(NOTE: This post does not in any way represent the views of my employer or any professional organization I am a part of. The information here was based on conversations I had with multiple current and former staff members, members of the Support Woburn Librarians Facebook group, and articles in the Woburn Patch. It is presented here with my best faith attempt to describe things accurately and with appropriate context. There is a small amount of editorializing because this is a personal blog.)
Back in July, I wrote a post on here called “Woburned” with the following tl;dr disclaimer: “A library director with a questionable past is trying to union-bust and furlough 17 of her employees not for budgetary reasons but because, in her words, ‘many skills of library staff do not translate to the digital world of the pandemic’ and an increasing number of people both in the city and in the wider library community are begging to differ.”
That director, Bonnie Roalsen, announced her resignation today, claiming the library had been “reduce[d]… to a political tool.” It is true that Woburn mayor Scott Galvin has begun to seize an awful lot of power over the library in the last month, but it may have been his best option for cleaning the mess up there. The gridlock of trustees who placed their loyalty to Roalsen above concerns from citizens and refused to comply with Galvin’s attempts to discontinue her contract–not to mention racked up countless open meeting law violations and acted with bald-faced hostility to fellow board members in multiple public meetings–might have left him with few alternatives. Still, it’s a solution that I and others are hoping is temporary. To wit, Galvin wasn’t exactly an ally to library supporters over the summer; he not only criticized the Support Woburn Librarians Facebook advocacy group for being “hysterical” but also chastised sympathetic administrators of nearby libraries for getting involved in the city’s business.
So what brought us to this moment, and why now? It has been months since staff were suddenly denied access to email, replaced with volunteers in the spring, and forbidden from running library programming (or doing any work from home at all). The volley of Open Meeting Law complaints kept coming one after the other through the summer and the fall, but it seems like the final straw was the disastrous trustees’ meeting on January 19. Members of the Support Woburn Librarians group had begun asking questions about the library’s decision to hire a public relations firm in October, filing an Open Meeting Law complaint as it appeared this happened without a quorum. When two dissenting members of the board questioned this at the January 19 meeting, they were aggressively shot down. Ex-chair Jan Rabbitt told them she didn’t ask them to vote on certain decisions because she “just knew” they’d say no. This caught the mayor’s attention in a way we hadn’t yet seen. He called it “unconscionable and unacceptable” and within two weeks, he had begun working on preventing lifetime appointments for Woburn trustees and forced Rabbitt’s resignation.
Things escalated quickly; it’s been a little less than a month since that meeting went off the rails. But this saga started back in the spring, and though Roalsen and Meehan attempt to paint a very different picture in their resignation letters (available at the end of this article), we didn’t arrive at this moment because of the “political takeover…that goes against our core values as Americans,” or because of an expectation to only “serve middle-class white mothers of seven-year-olds.” We’re here because even though the library’s FY21 budget was increased, Roalsen allegedly attempted to eliminate 17 of 25 jobs in the library during a pandemic and over 7,000 people said “NO.” We’re here because Roalsen and Meehan insisted there was no work for staff members to do while the volunteer organization that was called in to help provide book pickup services figured out they were supplanting union jobs and refused to continue. We’re here because 2,000 concerned citizens have aired nine months of complaints about everything from ADA non-compliance to substandard services for children to lacking acknowledgments of cultural heritage months to the dissolution of fundraising bodies like the Friends of the Woburn Public Library.
Put another way, we’re here because Woburn residents did not want what Roalsen & Co. were selling. They wanted the qualified staff – their trusted neighbors and community members – to be able to do the jobs they were hired for. Meehan calls this “defiant ignorance of the future, coupled with naked political agendas and cronyism.” Roalsen says it’s “a modern building without modern ideas [that’s] just four walls and rooms full of shelves.” Both appear to rely on an undercurrent of technochauvinism, invoking the spectre of automation and the “challenges and opportunities of post-pandemic America” as justification for their attempts to disempower (and dismiss) their staff.
A quick web search of Roalsen leads to a number of past presentations at Computers in Libraries and Internet Librarian in which she paints herself as a harbinger of the future of our profession. I suppose that’s so if the future of libraries is Sunday hours sponsored by Raytheon, storytimes put on by gig laborers, and four walls and rooms full of shelves with no staff members around to talk to you or help you with all the new shiny tech. Refusing that vision isn’t “defiant ignorance of the future” – it’s a rejection of one person’s ill-advised neoliberal doctrine, which is itself defiant ignorance of what the community wants (and what lies at the core of librarianship, no matter how hard you namedrop Ben Franklin). And can you blame the people of Woburn for wanting something else?
I gave my five-minute talk about rapid change and strategic-planning-that-isn’t-really-strategic-planning this week, and there were two big takeaways: 1) that people who aren’t librarians actually kind of want to just talk about library stuff, so I didn’t need to try to reframe the narrative for them and it may have been more accessible if I hadn’t and 2) the premise probably sounds like bullshit because there is a huge leadership crisis in general right now, and libraries for suuuuure in particular. Let’s unpack why I’m saying that.
