Digital Labor Forum Tackles Temp Jobs on Grant, Digitization Projects | Peer to Peer Review

Each year, millions of dollars awarded to libraries, archives, and museums (LAM) fund a variety of processing, digitization, and digital infrastructure projects. In the process, the field creates hundreds of contingent and precarious positions. Workers dedicated to their fields’ missions to steward, preserve, and share knowledge and culture accept low salaries, benefit-less positions, and cycles of precarity.

wall of post-it notes from Collective Responsibility meeting exercise
Wall of post-it notes from Collective Responsibility meeting reflection on where people do and don't have power to act in their workplaces

Each year, millions of dollars awarded to libraries, archives, and museums (LAM) fund a variety of processing, digitization, and digital infrastructure projects. In the process, the field creates hundreds of contingent and precarious positions. Workers dedicated to their fields’ missions to steward, preserve, and share knowledge and culture accept low salaries, benefit-less positions, and cycles of precarity like this one:

Angela (a composite of respondents to the Collective Responsibility project survey) had a two-year term position that was four months short of its end. The grant’s principal investigator encouraged her to stay, looking into internal funds to keep her on after the current project ended. But Angela hadn’t heard anything definite, so she started interviewing. She landed a three-year position halfway across the country with a nearly immediate start date. Breaking her lease cost her one month’s rent. She paid for her own move and first and last month’s rent at her new apartment. Together, it added up to thousands of dollars. Just over a year later, her previous employer posted the term job as a permanent position.

As in the example above, the cumulative financial impact of these temporary or term-limited positions includes the costs of moving often—rent and broken leases, long commutes, distance from support structures, and living apart from partners—as well as little progress towards paying off student loans, low or no retirement savings, and salaries which remain flat even as inflation lowers their value. It also contributes to the exclusion from the field of people who lack the economic and social safety net to absorb such costs, disproportionately impacting people of color.

The pervasiveness of this system means that we are in danger of accepting this norm. Reinforcing and reproducing these conditions keeps us from confronting our responsibility; it makes us complicit.

In early 2017, the Digital Library Federation (DLF) Labor Working Group formed to explore issues, outcomes, and literature on labor in LAM as a first step to making change. We began our work in two subgroups, one tackling the issue of positions created through grant funding and the other developing a research agenda for valuing labor in digital libraries.

 

COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY PROJECT

As we put together a draft guideline for developing and supporting grant-funded positions, we recognized the limits of our power to get it adopted. It became apparent that we needed to bring more people to the table for face-to-face conversations. What could we learn from funders about writing recommendations that would work within their regulatory and governance frameworks? What could they learn by hearing from workers on projects they and others had funded? How do institutions play a role in this process and what might middle managers and administrators learn and share? What specific points of intervention could we identify to move us collectively toward systemic change?

In 2018, we applied for an Institute of Museum and Library Services National Forum Grant to bring the Collective Responsibility project into being. The following year we held two day-and-a-half–long meetings in Pittsburgh (April) and Tampa (October), inviting currently and recently contingent workers, managers who seek to make change, and representatives of public and private funding organizations. The first meeting, “Experience,” focused on the experiences of grant-funded workers. We presented research from a survey conducted prior to the forum and facilitated sessions centering these worker’s voices. From that meeting, we developed a white paper identifying areas of work for our project and the field as a whole.

 

WHITE PAPER: SEEKING EQUITY

In September, the team released the white paper “Collective Responsibility: Seeking Equity for Contingent Labor in Libraries, Archives, and Museums.” It begins with our methodology for centering contingent worker experiences, shares the results of our survey, identifies the themes and responsibilities that arose from the forum, and develops outcomes and next steps for the work of the Collective Responsibility project.

Several major themes emerged from the survey results and discussions. With low rates of professional development and presentation funding, timelines that require project workers to always be onboarding or job hunting, and pay scales that rarely value past contingent work, such positions often demonstrate a lack of attention to the professional or personal futures of workers. Contingent workers are often isolated from their institution and profession and are dependent on their direct supervisors. Creating change is a collective responsibility.

Our next steps are:

  • Identify partner organizations inside and outside LAM
  • Develop a national network, connecting isolated workers
  • Create guidelines for supporting grant-funded workers through position design and beyond
  • Create guidelines for review of funded projects
  • Create an advocacy toolkit to empower workers, managers, and funders
  • Honestly evaluate our relationships to power

Most importantly, workers must build solidarity inside and outside LAM.

 

THE WORK CONTINUES

In the second meeting of the Collective Responsibility forum, “Practices,” participants re-convened to understand how mission, regulatory, and legal frameworks shape current granting practices around labor; understand shared and individual goals of funding organizations; and develop a framework for actionable, concrete guidelines on grant labor practices.

After reflecting on the first forum’s outcomes, reviewing funder documents and opportunities for improvement, and hearing from managers exploring the extent of the problem and ways to make change in their own institutions, the group determined four areas of focus for the rest of our time together. One subgroup drafted shared language around grant application guidelines and reviewer guidance. This will soon go out for feedback and is intended for use at multiple funding institutions.

Longer term projects include an advocacy toolkit for those seeking to change the status quo, from contingent workers to managers; structures for contingent LAM workers to connect with each other; and a guide to talking about Collective Responsibility and related labor projects at work. As we develop these outcomes, we invite all those in the LAM community to join us in seeking equity for our contingent colleagues, whether they are employed on a grant-funded project or in other term-limited, under-classified, or precarious positions. The responsibilities we identify fall to administrators (and those with other forms of institutional power), funders, and the rest of us—the workers. No matter your job, you can be a part of the work. Look for calls for participation on Twitter, listservs, Slack, and through our Google Group.

While the white paper informs the further work of our project, it can go so much beyond that. Collective Responsibility and the DLF Labor Working Group are just two of many projects that LAM professionals can join to participate in this work. In the past few years, more and more groups have formed or turned their attention to labor issues in this field, particularly in museums and archives. The Society of American Archivists’ (SAA) Issues & Advocacy section shared results from a recent survey on temporary labor; the SAA Salary Transparency spreadsheet emerged from conversations at the recent 2019 SAA conference, following the lead of museum workers; and the UCLA Six were recognized with an SAA Council Resolution as an excellent example of the power of collective action. Workers across cultural heritage and knowledge professions, from librarians, archivists, and museum workers to adjuncts and graduate students, are partnering with traditional unions. Recent unionization efforts have brought us together with service industry workers (SIEU), auto workers (UAW), and government workers (AFSCME). The more we connect, take action, and demonstrate the impacts of contingency and precarity on workers, institutions, the field, and our communities, the harder it becomes to ignore. It demands a response.


Ruth Kitchin Tillman is a co-PI of the Collective Responsibility project and works as the Cataloging Systems and Linked Data Strategist at the Penn State University Libraries. Her research and service agendas focus on improving the working experiences of new professionals, from technical onboarding to labor conditions.

Sandy Rodriguez is a co-PI of the Collective Responsibility project and works as the Assistant Dean of Special Collections & Archives at the University of Missouri–Kansas City Libraries. She has held consecutive grant-funded positions for almost five years, as a contingent project manager supervising other contingent workers. Her experiences have led her to speak on the challenges of managing grant-funded projects, particularly focused on labor concerns with position design and the role of identity in these contexts.

We would like to thank our co-Investigators and white paper coauthors Emily Drabinski, Amy Wickner, and Stacie Williams for their comments and edits on this piece as well as their critical work in planning and facilitating the forums.

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