The End of Library Scut Work?

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.

July 2013- Assistant Director for Discovery & Technology Services, Joyner Library, East Carolina University August 2008-June 2013 Assistant Director for Collections & Technical Services, Joyner Library, East Carolina University

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5 comments on “The End of Library Scut Work?
  1. Chris Bourg says:

    As we are in the midst of several major collections moves, we still have plenty of work for students in barcoding, and other tasks related to moving books from one location to another. We likewise employ lots of students at our technical support desk and our circulation points. We have also used students on all kinds of project work to great success.
    Frankly, as space gets tight for us, we have increased needs for tasks required to move things from one place to another — inventorying, boxing, labeling, packing, unpacking, etc. We seem to have no real shortage of work for students and support staff. But we do have fewer base funded support staff – for example, when we opened our “bookless” Engineering library, we re-organized the staff and were able to convert support positions (serials check-in, etc.) into an additional subject librarian position.

    One final note, I prefer the term support work or para-professional work to “scut work”. The term “scut work” has a rather demeaning and potentially sexist etymology.

    • Eleanor Cook says:

      Chris, The term was used intentionally and ironically. I actually thought about it a lot before deciding to use it, and actually looked it up. It’s an awful word! But it is what was meant. Menial work as we used to know it in libraries has been replaced by new types of mind-numbing tasks. I am differentiating this sort of activity from support and paraprofessional assignments which require specific skills, training and experience. They are not the same. That is not to say that we don’t all have instances we are required to perform mindless, repetitive or physically exhausting work as part of our jobs. I have boxed up my share of bound journals, shifted dozens of shelves of volumes in my time and not always as a student assistant. Supervisors have to be able to get in there and help when a project is near a deadline or it’s a massive undertaking.

      • Chris Bourg says:

        OK- I get the distinction and appreciate your clarification. Personally, I’m still uncomfortable with using such an awful word to refer to work of any kind. I am just not sure how you can refer to the work in a demeaning way without unintentionally demeaning and devaluing those who do it.
        I also think StevenB makes an excellent point about the continued need for work such as housekeeping — which I dare say requires training and skills. If I were suddenly tasked with cleaning our library, I guarantee I would do it more poorly and less efficiently by far than those who do it for a living and have training and skills that matter for that job.

  2. StevenB says:

    Thanks for pointing to the Wilder article Eleanor. You may be interested in this NYT article if you didn’t catch it – How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class

    I think it can be applied to what’s happening on our libraries, as technology has eliminated the need for the jobs you describe (no one needed to maintain the Kardex). I can see technology – robotics and AI – eliminating additional library work – weeding for example – bookbots could be programmed to remove books based on lending and date of publication algorithms. The big challenge is whether higher education can afford it although some will point out that while the initial investment is high, over time vast savings will accrue from replacing human workers.

    Then there’s another level of jobs in the library we don’t often even think about – housekeeping, facilities maintenance, security, food service – not technically library work but essential to keeping quality of life services running. Those are the ones – also low paying – that I’d expect us to continue to need in order to provide a decent library experience. The big question for me is what technology will have the capacity to replace librarians – and how do we position our profession so that it isn’t easily replaced.

  3. stanley Wilder says:


    I appreciate the shout-out to my article on lower skill employment, and I’m delighted to see that StevenB has connected the NY Times article, which mines the same vein.

    As a rule, it is amazing what we Don’t know about our support staff– so little data, so little research. And yet just knowing the FTE headcounts and the total salary expenditures reveals that there are seismic changes afoot. I’d say this is easily the biggest research library staffing trend. We’ve got to understand what’s happening, and why.

    My best guess is, as I said in my piece: the rapid rise in skill requirements absolutely across the board in research libraries (and the economy in general). Average salaries have risen dramatically as lower skill headcounts fall. It’s not housekeeping that can save lower skill employment in libraries. That work is gone or going soon.

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