This chapter explores tools and strategies workers can use to build support systems that counter low morale and other challenges faced in our profession.
Being stewards of cultural heritage materials is a challenging work that is often underfinanced, understaffed and under-resourced. Tempering vocational awe yet valuing the work is a constant struggle. For me, staff advocacy is self-advocacy. Nourishing ourselves to continue to do this work in a sustainable way is crucial. In spite of many initiatives to improve diversity within the profession, retention issues persist and they are especially acute for BIPOC workers. This chapter aims to present tools and strategies for cultural heritage workers that will equip new and established special collections workers with resources to support their work.
As a non traditional, first-generation Black American student, I attended a MSLS program that did not provide many opportunities to engage with my cohort outside of class time which made it difficult to establish a peer network. I learned of funding opportunities such as the ALA Spectrum Scholarship, and the ARL-SAA Mosaic Fellowship from a colleague, who also introduced me to #critlib. The hashtag #critlib is an abbreviation of critical librarianship and is a volunteer-run monthly discussion on Twitter to discuss ways to bring “social justice principles into our work in libraries.” The Spectrum and Mosaic communities created a network that anchors me. I was given an honest and sobering perspective about the industry that was not addressed during my studies. The lack of diversity, low morale, and tight job market that often requires relocating from your familial community in order to move forward are but a few of the hardships faced. The tools and resources I share in this chapter are drawn from personal experience and literature. Entering the profession with an informed understanding of its challenges helped me identify ways in which I can thrive and find ways to improve it.
Librarianship as a profession has often been likened to a noble cause, and many describe their choice to enter the field as a calling. Ettarh’s seminal article defines vocational awe as the system of ideas and values that align librarian work as “inherently good, sacred and beyond critique” (Ettarh, 2018). This framework is dangerous because low pay, job creep and toxic work conditions can be justified when the work serves a higher purpose. The cultural heritage professional community, like the greater library and information profession, struggles with low morale, and lack of pathways to advancement. Project-based/ term labor and residency programs are the bulk of entry level positions which lack stability and security. The 2022 report, “Nothing About It Was Better Than a Permanent Job”, from the New England Archivists Contingent Employment Study Task Force found that 40% of new professionals surveyed considered leaving the profession given its reliance on contingent work which confirms the persistence of this issue and its negative impact on the greater profession (New England Archivists Contingent Employment Study Task Force, 2022). The ongoing pandemic has reinforced vocational awe in aligning librarians and information professionals as first responders. However, low morale has been an issue in the profession well before the emergence of coronavirus. The lack of morale is challenging to overcome and further exacerbates retention within the profession.
Community building helps counter feelings of isolation and frustration. As a Black woman archivist that serves as stewards of cultural heritage materials of Black people and other communities of color in a field that is glaringly white, it has been necessary to build community with others doing this work. Rachel Winston aptly states “The sisterhood in this rare group and the community of Black, women of color, and nonbinary archivists is invaluable. Regularly, we serve as peer mentors to each other, providing emotional and professional support, sharing similar experiences, and talking through different challenges. (Winston, 2021, 285).” Many professional organizations offer opportunities for networking and mentorship, however the membership dues can be cost prohibitive. Recently, some organizations have adjusted their pricing schedule and mutual aid efforts have been established to pay membership dues for people of color who would like to participate barring the financial barriers to access. Organizations like we here and WOC+Lib have also built accessible communities of practice for BIPOC information professionals to gather and support one another both virtually and in person outside of the larger professional organizations. Azalea Camacho’s chapter delves further into the significance of the mentor relationships from the student perspective.
For those working in larger institutions, it is also important to seek out other BIPOC staff outside of your department to create a broader supportive network. These issues that plague GLAM information professionals are systemic and are often experienced by other colleagues across the organization. Projects like the Green Book for Libraries, provide BIPOC authored ratings and reviews of libraries, information and archival workplaces so that new colleagues and job seekers can have a full understanding of the workplace culture.
Calling in our Professional Organizations
Professional organizations are intended to set standards for how we aim to do our work and advocate for their members. As such, its members can hold them accountable when their needs are not being met. The NEA report is an excellent example of utilizing their organizational influence to advocate for its members' needs for stable and sustainable employment. The Society of American Archivists Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics assert that “it is not enough to collect the history of diverse peoples—the archives profession must constantly work toward creating anti-oppressive environments that encourage participation from people across the spectrum of experience (2020).” It is imperative that we hold these organizations accountable and task them with leading the charge for demonstrative actions that match these statements. We must move beyond declarations if we truly want to repair the burnout and retention issues.
The cultural heritage and information professions are first and foremost composed of the practitioners. The emotional labor and great responsibility of stewarding cultural heritage materials of marginalized peoples - especially as a person of color who endures the systemic, institutional oppression in their workplace - can be quite taxing and isolating. We are often limited to our scope of influence within our organizations, but professional organizations have the ability to impact industry-wide changes. The fellowships and scholarships I have received welcomed me into these networks and they have been invaluable at every step in my career. Having a strong network can help alleviate the stressors and that community can then collectively hold the profession accountable to move toward the inclusive, diverse and equitable space it aspires to be.
Ettarh, F. (2018). Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies we tell ourselves. In The Library With a Leadpipe. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2018/vocational-awe/.
Kendrick, K.D., & Damasco, I.T. (2019). Low Morale in Ethnic and Racial Minority Academic Librarians: An Experiential Study. Library Trends 68(2), 174-212. doi:10.1353/lib.2019.0036
New England Archivists Contingent Employment Study Task Force. (2022). Nothing About It Was Better Than a Permanent Job. https://newenglandarchivists.org/resources/Documents/Inclusion_Diversity/Contingent-Employment-2022-report.pdf
Powell, C, Holly Smith, Shanee Murrain and Syka Hearn. (2018). This [Black] Woman’s Wprk: Exploring Archival Projects that Embrace the Identity of the Memory Worker. KULA: knowledge creating, dissemination and preservation studies 2(1): 5. DOI https://doi.org/10.5334/kula.25
SAA Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics. SAA Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics | Society of American Archivists. (2020, August). Retrieved from https://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-core-values-statement-and-code-of-ethics we here. (n.d.). We here. Retrieved from https://www.wehere.space/
Winston, R. (2021) Praxis for the people: Critical Race Theory and Archival Practice. In Knowledge Justice:Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory (pp.283-298). The MIT Press. doi:10.7551/mitpress/11969.003.0020WOC+Lib. (n.d) WOC+Lib. Retrieved from https://www.wocandlib.org/