Are Temporary Appointments a Threat to Archiving?

By Peter Monaghan

Is the archiving profession threatened by an overuse of temporary appointments that deprives entrants to the field of long-term career prospects?

Many observers of the profession agree with a few temporarily hired special-collections archivists at the University of California at Los Angeles who believe such a threat does exist.

The UCLA archivists say they are among many archivists who are experiencing harms. They have complained to university administrators, and publicly. Many fellow archivists have volubly supported their stand.

At the huge UCLA library system, the Library Special Collections department has often hired temporary archivists to try to keep up with workloads; that’s an approach taken at many libraries and cultural institutions around the United States. In a library system like UCLA’s, and that of the mammoth University of California system, over all, curators are constantly acquiring new material. Backlogs of acquisitions are always awaiting the painstaking process of preparing acquired items for scholarly use.

The UCLA archivists on temporary appointments are claiming, with the support of their union, that the UCLA library system is abusing recourse to temporary appointments, and that it’s not the first time. They say that current practices echo past excesses that were supposed to have been corrected.

In ongoing contract talks, the union’s negotiating team has insisted as much. It has reiterated the claim in bargaining that has dragged on since mid-2018. The team says it has been stonewalled by the university’s negotiators. To date, the university has said nothing publicly about its view of its hiring approach, and union representative say they have come not to expect a resolution of the dispute anytime soon.

According to the bargaining team of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT), which represents the University of California system’s librarians and also its huge numbers of non-tenure-track instructors, current practices echo those of 2013. Then, the university agreed to alter the wording of “Temporary Librarian” position contracts to specify more precisely when those were appropriate. The union pressed the case, at that time, because its earlier agreement with UCLA had allowed the university to hire more than 20 percent of its librarians to temporary appointments.

After the union intervened in 2013, the university shifted some temporary librarians to permanent appointments, but now, the union claims, the earlier “abuse” has “resurfaced again in UCLA Special Collections, where 10 temporary archivists have been employed within the last two years.”

At a July 2018 bargaining session, five archivists on temporary appointments (and one non-archivist librarian; pictured below in a UC-AFT campaign posting) asserted to university representatives that “UCLA Library is in violation of our contract.” In a stand that union reps characterized as “courageous and principled,” the archivists presented a detailed catalog of the “harm temporary appointments inflict on the librarians and institutions involved.”

In a blog post, the UC-AFT union presented the protesting temporary archivists with this photo, around the time they made their case to University of California negotiators.

Busy Collecting Makes for Protracted Archiving

The UCLA library system has one of the largest special-collections departments in the country, with the equivalent of between 30 and 40 full-time employees. The department includes Special Collections, University Archives, the Biomedical and History of Medicine Special Collections, and the Center for Oral History and Research.

At the Special Collections unit, itself, archivists process materials that five permanent, full-time curators acquire. When collections arrive in various storage media, archivists organize them, catalog them, and make them available. That may entail investigating and describing the materials, as well as undertaking preservation work on them.

Of course, the pace and backlog of UCLA special collections intake directly affects how many archivists the department needs. Keeping up with acquisitions is a problem, as at many institutions. As the archivists on temporary contracts detailed when they appeared with their union reps at a July 2018 negotiations session, a survey had revealed that UCLA special collections has a backlog of more than 2,000 collections that total more than 8,500 linear feet. Some of the unprocessed collections date back decades.

In the first half of 2018, alone, the unit’s curators had acquired an additional 1,418 linear feet of materials, and had another 800 about due.

This, the archivists testified, is the workload they are asked to keep up with. They noted that the pace and approach of the intake could hardly indicate more starkly that their work is precisely not temporary, let alone manageable.

Contracts are often renewed, although sometimes it is not until the last minute that temporaries are given a see-you-Monday or a been-nice-knowing-you.

And yet still, they said, UCLA Library Special Collections relies heavily on temporary archivists, hired for two years — before the union interventions of 2013-15, the temporary appointments had run for as little as four months — with contracts often renewed, although sometimes it is not until the last minute that temporaries are given a see-you-Monday or a been-nice-knowing-you.

Among the claims the temporarily hired archivists are pressing are that the university should make it clearer, earlier (for example, 90 days before contracts end), whether temporary positions are to be renewed. The temporaries would also like to know, when signing temporary contracts, how likely it is that the positions will become permanent.