The year of covid was like one of those fluorescent lights you sit under and every single acne pockmark you’ve had since the age of 12 is made visible. The long-standing toxicity and ineffectual leadership present in the field was so thoroughly, utterly exposed for what it is, and instead of trying to cover up the ugliness, there were many people in positions of power that chose to lean into the light, to bask in it. I’ll give you some specific examples without naming specific institutions because lord knows I don’t need anyone else baying for my blood at the moment. We had libraries try to get rid of all of their staff during a pandemic, ignore hundreds of community members, and indicate that automation was making their jobs unnecessary anyway – these efforts were led by librarians. Not McKinsey consultants or their icky ilk. We had libraries open for curbside pickup when everything was closed except grocery stores and hospitals. We had professional organizations and administrations pledging allegiance to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” but not fully understanding what that means and condescending and punishing members for attempting to improve that understanding. In one professional org I’m part of, when I brought up concerns about language in a policy/procedures doc that came off as racist and ableist, my qualifications and experience as a manager were questioned and it was implied that discussing power imbalances in the workplace was merely a new fad.
We live and work in an era of unprecedented shameless self promotion and absurd reward systems. The proud display of the mundane to the remarkable are often indistinguishable. We reward our students with badges for coming to the library and we offer our explicit approval to colleagues by endorsing them for completely obvious skills on LinkedIn. It is hardly surprising then that we seek ever more accomplishments to enumerate and share. The often derided but always noticed annual Library Journal Movers and Shakers list is probably the most clear example of rockstar librarian bullshit, with apologies to those have moved and shook here in the room, of course. If I had a fiver for every time I saw announcement of yet another event featuring a panel of Thought Leaders, I could buy Congress a round of beers.
I am a library director, but I try really, really hard to not engage in bullshit. I try not to make my colleagues do bullshit tasks. I try not to invent unnecessary work or problems for people. Rather, I listen to and observe the needs of our users instead of defaulting to tried-and-untrue library operations because “that’s just the way we’ve always done it” (shudder). This is what drove me to co-write a book for ALA Editions and give the talk this week. But I know when I speak to fellow directors, I’m probably not preaching to the choir for the most part. Hey, I’m sure most of them think I’m some weirdo manic pixie 25-year-old from Bah-ston (cue that sound from the Sam Adams commercials), so I can rag on them a bit if I want. Let’s be real, though–what I have written in the book and presented about on the topic is better spent on people who aren’t in conventional leadership positions (or in leadership at all), and I want to embrace this heterotopic idea as a defense for how the bullshit and toxicity at the top of (and throughout) many institutions can undermine what I’m suggesting at the outset.
In another stellar turn in that same CJAL issue, Sam Popowich points out something that I feel is at the twisted core of so many of librarianship’s problems:
“…any conception of social justice as a goal of intellectual or academic freedom can only take the form of an affirmative rather than a transformative model of redress (see Fraser and Honneth 2003, 74), in which minor adjustments, like Indigenous intern positions or statements of LGBTQIA+ solidarity, are seen as affirming a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) while leaving the fundamental structures of marginalization and oppression unchanged. The way to achieve social justice, in this view, is through recognition, statements of solidarity, or rhetorical commitments, rather than through material transformation of the structures of injustice themselves.”
Popowich hits a nerve that comes up in the discussion of the recent Association of Southeastern Research Libraries (ASERL) panel “Why Did I Leave the Profession? A DEI Perspective,” something I want to force everyone from several committees I serve on to watch. (As I said on Twitter the other day, “Believe it or not, antiracism isn’t just a passing craze your ‘intergenerational workforce’ is into right now.”) We repeatedly see a lack of desire for change, especially within the DEI context; change would mean a massive amount of power shifting, tons of difficult conversations and open interpersonal conflict, and accepting discomfort and forcing ourselves to feel it instead of blaming seen or unseen forces or making it about us (I’m a cisgender white middle class lady).
Now, I want to pause here for a moment and point out that change can itself be total bullshit, in the way that word is often thrown around. I talked to a lot of people this year and I’m sorry to say I’ve forgotten which lovely soul among them shared the term “weaponized innovation” with me, a great example of that being the aforementioned library that thought it should fire everybody during a pandemic and replace them with Roombas. It is not, however, bullshit to analyze the brokenness and bias of existing structures and to commit to tearing them doing and doing better. It’s not bullshit to be self-aware and honest about what we’re fucking up and to own the responsibility for fixing it.
This is true of things other than just DEI, where we are content to make statements all day long and mention amazing Black speakers we caught who “just have so many things to say that are important right now” in the affirmative fashion Popowich describes but shut down when self-critical analysis or redirection of resources is expected of us. I also can’t remember who said this year that libraries are great at creating problems for themselves, but man, was that any more obvious than in March when people were like, having patrons put their library cards in a basket and then using those trash collecting claw things to pick them up, trigger holds, and bringing stuff out to people’s cars in full hazmat gear while the rest of the goddamn country was in a lockdown and contending with a massive PPE and cleaning supply shortage? That’s what the early days of curbside were like. When I called out the absurdity, they did not like that. Who was this bitch from Massachusetts and why was she haranguing us in northern California? WELL SORRY BUT EVERYONE IN YOUR TOWN HAS LOST THEIR FUCKING MINDS, SO SOMEONE FROM SOMEWHERE HAD TO SAY SOMETHING.
This is all to say ideally we need better leaders who don’t pull bullshit like that, but we also need heterotopic structures that allow leadership throughout the profession instead of hierarchies that place one person unerringly at the top(s). I’m not sure if I’m advocating for flat org charts, at least not at this particular moment, but rather there needs to be a distribution of power that doesn’t tie up the biggest decisions with one person and maybe a board that are pretty disconnected from the day-to-day realities of boots-on-the-ground work. We also probably need to stop expecting sweeping, meaningful change from the traditional sources of power and influence in the field (I’m looking at you, state/regional and national organizations). Anyone who reads anything I’ve written or has seen me rant on a stage for five minutes to an hour (all 2 of you) knows I’m a huge fan of strategic plans, but I need to point out a critical caveat there: I am not a fan of the smoke-filled room approach to them. What you’re going to get out of a plan written with the director and the board, or the director and a dean or whatever, behind a closed door is a ton of people who go “wtf is this” when you try to do anything–not because people are change-hating sticks in the mud, but because you didn’t ask them what they thought and your conclusions probably make no sense with what they’re seeing in the day-to-day.
