Monday, October 31, 2005

Enough with the "be positive" already

This may be the type of thing that some job seekers in the library world may want to read. Then again, it may be the sort of thing others in the library world may want to look over as well, even if it ruffles a feather or two. The biblioblogosphere has written extensively about the librarian shortage, mythical or otherwise, so I am not adding more to that. Readers can run a Technorati (or other blog search) on the topic of librarian shortage and get all sorts of results. What made me think about this was an interview with Barbara Ehrenreich I recently read. Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Nickel and Dimed, and more recently, Bait and Switch. In the interview, she discusses the myth of having a positive thinking attitude. She specifically looks at how people buy into what is in essence a "blame the victim" situation. From the article:

"EHRENREICH: There is a tremendous American theme about positive thinking. We have a hard time dealing with truly bad news and discouraging information. Throughout my experience trying to get a white-collar job, I was encouraged to think positively. You are supposed to see your job loss as some great break, your chance to move on to something bigger and better. The reality is that 70 percent of people who lose their jobs and do get rehired, are rehired at a lower pay. But to criticize the system, or to be negative is considered 'un-American.'"
And she also says,

"What's so offensive about that insistence, whether in relation to illness or job loss, is the implication that the victim is at fault. If you don't get better or you don't find a better job, then there must be something wrong with your attitude. The government (or the doctor, or the employer) doesn't have to take responsibility for providing for you, because if you aren't doing well, it's your fault. And of course it's an outlook that's enormously satisfying for those on top, because it implies they deserve to be there because of their winning attitudes."
This led me to think of library schools and those seeking work after graduation. Any library school graduate undergoing the job hunt knows it is one of the most grueling processes anyone can undertake. Searching for a tenure track job in humanities is probably worse. I know: I went through the library job search gauntlet last year, and I have the horror stories to prove it. We are often told to remain positive, to be optimistic, that if you did not get that one job, another will come along. Those sayings only go so far. After a while, the reality shows that such sayings are empty platitudes to console the victims, a way to keep them coming back to the grind. And it is a way for library administrators and others, such as library schools and the ALA, to absolve themselves of any responsibility. In librarianship, this may be worse because it is librarians doing it to other librarians.

Case in point is Michael McGrorty's recent post in his blog about starting salaries. He is discussing the article he wrote in collaboration with Thomas Hennen for the October 2005 issue of American Libraries. His indictment is very clear:

"The reason that the situation hasn’t improved has less to do with the perception of librarians by the public or by elected officials as it has with the refusal of library administrators, themselves librarians, to insist upon higher pay levels for starting librarians—pay levels that would act to lift all salaries, from the bottom on up. Make no mistake about it: the problem of lower starting pay is largely created by librarians to be suffered by librarians. "
The emphasis is in the original. He discusses how easy it is to cut down on potential hires in terms of a decent living wage. McGrorty makes a connection to what Ehrenreich mentions in her work when he writes,

"The astonishing thing is that there has not been more of a ruckus put up about this in the library world—astonishing, that is, until you realize how the library world operates. Those who complain about such things are told that they should move to another area or wait until a better position comes along, generally with comment the ‘everybody has it tough in the beginning.’ "
It is a perfect example of blaming the victim, or at the very least, shifting the blame of the problem to those who suffer it. Having a bad situation is just part of the status quo. If you can't tough it out and deal with it, you must not be good enough for this profession. I actually heard a variant of that line in graduate school (before I went to library school). Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately nothing will change until it is denounced, and until some serious changes are put into place.

Today, many library school graduates have other options besides library work, even if they are not as well advertised in library school (the subject of another post maybe). It was part of the reason I got my MLS, the flexibility. McGrorty points out that many librarians exercise this option, but that certainly can't be the only solution. Down the road, it gives administrators an excuse to further deprofessionalize the profession and lower salaries. It makes them feel good to pay low salaries because they can say, "hey, don't like it, go elsewhere. There is always some desperate graduate willing to come in and do it." Many graduates don't want to exercise that option, or they can't for various reasons. It is shameful that our own, librarians, are so willing and ready to mistreat those who come after them seeking the opportunity they were once given. It is worse when it is justified as "paying your dues, so think positive, your time will come."

The time for empty words and passing the buck needs to end. It is not the fault of new library school graduates that they can't find work or that they have to settle for a job that pays less than a living wage. Yes, during interviews, put your best foot forward. Be positive and confident, and make sure that you have a broad range of skills to make you marketable. In other words, you do your part. The profession should do its part. The least the profession can do for those seeking work is to actually fight for them in a way other than bemoaning the low salaries or promoting a librarian shortage that clearly does not exist, or at least, does not exist to the extent it is being portrayed. And the least those of us fortunate enough to have found work after surviving the gauntlet is to help those who come after us in any way we can: advice, networking, references, contacts, writing, and so on.

Update note (10/31/05 3:27 PM): I had a feeling that article by McGrorty would get some people talking, and sure enough. The Librarian in Black picked up on it in a small rant. I am sure that won't be the last.


QuestingElf said...

Here are two aspects in job hunting which are rarely spoken about:
1. Rejection
2. Fear of making a hiring mistake

History is replete with examples where those in charge misjudged somebody and their potential. So just because somebody is rejected doesn't mean they're not qualified or competent. However, the way things are presented is that you and only you are responsible for your fate.

Reality is you cannot hire yourself! You can be as positive as you want to be, yet the other person (the employer) has to be positive enough to believe in you and your capabilities. He cannot feel threatened by your abilities.

Yet what's happening today is that employers aren't driven by looking into the potential of their applicants. Employment instead is a process of screening and elimination. Because of the general lack of leadership throughout management today, many bosses are not willing to stand up and take accountability in case a new hire doesn't work out. So they instead opt to prematurely discard perfectly talented people.

It has been said that the word "interview" implies a 2-way street. So just like the candidate is being evaluated, so must the employer. Besides, some employers may find themselves in the position of candidate through no fault of their own.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Elf: You bring a very valid point, and that is that it should be a two-way street in interviewing. At least it is portrayed that way. You point out very well that the problem often lies in the portrayal of the potential employee as being at fault, his/her fate. Sooner or later, someone has to hire you, take a chance on you, and it is taking a chance. To keep the two way angle, it is a chance for the potential worker as well. I have been to interviews where I knew I would not want to take the chance working there. Unfortunately, the weeding out (elimination process you describe) is the rule of the day. For instance, in English studies and humanities, where I came from, I had a professor who was always telling us about candidates in the department. He did to give us insights for when we went to get a job. One of the things he often told was that they got hundreds of applications for a position, so the job of the committee was weeding, pure and simple. A lot of qualified people were weeded. That is just one example.

Thank you for stopping by and adding to the conversation. Best.