Between 2013 and 2015, when the union persuaded university officials to agree to stricter language around temporary-position contracts and to longer temporary-contract periods, it hoped to discourage UCLA’s liberal use of temporary contracts. That, union reps say, makes it all the more discouraging that the university has again shifted towards temporary appointments of archivists. They noted that of the UCLA library’s ten temporary appointments, five were in Special Collections. And those five archivists noted that they are not engaged only in project-based or grant-funded work, but also a variety of ongoing — even, endless — tasks.

Temporary hirings create harm

That kind of reliance on temporary hiring harms the archiving profession, and archivists, according to many in the field.

In November, for example, the Society of California Archivists issued a statement of support for the UCLA temporarily appointed archivists, saying:

“The poor prospects for permanent and stable employment directly contributes to a lack of diversity amongst our colleagues, discouraging entry into our profession and driving qualified archivists to seek employment in other fields. The excessive dependence on temporary labor also harms the institutions that rely on it; the use of temporary labor causes low staff morale, deprives repositories of valuable institutional memory, and diverts precious resources to recruitment and training.

“Consequently, the rate of staff turnover and constant pressure to recruit and train new temporary employees drains intellectual and financial energy from our universities, historical societies, community organizations, government agencies, and other keepers of our cultural heritage.”

Institutions face the conundrum that many employers do: without underpaid or underprovided staff, they can’t operate, or at least must retrench and potentially lose market strength.

The Society’s president, Teresa Mora, who is University Archivist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, explained in an interview that during the last 20 to 30 years local, state, and federal government allocations to cultural and historical institutions have shrunk, and institutions have been asked to do more for less. “That’s not unique to archives,” she said, “but it’s particularly evident in the world of cultural institutions.”

At the same time, she said, “there has also been to some extent an oversaturation of the market” — archiving training programs have been turning out more new members of the profession than the labor force can accommodate.

Putting large numbers of students through graduate and training courses regardless of the availability of jobs, upon graduation, has become a common practice throughout academe. It was not always so in archiving, said Mora: “Twenty years ago, graduate work was very focused and individualized and everyone in my small cohort had a job upon graduation.”

Nowadays, “it seems that cohorts are getting larger all the time.”

Job availability, not so much.

Certainly not permanent-job availability.

It is simple market economics that that scenario provides employers with increased hiring-and-firing power. But equally, tight budgets place employers in a bind. Mora says: “As an administrator I’ve been put in the position where the only way to get a hire is to bring someone in for a temporary appointment.”

Institutions face, then, the conundrum that many employers do: without underpaid or underprovided staff, they can’t operate, or at least must retrench and potentially lose market strength.

In the context of libraries and other cultural institutions, that might mean having to slow the pace of acquisitions if archivists can’t be properly employed to process them.

The UCLA temporary hires say that the harms that are conceivable in an economic analysis are all too real for them, as for many colleagues elsewhere. With their employment so insecure, two of the six original complainants (one a non-archivist librarian) have now left UCLA for jobs elsewhere; only one has attained a permanent position at UCLA. Among the three others, one, Melissa Haley, a processing archivist (third from right in first photo, above), has lost her job — she learned at the last moment of her contract, in late January, that it would not be renewed. It had been her sixth temporary contract in 12 years. (At a recent bargaining session, some colleagues and negotiators wore a badge that asked: “Where’s Melissa?”)

One other, Lauren McDaniel, a visual materials processing archivist (second from right, above), said before Haley left that she and her colleagues remained determined, but she didn’t sound too hopeful. “At every step they [the university] have denied our grievance, and rejected our claim, and we’ve continued to take it to the next level,” she said.

Steeling their resolve, she said, was that “with the union behind us, we could bring our complaint officially to the university’s notice, and the union could protect us if there were any reprisals.”

A selection of images from UC-AFT materials publicizing the union’s campaign on behalf of the UCLA temporary hires, and the UC-AFT’s general membership. The campaign has sparked shows of librarians and archivist solidarity at UCLA and other California universities.

She said her and her colleagues’ determination is born of personal circumstances and a sense of professional responsibility: “Temporary contracts are rather commonplace, and that’s something we’re really trying to change.” Employers “don’t see it as problematic,” in part because they don’t have a clear sense of how essential archiving is to many kinds of scholarly research. “We’re trying to advocate for the value of our work,” she said.