I want to go back to a point Leebaw makes that is also essential to creating plans that aren’t C-suite bullshit:
“…the principles to which we wish to adhere are not always reflected in our current practices, and in some cases might not be possible to achieve even if we diligently try… This misalignment between principle and practice has created uncomfortable dissonance for our staff… [T]he “growing chasm between our stated values and practices” is “ultimately alienating library workers” (Nicholson, Schmidt, and Slonowski 2019).
How do we get better alignment between principle and practice? We need to stop hogging the decision making for our practices, and stop defaulting to doing the easiest thing because “tbh my calendar is a garbage tornado for the rest of the month and I just want to get this over with.” We also need to stop defending bullshit takes in the field and start walking the fucking walk. It’s 2020 and we still have dinguses on the Trash Tank who can’t see how letting the Nazis use the meeting room is in conflict with our professed value of access and welcome to all. In fact, I think we might have more dinguses saying this shit now than ever before. I don’t have an answer to everything and please ignore anyone who has ever said they did, but y’all, librarianship is deeply screwed up and acknowledging that is a good first step as any. We have such enormous importance and potential, but with ineffectual diversity messages, rampant toxicity in our workplaces, and the vice grip of doing more with less, we must know we aren’t delivering on that promise. These heterotopias give us a chance to step around the baggage and imagine what could be, and they might be our only shot at saving us–not from ourselves, but from our leaders.
I’ve been trying to explain the situation in Woburn to folks who are outside the Massachusetts library world and it’s getting tough to do so succinctly, but here’s an attempt at pulling together what’s happening. tl;dr: A library director with a questionable past is trying to union-bust and furlough 17 of her employees not for budgetary reasons but because, in her words, “many skills of library staff do not translate to the digital world of the pandemic” and an increasing number of people both in the city and in the wider library community are begging to differ.
This is quite a story, and I want to stress a few things before we get started: 1) I do not represent the views or speak as a representative of my employer here or in any other context online, aside from the necessary stuff like having my CV and LinkedIn up to date. If you take issue with the contents of this post, I am solely responsible for them. Please DO NOT contact my employer right now; they are busily contending with anti-student ICE shenanigans and safely reopening the campus for the fall. Send me an email at callan.bignoli AT gmail DOT com 2) The sources I refer to throughout are people that I do not wish to identify here for fear that they’ll be retaliated against, as I already was during the weekend of July 4 (more on that later). 3) I am not deliberately spreading dis- or misinformation. Everything I am reporting here I have heard from multiple reliable sources. But it is also all second hand knowledge, and therefore I am prefacing all of this by saying the following post is made up of credible allegations. That being said, I acknowledge that I misstated information regarding the circulation desk at Dedham Public Library in a recent letter to the editor of the Woburn Daily Times. The desk there was not destroyed, but was allegedly unexpectedly moved to a different location in the library, making it difficult for staff to do their work. Multiple sources say that parts of the circulation desk in Woburn were also removed, some found in the dumpster. This was an unintended misunderstanding on my part.
Before coming to Woburn, Bonnie Roalsen, a 2007 LibraryJournal Mover & Shaker, was director at another Boston-area library, Dedham. I don’t know all of the details, but staff report many issues with her managerial style, particularly around miscommunication. There was also an investigation about her conducted by the town which still may be ongoing. If you look through the Dedham Trustees minutes from Ms. Roalsen’s time as director (the end of 2016 to Spring 2019), you’ll immediately see eyebrow-raising things like staff being silenced at meetings and the police being called on staff members. More on those trustees later.
As is often the way of the library world, that didn’t prevent Ms. Roalsen from getting the Woburn job. According to staff from Dedham and Woburn, once she got there, she created a new assistant director-level job for a fellow named John Walsh who went to library school with her and worked with her in Dedham. This was instead of a head of the understaffed reference department, which only has two people in a city of over 40,000 (at similarly sized nearby libraries, this number is more like 6-10; on the whole, Woburn is woefully understaffed compared to peer libraries). I’m bringing this up because what Ms. Roalsen and, presumably, Mr. Walsh call an innovative focus on technology and digital services appears to be impacting the value, or lack thereof, they place on staff.
Folks at Dedham and Woburn have both said Ms. Roalsen and Mr. Walsh want to replace staff with machines, and it seems plausible–after all, nothing says “I want to replace my staff with robots” quite like “having bad relationships with staff, furloughing them, then giving a talk at Computers in Libraries about replacing staff with robots” –but that’s not the only thing they’re replacing them with. Fast forward to the last few months.
The Woburn Public Library, along with countless others throughout the state and nation, sensibly closed its doors to both the public and staff as COVID-19 took its first pass at Massachusetts in March. Unlike their neighboring libraries, though, for some amount of time during the building closure, they’ve been using volunteers to do home delivery of books and many other tasks while claiming there is no work for library staff to do.
The following screenshots show library staff attempting to help from home, being told there was nothing to do, and being removed from contributing to the library’s Facebook page.
