A librarian’s perspective on recent restructuring
The following is an opinion piece from Les Moor, associate librarian:
Over the last few weeks, news of staff reductions at the University of Manitoba Libraries has been making its way through the University, the local media, and far beyond. The news is painting a one-sided picture of reckless cuts with no consultation and apparently no regard for service quality. The University administration has been blamed for these cuts, which are being cited as evidence of its misplaced priorities. As a librarian at the University of Manitoba who has some familiarity with this issue and the events that preceded it, I feel it necessary to speak out to counter this inaccurate, unbalanced, and potentially destructive message.
The decision to cut some positions was made not by University-level administration but by Libraries’ Administration and all eight Libraries Department Heads as part of a two-day consultation and planning session. It’s my understanding that AESES was consulted not long after. In the months preceding this meeting the University Librarian visited all libraries to make all our staff aware of the budgetary challenges we were facing and everyone had the opportunity to ask questions and offer suggestions. I believe that the amount of consultation that took place was actually more than is typical in this type of situation and I have difficulty believing that any more would have been helpful.
The planning session within which the decision to cut these positions was made included a number of equally important decisions, i.e. to: 1) increase our academic staff complement; 2) increase our high-level support staff complement; 3) replace part-time positions with full-time ones; 4) address the problem of library closures due to staffing issues; 5) protect access to important scholarly resources; and 6) offer more support to emerging areas of need such as research data curation, article deposit, and mixed and experiential learning initiatives. In order to accomplish all of these things in a time of budgetary challenge we decided to reduce staff in areas of declining use so that we could increase staff in areas of growing demand. Beginning this summer we will also make more use of technologies to reduce the manual work that front-line staff have to do, including booking study rooms, checking out library materials, and handling cash and fee payments. Indeed, everything at those meetings was about growth and improvement in the Libraries except for the one thing that is actually being reported.
While the budget cut was bad news, it affected all faculties and not just the Libraries. In the meantime, the sharp drop in the value of the Canadian dollar last fiscal year led to an over-expenditure of the Libraries’ scholarly resources budget of over one million dollars. Covering this would have meant going through a painful exercise of cancelling purchases and subscriptions and believe me this pain would have been felt by the entire University community. Instead, the University administration stepped up and covered most of this over-expenditure. The suggestion that the University administration is operating on misguided priorities because of a single decision which they didn’t even make, while ignoring their highly beneficial support to the Libraries in other areas such as this, seems unjustified.
News from various sources is bouncing around the country, of the University recklessly slashing the Libraries’ budget with a resulting inevitable service crisis, when in fact the demands placed on the Libraries – and with it its staffing allocations – are shrinking in some areas while growing in others. Meanwhile, with considerable help from the University administration, we have managed to protect access to costly scholarly materials in the face of a sharp currency drop. Ironically, the one-sided message that is being heard may actually threaten our efforts to recruit for academic positions this summer because people are only hearing about cuts and may be reluctant to come to a library system that is incorrectly portrayed as in decline. I hope that more balanced communications in the future will emerge to help address this threat.
Head, Technical Services
University of Manitoba Libraries
Thanks for this. I found it very informative and appreciate the clarification.
It was not just the AESES communications that were misleading – the University’s response, equating X number of total cut positions to Y number of net FTE positions lost, just added to the cloudiness.
The University response to the message being delivered by the media could have been less defensive and could have provided more of this information up front. Instead, uncertainty and confusion persisted.
The June 27 edition of UM Today News contained a letter on the recent changes in libraries where 40 AESES staff members lost their jobs. I’d like to respond to some of the points made in that letter.
While libraries are indeed changing, that change need not and ought not include a loss of focus on the libraries’ core resource: the people that make our libraries accessible. Regardless of the form the UM’s collections take – be it electronic, paper, or otherwise – if library patrons don’t know how to find and retrieve those resources, our libraries can’t be used to their full potential, and teaching and research will suffer.
The work done by those whose jobs were eliminated largely involved tasks that are essential to the well-being of our library system: running circulation desks, processing and distributing library materials, and acting as a general aid to library patrons. While technology and innovation are important, online solutions still need a human hand to ensure that new tools are accessible and being used effectively. Contrary to the notion that in the online world, information is unproblematically available at the touch of a button, the Board of Directors of the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians writes (in a letter to President Barnard, copied to UMFA): “Academic librarians not only connect users with the information they need, but more importantly, they help students situate, evaluate, and contextualize such information. Critical engagement with information is essential to a democratic society, and in a democracy, universities play a key role in developing an
After laying off 40 library technicians at the 1 and 2 levels several library technician positions were promptly posted. It’s worth noting that in all of these new postings, almost every one of the key responsibilities listed in the job descriptions has to do with aiding UM library patrons or UM academic librarians in their own work with patrons. This clearly demonstrates the administration’s acknowledgement that people, not technology, are essential to our libraries. Also of note is that while there were only 6 such jobs posted, the positions lost amounted to upwards of 16 full time jobs.
UMFA’s concern is that regardless of the algebra of reorganization described in the article, both front-line service and librarians’/archivists’ core activities will suffer. The stresses on librarians and archivists are widespread and intense, but they are not felt uniformly across the libraries. Some units and individuals are feeling the squeeze much more acutely, so it is understandable that there are different perceptions of the extent to which libraries are supported. My concerns about the integrity of the libraries—and thus the university—are based on my experiences over the past year as president of UMFA: time and again, in meetings with large numbers of my colleagues in the libraries, and in correspondence with them, I hear that UMFA members are asked to do the work of two or more librarians, that more and more duties are added to their job descriptions, and that people are deeply frustrated with the lack of clarity coming from the administration on the direction that the library system is taking.
This lack of clarity comes from this administration’s interpretation of what consultation means. Often, Deans and other administrators will ask for input that they then largely ignore. We’ve heard from service librarians that the majority were not consulted about the changes in their staff complement, and were given very little time and very little information about how to prepare for the cuts. I speak here both as an academic and as an executive of the union: when the administration comes to UMFA for advice, very little of what we offer is taken into account. This is particularly frustrating given the amount of care we put into assessing the administration’s plans based on our first-hand experience in the classrooms and in the libraries.
Like all academic units at the UM, libraries have been experiencing budget cuts. It is UMFA’s position, however, that these cuts reflect decisions made by the central administration more than they represent an actual budget crisis. It’s the administration as a whole, and not any particular unit, that is pushing the UM away from what should be the institution’s central focus: supporting a flourishing of teaching and scholarship in line with the needs and abilities of UM students and staff.