on #hlth and bearpoking

Sometimes you shouldn’t poke the bear.

I’m bad at identifying those moments.

Or, more accurately, I’m bad at listening to my gut when my gut says “DO NOT POKE THAT BEAR”.

So this morning, I tweeted about the internet reaction to the Harvard Libraries town halls yesterday.  The duet of tweets that got me going were these:



My response was:


So. I got a lot of responses. (See: Bear-poking.) I responded with a bit of fire, but mostly with matter-of-fact-ness. I poked a bear, but I was willing to dance. I believe in this one.

There are a few broad categories to the responses, thus far:

  1. Administrators who said “Amen” and “No shit” and “I wish I knew”.
  2. Librarians who said “Because our long years of hard work have value” and “Because we love our libraries and admin should know that”.
  3. Librarians who said “because I don’t trust the things the admin wants to measure” and “measuring value is HARD, but years of service is easy”.

Let me take those one by one.

  1. Another library director and I had a quick back-channel conversation about this, and about our desire to know more about what’s really going on at Harvard before judging the process, because we both can acknowledge, from our own experiences, how hard change is to manage, either managing up or managing down.  And my conclusion is that I wish that more administrators remembered what it was like to be librarians in the ranks, feeling powerless, and that more librarians trusted their administrators (or had administrators worth trusting). And that, in general, we all had more breadth of experiences to pull on — time spent working for vendors, time in middle management, time in small libraries, big ones, in cataloging and reference and instruction and facilities and purchasing… so that we could all develop better big-picture understandings of the goals and intentions and needs and desires of the organization as a whole.
  2. I don’t want to argue about whether or not y’all love your work, or about whether or not your decades of hard work have value to an institution I’m not a part of. What I do want to say is this: If you are engaged in what you are framing as a war with your administration, and your administration has, as their opening salvo, announced that they want things to be radically different than they have been in the past, do you really want your first return salvo to be an announcement that you’ve been an integral part, for a very long time, in creating the thing they are saying needs to radically change? Is that really the message you find most strategic and tactically sound for opening your side of the fight?
  3. Yes. Measuring skills, values, strengths, and goals is damn hard. You’re totally right. And, yes, administrations that have lost the trust of their employees are also suspect in the eyes of those employees when they say they want to measure and evaluate hard things. But here’s my counterargument: Measuring time of service tells you precisely nothing. Some people have worked in their jobs for 20 years, evolved their skills and perspectives along with the changes happening in libraries, and remained an key, integral part of the success of their organization. Ditto some people with 5 years of experience. Equally true is that some people with 20 years of experience have been coasting, having minimal impact on their organization and their coworkers, doing the same thing for 20 years with no interest in adjusting, adapting, learning, or evolving. As have some with 5 years of experience. The number alone cannot tell you which is which. It simply cannot, and implying that it can means that admin will distrust your motives just as much as you distrust theirs. Measure things that matter, that are real, and that can be built upon to create something awesome, not the things that are just easy and comforting. “I’ve been here for 15 years!” is not a compelling argument. “I’ve been here for 15 years, and in that time I’ve maintained this, implemented this, mastered that and gotten certified in the other, participated in this, organized that, proposed these four things, supported Joe in doing this, that, and those, and been working with Emily toward this thing that’ll be done in 6 months” says a hell of a lot more. Harder, yes. Less clean, yes. Better? Also yes.

So. tl;dr: I wish we had more perspectives and less us vs them rhetoric. I hope you all think carefully about how you want to frame your arguments. And trusting easy but shitty data is far worse than fighting hard to create good messages that mean something.

Also, don’t poke the bear unless you’re willing to dance.


  1. “Measuring time of service tells you precisely nothing.”

    Cannot say I agree with this statement. Loyalty isn’t as valued as it has been in the past, but it is not precisely nothing. I see this view as taking the administrator’s side, but forgetting the overall big picture – something that is very hard to do, and a skill that is essential.

    Depending on how many staff are showing those long years of service, it could say something very important about Harvard as a high-quality employer. Having lots of staff with many years may not be everything, but it does have value and should not be completely ignored. I realize the counter to this is that long years of service implies things like lack of innovation, willingness to change etc. – but should say “we cannot take years of service as everything” but it should not say “years of service mean jack-squat.”