One volunteer group that worked with the library is Social Capital, Inc., a well-known org in Woburn that helps provide opportunities for at-risk youth. According to multiple sources close to the situation, they previously had a long-standing positive relationship with the library, but retracted the volunteers they had sent to the library when they found out they were working in lieu of staff instead of in support of them. In other words, when they found out they were doing this work instead of staff employed by the library, they said no thanks.
Speaking of long-standing community partnerships, sources say that library administration put enough pressure on the Library’s 24-year-old Friends group for them to begin the process of dissolution in June. Considering the impacts of this, it’s a cruel attack on the city’s residents, particularly its children. The loss of support for museum passes, the Teddy Bear Picnic, Woburn Reads, and other Friends-sponsored events leaves a hole in the community that robots seem pretty unlikely to fill. (I’ll note that the trustees have said that the museum pass program will continue but now funded by city money. This seems like a poor allocation of resources, given the amount of financial turmoil the trustees point to elsewhere.)
Around the same time came the announcement of the furlough of 17 of the library’s non-administrative employees, despite a documented increase of the library’s FY21 budget. The following is a screenshot of the library’s union lawyer explaining exactly what was proposed by the city:
According to the union and library staff, none of the city’s other departments are being targeted for layoffs or furloughs. The thing I want to draw attention to in the above, though, is the idea that this furlough needs to happen “until such time as there is more work available at the library.” Here’s what’s going on at fellow Minuteman Library Network libraries in the area:
In a widely distributed email, the executive director of Minuteman, Phil McNulty, said, “I just think that collectively we are not in any shape to meet this demand level without deploying very extensive pickup hours… I think we can make a very compelling case that there is very strong patron demand and that we can meet it – if we have the staffing levels and organization to do so. As to that organization, it is becoming clear that page is the fundamentally most important job in the library now and we are all going to have to be pages and that circulation is our world this summer and we will all have to be circulation librarians.”
Everyone I know working in libraries around Boston is telling me about days where they can’t keep up with circulation traffic, phones ringing off the hook, and email and chat reference questions piling up by the dozens. When they aren’t all being circulation staff, they’re still offering hours of programming and activities for all ages from home each week. Saying there’s not enough work to do at the library right now is, simply put, a lie. It’s also frankly insulting to our colleagues who are scrambling, with slashed budgets and furloughs they tried as hard as they could to avoid, to keep up with patron demand.
As the union and city continue to find a path forward, an advocacy group on Facebook, Support Woburn Librarians, has drawn over 1,700 members both from the city and beyond, including many library workers like me who are standing in solidarity with Woburn’s staff. Numerous Woburn residents have been trying to get in touch with Ms. Roalsen, who is not returning phone calls and emails. The trustees decided to not meet for their scheduled July 7 board meeting or in August, and a kerfuffle around the June meeting’s Zoom password not being made publicly available prevented members of the community from attending. Instead, Ms. Roalsen and a handful of Woburn trustees have taken to accusing the members of the Facebook group of engaging in a “deliberate campaign of misinformation,” being “unhinged from any reality,” and “threatening” and “slandering” in the Woburn Daily Times.
“I saw that Ms. Roalsen and Ms. Seitz (library trustee) both said in editorials that many of the public’s concerns are based on misinformation, and I would welcome any responses or information they can provide,” reads one letter to the mayor, director, and trustees shared in the Support Woburn Librarians group. “Unfortunately, those same editorials fail to identify or respond to any specific pieces of misinformation beyond some controversy around the circulation desk. The op-eds are mostly vague generalities and empty rhetoric while the more egregious questions and concerns are left unaddressed. Until the community members get the answers they seek, they have a right to keep asking important questions and voicing their concerns, and the library administration, board of trustees and city officials have a responsibility to address them.”
A letter jointly written by a number of library workers in the area specifically focused on Ms. Roalsen’s insistence that “many skills of library staff do not translate to the digital world of the pandemic:”
Library employees in neighboring towns like Winchester and Burlington were providing remote reference help, Zoom storytimes, book clubs, and activities for tweens and teens. These libraries had no trouble translating to the digital world. We have questions for Ms. Roalsen to “set straight.” Why do you hold your employees in such low esteem? Why, unlike fellow directors, did you decide they were incapable of doing work in the “digital world” without giving them any chance? And why are you not standing up for them now?
The availability of subscription products from for-profit, private companies that many libraries also subscribe to is not all that library patrons expect and deserve for their community. Providing streaming video or ebooks is not “groundbreaking” when most fellow Minuteman libraries have been on that “cutting edge” for a decade. Ms. Roalsen is again using a narrative of “innovation” to shift focus away from leaving her staff unemployed during a pandemic.
Concerned library workers in the Woburn area
One would think that with a newly created assistant director for technology position and what looks like an organizational dedication to providing innovative new services, the staff would have the resources and empowerment to be trained and ready for whatever this “digital world of the pandemic” has in store. As a person who helped a staff of 100 beef up their tech skills in the years before we found ourselves in this current moment, I can tell you it’s possible to get just about every library worker prepped, ready, and comfortable for the “digital world.” Am I saying 100% of them will be pumping out professional videos and web guides? Of course not, and it’s never going to be like that anywhere. But I would have worked with them to figure it out, using a list like this one plugged in LibraryJournal of tasks for public library workers to do from home. And now, with libraries in Massachusetts reopened for curbside pickup, there is no excuse.
Not only do we have accusations of spreading misinformation and no lines of communication with the decision makers, and not only do we have a library director who’s selling her own staff short, we also have the work and voices of advocates being threatened. Just after we created a Change.org petition in support of the library’s workers, we found out that Ms. Roalsen requested all of her staff’s email address passwords be changed, locking them all out of their inboxes and contact lists. While there may not be a connection, it comes off like more union-busting behavior, cutting off staff from their main means of communication with each other, the city, and the union.
