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Struggling to Juggle: Part-time Temporary Work in Libraries
Posted By Emily Ford On February 9, 2011 @ 6:00 am In Uncategorized | Comments Disabled
Several of my In the Library with the Lead Pipe posts have centered around work/life balance, or being happy and healthy in a job. When I wrote about losing my mojo I also mentioned that a big thing for me was my transition from working full-time to half-time.
After that post I enjoyed a summer of half-time work in which I was able to pay rent, eat, go on day trips to the Oregon Coast and Columbia River Gorge for hikes, and generally re-infuse myself with energy. I needed the break. It was great, but I knew it wouldn’t last. I wasn’t saving any money and my position was temporary, with a one-year contract. I knew I would eventually need to pick up another part-time job to get my student loans paid more quickly, save money in case my temporary part-time job was not refunded in the next fiscal year, and, of course, to indulge occasionally at an out-of-my-price-range restaurant. I also knew that I wanted to accept the right part-time job. And I eventually did. In late September I accepted a part-time hourly wage contract position to fill in as a reference and instruction librarian at a local state university.
Of the six jobs I’ve held over the past three and a half years since I’ve had my MLS, only one of my positions was permanent (and it had its issues, which is why I left) and only three have been full-time. Currently I’m working two part-time temporary jobs. One is as a Scholarly Communication Librarian at a medical school and the other as a Reference and Instruction Librarian at a large, urban state university. Don’t get me wrong; I am lucky. Despite its part-time temporary nature one of my jobs offers me health insurance, professional development funding, faculty status, and the ability to work on engaging projects. But my current experience is taking me back to the right-out-of-library-school piecemealing together of part-time work to pay the rent. It’s an experience all too common these days and it can be difficult to professionally balance more than one job, let alone balance life and work.
With this post I’d like to examine a bit more in depth some of the professional issues facing many librarians today who are working not one, but maybe 2 or 3 or 4 part-time library jobs. The Library Journal Placement and Salaries Survey 2010 indicates that while full-time placement is up, so are part-time, temporary and non-professional placements of LIS grads. While some people work part-time jobs as a choice, others work part-time jobs because these are the only employment opportunities afforded them. The trend to work numerous part-time temporary jobs is growing, and there seems to be no end in sight. Balancing work and life is one challenge in and of itself, but what of the challenge of balancing numerous positions and a life?
Being curious I did a pretty extensive search of the professional literature to find discussions surrounding part-time work. I found articles that fell into one of several categories:
One of the things that stuck me about my literature searching is that few of these articles are recent. In fact, several of the longer substantive articles date from the 1980s. The nature of libraries has changed quite a bit in the past 30 years, and we have yet to get a handle on what it means to have a growing part-time temporary work force. For perspective, many newer librarians, such as myself, were still in elementary school at time these articles were written. There is much debate about the use of adjunct or part-time instructors in higher education in general. Longmate & Cosco (2002) cite the growing trend for community colleges to have an instructor workforce comprised of 60% part-time instructors; compared to 20% in 1970. Given discussions in academe regarding part-time work and the growing numbers of part-time temporary library workers, it is again time to have national dialog about part-time temporary librarianship.
The benefits of having a part-time job or a job share situation are, indeed, rich and plentiful. Lori Wamsley, (2008) like many of her predecessors from the 1980s and 1990s, points to the advantages of flexibility, networking, gaining experience, and staying in a local area. Others point to the advantages for people who have children and families (Library Personnel News, 1993; Notowitz, 1983; Dinerman, 1988; Laynor, 1987). Indeed, when I worked part-time I enjoyed my hobbies more and was able to spend more time with loved ones.
Working two positions enables me to have diverse work experiences. I have different job descriptions that concentrate in differing library work. In one position I am deeply engaged in scholarly communication, providing education and support to a community about the NIH Public Access Policy, and supporting publishing issues such as author rights. In the other position I serve as a subject librarian, providing reference services to a diverse audience of students, graduate students, and faculty. About 40% of my time in this position is at a busy reference desk–a kind of work I find quite satisfying. I also deeply enjoy the classroom teaching, collection development, and other aspects of this position. This diversity of day-to-day duties brings me great satisfaction.
