I recently came across a piece by a colleague that resonated with me: Stanley Wilder from one of my NC sister institutions weighed in with a post about the end of lower skilled library employment.
The idea that we may not have enough low-end clerical work for student assistants and others at that end of the skill base has me wondering. To be sure, we are definitely moving towards a predominantly electronically based collection and with that, the demand for skills that complement that realm. I agree that the student assistants and lower end staff job descriptions will need to change. But I think there will still be work for them to do. The jobs that have already gone away or are on the endangered list include such tasks as:
• Card filing – this was THE entry level job in research libraries for years. It has completely disappeared.
• Re-shelving of volumes in the stacks: This is still needed, but not nearly at the same level as in the past.
• Mail room sorting: Physical receipt of materials and mail has dropped most certainly. But not completely gone, and there are other physical plant services that our student assistants help out with on a regular basis.
• Physical processing of cataloged materials: Definitely has dropped significantly, thanks to shelf-ready services and PDA programs that focus on e-book acquisitions.
• Check-in of print periodicals: Down to the bare minimum.
• Pulling and prep for binding: Down to the bare minimum.
• Straightforward copy cataloging: Depending on the size of the institution and dependence on outsourced processing, not much left to do except perhaps cataloging of gifts and special large batch acquisitions.
Where there is still life and plenty to do at the lower level of skill base:
• Digital scanning projects. We have student assistants who have the potential skills to do the basics in this realm, with the correct training and supervision.
• Circulation desk services.
• ILL support.
• Preservation/Conservation: Those considered for employment must pass a dexterity test and show aptitude for craft work, but we will not run out of work in this area for a long time, as long we continue to maintain print-based special collections. Of course, this is mostly in the research library realm.
• Support work in remote or other storage units, including retrieval and inventory maintenance.
• Low level error reporting response and/or IT trouble shooting.
• Low level records management and archives work.
• Weeding projects.
• Database and metadata clean-up projects.
• Administrative and marketing support.
• Event planning support.
• Security services (working as a night security guard on the graveyard shift).
The students who work for us today are “digital natives” and are comfortable working with computer –based applications. Familiarity with basic office software and web searching is considered as core today as the ability to type on a typewriter was in the 1970’s. We can still pay students minimum wage to do clerical support work and they are grateful to not smell like a hamburger (still a symptom of working fast food). No hair nets needed when working in the library. We can still give them work that has some intellectual stimulation.
I am reminded of the classic dystopian novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano. Is our world dividing into those with no skills and those with all the skills? It does often seem that way, doesn’t it? If you haven’t read Player Piano in awhile, pick it up again and if you don’t know it all, check it out (from the library). Oh, and use the self-checkout machine for an ironic twist.