And, circling back to the Dedham Board of Library Trustees, they weren’t too happy with my involvement in the business up in Woburn, so they sent this to the brand-new president of my employer on or around July 4:
I am currently on the Board of Library Trustees in Dedham, an elected position I have held for the past seven years. I am writing to you today because I am extremely distressed by Olin College’s decision to insert themselves in matters related to the Dedham Public Library, as represented by their Library Director, Callan Bignoli. Ms. Bignoli, not only serves as the Library Director of Olin College but, as you might be aware, is the head of #LIBREV(olution) a protect and pay library workers group. Ms. Bignoli has been using her platform as Library Director for Olin College to push out through social media outlets, discussion groups, Change.org petitions and letters, fabricated accusations regarding Dedham Public Library’s former director, now the Woburn Public Library Director. In addition, Ms. Bignoli has ignited a smear campaign against the Woburn Director and also the Dedham Library Trustees by encouraging and then amplifying these accusations that have been officially proven untrue. It is unclear to me why Olin College, through their Library Director, is taking this action.
In March, 2020, the Dedham Public Library Trustees fought to ensure their employees would be paid their full salary when the library’s doors closed due to the COVID19 pandemic. When they returned to the library to work one day a week on June 15, 2020, they continued to be paid fully. Not all libraries or municipalities have been as fortunate as ours and furloughs have taken place. However, it is abundantly clear that most people in this country have been effected financially by this pandemic. For Olin College, through their Library Director, to harass and bully public libraries that find themselves unable to sustain their budget is disgraceful. As an elected official, I understand I have little recourse, but I urge you, as you are represented through your Library Director, to stop engaging in this less than professional manner.
Nameless (to me, at least) member of the Dedham Board of Library Trustees
That was a great time! Luckily, my boss could see through the gaslighting here as my personal web presence has nothing to do with my position at Olin. I also can’t help but point out the absurdity of calling me a harasser and bully of libraries that can’t sustain their budget when the Woburn Public Library received a budgetary increase, yet is still pursuing these furloughs. But I was nowhere near standing alone. This week, the Minuteman Library Network’s executive board issued a stern warning to the Woburn trustees, mayor, and Ms. Roalsen explaining their concerns about the library’s administrative behavior and future as a network member:
The majority or the entirety of Woburn’s non-management staff is in the process of being furloughed or laid off as of July 17, 2020 for reasons other than lack of budgeted funds. It is the considered opinion of the Board of Directors of the Minuteman Library Network that these staff members are knowledgeable, capable and dedicated librarians and library assistants…
The Board of Directors will bring before the Minuteman Membership as a whole the question of whether the Woburn Public Library is continuing to act as a viable member eligible for continued membership.
Letter from the Minuteman Library Network Board of Directors
Before long, the Woburn trustees were denouncing the MLN Board, a group of nearly a dozen library directors and administrators who represent some of the busiest and most well-loved libraries in New England, for spreading misinformation:
So that’s where we’re at! The union was supposed to meet with the city again today, but that was postponed. I’ll leave you with the words of another member of the advocacy group, urging us to now focus on the irresponsibility and negligence of the mayor, director, and trustees regarding the questions and requests for information from community members:
By characterizing concerned community members as “unhinged,” [the trustees and director] are showing the lack of respect they have for the community they are supposed to serve. By characterizing the staff as incapable of adjusting or disgruntled, they are really revealing the director’s lack of leadership and inability to connect with caring people who have served the Woburn community long before she showed up. By continually describing community discourse as a campaign of misinformation, the Trustees are actually revealing the lack of transparency and back-channel dealings that have been in since the current director was hired; not to mention a coordinated plan to gaslight the citizens of Woburn and turn attention away from the real issue.
Member of the Support Woburn Librarians Facebook group
I don’t know about you, but I’m a whole heck of a lot more concerned about this failure of democracy than I am about cancel culture. As we’re seeing protestors jailed and injured for exercising their rights and we’re watching the impacts of doublespeak when it comes from the highest office in the country unfold in the form of stoked racial violence and unnecessary sickness and death, we need to be on high alert when we see the word “misinformation” tossed around when citizens are merely asking questions. We also need to remember that our elected officials have an obligation to their constituents and need to hold them to it. That includes listening, and not calling them disgruntled and unhinged when they’re just looking for answers.
The first time anyone ever accused me of being “Ivory Tower” happened in the last 24 hours, and I was leaving MPOW when I saw this statement for the first time. I had just stopped by to check on our book drop because I knew a lot of seniors were coming back to town to move their stuff out of the dorms and I had reminded them about dropping their library items off while they were around for that. I also got some measurements and mental models in my head for the sake of coming up with a concrete plan for social distancing, and practiced running between my office and the downstairs workroom, knowing it may well be part of my job to be vigilant on two floors very soon. Thing is, I have only two staff members, may have no student workers in the fall, and the library is one of the most well-loved and well-used places on our little campus.
I initially only got through the first few paragraphs of this post, a rebuttal to my LibraryJournal piece from earlier this week, and as I biked back to Boston, this is the part that stuck with me:
“The Ivory Tower mentality of privilege is blowing my mind. The emotional argument of ‘librarian as sacred being’ will come back to haunt us…No one else is in government work is exempt from doing that.”
