Friday, May 14, 2010

Article Note: On Work Autonomy And Librarians

Citation for the article:

Patillo, Ericka J.,, "The Job Itself: The Effects of Functional Units on Work Autonomy Among Public and Academic Librarians." Library Trends 58.2 (Fall 2009): 276-290.

Read via Project Muse.

"Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way." --Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.

"I am not asking for help, Mike, just take off the handcuffs." --- Pete Clemenza, in the film The Godfather.

Autonomy in work is something that a lot of people in this profession talk about, but it is something that is rarely found. Librarianship is notorious for being fairly rigid in terms of organizational structure. Hierarchies thrive, not always in a good way. And yet, this profession does attract some pretty bright individuals, folks who thrive on creativity and innovation, on breaking the rules once in a while. I happen to be one of those folks. I will make a small admission. I do not take very well to micro-managers. While I understand there are certain things I have to do as part of my work that are basically part of the hierarchy, there are moments when I need my autonomy in order to do what must be done. With some of that in mind, I came across this article.

The Patillo article looks at the concept of job autonomy. This is briefly defined as "the degree of freedom and discretion that an employee has over the work that has to be done" (276-277). On the basis of that definition, I did a little self-reflection. I realized that I do have some autonomy. However, there are many key decisions that I am not allowed to make even though I am nominally classified as a department head. In other words, it is an illusory form of autonomy. I wonder if this may be part of the challenge that middle managers face when they cannot make a key decision on behalf of their workers because they have to check in with the bosses above.

The authors limit their investigation to academic and public librarians. The authors' hypotheses asked about differences in terms of autonomy between public and academic librarians and whether autonomy varied between job functions. To find out, they drew from data in the WILIS (Workforce Issues in Library and Information Science) survey done at North Carolina. The sample size was 766 respondents. You can read about the breakdown of the sample in the article.

Some notes from the article then:

  • Once again, we find the claim about the incoming massive number of retirements in the library profession and how it will generate a large number of jobs. Let me blunt. This claim has been pretty much debunked. I cannot help but wonder if any of the editors in LIS journals actually pay attention to the economy or to current economic trends and conditions or to the librarian job market? Why does this come up? Because the authors are arguing that "library managers need to maintain am understanding of the needs of their staff to grow, independence, and challenging work. Job satisfaction is a primary factor in the retention of workers" (277). I certainly do not disagree with any of that. In fact, I think that more managers do need to pay attention to that issue, but then the authors follow that with the statement about how the majority of librarians are boomers on the way to retirement. People, please, it's time to pay some attention and face reality. Stop disseminating that false "jobs are coming" claim already. All it does is lower your credibility.
  • Another truth: ". . .new graduates increasingly have career options in nonlibrary settings" (278). And I think more library schools, given the current conditions, should be helping their graduates explore those options better.
  • A statement of the obvious, in my humble opinion: "Academic librarians experienced higher levels of autonomy in terms of work" (283). However, upon some consideration, I wonder if that varies by academic institution and on how specialized the librarian is, say, a generalist instruction librarian in a small university versus a subject bibliographer in a Research 1 university.
  • Definitely stating the obvious now: "The majority of public and academic librarians have responsibilities in multiple areas" (283). I am not trying to be mean or facetious, but this is the kind of statement that is common knowledge in our profession by now. However, the LIS literature consistently seems to serve to reaffirm these things.
  • Of interest to me, "public and academic librarians who chose the area Information services, education and research reported lower autonomy of terms of work than their counterparts who did not choose this area" (285; emphasis in original). Maybe this is why our cataloger seems very happy with her work at times. Take that as it is presented.
  • Some good news: "As was noted earlier, variety, creativity, and challenge are work attributes that are related to job satisfaction, and it appears that many librarians have variety, challenging work, and opportunities for growth as indicated by the range of tasks they perform. . ." (286). Overall, to use myself as an example, my work does have variety and creativity. It can be challenging at times, in good and bad ways. However, it does have some moments of drudgery when I have to do more administrivia than my actual work. But, as the old saying goes, "into each life a little rain must fall."
  • A little more on the autonomy of those of us in information services: these librarians "probably have more frequent interaction with library patrons due to the nature of reference, instruction, and research services. That they report less flexibility and control over their work schedules might have implications related to burnout and retention of these professionals" (287). If I was a manager who paid attention, I would probably be concerned about this and the retention issue. Unfortunately, it is also common knowledge in our profession that, much like teaching, if you want to advance (and maybe, just maybe, get a little more money), you have to become an administrator, something that takes you away from the job you actually like. Also it is something that probably lacks a lot of autonomy. From what I have learned from library managers I have worked for, they often have their hands tied by various administrative roles and mandates. I don't envy their jobs, and I sure as heck don't want to do such work. However, managers often make me feel like Pete Clemenza in the epigraph I used above.
  • "Since all librarians cannot be administrators (and many do not want to be), a further examination of the characteristics of these positions [librarians with some administrative duties, but who are not library managers] might lead to a better understanding of ways in which libraries can offer nonadministrative positions that are also autonomous and satisfying" (287).

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