  2. Ryan, I simply disagree.

    A tradition of long years of service might mean an institution has nurtured its employees, allowed them to develop and evolve with a changing organization, and placed importance on people.

    A tradition of long years of service might also mean that an institution has tenured people who have chosen to stay out of comfort but are not meaningful participants in their profession or their organization’s changes.

    A tradition of long years of service might also mean that people have chosen to stay in a place they love, working with people they value, but have done so while chafing against the organization’s structure and values.

    A tradition of long years of service might also mean that many people are trapped by golden handcuffs of their own making or their life’s circumstances.

    A tradition of long years of service can mean none, all, or some of those.

    Years of service mean jack-squat without context. Period.


  3. First, I think it’s a false dichotomy you’re pushing. No one that I’ve talked to at Harvard thinks this is just about firing or not firing people who’ve been there a long time. Neither is anyone dead set against reorganization. But there are (from what I can see) legitimate complaints about the way the reorganization is being planned and implemented.

    For example, I assume that you are a sensible enough administrator to know that you don’t tell people “there will be layoffs” and then not give them any more information than that. At least you don’t do it and expect people not to panic, freak out on Twitter, and feel like they’ve been treated as something less than a human being.

    But second, and more to the point: while I get that years of service do not necessarily equate to effectiveness (and indeed I’ve witnessed the exact opposite at times in my library career), deep experience with the specific, particular and largely local needs of a library’s users and collections is something you can only get through years of service, and it doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, count for nothing.


  4. Great commentary, although I think you’re reading too much into 2 tweets from one person. Years of service are NOT more important to librarians than effectiveness, relevance, and skill. Librarians do want it taken into account though, as one piece of evidence of their dedication to the mission of the library. No one here is in it for the money. Years of service is a sensitive issue in our environment in particular because during Harvard Library layoffs in 2009, the perception was that staff with more years of service were disproportionately targeted for layoffs because they made more money, and the university was trying to reduce expenses in light of the financial meltdown. I have no hard data reflecting who was laid off, but anecdotally many people believe there is substance to the claim. There was also no library-wide communication about who was laid off, and some people were in the position of calling project partners only to find they didn’t work here anymore. That last part is just dirty laundry.


  5. Ben, I never said any of the things you’re arguing about in your first point, so I don’t really know how to address your comment. I was discussing the responses I got to a very particular comment responding to another very particular comment. I am not making assumptions, or extrapolating “Harvard’s response.”

    Secondly, sure. And you’ve provided meaningful context to the value of a particular kind of long term of service. Which is what I’m arguing for. I would also argue that there are librarians with long terms of service who still don’t know much about the largely local CURRENT needs of their libraries, because they checked out years prior. Which is why the term of service ON ITS OWN, as a sound byte as proposed in the initial quoted tweet, is valueless.


  6. Corinna, I have been wincing endlessly as I learn more and more about how this has come down from the top. It is a bad, bad model of how to ensure the engagement and trust of staff. It’s really sad, and I’m sorry to see that it’s happening again at yet another ARL.


  7. (Full disclosure to everybody else: I’m one of the librarians who got into situation #3 with Jenica-the-bear earlier today)

    I agree that time served is a pretty poor factor wrt how useful someone is to an institution, but people hew to it (and continue to hew to it) because it is the only factor I can think of whose truthiness can’t be adjusted. You have a start date and that’s easy enough to verify. Whereas the other factors that enter into a discussion on librarian worth are nearly, if not entirely, up to the discretion of the administration, and if you have an administration that is Dead Set on eliminating you, dickering over if your Activity X is meaningful enough becomes a losing battle. Absent a collective agreement or any similar enforcement, it’s entirely within the realm of management to say “Your activity X is useless, goodbye.”

    And yes, it’s all too easy for complacent employees to hide behind the years-of-service defense — no argument on that one — but if that’s the only defense that’s useful to them, I can’t really blame them. It’s tough to be told you’re useless after many years of what you consider good service.


  8. What I felt was a false dichotomy was your initial tweet, not the more nuanced statement you’ve made here. I should have been clearer about that.