There are two reasons why it stuck: one is that positioning a nationwide campaign to advocate for library workers’ safety in this moment as an “emotional argument of ‘librarian as sacred being'” is misleading, unfair, and wrong. As Donna Lanclos said more eloquently than I can right now, “#VocationalAwe is not a “double edged sword,” it is a description of the constructs used to oppress library workers when they attempt to assert that they have rights. ‘Don’t you care for your community??’ when library workers shelter at home is straight-up [vocational awe].” This accusatory language of “librarian (notice not ‘library worker’) as sacred being” is more of the same construct. And lest you think think this is a quote taken out of context, or that I didn’t read the rest of it when I got home, the post goes on to say, “There is a heavy and heartbreaking dose of privilege that comes with librarians expressing they are too precious to roll up their sleeves and get to work.” Is this what we are saying, or are we saying that library workers deserve basic dignity, rights, and safety before they roll up said sleeves? Is it fair to say that in advocating for ourselves, we’re ignoring every other type of worker out there? Or is this another fence drawn around cutting us off from broader labor solidarity?
The other sticking point is that to accuse me of being Ivory Tower is just absurd. I’m a fucking millennial daughter of the Rust Belt with crooked teeth and tattoos, not some pant-suited dean who hasn’t been on the front lines in 20 years. I empty the book drop, open the mail, and help my students with every single thing they come to me with, whether or not it’s “library-related.” Did I mention I have two staff members? I’ve used my position, privilege in being a director and at an institution where we’re expected to stay home, and connections to the Massachusetts library community to try to affect some kind of meaningful protection for my colleagues for the last two months. It’s defined many of my weeks, I’ve given it every brain cell I didn’t allocate for my day-to-day job, and it still seems like it’s been a drop in the bucket against the rapid pressure to reopen right this second. This image of me kicking up my (sneaker) heels and saying “nah, I’m too precious for this shit” is offensive, so belittling and dismissive of how I approach my work, and the path I’ve taken to get to this current job (though my LinkedIn profile is, intriguingly, linked to in the post).
But I wonder if there’s something more to this, something that even goes beyond the fixation of me as an academic library director up in my ivory tower, when we get to this part:
And why should people listen to “people who are no longer working making declarations about how we should direct our energy in the first place?” Because we just may have a clarity of vision about what it is really like, on the other side, to use the services libraries are providing their communities.
To me this sounds at best like, “We have decided who has privilege and voice in this current system and it is not you, o young academic library director who is putting uncomfortable pressure on those of us already in power,” and at worst like, “Oh honey, someday you’ll understand.” I have been in this game long enough to see this pattern of certain female-identifying directors worshiping the ground walked on by young male-identifying directors, but treating young female-identifying directors as if they are problematic trash that should be disposed of forthwith. I know this when I see it, just as I know the public vs. academic crap when I see it.
I was on the other side of the public vs. academic line not long ago, and I will readily confess that my perception of academic library life was way off base. Maybe I also believed in this ivory tower, but didn’t call it as such; I thought academic librarians had a work experience at a distance from their patrons and didn’t form relationships like we did with them at the public library I worked for at the time. I thought that there was a privilege and stability in academia that blanketed over all of the myriad realities of staff and students. I was wrong. I have developed deep relationships with my patrons now that go far and beyond what I experienced in the public world. And I am out on the floor in sensible shoes, not only emptying the book drop and opening the mail but reshelving the books, weeding, ordering, cataloging, working with student groups both in “traditional” instructional services and in the role of a community organizer, of sorts–we read books about systemic oppression’s influence on technology, and have long meandering conversations about the better world we dream of. I challenge students to fight their way through the anodyne trappings of engineering education and embrace activism. And you know what? I had no idea this kind of work was possible as an academic library director until I saw the need and found myself doing it.
My point here is, I get the divisiveness between public/academic, but SHUT. UP. Have you seen the common refrain on library Twitter that we need a national union like, a thousand times over by yesterday? While I’m not going to be the person to provide that, I can say that if we’re going to be pitting publics vs. academics, we’re getting nowhere fast – certainly not to the “disrupted, innovative” future. This past week, everyone’s favorite grievance bot had some juicy posts about the notion of vocational awe being a mechanism for academic librarians to oppress and criticize their public counterparts from positions of relative safety. Guess what? No matter what your thoughts are about the application of that term, you’re fundamentally undermining the future of your field by making unsubstantiated, intentionally polarizing claims like it’s an academics vs publics thing. And similarly, to claim that you are interested in innovation for libraries right now but do not want to produce this in alignment with worker needs, you are not acting in the best interest of your field! Like, I’m sorry that you’ve worked with people who have been “resistant to change,” but as a wise librarian once said on Twitter,
“I resist changes that are done to me, for me, in spite of me. I am usually a reliable booster of change done with me, alongside me.”
I’ve had employees who’ve refused to meet baseline expectations, too, but no matter how much they pissed me off on a day-to-day, I would NEVER want them on the frontlines with no protection and no cohesive guidelines for safe operation. The argument I can’t help but hear in this post isn’t so very different from the GOP ghouls who think it’s okay to sacrifice COVID-prone folks for the good of the economy. Wouldn’t it be convenient for some directors to get rid of the workers “who want to do a job that doesn’t exist any more, if it ever really did?” And the thought that haunts me through all of this is one Ruha Benjamin quotes in Race After Technology:
“[To] take the place of progress, ‘innovation,’ a smaller, and morally neutral, concept arose. Innovation provided a way to celebrate the accomplishments of a high-tech age without expecting…too much in the way of moral & social improvement.”
