LAMs are More Alike Than Different: Precarious Labor

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

February 24, 2021

At SLA 2020, Lucidea hosted a panel titled LAMS: More Alike Than Different, with panelists Margot Note, Sonya Fogg, and Rachael Woody (myself). The discussion offered much to dig into; in this miniseries I’ll present the four main issues we covered and my response to them. 

Those issues are: disaster preparedness, precarious labor, the physical versus digital nature of the work, and generational change. 

When the Libraries Archives Museums (LAM) panel was initially planned it was pre-COVID and we already had several large issues we wanted to tackle. While the onset of the pandemic didn’t change the entirety of our focus, it did lend an additional lens to view the challenges and opportunities LAMs face together. 

This post will focus on the second of four issues: Precarious Labor.

(You can review the previous post here: “LAMs are More Alike Than Different: Disaster Preparedness”)

Lucidea’s Prompt:

LAMs are always struggling to get funding and are not typically viewed as “essential” enough to the community to fund accordingly. But, in the wake of the pandemic, LAMs now appear to be classified as essential in certain areas of the US and should remain open. There seems to be a bigger theme that people view LAMs as essential in a crisis, but easily forgettable (when it comes to funding) otherwise.

The Issue is Bigger Than LAMs

Unfortunately, I think this parallels with what we’re seeing for other jobs classified as essential; from retail to restaurants to cleaning services. This classification of “essential work” appears to coincide with the view that those jobs (and the people who hold them) are “sacrificial”. This signals to me that this is not just a LAMs issue but a broader values issue of broader society being OK with some of the population being expendable.

Everything is Closed, but the Libraries are Open

I believe this stems from the usual role LAMs serve when there are weather crises, as an example. LAM spaces are community spaces and when the community is in danger LAM spaces are usually offered as a safe space. However, the key distinction here is that during dangerous situations (such as weather) the LAM staff in the building are in no additional danger (and are likely safer at work) than they would be at home. This is NOT the case with COVID-19. Yes, the community is in danger from COVID-19. However, they’re still in danger from COVID-19 in a LAM space AND we’re choosing to endanger LAM staff by forcing them to furnish an unsafe-from-COVID-19 LAM space for the community.

Advice to Get Through

Leadership and staff need to have a conversation to determine why the library/archives/museum needs to be open. What service is it providing to the community by being open? Is it filling a resource gap and deemed to be incredibly necessary? Can the LAM provide that service in a way that guarantees staff and community safety and will negate almost all risk posed in doing so? Is the director willing to do the work they’re asking staff to do? When assessing whether or not to open in a crisis we need to get real about our reasons for why, ask ourselves if the benefits outweigh the risks, and be clear about who is taking that risk.

Are LAMs Only Essential in a Crisis?

It’s become clear to me that there’s a disconnect here. LAMs are essential in a crisis by providing community support. However, this support is not necessarily tied to normal daily operations. The normal operations of LAMs, the work we do, is not viewed by larger society as essential. If it was, we wouldn’t have to dedicate a significant amount of time and energy to fundraising, events, and other non-mission related income-generating activities. We know that our work is essential, but we’re failing to consistently translate this value.

Advice to Get Through

We need to be better about capturing and communicating the value of collection work. Please check out my YouTube Channel for the webinar: Strategies for How to Capture and Communicate the Value of Collection Work. The webinar will give you step-by-step advice for how to do just that, including how to use technology (such as the CMS) to support your case.

How the “Precarious Labor” of the LAM Profession Factors In

Precarious labor roles are easier to view as sacrificial. If the work isn’t deemed essential, then the job role doesn’t need to be protected, permanently on budget, or pay well. This goes back to the devaluation of our work and the truth is we’re allowing it. How? By allowing term positions and unpaid work under our roof. If people see the work can be done for free—and we’re not just condoning it but promoting it—then why would society ever think the work is anything but *literally* worthless?

Advice to How to Get Through

Only allow term positions for truly term work: project-based. Cut down on unpaid work and prioritize funding for internships. This is a requirement if you want to achieve Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives for your organization. Also, it has to be stopped if we ever what to live in a healthier profession. For an example of what we can do to stop the devaluation of our professional field, please read my Q&A with the Northwest Archivists regarding the Archivist-in-Residence program I created and co-sponsored with Lucidea here.

Additional Reading

For more information and resources on museums implementing Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) initiatives, please see these posts from Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog:

7 Steps to Kick-Start Museum Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Practices

Museum Diversity, Equity, Accessibility & Inclusion Resources and Practices

Unpaid Internships: A Reason to DEAI the Museum Budget

Museum Forecast 2020

And for an excellent resource on how to create ethical, grant-funded positions—which are often term positions in place of what should be a permanent position—please check out this resource:

“Do Better” -Love(,) Us, Guidelines for Developing and Supporting Grant-Funded Positions in Digital Libraries, Archives, and Museums. Contributors in alphabetical order: Hillel Arnold, Dorothy J. Berry, Elizabeth M. Caringola, Angel Diaz, Sarah Hamerman, Erin Hurley, Anna Neatrour, Sandy Rodriguez, Megan Senseney, Ruth Tillman, Amy Wickner, Karly Wildenhaus, and Elliot Williams.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Expert Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. In addition to following the links in this post, learn about Lucidea’s Argus solution for virtual presentation of collections, visitor engagement, and museum staff productivity and impact.

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