Additionally, working in more than one library enables me to develop professional relationships with an abundance of coworkers. Where one library does not employ subject specialists, the other has many with specialized research and publications interests. Where one library employs those who are expert searchers and work in rigorous research support, the other excels in instruction development for undergraduate students. Working at two different institutions affords me the opportunity to engage with a wealth of individuals who have a diversity of expertise. From my coworkers at both institutions I have amassed a great deal of knowledge and experience.
To this end I am able to bring what I have learned from one institution and use it at the other. For example, during a reference shift at the large university library I received a phone call from a faculty member concerned about copyright and fair use for her coming term’s course-pack. Using my knowledge of copyright and publishing as a Scholarly Communication librarian, I was able to assist her by explaining fair use, even though at the time I was serving as a Reference and Instruction Librarian. Similarly, I am able to use my knowledge of resources offered by both libraries to refer students and faculty from each school to the other when the respective institution’s resources aren’t what a patron needs.
For some individuals not being tied down to one job is a benefit. Temporary part-time contracts mean that you can work when you need to work. Conversely, if you want a day off you can simply request it. Contract work allows for the flexibility of choosing which contracts to take. If you are working a part-time temporary position and you are offered a contract extension or a contract renewal, you don’t have to take it. For some, this is quite a benefit to be able to choose when and how much one works.
Finally, I am able to live in the city I love. When I finished library school I knew that I didn’t want to live anywhere other than my home city so I made the choice to move home without a job. I knew in my heart that I would be happier in my chosen surroundings than by choosing a job over a city. Luckily I have been able to remain employed over the past three and a half years, which is a feat in and of itself.
Part-time temporary work has numerous disadvantages that must be considered. For many people working more than one part-time temporary position is the only employment choice afforded them. It can feel like being between a rock and a hard place, especially if you want to work full-time in the library profession but don’t have the opportunity to do so. What some of the family-friendly articles I read fail to mention is that the income of part-time positions is not enough to support a family. Some people might choose to work full-time in another profession for health benefits and to support their families, while others decide to take numerous part-time temporary library jobs (to end up working full-time or more than full-time) so that they might use their coveted MLS in the library field. Sometimes individuals accept positions that do not require an MLS, often remaining in paraprofessional positions.
For many, accepting part-time temporary work is the decision to be a librarian. I fear that many individuals feel they don’t have a choice but to accept and be grateful for any library-related job opportunity that comes their way. As a result, individuals work several part-time temporary positions, struggling to balance numerous jobs and life. Ultimately, individuals will need to make a choice that best suits their life needs.
Working less than full-time is simply not economically viable for most people these days. Librarians, in particular, who frequently have student loan debt from undergraduate and graduate careers, feel the pressure to repay their loans. I personally don’t know anyone who went into librarianship for the money, so we can assume that the full-time pay, much less the part-time pay, is not enough. The fact that I was able to work half-time for three months was a definite luxury, but after that time I needed to find additional work.
As discussed by almost all of the articles I read, part-time temporary jobs do not pay health, retirement, vacation or sick time benefits. The hourly wages for these positions fall below those of an institution’s full-time counterparts, and employees have no guarantee that they will continue to have a position from contract to contract. “Nearly 64 percent of part-time librarians are paid at the low end of the wage scale” argues Gover (1994) citing Hogue & Sisson (1993). For many the inequity in pay is a big frustration.
Another disadvantage that has been discussed in the literature is exclusion from the work environment (Wamsley, 2008; Maxwell, 1997; Gover, 1994; Pontau & Rothschild, 1986; Anderson, 1995; Braudy & Tuckerman, 1986). As a part-time temporary worker one might not be well trained to know library policies. Moreover, individuals may feel disconnected from coworkers by not being invited to participate in meetings, institutional and department decision-making (Anderson, 1995) and by being the individuals who work the undesirable shifts (Braudy & Tuckerman, 1986). Barbara Mettler (1988) points out that sometimes being a substitute leads to “Some staff view subs as ‘fair game’ and will do ‘creative’ things with their schedules.” (p. 9) She discusses a situation where a coworker left the substitute alone while the coworker took extended lunch breaks. While I’d like to think this is not a normal practice, it shows how inequity in the work place can grow between part-time temporary staff and regular employees.