We’re in the same boat if we keep lionizing these stories of perseverance with no context about the jobs, health, and emotional and financial stability lost. But do go on about me being up here in the ivory tower. If we can’t band together behind the acknowledgment that 6,000-10,000 layoffs and furloughs is a professional crisis, all of our realities are about to get a whoooooooole lot more miserable.
There’s been a trend of articles coming out in major publications that are all about how excited people are to get back to their libraries, how resilient libraries are, all kinds of happy-go-lucky “we’re doing just fine!” stuff. It’s all well and good except for the fact that these narratives do nothing to a) tell the truth about the miserable realities that library workers are actually experiencing, and b) incite any kind of action to be taken in our defense.
Let’s start with the American Library Association, who have seemingly been going out of their way to come across as tone-deaf in this moment. On May 1, amidst thousands of layoffs and furloughs of library workers happening all around the country, ALA President Wanda Brown wrote a piece congratulating the resilience and stick-to-it-iveness of “librarians and library workers” in American Libraries magazine. There was no mention of lost jobs, slashed budgets, unsafe working conditions, managers censoring and punishing employees for speaking up for themselves, or threats of placement in riskier positions–in other words, none of what has defined this crisis for many of our colleagues.
Next up, we have a piece in PBS News Hour. The reporter did reach out to me to talk about the less savory parts of the story, but the narrative here is very much about the extra miles library workers feel like they’re expected to go because there’s no other options for their patrons. There’s a celebration of curbside pickup and enhanced social media use–and a more understandable and laudable effort to make the internet more accessible–but not much in the way of questioning why it is that libraries are the only shred of social safety left for citizens, and not much exploration of how austerity/disaster politics are currently decimating our field. Same went for this April 22 piece about Australia’s libraries in The Guardian, which quotes a public official who said, “The longer we keep our library branches closed, the deeper and more entrenched that digital divide will become.” Blaming library closures for the digital divide is like blaming our immune systems for succumbing to the virus.
A few days ago, an opinion piece written by a retired library worker ran in The Washington Post, titled “Local libraries will look a lot different when they reopen.” The author does mention furloughs, but says “some jurisdictions” have decided to do them and links to one system (this despite the over 5,600 layoffs and furloughs estimated via data collected in a tracking document, a number that is likely much higher but difficult to accurately count because of ambiguous reporting and fear of retaliation). What’s remarkable about this piece is that the writer is focused on the changes public libraries will need to contend with as they reopen, but doesn’t mention how a skeleton staff and the health risks to employees will impact those changes (I guess this is where our “librarians and library workers” resilience comes in). There’s also theorizing about print collections being supplanted by electronic ones, but no discussion of how impossible that feat is likely to be.
I’m sure there are other examples out there; feel free to share them with me and I’ll swipe at them, too. 😉 But I want to turn this to what I actually see happening right now, which is this:
Libraries are reopening to the public in states that are rushing forward to “get back to normal.” Workers at these libraries are scared for their health and safety, not only because of the covid-19 transmission risk but also because patrons are unpredictable, may not comply with rules, and may become violent and unruly, as has already been seen at public places and restaurants that are trying to operate “normally.”
The impacts I’ve seen on people who’ve contacted me or are posting about their experiences on Twitter are anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, sleeplessness, feelings of helplessness, thinking of leaving the field, contemplating quitting even during a tanked economy for the sake of their own safety and sanity, low morale, fear for family members, feelings that nothing they do will be enough to prevent furloughs or layoffs, and general malaise and purposelessness. Folks who have not yet been directly impacted (including me) are feeling a collective survivor’s guilt, and/or a sensation that the other shoe is going to drop at any moment.
In many states, libraries or their towns are acting in opposition to stay-at-home orders. The local offenders I’ve heard of that are engaging in this are the public libraries in Dedham, Watertown, and Cambridge; in Massachusetts, we are awaiting updates and a reopening plan from Governor Charlie Baker. These places are jumping the gun, and it leads one to wonder what’s motivating this: Furloughs and layoffs in nearby towns? Political or public pressure? (Or, at least in the case of Dedham, an embarrassing history of mismanagement and corruption?) In any case, we need to ask why both municipal managers and leaders of our professional organizations seem to think that putting our colleagues at risk is the most politically expedient thing to do.
Library workers are concerned about using PPE and cleaning supplies when there are still nationwide shortages of these items that should be prioritized for essential workers and people in vulnerable populations, such as in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and residences where there are sick or immunocompromised household members. They are also concerned about encouraging their community members to leave home and run errands before a determination of whether or not it’s safe to do that.
During the beginning and height of the #closethelibraries campaign, which started when many academic and public libraries were continuing to either operate as usual, refusing to provide telework options, or operating with scaled-down in-person services, it quickly became clear that many workers were being punished or threatened by library or municipal/institutional leadership if they attempted to speak about their unsafe conditions and stand up for their personal safety. As I was working with journalists trying to cover the movement, it was challenging to find people who were comfortable speaking on the record about their experiences for fear of retaliation. Leaders were exploiting the uncertainty and scariness of the job market to control these library workers and thus control the narrative of what was going on. And what was going on was not good, and continues to be very bad.
I’m only scratching the surface with what’s going on here based on the stories people are sharing with me and on social media (mostly with fear of retaliation or anxiety about how helpless they feel) and things I’m coming across in my home state. But the flipside of all of these digital storytimes and boosted WiFi signals in the parking lot is library workers forced to do jobs they never signed up for, scolded for their attempts to fight for their well-being, and the reality of slashed budgets they’re staring down from now until…who knows? What guarantee do we have of bouncing back?
