Steering Share: Considering Labor Models in Archives Work

Steering Shares  provide an opportunity to learn more about the I&A Steering Committee and the issues that the committee members care about. This post is by I&A Vice Chair/Chair Elect Courtney Dean, a Project Archivist at the University of California at Los Angeles Library Special Collections.

While it is imperative that we critically examine our institutional policies, collecting efforts, descriptive practices, and user services, I would argue it just as essential to consider the affective experience of archival labor. Much work has been done in recent years on this concept of affect and the archive (see the March 2016 special issue of Archival Science and other work by Marika Cifor, Michelle Caswell, and Anne Gilliland) and this scholarship considers central questions such as:

What is the capacity of recordkeeping processes, or of records or the physical place of the archives to engender psychological and physiological responses in those who encounter them? What is the nature of those affects? What are the affects for individuals, communities and nations of the absence or irrecoverability of records? In what ways, and to what extent, do records, and the holdings of our archives capture or contain emotions and other forms of affect that were experienced by the creators or others engaged or present in the making of the records? How should the archivist represent such affect to potential users, and how should the archivist anticipate and respond to affective responses and reactions on the part of those users? What kinds of affect are experienced by the archivist? What ethical imperatives and dilemmas does a consideration of affect present for practicing archivists? What theoretical concepts and models might be challenged by explicitly incorporating affective considerations? (1)

Increasingly, attention has also been directed to the affective experience of employment in Library and Information Science (LIS) professions. Fobazi Ettarh’s exploration of what she has termed vocational awe attempts to “to dismantle the idea that librarianship is a sacred calling; thus requiring absolute obedience to a prescribed set of rules and behaviors, regardless of any negative effect on librarians’ own lives.” (2) Ettarh calls attention to the very real prevalence of burnout, under-compensation, job creep, and lack of diversity in LIS. Kaetrena Davis Kendrick’s The Low Morale Experience of Academic Librarians: A Phenomenological Study takes a close look at the development, experience, and repercussions of low morale, including physical and psychological effects and the long-term impact of “repeated and protracted exposure to emotional, verbal/written, and systemic abuse or neglect in the workplace.” (3) Davis Kendrick has recently announced a follow-up study on low morale in minority academic librarians, which will address issues such as microaggressions and the recruitment and retention of librarians of color.

Check out Fobazi’s keynote at the Pushing the Margins symposium:


While the aforementioned examples specifically address librarianship, they can just as easily be applied to archives and archivists. Perhaps even more endemic in the archival profession, however, is the reliance on temp workers, further compounding issues of job satisfaction. Chela Scott Weber’s OCLC Research Report Research and Learning Agenda for Archives, Special, and Distinctive Collections in Research Libraries specifically mentions a need for investigating the long-term effects of term labor. “There is growing concern regarding ways in which insecure employment affects both the diversity of the profession and the cadre of early career professionals who often fill term roles, as well as how forced turnover, fluctuating staff resources, and the short-term frameworks inherent to project-based work affect our programs in the long term.” (4)

Even though the labor issue did not rise to the top as a priority for further OCLC research, they have been very supportive of interest and future work in this area. To this end, a colleague and I have been considering how to go about conducting a survey which captures both a snapshot of the current usage of temp labor in archives, and the costs, both emotional and financial, of reliance on this labor model. What percentage of the labor force in the field is temp workers? Is the practice of creating/hiring temporary positions greater now than it has been in the past? How does this affect diversity in our profession? We have all heard the anecdotes and have experienced, or can speculate about, the resultant anxiety, inability to make major life decisions, and constant relocating that plagues individuals, and the loss of institutional knowledge and transient staff that face institutions. However, there has historically been little to no actual data collected about the affective experience and long term effects of temp labor.

One of the end goals, besides data collection, is to publish our findings, and create a document outlining best practices for temporary positions. Initially this began as a much smaller undertaking, mainly to arm ourselves with information to present to our own institutional management. In the course of conducting a literature review, and talking to colleagues across the profession, it quickly became apparent that this is much sought after information that would have a wide reaching impact, and we plan to reach out to groups that are already engaged in complementary work in allied professions, such as the DLF’s Labor Working Group.

It is my hope that this work will inform awareness of the long-term effects of temporary labor and encourage conversations about labor models in our field. While it is likely that temp positions will never go away entirely, there are steps that can be taken to ensure that the experience is meaningful and ethical.

Works cited
  1. Cifor, M. & Gilliland, A.J. Arch Sci (2016) 16: 1.
  2. Ettarh, Fobazi. Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. January 10, 2018.
  3. Davis Kendrick, Kaetrena. (2017). The Low Morale Experience of Academic Librarians: A Phenomenological Study. Journal of Library Administration. 57.
  4. Weber, Chela Scott. 2017. Research and Learning Agenda for Archives, Special, and Distinctive Collections in Research Libraries. Dublin, OH: OCLC Research. doi:10.25333/C3C34F.


2 thoughts on “Steering Share: Considering Labor Models in Archives Work

  1. Pingback: Steering Share: Respect the student employee – Issues & Advocacy

  2. Pingback: Steering Share: Chair, Courtney Dean – Issues & Advocacy

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