One of the disadvantages that I have not seen discussed in any articles is commuting. While I personally have the luck of working jobs situated only a mile and a half apart, many of my librarian colleagues work far away from their homes. I would find it much more difficult to hold two part-time professional positions if such proximity between institutions did not exist. My colleagues’ several jobs are far from one another and can result in the stress of rushing from one job to the next. Additionally the time and money individuals spend commuting in cars, paying for gas, parking, and daycare just so they can work numerous jobs adds up to be quite an expense. As an example, when I began looking for part-time work, I turned down a part-time temporary substitute librarian position 21 miles from my home, and 20 miles from my half-time job. I was sad to do this because the library environment seemed energetic, but I knew that I could not balance such a long commute between two positions, home, and an uncertain work schedule. For some, part of this equation is also how long they are asked to work. Will they be driving a long ways to fill in for only a 2 hour shift?
This leads us to yet another disadvantage: scheduling. Scheduling between multiple part-time jobs can be onerous and difficult. Just keeping track of what days and what shifts you work can be a chore; especially if your shifts vary week to week. In my case I have caught myself, in the middle of an instruction session, referring to the wrong library!
Another scheduling dilemma is that many substitute librarians might not feel that they are able to say no when they are asked to fill in for a shift. If they say no once, they might not be called in the future to cover for a shift. “But it is a fine balance between being available and unavailable for work; you don’t want to be too unavailable to work, because then you likely won’t get any scheduled hours,” (p. 7, Wamsley, 2008). Sometimes this can result in forgoing the luxury of a weekend so that you can keep working in the future, pay the rent, etc.
Many part-timers also struggle with a work/life balance on top of the work/work balance. Part-time librarians typically work more undesirable hours than their full-time permanent counterparts. Evening and weekend shifts are typically covered by part-time employees (Braudy & Tuckerman, 1986; Wamsley, 2008). Substitutes or on-call workers have unpredictable hours. You might receive a call only one hour before a shift to see if you can cover for someone who is out sick. For some librarians this can be a difficulty. Friends and family may have regular 8-5 jobs, so connecting with loved ones can be a hardship.
One of the most troubling disadvantages is that part-time workers often have little to no support to engage in professional development and service. Having been a professional for over three years I am a member of various committees locally and nationally. With a full-time position I was supported to participate in librarianship in this manner and I continue to do so. Again, I am lucky that one of my positions supports my professional service and scholarship in the form of travel to conferences, committee participation, and writing. However, when I am gone from my hourly position for committee work or am attending a conference, I receive no pay for that time. This has resulted in me facing the difficult choice to sacrifice either money, in the form of pay, or sacrifice my professional development in missing committee meetings and conferences. The other choice I face is whether to make up missed work hours when I do participate in a conference. Will I work Saturday and Sunday for the paycheck?
Most individuals who work part-time temporary positions are not supported in their endeavors to participate in professional development opportunities. By this I mean they are not supported financially to attend conferences, nor are they given the release time to work on committee obligations or attend conferences and workshops. And yet, in the future when they apply for full-time permanent jobs employers might favor a librarian who has engaged in service and professional development over one who has not.
Chan and Auster (2003) point to the need to address professional development and training for part-time library workers, stating that “part-time status reduces opportunities for updating; because libraries have come to rely on part-time librarians, the updating needs of these part-time employees should be addressed” (p. 282-283). Part-timers typically must attend conferences on their own time and on their own dime. For many part-timers the decision becomes “learn or get paid” and that is not an easy decision to make. Some might choose to make up lost pay by working weekends or extending work hours, so as not to lose too much pay for attending a conference or workshop.
