface with what’s going on here based on the stories people are sharing with me and on social media (mostly with fear of retaliation or anxiety about how helpless they feel) and things I’m coming across in my home state. But the flipside of all of these digital storytimes and boosted WiFi signals in the parking lot is library workers forced to do jobs they never signed up for, scolded for their attempts to fight for their well-being, and the reality of slashed budgets they’re staring down from now until…who knows? What guarantee do we have of bouncing back?
Long before our lives began to be redefined by this global pandemic, library workers had plenty to worry about, specifically with their proclivity for self-sacrifice, overwork, and low morale. Our leaders are cashing in on our instincts for martyrdom and hesitance to make a fuss about our own needs, and you know what? It’s time to say not anymore. Ignoring our very real plight and slapping happy stories on top of it isn’t going to save us.
It’s not an end-all, be-all, but to at least throw something out there that you can do, consider signing this petition demanding safe reopening conditions for library workers. And push back on these stories of unmitigated success and unqualified resilience. Anyone who wants libraries to survive this needs to fight hard for library workers to survive it, too.
Welcome to #LIBREV(olution). Hello to everyone on the live broadcast, and also hello to those of you watching the recordings. My name is Callan Bignoli, my pronouns are she/her/hers, and I am the director of the library at Blank College. I’m about ten miles away from there at my home in Boston, Massachusetts. Thanks for joining us today. I’m going to say a few words before we get things underway with our first presentation starting at 10 AM Eastern.
Back in mid-March, which feels like it was years ago now, I had an idea to pull this together as I saw conference after conference getting canceled. I asked for volunteers to pull some kind of online gathering together and immediately found help. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge all of the people who have assisted with the idea and execution of the conference.
Specifically, they include: Jennifer Wertkin, Sarah Braun, Myrna Morales, April Mazza, Anna Popp, Kelly Jo Woodside, Patrick Sweeney, Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, Megan Schadlich, Stacie Williams, Matt Amory, Anaya Jones, Trisha Previtt, and Jennie Rose Halperin. These folks are acting as moderators and presenters today. Our phenomenal slate of speakers answered our call for proposals right away. They created the presentations you’re going to see today under duress and anxiety from the unforeseen challenges and pressures we’re confronting during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The conference organizers and I are both amazed by and very grateful for that. So here we are today: 2,242 people RSVPed for an event, not put together by an existing organization, but instead by a ragtag bunch of library misfits.
I set the maximum attendance to 500 when I first created the Eventbrite page, thinking it’d be great if we got even halfway there. 2,242 doesn’t feel possible, but if there is one thing we’ve learned in the time of this crisis–as we’ve seen our support structures bend and break; as we’re watching unimaginable numbers of our colleagues laid off or furloughed–it’s that our definition of what is possible, and what is “normal,” has got to change.
And that’s why we’ve recast this webinar as #LIBREV(olution), a deliberate choice to push away from, or beyond, the original name which was LIBRESILIENCE. RESILIENCE assumes response to and survival after ongoing stress; it doesn’t imply any change.
REVOLUTION, though–REVOLUTION is “a sudden, radical, or complete change.” What do you think we need right now? A continued response to the same old stress, or a sudden, radical, and complete change?
Right now, a group of library advocates are keeping track of layoffs and furloughs at libraries in the U.S. and Canada. That list has grown to about 200 institutions and may well be much longer. On Wednesday, we added my former employer, the Public Library of Brookline, to the list. 50 part-time workers, over half of the library’s staff, were furloughed. I worked with the majority of these people for two and a half years. We built a new library together; we mourned the unexpected loss of a colleague together; we had a lot of fun and put a lot of hard work into making our library and community a better place. And despite the efforts of the library director–the town, among the wealthiest in Massachusetts, decided to go forward with the furlough and all of them lost their jobs indefinitely.
This came after a month and a half of horror stories that weren’t as close to home for me, from Houston, Texas, where staff were told to fashion masks out of rubber bands and paper towels, to Hennepin County, Minnesota, where library workers were effectively forced to staff emergency shelters if they wanted to continue getting paid – regardless of their own health concerns – to countless libraries refusing to stop curbside pickup services and directors and mayors ignoring, or retaliating against, the concerns of their staff.
Libraries have been forced into a no-win situation. If they operate physically, they jeopardize the health and safety of their staff and communities. If they don’t, they risk furloughs or layoffs because county administrators and mayors say “workers can’t get paid taxpayer dollars to do nothing.” Either way, with tax revenue plummeting, county and municipal systems are looking at a long, dark road ahead, with threats of privatization or permanent closure looming larger than ever. We need to get ready to help each other. We must reject doing more with less, and that means we cannot go it alone.
