book review: cyber-proletariat

If you are interested in how technology and capitalism and workers and consumption all interact, I’d suggest picking up Nick Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex. I got it as an interlibrary loan because of Sam Popowich talking about it on Twitter, and I found it insightful and not overly-academic. (Because I guess I don’t think of myself as a particularly rigorous thinker? I get a little intimidated talking about stuff like Marxism and critical theory around actual scholars.) Review-wise, I’d just suggest reading Sam’s text above.

I will be returning to the book because I am interested in how to apply the insights he displays in my work. A lot of what I do in my job is teach digital literacy, which practically amounts to helping people figure out how to navigate the settings app on their iPads or unfriend an annoying relative on Facebook. Helping people build up the skills to be able to do things the way digital capitalism expects them to. I often find myself teaching people how to think like the machine, and I get frustrated when they can’t or won’t.

But on reflection, and in reading something like Cyber-Proletariat, I get even more frustrated with myself that I’m not helping resist this stuff instead. Instead, I lament the state of the world and the insecurity of all things while chucking senior citizens into the volcano from my slightly more protected ad-blockery vantage point.

Enjoy Arby’s.

recuperation in public

It’s been a busy summer at my place of work. My library branch has been renovated so I was off at other branches with nary a desk to call my own while working on all the projects our leadership decided to cram into the end of a five year strategic plan cycle. Now I’m back at my home branch, I have a toilet stall sized cubicle to work in, and the main time-suck since June has turned out as crappy as we’d been warning everyone who had any power to effect change we could. (We filled spreadsheets with the software’s failures to deliver what was on our RFP, but it remained awful.) Now because the public hated it as much as we did, the library’s going back to the old discovery layer meaning that all that work our team put in was ignored and then proven right but still ignored because we didn’t cc the mayor with our complaints.

It’s hard to be really enthusiastic about work in this kind of situation.

But for some reason, I’ve been having a good week. I think it’s just that the branch is open now. I’m not in a caretaker role, intruding on someone else’s space. This is my branch where I get to do my programs and talk to my users. It’s one of those things that sometimes makes me feel a bit like I shouldn’t be a librarian, that emphasis on “My” stuff since we’re supposed to be all about sharing and collaboration and have no egos and not give a fuck about not having an office.

It’s probably just that the branch is open and even though we have a third of the books we did pre-renovation and the place is echoey as fuck, there are people in the library. People I can help. Doing that front-line helping is the thing that gets me through all the behind the scenes workplace shit.

Put me on the desk; I must be some sort of public servant. (Plus it gets me out of that fucking cubicle.)

#precarityis what happens to the best minds of my generation

My fellow librarian (and Tolkien nerd-king) Myron (of Bibliocracy fame) is tweeting about precarious work under the #precarityis hashtag. It’s an important issue that goes far beyond libraryland, but that’s what I know because that’s the kind of job I’ve looked for recently, so that’s where this post pretty much mucks about.

One of the basic precarity issues, and this is something that people who aren’t lower mainland librarians sometimes don’t get, is the prevalence of no-guaranteed-hours librarian jobs in and around Vancouver. These jobs aren’t things you can count on to actually pay your rent. You might be able to cobble together enough shifts to do it, especially if you’re working for multiple library systems. Maybe you can snag a maternity leave term position to cover for a year, but then you get kicked right back to picking up shifts where you can.

Those on-call jobs are a terrible thing to do to workers and it’s bullshit that library systems are built on exploiting them. In my library system (which is not perfect by any means) we have three (I think) such positions, but the vast majority of librarians are full-time unionized workers with benefits and pensions and all that. Part of that is because we aren’t as desirable a workplace as Vancouver et al. And this is why I no longer live in Vancouver, though I like it more than any other city I’ve called home.

I hate that argument so much. When I tell people “Well, I went where the job was” that makes it sound so easy, like there’s no cost for these benefits. That everyone else could do it too, and if they don’t they’re dumb. Fuck that.

I am one of the absolutely fucking lucky ones.

Like any job some things suck and some are pretty good about mine, but I don’t think everyone could or should have to do move to a small town where they don’t know anyone in order to make a living doing meaningful work. I do not like the town where I live, but I don’t have to worry about my bike being stolen and losing shifts because without it I can’t afford to get to work. I have to travel five hours to hang out with my friends, but I have health benefits.

I’m adaptable enough to have an internet social life and not be totally depressed. I think of this job in this town like being in China. I did that for two years and didn’t even have any English books to read. But I’m weird like that, and that’s not how everyone else is. I also have no dependents and I’m one of those assholes who isn’t burdened with student loan debt. Like I said, absolutely fucking lucky.

Which isn’t to say it doesn’t suck. I wish I lived in a place where I had friends, or at least people who shared my interests (which aren’t hunting and fishing). Avoiding that whole on-call librarian bullshit is a good economic strategy, but it’s not like I want a life lived by the most self-involved economic strategy. (Which, yes, boohoo. Privileged dude isn’t feeling socially fulfilled. Let’s all stop and pay attention.) The way this insidious system sneaks in is to make me feel like one of the lucky ones now, so how could I ever leave? I should be damned grateful. If I lose this job what happens next?

