Intersections | “Quality” Laboring and Surviving: Marginalized Identities, Adjunct Academic Library Work, and Social Worlds


By Melissa Cardenas-Dow ( | There’s nothing like talking about earning power to drive home the idea of survival. In the world of work in library services in higher education settings, survival often equates to working as adjunct, visiting, or temporary librarians. There are many reasons why an academic librarian, with a graduate degree or two or three and experience in academic reference and instruction services, would choose to work as an adjunct. The academic librarian desires more experience. The flexibility in time commitment might be more desired than the need for more income. The level of competition in the local job market might not be favorable to securing permanent, full-time, benefits-included work. And relocating might be out of the question.

Melissa Cardenas-Dow

For many adjuncts--librarians, academic department, and teaching faculty alike--survival involves taking positions at more than one institution, traveling long distances, accepting heavier workloads, not having office space and adequate access to institutional resources to fulfill their professional obligations, and, oftentimes, assuming social roles and behaviors that are not authentic, not aligned with their personal and professional identities. All of these musts are accepted and tolerated in order to meet economic obligations, to remain relevant within one’s professional circles, and, perhaps, to continue to be employed and be employable.

The higher education trend of relying on adjunct labor is not new. Neither is the common knowledge that most underrepresented individuals, minorities, and women inordinately make up the ranks of adjunct faculty hired. The recruitment and hiring of academic librarians are molded by these trends.

“Colleges hire more minority and female professors, but most jobs filled are adjunct, not tenure track, study finds.” 08/22/2016, More Faculty Diversity, Not on Tenure Track, Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Education

“Library assistants, show higher rates of diversity, with 73.3% identifying as non-white…. In 2009-2010, 87.9% of credentialed librarians identified as white and in 2000, 88.9% of credentialed librarians identified as such.” 10/23/2012, Diversity Counts 2009-2010: A Summary of Findings report, American Library Association.

“A lot of folks code-switch not just to fit in, but to actively ingratiate themselves to others. We can not tell you how many dozens of stories we got from people who work in service industries who said that a Southern accent is a surefire way to get better tips and more sympathetic customers. Apparently everyone who works in a restaurant picks up "y'all" immediately upon arriving at their job. If you can pull off the right accent in the right context, you can get all kinds of favors...” 04/13/2013, Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch, Matt Thompson, NPR blog: Code Switch: Race and Identity Remixed

In thinking about diversity and inclusion in the field of academic librarianship and library work, these trends in academic job recruitment, hiring, and retention are important. Within these employment related trends, we can see the practices that weave together the interplay between class, gender, and race, the clashing of powers and privileges, and the embodiment of dearly held, but admittedly abstract values and virtues. From noting these trends, we are led to ask the following questions--Who benefits from the trend of over-reliance on highly trained and educated but temporary workers to teach higher education courses and perform academic service work? From the trend of not providing these workers with the status and benefits we commonly say we expect from achieving high levels of education and investments in schooling? And from the trend of seeing women, minorities, and individuals from underrepresented groups pool in these insecure, precarious, contingent, low-status jobs and employment positions, which have very little chance for advancement? What do these trends mean for us as organizations, institutions, and a society? What do they say about our value for diversity, inclusion, and social justice?

I find myself asking these questions often, several times a day in fact. But they take a back seat to more immediate ones--If I take this-or-that job offer, can I make it work with my other jobs, and the travel time necessary to be at all the places I need to be? How many hours do I need to work in order to pay my housing costs, my and my family’s healthcare coverage, my and my children’s student loan debt, and my other financial obligations? Of course, these are common questions asked by most wage earners, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status. In the world of higher education labor, however, there is also the expectation that such questions are asked by those new to the academic professions and the higher education setting. Those who continue to be in such states are somehow doing (being?) something wrong and that their “wrongness” is at the root of their inability to secure permanent positions. The implication says that long-term contingent academic workers are failures, the dregs of the academic world. When we consider who the people are who are overrepresented in these precarious positions for long periods of time--women, minorities, and individuals from underrepresented groups--what then are we saying with such an implication? What are we telling these workers, in terms of the value of their labor, their personhood, their offerings, their investment in time and dedication to their own and their students’ education? What do we mean, therefore, when we say we value diversity, inclusion, and social justice in our organizations, institutions, and, overall, our society?