Part of my decision to work two jobs was financial; I needed to be able to save money and pay off my student loans. The other issue at hand is that the job market in my city is tight, and there are few full-time permanent jobs to be had in any field, let alone in libraries. I am not alone in this employment situation. As I mentioned in the introduction, the part-time nature of academic work is growing. With this growing population of part-timers, we are all facing the conundrum of how to find good balance between two jobs.
One of the reasons I wanted to write this post was to discuss the challenges I’ve faced, but also look at the positive aspects and growth that I experience working two fulfilling library positions. I have enough money coming in between both positions, and my ability to retain the perks of a regular employee at one institution has assisted me professionally. Both positions are part-time temporary and I enjoy both of them greatly. However, I find that on any given day one job will get my better self and the other will get the worse. Just like work/life balance, work/work balance demands a person to choose one thing over another. (Remember the cycle of rotating neglect I talked about in How do You Say No?) To this end I don’t feel that on any day either job gets my best. Ideally, I would be able to have one job and concentrate my energies on providing the best service to patrons and making the best decisions for my library. Being in more than one place can spread energies thin, and can result in confusion, disconnectedness, and exhaustion.
I’ve found some techniques that are helpful for balancing two professional positions. One, I try to be present within my communities. When I walk in the door of the medical school library I consciously put on my Scholarly Communication and Medical Librarian hat. Likewise, when I enter the door at the state university library, take off my Medical Librarian hat and I put on my Reference and Instruction hat. I try to NOT check my other work’s e-mail when I’m at either institution, but sometimes I fail at this.
Changing hats is just one way that I try to be fully engaged at either institution when I arrive. It helps me to keep up by regarding daily announcements and news from either institution, so that I feel like I’m in the loop with each place. I read staff blogs, weekly e-mail announcements, meeting minutes and other work related materials. These make me feel more connected to what is happening at each work place. It alleviates some of the disconnection that can result from only being around part of the time.
Sometimes changing hats and perspectives in the middle of the day can be tough. I’ll find myself going through selection slips at one institution and think, “I should buy this for my other library!” And sometimes I do forward myself book titles to purchase, e-mail tidbits on resources, etc that will benefit my other job at the other library. Frequently I’m still thinking about presentations I gave at my other place of work, or an instruction session I gave the previous evening.
The different nature of my part-time temporary positions has created some inequities in how I view and treat each workplace. Since the medical school does support my service activities and some conference travel, I try to pack in all of my professional development and committee work while I’m on their dollar. Since I also have a job to do, a lot of these commitments will bleed into my weekends, which I’ve long valued as sacred, non-working times. Conversely, my other employer is unable to support my committee service. As with my professional commitments, I use the benefits from my salaried, faculty position to visit the doctor, or make necessary car mechanic appointments. As a result I sometimes feel frustrated by trying to be a professional and do a professional job without the institutional support that would make it easier and my job more fulfilling.
Likewise my differing employee classification between the two institutions can be a strain. I am faculty at one institution and not at the other. As a faculty member I participate actively within the library and work on library-wide projects rather than my singular job duties. As an hourly wage employee, I do not participate in long-term projects, nor do I participate at the same level as my full-time permanent counterparts. My situation is quite unique in this regard. The divergent nature of my employee status at the institutions stems from my 3-year work history at the medical school and my newness at the state university. Because of my experience as a faculty member at the medical school figuring out how to be a professional in an hourly-wage position is complicated. I would like to be involved at the larger level for library decision-making, but I don’t have the institutional knowledge, nor do I feel comfortable within the organization’s culture to participate as fully as I would like.
When I took on a second temporary part-time position my partner warned me that I was going to be exhausted and that it was going to be arduous. He was right. Yet I deeply enjoy both of my positions and while I feel certain frustrations, I am comforted in knowing that I’m gaining rich experiences and that this situation will not last forever.