This is how you make a timid workforce that won’t challenge any sort of status quo. I had my run-in with my place of work last year and you’d better believe I backed down from fighting my intellectual freedom battle because I did not want to be fired. (I maintain that the most impressive thing about Myron’s rabble-rousing library activism is that he does it without any professional security at all.) Public librarians don’t get tenure. We tend to have unions, but for some reason changing the way this workforce is structured isn’t a priority. Around Vancouver most librarians I know and graduated with, get to work as much as they can today to get through the drought tomorrow. Catie writes very well about what the precarious life does to a person’s psyche even once they’ve got a good job.

So yeah. It’s a terrible time to be a lot of things. You should read Sarah Kendzior‘s Al Jazeera stuff on how this plays out in academia. Some people can get by, but secure employment is a thing of the past for most everyone who hasn’t pulled up the ladders behind them. It hasn’t always been this way and it shouldn’t be now.

book review: still a man’s world – men who do “women’s work”

I heard about Christine Williams’ book Still a Man’s World on Twitter in the context of discussing how silencing within the profession of librarianship works. It was a fascinating read, and even though it was written almost 20 years ago, everything but the contemporary stats still seem relevant (at least in regards to librarianship).

The book talks about how gender works in four predominantly female jobs: librarian, elementary school teacher, social worker and nurse. There’s a chapter on how these professions became associated with women (previous to the late nineteenth century these were populated by men) but the bulk of it is a sociological analysis of what it’s like to be a male in these predominantly female professions, and how different it is from being a female in a male dominated profession.

One of the biggest differences comes in the form of the glass escalator for males. This is the phenomenon where you find far more male administrators and other higher-ups than you’d expect from the pure demographics. Part of this has to do with promoting men out of front-line jobs to get them into a zone where tradition says it “makes more sense” to have men (like as the principal of an elementary school rather than a kindergarten teacher). Some of this has to do with how the corporate structure of even these female dominated workplaces rewards a lifestyle that puts the job first ahead of any other life-considerations.

There’s a chapter on masculinity in these professions and how that’s seen as a rare and special thing that needs to be protected and rewarded, as compared with women in male jobs who have to assimilate themselves. There’s a need to show that despite doing women’s work we’re still masculine. Obviously, this is why so many male librarians are bearded. Another thing is how males tend to self-segregate into parts of the profession deemed a bit more acceptable. So a lot of male librarians tend towards the techie side of things, or academic libraries rather than being children’s librarians.

I think some things (in librarianship at least) have changed since the book was written. There were a lot more men getting library degrees in my classes than back in the early 1990s when the people were interviewed for this book. Also, it’s kind of cute how people talk about these professions as being easy to get a job in.

It probably isn’t the most rigorous academic book, though Williams does include an appendix on her methodology that gives the whole thing a bit more oomph than mere anecdote. A cursory look at Google Scholar sees the book cited a few hundred times and not in any obviously disparaging way.

In any case, I found it very interesting as one of these men working in a “female” profession. I know I get a lot more credit (from parents and employers, actual and potential) for working with kids than a female version of me would, and I think it’s good to be conscious of that kind of thing.

about my blogging now that i’m employed

Today I started my new job. I’m now a professional youth librarian who does things like works full-time and performs storytimes and will be getting a Teen Advisory Group together and all the other cool things librarians get to do if they’re lucky. I’m excited about the possibilities (and am exceedingly aware of how lucky I am to have gotten full-time work straight out of finishing my MLIS).

One thing that’s a bit different from the last time I worked in a library is that I’m not going to be blogging specifically about where I work. It’s not a secret or anything. You can easily discover it for yourself. My name is Justin Unrau and I’m out there on the internet (usually with the same avatar). But I won’t be talking about the specifics of my day to day work the way I used to back at the cheese factory. (And yes, this means no stories of awesome encounters with library members or coworkers.)

The main reason for this is because I kind of feel like my audience here (such as it is) is made up more of fellow librarchivists these days, and these people have their own awesome stories in that vein. These librarchivists haven’t necessarily read the same books that I’ve been reading, and they might have a use for my reviews (such as they are). And they might find it useful to read about libraryboxes and piracy or storytime plans and whatever. The shift in audience means a shift in content, is what I’m saying.

I’m not saying I’ll stop cussing in my book reviews here (even in reviews of kids’ books). I’ll try to keep talking about things in the greater world of information that make fine upstanding librarians squirm. That’s all good. I’m just putting up a bit of separation to make it very very clear that my new employer is not responsible for, nor do they condone, anything I write here. I might write about programs that I create in my job (or for presentations at library conferences or what have you), but the writing here is done on my own time for my own professional/personal development.

I guess the big takeaway here is that if you are here for the book reviews, awesome. Those’ll stay the same. There’ll probably be weeklyish posts about more generally library-related topics interspersed with them. If you’re here for rollicking tales of customer service interactions, this isn’t the source it used to be (and truthfully hasn’t been in years). I suggest The Society for Librarians* Who Say Motherfucker if you are so inclined (though it does seem much more petty than I feel it used to be).

