Caught in the Crossfire: Organizational Change and Career Displacement in the University of California Libraries

Rita A. Scherrei

One result of the now commonplace organizational downsizing, restructuring, and flattening of academic libraries has been the displacement of many midcareer librarians. Adaptation to new technologies and the resultant changes in work flow and job content, as well as realignment of budgets and new management and organizational theories, are usually the reasons for the reassignments.

On the positive side, such dislocations prevent or reduce layoffs. For librarians in the early stages of their professional lives, adaptation may not be too difficult, for if there is unhappiness, there is also enough personal flexibility to find a more suitable position elsewhere. However, uprooting midcareer academic librarians from their chosen career paths and placing them in different positions more often than not interferes with professional prospects and activities, and with collegial and personal relationships. Typically, it is harder, or at least less desirable, to move to other institutions beyond a certain stage in one’s career.

The study is described in this paper focuses on such midcareer disruptions. Having observed the reactions of many librarians who had undergone administrative transfers in the University of California system, I became aware that this side effect of budget reductions and well-intentioned institutional changes can create unanticipated trauma for those affected.

Hypotheses

Informal observations and conversations led to the following framework for examination and discussion:

  • Hypothesis 1: Librarians who are transferred from a managerial position to a nonmanagerial position perceive the change as harmful to their professional careers.
  • Hypothesis 2: Librarians who are transferred from a subject specialty position to either a nonspecialist position or another subject perceive the change as harmful to their professional careers.
  • Hypothesis 3: Librarians who are transferred from a position in which a particular clientele was served to either a different clientele or a more general service position perceive the change as harmful to their professional careers.
  • Converse hypothesis: Changes in the opposite directions—toward managerial or nongeneralist positions—would be perceived by librarians as career advancements, or at least as enhancements.

To examine these hypotheses, I looked at ten variables to see how changes in career aspirations, professional activities, professional self-identity, and job satisfaction are associated with career disruptions. In addition to investigating the formal hypotheses, I explored the librarians’ attitudes toward the process of change as they had personally experienced it and asked what advice they had for library administrators managing similar staff restructurings in the future.

Population Studied

The librarians who participated in the study were all from the University of California (UC) system. Their selection was not random. I gathered names of librarians whose careers had been significantly altered by administrative transfers for organizational reasons from colleagues at the nine campuses. Thirty-two librarians of the forty-three identified agreed to be interviewed. Two of them were unavailable at the times of the interviews, so the total number in the study was thirty.

The librarians were all midcareer; a few had entered the profession as a second career and some had gone to library school after working for several years in libraries. Of the thirty, fifteen (half) had obtained their MLS between 1970 and 1974; another ten (a third) between 1975 and 1979; the remaining five (a sixth) between 1980 and 1992. The average number of work years in the UC system was fourteen. Twenty-six (87%) reported they were in their forties; the other four said they were in their fifties. Twenty-three (77%) of the career-impacted librarians were women; seven (23%) were men. Three (10%) were members of ethnic minorities.

Methodology

Individual interviews with the UC librarians were conducted in spring and fall 1995. Each interview was scheduled for one hour; the actual time of an interview varied from thirty-five minutes to nearly two hours. After initial demographic questions (covered in the previous section), I raised open-ended questions covering the following ten variables: original job at the library; career progression in the library since hiring; most recent reassignment; reason for the recent reassignment; career aspirations prior to reassignment; career aspirations now; professional interests and activities prior to reassignment; professional interests and activities now and in the foreseeable future; overall reaction to the reassignment; and overall reaction to the process of the reassignment. Finally, I asked for open-ended suggestions about managing change should similar restructurings take place in the future, and for any other comments.

Hypothesis 1 Group

Ten of the librarians’ career changes involved being removed from managerial or significant supervisory or coordinating positions to greatly reduced or even nonmanagerial roles. This group formed the hypothesis 1 group.

Of all the librarians, this group had undergone the greatest changes in professional aspirations. Seven of them had seen their career tracks moving them into associate university librarian or large unit-head management jobs. At the time of the interviews, these librarians were almost all unclear as to what they would be doing in the future. They felt derailed; most expressed great disillusionment and reduced loyalty to the library and the university. Some talked about going through a process similar to grieving, not only for their career loss but also for the loss of the relationship with the institution.

On a professional level, they had thought of themselves as managers; now they were finding new identities as reference, instructional, or collection development librarians. For the most part, their professional activities, whether in organizations or in writing and research, had been related to management. Some had decided to drop outside activities for the foreseeable future as they struggled to find new niches—usually in subject areas for which they had very little background and, in some cases, limited interest.