  9. ah, well, Ben, that’s the curse of Twitter, I guess, and is in part why I wanted to go long-form!

    Where John and I diverge (we’ve had this conversation before!) is that I say that if your administration is dead-set on getting rid of you, you probably will be better professionally satisfied elsewhere. Where he argues with me is that some people simply. can’t. leave. Their lives are such that they have nowhere to go, and all the reasons in the world to stay — and if you’re a good professional who does good work, you shouldn’t be forced to leave.

    We’re both right, and both wrong, probably. I still think that the number of years your ass has been in your chair is, on it’s own, useless to a thoughtful and rational consideration of the value of a career and a staff member. But, then, I don’t think John’s administration is thoughtful or rational, so I can understand why irrefutable data points have value.


  10. Jenica, another mid-level manager agrees with you.

    20+ years at the same library gives me a bad first impression, be it on a resume or a name tag. I’ve faced equal prejudice for being young and never at the same library for more than 4 years.

    The loyalty card is a weak argument, and a highly prevalent one in libraries. We should be talking about it, and I’m glad you’re talking about it.


  11. I think that years of service is a problematic metric on its own too, but worry alongside John about the slipperiness of other metrics.

    Also, this debate is of course about bigger things – how one defines the value of labour (or labor if you will) is obviously a question that’s been plaguing capitalism for quite some time. Do you use as metric the quantification of past labour needed to produce a commodity or in this case a library (Marx/John Fink) vs the immediate supply/demand needs of a particular historical moment (Smith/Jenica Rogers). Yes, I’m being a bit facetious, please don’t take offense.

    Are we really talking about deadwood vs golden children? Or are we talking about conflicting views of what sorts of skills are needed in libraries right now, and dumping anyone who doesn’t have those required by neoliberalist institutions? And I guess what I think is missing from this discussion is an understanding of how labour is collective, how the accomplishments of one are often the results of the unsung, hard to define efforts of many. I could be even more verbose, but I think this image explains collectivity more graphically than I ever could. http://www.renaud-bray.com/ImagesEditeurs/PG/260/260329-gf.jpg


    Thanks for the discussion Jenica, it’s an interesting one.


  12. Excellent post, Jenica! I agree with your point that years of service is probably the least useful of all metrics for a transition of this ambition and scope. Despite the poor showmanship on display by our leaders at yesterday’s Town Hall Meetings, I have to concede that they did actually address one key fear about the process by promising that existing staff would get preference for any positions available in the University-wide “shared services” portion of the new library organization. As to whether or not seniority should be considered at all in the reorg, that’s in part a union question for our non-exempt support staff.

    That being said, is the Transition Team going to be able to measure our skills, values, strengths, and goals successfully from a bunch of hastily-written “Employee Profiles” that won’t even be submitted in full (let alone vetted and analyzed) until the end of next month? Hardly. If these were going to be such such important metrics in divining our place in the new organization, they should have had us working on these six months ago, not scrambling to write them at the last minute. So if my colleagues are being slightly cynical about this part of the process, I can’t exactly say that I blame them.


  13. It’s a discussion worth having, and if we all agreed instead of discussing, my job would be waaaay less challenging — and far less interesting.

    I think my position is, in reality, much more nuanced than Me vs Fink: Cagematch Smackdown, except for this: I’m opposed to using any single metric in isolation and holding it up as having value without context. *bodyslam, ripping spandex*

    With that, I’m going offline for the weekend, so I hope that the thoughts and discussion continue. My impending silence doesn’t mean I’m not engaged. I’m just not here.


  14. Tom, we were typing in unison.

    I have no argument in support of the administrative-approach-to-profiles part of your comment. It all sounds horrible, ill-thought-out, and spirit-deadening, and, along with the leadership at McMaster, is being added to my mental files of What Not To Do and How Not To Do It. I hate that I do so much learning about leadership in libraries from bad examples.

    I wish you all well. I really do. I wish I didn’t need to.


  15. Goodness, I hope people aren’t coming away from this with the impression of me-v-Jenica. Totally not intentional, and as a nontraditional librarian myself I am completely in agreement that it’s insane to depend on a single metric to gauge someone’s worth. Yow.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s