Reflections on Temporary Appointments and Innovation/Diversity Culture in Libraries and Archives

by Des Alaniz

I want to talk briefly about the connections between residency programs, term-contracted labor, and innovation/diversity culture in academic libraries. When I applied to participate in the Collective Responsibility Labor Forum last year, I was working four jobs in three different academic libraries and special collections. I earned my MLIS that spring, and spent my summer applying aggressively for that professional unicorn: a full time, permanent position doing the work I was freshly credentialed to do. By the time I attended the first Labor Forum this past April, I found myself navigating a different type of professional precarity as a full-time, salaried, temporary status resident librarian. The precarity I experience now as a resident librarian is very different than what I experienced as a temporary laborer in archives and libraries in the three years prior however. Participating in the Forum helped me to link my own experiences to larger labor issues and white-centered diversity efforts in the profession and academia more broadly.

Diversity initiatives in general are part of larger discourses around “innovation” and “inclusion” that work to neutralize and individualize challenges to white supremacy and oppression in academic libraries. Several folks at the Labor Forum noted that many grant-funded and temporary positions focused on “diversity” topics may allow institutions to say that they are hiring more people of color, or processing “diverse” collections, without actually bringing these folks into permanent jobs, or providing long-term investment in collections created by or documenting marginalized communities. Many folks spoke to how this operates in grant-funded, donor-driven projects, and I have since been considering how these ideas shine light on how residency programs exploit the labor of “diverse” early career professionals while providing minimal employee investment, development and commitment.

Diversity fellowships and residencies are a specific type of temporary appointment, and hold a privileged position compared to other types of temporary labor. Many positions include additional funding for professional development, and culminate in a specific project designed and executed by the resident. These positions are often promoted as ways of increasing institutional diversity and bringing “fresh” perspectives to organizational culture and initiatives within academic libraries. But as noted by April Hathcock and others, what do these programs really do to dismantle white supremacy in the profession, besides tokenizing the people who are recruited and providing “proof” of commitment to diverse hiring practices? If these institutions are truly dedicated to dismantling oppressive practices and systems, valuing diversity, and working towards inclusion, then as April Hathcock wrote in January, why don’t you want to keep us?

The connection between the increase in temporary appointments and innovation culture in libraries is also evident in how these programs describe themselves. I have been a beneficiary of several of these diversity recruitment efforts, including in my current position as the Evolving Workforce Resident Librarian at UCSB. I was hired as a temp status employee, for a duration of two years with a possible third year extension after undergoing a review process. My residency describes itself as follows:

The Evolving Workforce Residency is intended to recruit those relatively new to working in a research library who can contribute effectively to the changing role of academic libraries. Graduates and early professionals come into the market with new ideas, enthusiasm, a contemporary educational experience, and the potential to be catalysts in transforming libraries. Many of these individuals will inspire the development of next-generation library services. The program encourages Residents to imagine the academic library of the future and gives them the resources and freedom to experiment and explore new models.

I quote this at length because although this position is not part of the formal network of ACRL Diversity Alliance Residencies, it echoes many of the points highlighted on ACRL’s website devoted to the ACRL’s Diversity Alliance program, which as of this writing includes 52 member institutions. Interestingly, ACRL itself highlights the Diversity Alliance principles and specific benefits to member institutions, but does not describe any benefits to the actual resident beyond professional development. The recruitment of recent grads and early career professionals from marginalized communities to “imagine the library of the future” is disingenuous at best, given that these folks are not offered a pathway into the institution or even in the profession for the long-run. As one Labor Forum participant pointed out, placing the onus on early career-professionals to “innovate” and bring fresh perspectives to archival and library work also effectively absolves career-staff from responsibility for changing organizational culture and attitudes.

But what is this “library of the future” we are working toward, and where do we as marginalized and devalued laborers fit into that future? After decades of diversity recruitment initiatives and residency programs, we have seen little overall change in the demographics of our professions or in the hostile, exploitative environments that residents and other temporary workers are asked to participate in and contribute to.

Participating in the Labor Forum affirmed for me that many of us in the profession are working towards reimagining our work and our institutions for the present and the future, one rooted in equity and justice at all levels of our professional and personal practices. Our isolation in individual institutions does not diminish the power of our collective voices. The pervasiveness of our labor conditions in and outside of academia is a resource for us to explore what kinds of communities and coalitions we can create to support our vision of our institutions, our work, and the possibilities of libraries and archives as transformative and anti-oppressive spaces.