Long before our lives began to be redefined by this global pandemic, library workers had plenty to worry about, specifically with their proclivity for self-sacrifice, overwork, and low morale. Our leaders are cashing in on our instincts for martyrdom and hesitance to make a fuss about our own needs, and you know what? It’s time to say not anymore. Ignoring our very real plight and slapping happy stories on top of it isn’t going to save us.
It’s not an end-all, be-all, but to at least throw something out there that you can do, consider signing this petition demanding safe reopening conditions for library workers. And push back on these stories of unmitigated success and unqualified resilience. Anyone who wants libraries to survive this needs to fight hard for library workers to survive it, too.
Welcome to #LIBREV(olution). Hello to everyone on the live broadcast, and also hello to those of you watching the recordings. My name is Callan Bignoli, my pronouns are she/her/hers, and I am the director of the library at Olin College of Engineering. I’m about ten miles away from there at my home in Boston, Massachusetts. Thanks for joining us today. I’m going to say a few words before we get things underway with our first presentation starting at 10 AM Eastern.
Back in mid-March, which feels like it was years ago now, I had an idea to pull this together as I saw conference after conference getting canceled. I asked for volunteers to pull some kind of online gathering together and immediately found help. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge all of the people who have assisted with the idea and execution of the conference.
Specifically, they include: Jennifer Wertkin, Sarah Braun, Myrna Morales, April Mazza, Anna Popp, Kelly Jo Woodside, Patrick Sweeney, Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, Megan Schadlich, Stacie Williams, Matt Amory, Anaya Jones, Trisha Previtt, and Jennie Rose Halperin. These folks are acting as moderators and presenters today. Our phenomenal slate of speakers answered our call for proposals right away. They created the presentations you’re going to see today under duress and anxiety from the unforeseen challenges and pressures we’re confronting during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The conference organizers and I are both amazed by and very grateful for that. So here we are today: 2,242 people RSVPed for an event, not put together by an existing organization, but instead by a ragtag bunch of library misfits.
I set the maximum attendance to 500 when I first created the Eventbrite page, thinking it’d be great if we got even halfway there. 2,242 doesn’t feel possible, but if there is one thing we’ve learned in the time of this crisis–as we’ve seen our support structures bend and break; as we’re watching unimaginable numbers of our colleagues laid off or furloughed–it’s that our definition of what is possible, and what is “normal,” has got to change.
And that’s why we’ve recast this webinar as #LIBREV(olution), a deliberate choice to push away from, or beyond, the original name which was LIBRESILIENCE. RESILIENCE assumes response to and survival after ongoing stress; it doesn’t imply any change.
REVOLUTION, though–REVOLUTION is “a sudden, radical, or complete change.” What do you think we need right now? A continued response to the same old stress, or a sudden, radical, and complete change?
Right now, a group of library advocates are keeping track of layoffs and furloughs at libraries in the U.S. and Canada. That list has grown to about 200 institutions and may well be much longer. On Wednesday, we added my former employer, the Public Library of Brookline, to the list. 50 part-time workers, over half of the library’s staff, were furloughed. I worked with the majority of these people for two and a half years. We built a new library together; we mourned the unexpected loss of a colleague together; we had a lot of fun and put a lot of hard work into making our library and community a better place. And despite the efforts of the library director–the town, among the wealthiest in Massachusetts, decided to go forward with the furlough and all of them lost their jobs indefinitely.
This came after a month and a half of horror stories that weren’t as close to home for me, from Houston, Texas, where staff were told to fashion masks out of rubber bands and paper towels, to Hennepin County, Minnesota, where library workers were effectively forced to staff emergency shelters if they wanted to continue getting paid – regardless of their own health concerns – to countless libraries refusing to stop curbside pickup services and directors and mayors ignoring, or retaliating against, the concerns of their staff.
Libraries have been forced into a no-win situation. If they operate physically, they jeopardize the health and safety of their staff and communities. If they don’t, they risk furloughs or layoffs because county administrators and mayors say “workers can’t get paid taxpayer dollars to do nothing.” Either way, with tax revenue plummeting, county and municipal systems are looking at a long, dark road ahead, with threats of privatization or permanent closure looming larger than ever. We need to get ready to help each other. We must reject doing more with less, and that means we cannot go it alone.
Considering the reactions we’ve seen to the pandemic, and the impacts we’re feeling now and the ones still ahead, I say it’s time for a sudden, radical, and complete change. We need a system that advocates for libraries-as-workers, not just libraries-as-institutions. We need to start thinking together about what that looks like. A new professional organization? A national library workers’ union? A broad coalition of public support from beyond the field? I don’t have the answer, but we need to figure these things out. #LIBREV(olution) is an invitation and an invocation and a hope for continuing this work together.
A #LIBREV(olution) is possible – 2,242 people, including you, signed up for this event. The talks you’ll hear today are all a reach towards a revolutionary future from honest discussions of morale in the workplace with Kaetrena to transformative librarianship with Stacie and Myrna, from understanding the undercommons with Jennie to finding resources for healing with Megan. We’ll hear about wrapping your head around political systems with Patrick, alleviating the crush of student debt with Matt, and adapting to online teaching and learning with Trisha and Anaya. Our presenters today are offering you a set of new approaches to work and self-care, providing tools and techniques to prepare for today and what’s to come.
We’ll make it down that long, dark road, but we need to help each other as we make the trip; we can’t just take marching orders from the top and stumble along without the resources and support we need. But we’re just getting started, and we need you to help us keep this mindset in motion, and help us, and help each other, shape the change you want to see.