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Library Sweatshop: A View From the Bottom

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At UCLA there is a relatively new building on campus--the Southern Regional Library Facility (SRLF), a fortresslike edifice half-sunk into a hillside. In case of earthquake or nuclear attack, it is widely recognized to be the safest place on campus. At least for books.

It is a multimillion-dollar “state of the art” repository. In a huge central workplace, more than 20 computer terminals are separated with walls on two sides, to prevent “distractions” (i.e., conversation among operators). In fact, talking is official discouraged for those who must stare all day and all week long into the terminal’s pale-green glow. Production quotas are enforced (so many books per worker per hour). A worker who fails to meet the quota will be invited to seek other work.

Here, then, in this futuristic installation, the library--a venerable institution linked in legend and in fact to human hope and enlightenment--has become at last a factory assembly line.

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Overseeing the vast SRLF work space, ostensibly to prevent thieves from absconding with valuable books (and, perhaps more important, with computer gadgets), are two video cameras strategically placed to monitor any suspicious activity in the workplace. While employees had been guaranteed that the cameras would function only for nighttime security of an empty building, the cameras remain on at all hours. Active monitors may be checked at any time in a room close to the SRLF management offices. After a recent break-in, the entire staff was fingerprinted.

Endlessly scrutinizing obscurely coded lists and data is tough enough when the lists are on paper. To have to perform this task on a shimmering computer screen under video surveillance tests the limits of perverse imagination. Rightly or wrongly, I was informed by one of my superiors that the recording monitors would be linked to the campus police. Certainly, no one ever promised that typing catalogue cards in the old days was thrilling, but at least it didn’t entail the machinery of a police state.

Nor did it destroy your capacity to read books. Like many arts and humanities graduates who have had difficulty securing jobs in their chosen fields, I decided in 1985 to look for work in a library. Naively speaking, I “like books.” Libraries, I thought, were special places, sacred repositories of learning and knowledge, bastions of hope and pillars of human justice and dignity. All that stuff.

Little did I know that in today’s world, reading a book and working in a library could be mutually exclusive.

Like most large libraries across the country, UCLA’s is committed to a complete conversion to computers for the retrieval of books and relevant data. It is well-advanced in this field and considered by many to be a model in library-technology innovations. Indeed, the university has its own computer system (ORION) and makes considerable use of similar OCLC, MELVYL and other library computer-information networks. The nearby J. Paul Getty Museum and archives has joined as a supporter of ORION’s pioneering efforts.

Imagine my distress, as an employee of the UCLA library and a lover of books, when I began to discover, incredibly, that my job at the computer actually prevented me from reading in my leisure hours. When I got home from work, my eyes were so fatigued and I was so completely exhausted that I couldn’t even sit and passively watch TV, let alone scrutinize a page of text. In discussions with co-workers, I found that I was not alone with this problem.

Indeed, “reading” a library computer is nothing like reading a book. On a computer screen, a cursory, relaxed absorption of material is not acceptable. On the contrary, the library-computer worker’s job is one of acute and relentless inspection and analysis of a convoluted maze of digits and data. Imagine sitting 20 inches from your TV set for eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, year in and year out, trying to find a missing comma in a Chinese phone book displayed in candlelight on the screen. And imagine further that the comma might be represented, variously, by a Chinese character, a Western digit or anything else for that matter, depending upon a book of rules and regulations near at hand. In fact, learning any single library-computer language is much like learning Greek or Arabic. Or relearning English with a German syntax, deconstructing the grammar formerly learned.

In this encoding and decoding process, there is an endlessly complicated amount of detail to know for any given computer code (i.e., MARC format, coupled with AACRII rules and regulations, coupled with UCLA “house” rules, various mutually exclusive PC languages and the endlessly different and demanding specifics of ORION, OCLC, etc.). Even different computer keyboards often have their own specific codes and key combinations to initiate functions.

Take all the exhausting, tedious, and menial tasks that were necessary for the orderly functioning of a major library 20 years ago, condense them under time-and-dollar pressure onto an instantly retrievable pinhead, and you find the modern library-computer workers. They are impaled on that pin.

Changes are being made continually in the various computer languages. As a “natural” factor of increased technology, ways of inputting and outputting data are constantly being “improved” and former methods rendered obsolete. To this end, weekly memos and revisos circulate throughout the library, informing workers of recent changes in codes it has taken employees days, weeks, or even years to learn. For those of you who can recognize the frustration of memorizing 5, 10, or 100 10-digit locker combinations, internalizing them until they become virtually a part your genetic makeup, imagine the day you are told that they have been changed, that a part of your genetic code doesn’t work any more.