In order to remain viable in the world, I have learned to withhold, to be outwardly silent, though my inner world is brimming with thoughts, ideas, and opinions. From my own experiences as a visiting, temporary, and adjunct librarian, I’ve come to see my employment as directly tied to my ability to demonstrate my acceptance of my place within the hierarchy of a given organization--that of a non-essential, supplementary, and subordinate hire. My ability to continue to provide for my loved ones requires me to swallow my pride, bite my tongue, and meet well-meaning comments regarding my professional plans and employment status--extremely touchy, emotionally charged subjects for me--with bland, non-committal reactions. I also tolerate well-meaning yet offensive comments and actions concerning my age, my appearance and looks, my culture-, gender-, and status-influenced demeanor, my volunteer work, my values, and my loyalties. The exhaustion of having to juggle multiple positions to make ends meet compounds the weariness of dealing with good intentions that have oppressive messages at their core. And so I play along to survive. Adjusting my own behavior to suit a particular end, whether to ingratiate myself to those with the power to make or break my and my family’s ability to survive or to allow me to continue to fit in the world of academic library work, is something all people endure in order to keep carrying on with their lives. To survive.

While we recognize all the ways we make adjustments in our own individual behaviors in order to maintain our individual economic viability, I hope we also recognize the need for organizations and institutions to fulfill their obligations to their workers. Workers and employing organizations, through their agents (i.e., managers, directors, and deans), enter into relationships with each other. The social contract between employers and employees state more than the day-to-day requirements outlined in employee manuals and bargained agreements. Employers want employees who are engaged with their work and coworkers, while doing the labor necessary to fulfill the institution’s mission. Employees want workplaces that respect their identities and encourage their expressions. They also want employers who demonstrate trust, loyalty, and care for them in equal measure to those expected by employers from their employees. These are just some examples of powerful, yet oft unspoken and unwritten expectations within any workplace. They embody the principles and values we aspire to fulfill for each other, to uphold within our professions and our society, however contentious they may be. Such expectations also play out in the academic work environment. We call these expectations different things: “shared governance,” “principles of community,” “academic integrity.” Regardless of the words used, they often come toward the same, mutually beneficial relationship-forging behaviors, and some directly speak to the relationships between employers and employees. The social contract in the academic workplace is just one way that academia is connected to societal concerns and the social problems with which we all contend. It exemplifies that the Ivory Tower is neither set apart nor is it isolated from the rest of the world in which mere humans inhabit and survive. The higher education trend of over-relying on adjunct labor, including adjunct librarians, points to significant breakdowns of the social contract in the academic work environment. This trend is an issue about which we all should be concerned.

Resources and Further Reading

American Library Association. (2012, October 23). Diversity counts 2009-2010: A summary of findings [report]. Retrieved from

Flaherty, C. (2016, August 22). More faculty diversity, not on tenure track. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from

Fredrickson, C. (2015, September 15). There is no excuse for how universities treat adjuncts. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Fuller, R. (2016, September 20). Heartbreaking stories from academia: America's universities treat most faculty like peons, and the results are not pretty. AlterNet. Retrieved from

Gasman, M. (2016, September 26). An Ivy League professor on why colleges don’t hire more faculty of color: ‘We don’t want them.’ The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Shore, L. M. & Tetrick, L. E. (1994). The psychological contract as an explanatory framework in the employment relationship. In C. L. Cooper & D. M. Rousseau (Eds.), Trends in organizational behavior, volume 1. Retrieved from

Thompson, M. (2013, April 13). Five reasons why people code-switch. NPR: Code Switch: Race and Identity Remixed. Retrieved from

Wingfield, A. H. (2016, September 9). Faculty of color and the changing university. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from

Biography: As of this writing, Melissa Cardenas-Dow is an adjunct librarian at several colleges in the Southern California region. She continues to demonstrate her wrongness, failure, and lack of quality by providing unpaid time and labor to many equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts of the California Academic & Research Libraries Association, the American Library Association, and the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association. Currently, she has been elected to the position of ALA Councilor-At-Large for 2016-2019 and is a co-chair of the ALA Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Implementation Working Group. All in the misguided attempt to remain relevant within the world of library and information professions.