Anyway, now that I’m not jobhunting I hope to make the blog better. I’ve got plans for zine workshops, lego, science fiction and circuit-bending and I’ll share them with you. I’m going to try to make my book reviews a bit more helpful too. Thanks for reading.

book review: disciplined minds

I read Jeff Schmidt’s book Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives because of a conversation between a bunch of newly-/almost-graduated librarchivists I know talking about the terrible job prospects in our chosen field. Now, a week from being done with my library schooling, the book was an interesting perspective what this training had prepared me for and how.

The big thesis of Disciplined Minds is that the main difference between a professional and a nonprofessional is that non-professionals are only allowed to do non-creative things, while professionals do the creative work. This is often why people engage in the paper chase for degrees; they want to be able to do the fulfilling interesting parts of the job, not just the rote mundane things. But creative people don’t necessarily do things that their superiors want them to do, which is why they need to be professionally trained; they need to be trusted that they won’t act against the system’s interests. The book talks about how professional training is designed to make professionals into reliable servants of the hierarchical system of society’s status quo.

These students scramble to figure out the rules of the game in their university graduate department or professional school, and then they literally compete to adjust themselves appropriately. Being not merely adjustable, but self-adjusting, they are good students in the eyes of the faculty. For the same reason they will be good professionals in the eyes of their employers. These students do not simply refrain from acts of insubordination, such as challenging the training institution’s agenda or criticizing the ways that agenda reflects the needs of the larger system. Rather, they enthusiastically embrace the system of professional qualification and defend the qualifying examination. The personal strategy of these skilled submissives is to play the game: to use the qualifying examination to demonstrate on the system’s terms that they are “good” (that is, well-adapted), to be certified with a credential and to get a job with a new set of rules to submit to. In short this means integrating themselves into the system, being dwarfed by it but surviving, if not as independent forces for change in society, then at least as well-fed biological entities serving the status quo.

Jeff Schmidt draws a lot of his examples from the world of physics academia, which is his background, and I have to say that the worlds he describes are much harsher than whatever I experienced in either of my professional degrees (neither of which had certification/qualifying exams like passing the bar or whatever). But it’s still there. The first term core is really crappy at our school, filled with busy-work that serves little purpose but to ensure that you’re capable of following orders and engaging in alienated labour (work that you feel no connection to).

And then there’s the job hunt. Trying to convince people that you will be a good employee is a recipe for soul-crushing. From the book:

It is vital to the system that the losers serve the hierarchy respectfully, and not sabotage it, when they find themselves with jobs that have lower social status than the society of “unlimited opportunity” had led them to expect… Those who say “That’s life” should understand that there is nothing natural about a system that kills the spirit of large numbers of people by first putting them in a position where they need opportunity, then promising them virtually unlimited opportunity and finally making them losers.

That about sums up what it’s like looking for a library job in the current system.

I’d like to think that in general librarians are different than the professionals Schmidt describes, but I can see how we are inculcated with certain values that will help us be good workers in systems, not necessarily good individual thinkers. Librarchivism does seem to have a better focus on its social benefit to society than Physics though. And the hum of free-speech and preserving institutional memory ideals in the background does influence how we’re taught. I have friends who are beginning their training to become teachers this fall, and I’m really interested to see how their professional training experiences match up to mine (and each others’ since they’re going to different universities).

The final section of Schmidt’s book is about how to be a radical professional, and the emphasis there is on identifying as a challenger of the status quo first, not as a professional. This means having solidarity with non-professionals and challenging for what is better for society and the people we serve than our bosses. I like to think that’s part of librarianship anyway, but am not completely naïve. I’m glad I have colleagues who are more radical than me to challenge me to not just get swept up in politics as usual as I try to be an employed librarian.

All in all, a fascinating book. I’d love to see a more contemporary book like this (which is from 2000) written in the smaller-scale Canadian system.

working east

On Saturday I head to Ontario to interview Canadian librarians who’ve been involved with IFLA. While I’m not looking forward to transcribing these interviews, it’s all kinds of neat that we got grant money to send me to talk to people. I probably wouldn’t have been aware of the intricacies of high-level organizational politics without this project.

While I’m gone (till the 27th of June) I’ve actually got two other jobs I’ll be working on as well. One of them is a professional experience project, which will be fulfilling my final three credits of my MLIS. It’s a project combining YA services and techy WordPress hosting/moderation stuff, so kind of a perfect storm for my abilities and interests.

The last job I’ve got, and the one I’m being paid for is creating videos on topics like “How to make a book trailer” and “Reference interviews with teens.” We’ve got people in another department at UBC providing good equipment and technical knowhow so my main job is supposed to be scripting and storyboarding, but I’m going to be able to sneak in at least a book trailer or two as well, I hope.

I finished up my last class on Thursday and now the rest of the summer is a (busy) victory lap. I’m pretty excited about it. And hopeful I’ll be able to parlay all this experience into a job for September somehow.