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Bumpy Inroads

When I completed my library degree at University of Toronto last year, I kept a spreadsheet to track jobs I applied to. Looking through those listings now—part- and full-time jobs across North America in public, academic, and government libraries and archives—I see that all were somehow precarious, with assignment durations ranging from four months to three years. This was not a conscious choice. But in an era of austerity and budget cuts, with a gig economy shaping the market for all types of goods and services, precarity is often the only choice for new librarians.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees found that more than half of employees in Canadian libraries, both public and academic, either work in precarious roles or are at risk of falling into less stable roles, and that women and minorities are disproportionately affected. This certainly feels true; since graduating, most of my classmates have temporarily relocated for contract work, patched together multiple part-time jobs, or bounced from contract to contract.

Temporary, part-time, and casual work arrangements certainly have their benefits. They offer the ability to assert independence and control over your work and life, or an opportunity to try something new. I tried to embrace this perspective in my job search, telling myself things like, “This part-time position will be a great learning opportunity,” “This contract job could allow me to try out a new city,” and “If I don’t like this gig, at least it’s not forever.”

This flexibility can be empowering—when it’s a choice. However, when I looked closely at my own needs as a new graduate with student loans, I realized that flexibility wasn’t a top priority. What I wanted and needed was a full-time, permanent job with a stable salary, benefits, and opportunities to grow as a library professional.

My current job, though not permanent, is a unionized position with time off, health benefits, and access to professional development funding. I feel lucky that I can take a sick day or attend a conference without losing income.

Relationships and institutional knowledge are forfeited when a contract ends.

But what about the part- and full-time positions that don’t offer such benefits? That gap leaves the most vulnerable library workers—those dealing with the stress and logistical challenges of unstable employment—without access to mental health resources and services to help them cope. This is an excellent recipe for burnout, before a career has even taken off.

Unstable work environments also affect the services we provide. It’s harder to build sustainable programs, projects, and services with temporary staff. Relationships and institutional knowledge, both central to library work, are forfeited when a contract ends.

I’ll be on the job hunt again when my current contract expires, looking for opportunities that meet my needs as well as my interests and experience. I wish I could consider only permanent positions, but that’s not a realistic option for me or many other new librarians who can’t afford to wait for the perfect opportunity.

Precarity within and outside of libraries is tied to larger structural forces, and no one library or librarian can craft a universal solution. But at conferences and on social media, I see a growing movement of rich conversations about precarious work in libraries. These conversations—through Twitter handles like @OrganizingLIS and resources like the Digital Library Forum’s Labor Working Group—have given me a framework to examine my own experience and made me more mindful of colleagues whose situations are less visible but equally precarious.

I’ve been fortunate to work with senior professionals who support and advocate for me and my fellow temporary and part-time colleagues. They’ve set a tremendous example as I chart a path for my library career and, I hope, advance into more permanent work. In order to create sustainable working conditions for a new generation of library professionals, we must work together to share strategies and speak out for and with those who have less power.

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