On a positive note, however, nine of the ten were finding a degree of satisfaction in their new positions. They expressed the need to be realistic and to get involved with their new jobs. They viewed themselves as professionals and wanted to obtain the necessary training and skills to do their new assignments well, at a level reflecting their senior librarian status. The same qualities of decisiveness and assertiveness that had contributed to their becoming managers helped them to be quite self-directed in learning new subject matter and skills.

Hypothesis 2 and 3 Group

This group was composed of ten librarians who had been transferred from one subject and/or client specialty to either a broader, generalist role or another subject and/or clientele area. For the most part, these librarians had expected to remain in their specialization or to continue working for the same client group for the duration of their careers. They had framed their professional activities and campus involvements around that assumption of career stability. They were struggling with learning new subject areas; with serving in larger, less-specialized libraries; and with working on a much more impersonal basis with faculty and students with whom they did not have familiar professional relationships. They expressed the feeling that their long years of experience and service had been devalued.

Like the displaced hypothesis 1 managers, many had withdrawn from outside professional activities and were focused on the new job at hand. They were unsure of what they wanted to do professionally in the future, if anything. In general, this group was also working hard at trying to become accustomed to their new roles. More of these librarians, however, were considering leaving librarianship as soon as they could take an early retirement or find another career. Others planned to move to a different kind of library, such as public, special, or small college, where they could resume their accustomed (more specialized or more personal) service.

Converse Hypothesis Group

Ten of the thirty librarians in this survey had undergone types of changes that they viewed as quite positive; for example, expansion of administrative or management responsibilities or movement into highly specialized roles from generalist positions. These librarians appreciated the administration’s recognition of their skills and abilities. They were actively engaged in their new positions and tended to view their career moves as promotions.

Additional Findings

Another interesting set of findings was the librarians’ reactions to the stated reasons for their displacements and to the process of job restructuring. Nearly all the respondents could identify an administrative rationale for the change. In some cases, it was budgetary; in others, it was for needed building space; in still others, it stemmed from an administrative desire to restructure for technological or other operational reasons. However, particularly for those librarians who had not adjusted to career displacement, there was great cynicism about the validity of the rationale. Many of these librarians believed that there were underlying motives behind their transfers and that the stated reason was merely, or at least partly, a “cover story.”

Nearly all the librarians, even the ones who adjusted to their new positions, believed that imposed career changes should be discussed thoroughly in the overall context of a restructured library for the future. They were not satisfied that budget or space constraints were sufficient; they wanted to understand the strategic context for the decisions that had displaced their careers and, in many cases, their lives. They would strongly encourage the university librarian and the appropriate assistant or associate university librarian to have a one-to-one courtesy call—even if brief, at least open and honest. Remarkably, that was done in almost none of the cases; not surprisingly, the librarians believed they deserved it. They also felt that their prior contributions should be publicly recognized. They knew their years of service had been valuable to the library and to faculty and students, and were sorely disappointed by the administration’s lack of such acknowledgment.

They suggested that counseling, both individual and group, be made available, and that stress resulting from career displacement be at least acknowledged by library administrators and unit heads. Many alluded to stress over career displacements spilling over to their personal lives. They talked about their feelings of powerlessness, suspicion over motives, and genuine anger at the absence of complete information and an opportunity for dialogue and input with decision makers. Virtually all of them prescribed earlier and better communication in any restructuring process affecting careers.

Conclusions

Although the population interviewed was limited to the University of California system and was relatively small, the study’s findings about harmful changes to careers warrant serious consideration. It is clear that reassigning midcareer academic librarians impacts a whole array of professional prospects, activities, and relationships. Ultimately, the reassignment, if it is perceived as a downward step or a derailment, leaves a strongly negative residue on professional and personal lives. It is possible, however, to mitigate much of this negativity if the job restructuring process is open, consultative, and placed in an overall strategic context.

Thought also should be given to training and preparation for new assignments. The shock of suddenly feeling like a newcomer after having been an expert was a key factor of stress and dissatisfaction. Although these librarians were generally at levels that enabled some of them to retrain themselves with peer assistance, formal recognition of such needs would have eased the stress of transition. In addition to benefiting the librarians, investment in training and preparation for new assignments will obviously result in productivity gains for the library. Having highly paid professionals in essence working at beginning levels represents a significant and irretrievable cost.

Finally, for these quite experienced librarians, most of them at fairly senior ranks, the human dimension often involved trauma and a resulting career crisis of uncertainty. Though they were trying remarkably hard to learn new jobs and become involved in their new responsibilities, many were left with significant residual mistrust and bitterness. They were grateful not to have been laid off, but many of them wished that the process had been kinder, more consultative, and done with a broader, publicized strategic vision.

For administrators managing change—and there will surely be more as technology reshapes collections and services—the lessons are clear: Communicate early; communicate honestly; communicate fully; communicate often. Consult to the extent possible. Invest in training. Take librarians’ careers seriously.