Considering the reactions we’ve seen to the pandemic, and the impacts we’re feeling now and the ones still ahead, I say it’s time for a sudden, radical, and complete change. We need a system that advocates for libraries-as-workers, not just libraries-as-institutions. We need to start thinking together about what that looks like. A new professional organization? A national library workers’ union? A broad coalition of public support from beyond the field? I don’t have the answer, but we need to figure these things out. #LIBREV(olution) is an invitation and an invocation and a hope for continuing this work together.
A #LIBREV(olution) is possible – 2,242 people, including you, signed up for this event. The talks you’ll hear today are all a reach towards a revolutionary future from honest discussions of morale in the workplace with Kaetrena to transformative librarianship with Stacie and Myrna, from understanding the undercommons with Jennie to finding resources for healing with Megan. We’ll hear about wrapping your head around political systems with Patrick, alleviating the crush of student debt with Matt, and adapting to online teaching and learning with Trisha and Anaya. Our presenters today are offering you a set of new approaches to work and self-care, providing tools and techniques to prepare for today and what’s to come.
We’ll make it down that long, dark road, but we need to help each other as we make the trip; we can’t just take marching orders from the top and stumble along without the resources and support we need. But we’re just getting started, and we need you to help us keep this mindset in motion, and help us, and help each other, shape the change you want to see.
What am I doing here? Idk, man. I’m a day late and a dollar short with this, but the WordPress block thing is pretty cool. Honestly, it’s kind of inspirational for getting the words flowing. I always like when a company doesn’t just talk about design thinking but seems to have actually created something with users in mind, y’know?
Well, okay, I have some real answers. On the one hand, my co-author and I are about to submit a final draft of the book we’ve been working on for the past year, and I don’t like the thought of not having something to write when I was able to make the time for, and enjoyed the time spent on, writing. In November, participated in NaNoWriMo in solidarity with a class at the college I work for, and I realized the void left in my life when I’m not writing regularly, which is a long story for another time (or never, who knows!). The last few months of rewriting, tweaking, and editing have been great, but we’re about ready to put a bow on this thing, so here I am.
The other thing is what I stuck in the “about” page for this blog: “This is largely an endeavor to stay off social media as much as possible.” I’ve been on Twitter a ton, and involved with a ton of different groups via email, and the whole “see the notifications, read the messages, respond to them, get pissed at the content firehose” cycle is just… not good for me. It’s not helping me hear my own voice, and I’m not saying that in some kind of weird self-aggrandizing way. Maybe it’s self-aggrandizing no matter what if you have a blog, but I’m okay with that, I guess. I like having an audience, or rather, the potential for one. It helps me write.
But what I mean by not hearing my own voice is, I’m tired of participating in the way that a company like Twitter wants me to, tired of sharing thoughts (especially in the current moment, with life being so very online) or thinking things that are all shaped and trapped by the structure and biases of the platform. And yes, I am writing this on a WordPress site, so I’m not saying this is beyond its own problematic paved paths. It’s just something else, somewhere else–a place where I can drop out a little, but not the whole way.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last month and a half thinking about how my profession needs to radically change in response to the ongoing crisis and writing about it in forms that generally haven’t taken a blog shape, and I don’t intend to just hang up my hat about that when it’s “done” or whatever, in part because it’s never going to be done but also because I want to help make that radical change possible, and I want to have a way of explaining thoughts and ideas I have that in a public forum because I don’t want this work to transpire in the vacuum of my own mind. I want to have critical conversations and hear constructive pushback and feedback; I want this to be a place for generating ideas as well. I’m going to do what I can to build this space to honor that, and I might mess up, and probably already have, but if you’re cool with bearing with me, let’s do it.
Just to give myself some kind of roadmap for what will be happening here, and to help anyone who shows up with figuring out if they want to stick around, this is what I expect I’ll be writing about:
a worker-oriented future for libraries
my experiences as the library director at a small, weird engineering college and a participant in library stuff at the local & national level
books and other things I’ve been reading & thinking about
the unique anxieties of the present moment, both personal and professional
So there you have it. I hope I can hold myself to keeping this thing going because I’m excited to see where it goes. For now, I’m off to keep re-reading How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, the book that helped me wrap my head around how to exit the attention economy in part but not fully, and still be present to do the work that needs to be done. Goodnight!