Developing Imagination

by Dorothy Berry

Around this time last year, I was settling into my first “permanent position.” LIS workers now live in a world where the most common question after congratulating someone on their new job has become “And it’s permanent, right?” The dream is to have a job that doesn’t keep you on tenterhooks about renewal every fiscal year, that doesn’t have a 2-year grant funded expiration date. The cleaned up narrative on my CV has me moving from graduate assistantships, to a 2-year grant funded stint, to a permanent position. This is, theoretically, how these early career contingent positions are supposed to work. My life-long knowledge that systems almost never work how they are supposed to led me to volunteer for the Advisory Board for the Collective Responsibility Forum, and to a powerful day and a half in Pittsburgh.

My focused interest in contingent labor has been in the potential [un]sustainability of specially designed Diversity Residencies and Fellowships. These positions have proliferated widely in the past years, but what soon became apparent to me as a job seeker was that no matter how many African American Collections Early Career Fellowships I was tempted by, there were little to no permanent positions for those fellowships to funnel into. I have personally found that in spite of all the area specific knowledge and networking I gained in my own early career African American archives position, now that I have a permanent generalist job my previous experience is often misunderstood.

What struck me over and over again during the presentations and break-out groups was how much the most harrowing of our professional experiences seemed to be simply borne out of a lack of imagination. Whether that be empathetic imagining, creative imagining, workflow imagining- my takeaway was not that, conceptually, a position designed to last for only a few years is an intrinsically bad idea. The badness comes in when management lacks the empathy to imagine how the early career position they design would fit into an actual career arc, when management lacks the creativity to design a position that accomplishes temporary work while providing skills that are applicable to future employment, when management lacks the follow-through to develop workflows that allow contingent workers to be integrated fully as colleagues.

I was particularly struck by the lack of imagination in early career positions. What makes them early career, other than the ability for the hiring institution to pay a bit less based on experience? Early career positions based around African American collections often seemed designed with the best of intentions, but I began thinking, how much of this is labor extraction from people at the stage of professional life least likely to push back? In stark contrast, how are job-seekers disadvantaged by the early career experience of working on exciting projects drawing on interdisciplinarity in archives and special collections focusing on underrepresented areas of interest, when they go to apply for a permanent job working with primarily White collections at primarily White institutions.

It can take years of experience and development in a generalist, permanent position for an employee moving out of a unique special collections project environment to get anywhere near access to the sort of work they started off on. In a country where things like vacation days, health insurance, and retirement support aren’t carried with you from job to job, however, those practical trade-offs are part of everyone’s life.