These newly circulated memos of change are, of course, expected to be carefully filed and in some way cross-referenced in the huge volumes of rules and regulations (that no single human being has ever completely digested) for AACRII, ORION, OCLC, MARC format, and other data-based directives of the computer labyrinth. In this regard, the overwhelmed worker rarely is afforded the relaxation of a stable and familiar pattern but, rather, must learn, learn and relearn endless barrages of computer minutiae, continually decoding and interpreting their singular and multiple meanings.

As if such stress and frustration for the worker were not enough, the computer terminal also provides a treasure trove of health hazards for the hapless operator. Chronic eye fatigue is epidemic among library workers, as are backaches, cramps and a general malaise born of chronic tedium and exhaustion. And who can prove or disprove the long-term health impact of daylong radiation exposure? The officially sanctioned admission that pregnant women should not work at computer terminals never has been a popular signpost in the library environment, much populated though it is by women.

While it is usually the so-called “library assistants” and part-time students who master the computer monster, its suffocating nature is not lost on overseeing librarians. Indeed, in one recent union meeting, a UCLA cataloguer vehemently lobbied for union support in keeping bona fide librarians like herself off the terrible terminals. Her ostensible concern was the waste of her time performing menial “library assistant” tasks.

The increasingly technological nature of the library environment has heightened labor-management tensions and has widened the communication gulf within already existing personnel stratifications. At root, while ranking librarians, holders of the Master of Library Science degree, supervise the activities of the library, library assistants and part-time students are increasingly the ones who actually run it. Librarians typically achieve only the minimal level of “computer literacy” to do their jobs. Few reference librarians can fathom the full information embedded in the technical record designed by programmers and created by library assistants to catalogue or circulate a book.

This division leads to such absurd scenarios as the one enacted at a UCLA branch library on a morning when a rampaging flu bug left all of the library assistants and part-time students home sick. So specialized was the librarians’ knowledge of library functions that not one of them at work that day knew how to check out books to patrons. A handwritten sign was put up noting that no books could be checked out until further notice. Given that this ludicrous sequence of events took place in a low-tech environment of hand-printed and hand-filed circulation records, where checking out a book was no more complicated than finding the right data stamp and filing the circulation card by call number, one can only imagine the chaos that will result when the new and infinitely more complex computer circulation system is installed. The structure of the work environment of today’s libraries, segregating menial from professional tasks, and the doers of those tasks into assistant, paraprofessional, and professional classes, accords no recognition to educational backgrounds, personal interests and aspirations of the individual members of those classes. Many people with advanced degrees end up in the most menial library positions, often overseen by career library paraprofessionals who have abandoned any goals other than stalking middle-level management positions in the institution. As in any high-tech workplace, it is not necessarily knowledge, brilliance, or even competence that determines career advancement but, rather, long years of uncomplaining loyalty to the status quo. Within this scenario, Ph.D.s, actors and screenwriters between pictures, professors in career limbo et al. sit imprisoned by their unforgiving computer terminals, taking directives from people whose only agenda is personal advancement.

The resulting accumulation of tension, stress and subliminal (or blatant) animosities make libraries increasingly unpleasant places to work. It also further engenders the widely expressed stereotype (even in libraries) that library technical- service departments (i.e., computer rooms) are heavily populated with self-centered, antisocial, uncommunicative personality types who--lost in their flight from the strains of human contact--desperately cling to neurosis-enhancing tasks to preserve their emotional stability. The new age of computer obsession has in fact succeeded to a terrible degree in atomizing such workers, crushing them deeper into their mouthless holes of alienation. To work in such oppressive surroundings is to risk becoming one of them.

As easy as it may be for the casual library patron in the fairyland library lobby to follow three or four posted retrieval steps to magically locate, in seconds, a book’s data on a computer screen, behind the ominous “Employees Only” doors lies the real essence of the modern technological library.

And if you happen to sneak past those restrictive doors and look in those back rooms into people’s eyes for light or fire, you will find mostly the gray orbs of fatigue and the sullen silhouettes of people hunched in quiet desperation over a hive of buzzing terminals. You will hear the steady chatter of keys being struck in various tones to match the level of their operators’ dim satisfaction there. And, inevitably, you will find a manager--probably a librarian--who, listening to the peaceful electronic sounds like waves breaking before him, will lean back on a cement wall and whisper to you as if he really believes it: “Thank God there are people who like this work.”

Who can say, even if it were true, what job satisfaction in such an environment really means? In any case, in spite of all the propaganda spewing from futuristic-thinking library decision-makers and the endlessly “friendly” computer-system designers, the future high-tech library can expect more than the cost-effective, time-efficient management of catalogue acquisitions and circulation data: It can also expect, on an unprecedented scale, a morale problem.


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