Monday, February 25, 2013

Pink-Collar Ghetto

Secretaries, customer service representatives and librarians all have one thing in common, all are pink collar jobs and all are part of a growing trend of “emotional labor” that is expected in the service industry.  That service sector jobs employ high numbers of women, and are usually unstable and offer low or no benefits is not a coincidence.  Historically women have worked outside of the home only to the begrudging collective approval of male breadwinners.  Service industry jobs were created for women and meant to exploit women’s natural aptitude towards service.  Not only are these jobs lower paying and less stable than many other industries, they are also more emotionally taxing.

Librarianship is no different.  While this profession requires an advanced degree in library science, it also requires service with a smile. By many professional standards the pay is quite low, with median wages for librarians at about $40,000 in 2009. Not by chance, this profession employs high numbers of women. As a graduate student in library and information studies, service is not merely taught so much as ingrained   This is a core competency of the profession, and one that I think is keeping librarians in bottom ranks of professional salaries and reputation.

While I believe that service should continue to be an integral part of the profession, we have to see beyond merely maintaining library user services and look for the value of librarians’ expertise in libraries. As information professionals we should be teaching and creating rather than simply responding to questions. It is in reference services (i.e. a person coming up to the desk and asking for something) that I think librarians set themselves up for an “affective labor” moment. In any other professional realm, a receptionist or assistant is the person sitting behind the desk or booth and responding to first-tier questions and inquiries.  Instead, in libraries the librarian herself is at the information desk. This means that we are not only answering in-depth reference questions, but also telling people where the bathroom is located.  It is a waste of the librarian’s education, skills and emotional output. It is one of the reasons we are regarded as clerks and filing secretaries.

Guidelines for librarians entail “Approachability, Interest, and Listening/Inquiring when providing reference service in a traditional in-person service setting.” We are asked to make ourselves approachable, friendly, and interested in the user’s needs.  And I think that we should be. But I also think that we need to look at other ways we can serve users outside of in-person question and answer sessions. Face-to-face service is important, yes, but there are many other aspects of the profession that require skills and education - such as developing collections of books and databases, creating online content and producing library programs. It is this lack of awareness that has relegated us to secretarial positions in the minds of the public.

As a pink-collar profession that serves the entire public (unlike nursing and teaching), librarianship is in a unique position to redefine the terms of “women’s work” and allow people to see that firsthand. And we can start by moving away from the reference desk and into creating more content. Almost all academic librarians are required to publish pieces in scholarly journals, and I think that this should be a cornerstone of the profession, along with teaching and creating user content for library websites. These skills and abilities are the means towards moving from unstable service positions to better paying jobs that are not constantly under threat of obsolescence by city and state governments. This is also a way to make the work that women do more impactful. Our work is not less valuable than that of other professions, but instead of service with a smile, we need service with a rationale. 

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