ANTIPODEAN PROFESSIONAL STRESS - THE INFORMATION WORLD IN MICROCOSM?
G. E. Gorman, Editor, Library Link
In the New Zealand and Australian professional press an increasing number of information sector jobs are short-term, limited contracts or part-time (up to 20 hours per week). This is especially true in the public sector. In the private sector, which in both countries has been given incredible latitude under successive conservative governments enthralled by the profit motive and distrustful of unions, information jobs may offer better pay, but other conditions are frankly appalling - a 45-50 hours is becoming normative, and dismissal may be almost instantaneous. Even staid old universities have been sucked into the whirlwind of economic rationalism, with many formerly tenured positions now short-term contracts, and much work contracted out to sessional employees. In universities we may pay lip service to the social contract and a ‘fair go’ for all, but in reality every academic manager is just a manager. ‘Rationalise’, ‘downsize’ and ‘outsource’ are the key terms in LIS employment Down Under, whether in the public service, private sector or education.
In the face of this now well-entrenched onslaught on the working conditions of information professionals, our professional associations (the Australian Library and Information Association, the Library and Information Association of New Zealand) seem pretty ineffectual, incapable or disinterested - it is difficult to know which is the most applicable term. Whereas at one time such associations, while clearly professional, looked after member interests by lobbying vociferously for better working conditions and aggressively representing members with employers, now the best they can muster is an industrial officer who monitors employment conditions and offers generic advice. This genteel approach is, I suppose, pleasing to employers, but to the workers at the coalface it matters little.
The ironies in this scenario are manifold. First, better quality graduates are meeting increasingly unfair working conditions. Our graduates are now brighter than ever, optimistic but practical and hard-headed, and very good value to their employers - a generalisation, true, and there are glaring exceptions (a colleague asked to comment on one of our recent graduates advised the prospective employer, ‘don’t touch her with a barge pole’), but for the most we academics are privileged to work with such committed cohorts of students. Should we tell them about the workplace anomalies they will encounter as information professionals, that they must be ever vigilant when it comes to dealing with their employers, that they must be prepared to be exploited and have unrealistic demands placed on them, and that their professional association (should they join) be largely ineffectual in relation to employment conditions? Probably not - it seems too cruel a task. In any event they learn quickly enough.
Second, we are told that this is the Information Age, that we are working in a ‘knowledge economy’, that information is the key to success, freedom, profit, a quality lifestyle. The assumption is that professionals geared to the needs of the Information Age might be respected for their knowledge, abilities and skills. Reality bites - respect is given to the high-flying entrepreneurs who, as likely as not, are basing their success on the unrecognised and under-valued skills of their information managers. Does Bill Gates understand that it is the librarians, information managers and knowledge workers who are the key to his success? It seems unlikely. But perhaps this is little different from the Industrial Age, when the J.P. Morgans and Rothschilds were more respected than the Brunels and Stevensons of the world.
Third, and this is the most worrying irony, the information workforce in terms of those who work as professionals in institutions such as libraries, as distinct from the ‘techno-boys’ who do short-term contract work for whomever offers the biggest pay packet, is an ageing population. Students entering LIS programmes are generally older than in the past, often people who are re-skilling after some years in teaching, nursing, or non-professional jobs. These are people with considerable life experience, yet they are treated by employers as if they were fresh-faced graduates. They are mature adults with families, mortgages and all the other baggage that comes with maturity, and they can ill afford to work in a series of short-term contracts; they need job security and a position with a future. What they are offered is a three-month contract and the certainty that they will receive nothing in the way of superannuation, holiday entitlement or any of the other perks that we have a right to expect from employment.
What are the solutions? We will not be changing the way society operates, not while the conservatives are in control and Labour governments care more about business confidence and the value of the dollar than they do about the social contract and employee rights. But we can, in a small way, work for change.
First, we can encourage our professional associations to become much less the genteel clubs or lobby groups concerned more with image than with rights; we can insist that they represent their members more aggressively as trade unions, or we can join associations that will do this for us. It is instructive that, 16 years after having left the UK, I retain my Library Association membership in part because I believe that this is one of the very few bodies that can effectively represent my best interests as an information professional, and this cannot be said of many other such bodies for information professionals. I don’t need a cosy club; I need an aggressive professional body that will stand up for my rights, much like the medical associations and law societies represent their members.
Second, we also, as individual information professionals, must work to ensure that our employers recognise the key tasks we perform in achieving whatever their particular goals are - profit, efficiency, client satisfaction. If this is the Information Age and we are the professionals with the skills to succeed in it, then we need to make certain that others are aware of this. Simply getting on with the job is not enough; people need to be told, distasteful as such self-promotion may be, that we are getting on with it, and doing so very well indeed. Then when we say that we deserve more, those in control might be inclined to take us seriously. And why not strive to be among ‘those in control’? Librarians become MPs, senior civil servants, senior managers - such people can facilitate change for their colleagues as long as they choose to remember their own professional roots. (In academic circles, however, librarians who become senior university administrators seem intent on denying their past, much like St Peter denied Christ.)
Third, as reflective practitioners we can take seriously our professional ethics. That is, where professional codes of ethics or conduct exist (and they do in most developed countries) we can be familiar with the expectations they embody and ensure that we and our employers meet these expectations - we do not make do with second best, but we perform our duties to the highest standard, and this cannot be done in inferior working conditions. And we insist that we are treated as professionals, with the rights and privileges of professionals, because we are behaving as professionals, providing the best possible service to our employers and clients, informing and advising accurately and discreetly, upholding the rights of all citizens to the best quality information.