Certainly the use of part-time temporary employees stems from economic need. There is no doubt that library budgets are suffering and as a result personal budgets are, too. Chervinko (1986) points out that:
“Using temporary workers is an excellent means of solving some staffing problems in the library. The business world has long recognized the value of these workers and is using them in greater numbers for specialized jobs. Libraries can use them efficiently and economically for staffing major in-house projects. To achieve the maximum benefits from their service, it is necessary that they be carefully selected and thoroughly trained and motivated to produce high quality work. Moreover, they must be treated as equal members of the library staff.” (p. 220)
One of the aspects that I value from this business and administrative perspective is the need to treat part-time employees as equal members of the library staff. From the numerous articles I’ve read and from personal experience, part-time employees do not feel they are treated as equal to their full-time permanent counterparts. Again, in this regard I have been very lucky to be in positions that respect my experience and ideas.
Bette Anderson also addresses this issue in her 1995 article Trends in the Workplace: Part-time librarians. “My personal assessment is that the practice of relying on part-timers may save money for employers, but without enlightened management it can result in hidden costs in terms of employee morale and quality of public service” (p. 264). She continues, pointing out that “As outsiders, they are not invited to become part of the decision-making process” (p. 265).
These two quotes point to the need for management and administration to be sensitive to implementing part-time temporary work. Part-time temporary jobs are cheap for libraries, but at what cost? Is turnover for part-time temporary work high? What are the training costs? Before implementing part-time temporary positions library administrations should put plans in place that address the needs for part-time workers to be treated professionally. For example, where will these employees be able to hang their coats? What are best practices for hiring part-time temporary workers? Professional treatment might include providing some contract hours to engage in professional development activities, or allow paid sick leave. Not all of these suggestions will be feasible for every institution, but they are points for managers and administrators to consider.
As a new librarian, an underemployed librarian, or someone who only wants to work part-time, what can you do when it comes to the tension of piecemealing together part-time jobs? I would encourage you to ask about professional development possibilities before signing any contracts. Engage in a dialogue with your potential employer and potential supervisor to see if there can be an agreement that will make working several part-time jobs more enjoyable and avoid some of the common disadvantages of working part-time temporary positions. Try to ask for a few hours of your contract work to serve on a committee, or ask if you may attend a conference and receive some financial support to attend.
It is pivotal that we, as professionals, have a clear, constructive dialogue about both the benefits and the disadvantages of part-time temporary work. Harsh letters to the editor regarding poor treatment by an employer will not help part-time temporary employees anywhere. Instead, consider entering into dialogue with your supervisor about how to balance your time. Part-time temporary employees should remain sensitive to the budgetary and political obstructions facing institutions and library administrators. Likewise, institutions and administrators should seriously evaluate how to make and use part-time employees in a responsible and respectful manner. It would be interesting if part-time employees might draft a set of best practices or points for consideration for their libraries. In the future, the library’s administrators might use these points when hiring more part-time and/or part-time temporary employees.
If part-time work with benefits were the norm in libraries, then libraries, patrons, and employees would benefit. For many libraries and institutions this kind of solution is not feasible with their tiny, and continually shrinking budgets. Since part-time temporary workers are becoming the new norm in libraries, I think it’s time for us to engage in healthy discussion about these issues. This post is my call to have individuals, institutions, and organizations once again examine the issues of part-time temporary labor. Let’s talk about creative solutions and ideas that will benefit institutions AND individuals.
As Gover pointed out in 1994, it’s time for further study. Where is the study? Who’s going to do it? (It’s probably not going to be the part-timers, because they have enough on their plates.) But it is time for us to have a greater national dialogue and come up with some techniques to improve working environments for librarians in the trenches. You can contribute by adding your voice. Share your story, your concerns, your triumphs. What have you experienced as advantages to part time work? What about disadvantages?
I’d like to hear from the administrative perspective answers to the following: Have you supervised part-time employees? What challenges did you face? What were your successes? What went in to the decisions to create the positions? What would you look for from a part-time temporary employee in the future?
From the non-administrative side I’d like to hear answers to: What is your experience with part-time temporary work/workers? What would best practices look like to you? Do you have any other benefits or disadvantages to mention? What might lead you to a decision to work part-time temporary jobs?
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