She and her colleagues also are trying to preserve their own sense of worth and fit in the workplace, and ability to persevere there, they say. Not knowing when a contract is going to end, or whether it is going to be renewed, regardless of how well they have been performing, prevents them from making major life decisions. It makes them constantly move. It prevents them relaxing when not at work because they constantly have to look for new contracts and those elusive permanent jobs.

They are in a constant financial peril, often not provided raises, and often unemployed between contracts, including when in line for positions whose hiring process may stretch over several anxious months.

While temporary hires are in their temporary jobs, professional harms accrue. They are often not involved in long-term projects (although often they are, giving the lie to their “temporary” status). They are not reviewed, so have impaired paper trails to present to potential next employers.

All this devalues archiving — it sends a message that archivists are disposable, the UCLA temps assert. And the over-dependence on temporary hirings also places additional barriers to entering the profession. Those disproportionately affects people of color, given other entrenched issues in hiring and retention.

In addition, as the California Society of Archivists and other organizations have noted, excessive reliance on or resort to temporary appointments also harms institutions. McDaniel and her colleagues set the harms out expansively when they appeared at the July 2018 bargaining session:

It wastes time and resources because libraries and cultural institutions have constantly to recruit, hire, train, and break in new staff.

It leeches an institution’s skills, knowledge, and relationships: “Expertise is lost when we leave.” Often temps possess rare or essential knowledge, they noted: Among them was their department’s expert in evaluating and implementing new computer systems and workflows.

It distracts from an archive’s goals and priorities: not having a stable or predictable staff make-up “inhibits long-term decision making” – it prevents sustainability of programs and projects and the transfer of institutional knowledge.

It increases turnover because temporary archivists look for and, if able, take new positions midway through temporary appointments.

It disrespects donors, users, and collections because it obstructs efficient and adequate processing of incoming collections, as well as the overall work of the archive.

It violates agreements with donors, and thwarts institutions’ and the profession’s ideal of fostering open access to knowledge. “Simply put,” the five archivists said at the bargaining session, it is “unethical” and legally dubious “to continue collecting with the knowledge that there is no sustainable processing program in place.”

The practice teems with unseemly features, they said. For example, UCLA recruited them through competitive national searches, but then proceeded to treat them as disposable or at best non-essential. All the while, it has asked them to pitch in on such non-archiving library tasks as donor relations, classroom instruction, exhibitions, outreach and events, supervising graduate scholars, providing reference, creating documentation and policy, staff trainings, data clean up and migrations, systems implementation, and workflow changes.

All those tasks, McDaniel and her colleagues noted, are ongoing, none time-limited. Indeed, they said, “temporary” archivists commonly work on projects that were under way when they began, worked on by previous temporary staff. Also common is that, when appointed, temporaries had not been assigned to any particular collections or priorities, but were instead slotted in where most needed. Indeed, they said, “the scope of the work is so large that we frequently need to survey the situation and provide recommendations for how to proceed.” And, “it is openly acknowledged that our work will take longer than the length of each contract.” This is no surprise to those among them who have completed multiple temporary appointments within UCLA’s special-collections department.

They also noted that, because permanent special-collections librarians are already constantly working to capacity, library management has assigned extra, non-temporary responsibilities to temporaries, such as reference and instruction. They have commonly worked as reference librarians for eight shifts a week — the equivalent of a full day of work — sometimes on Saturdays when no permanent librarians were keen to work.

Wide Support for Stand

In July, when the news of the UCLA protest spread in the archiving community, the community responded. It emitted a collective “about time someone stood up and said this”: hundreds signed the UCLA archivists’ statement, which then served as a petition urging UCLA administators to reconsider their hiring practice.

Signers of the petition decried UCLA’s practices in such terms as “unethical and short-sighted,” “unfair to workers and disruptive to the field,” “an attack on labor rights, the library profession, and the sustainability of scholarship and communities,” and an approach that “devolves our profession into an assembly-line production facility.”

Organizations that supported the temporary archivists’ stand included the Digital Library Federation Working Group on Labor, a professional group, which said in a statement of support that the UCLA temporary archivists’ “analysis of the institutional, community, and personal harms resulting from temporary positions aligns with the work of our group.”

Another organization to raise the alarm over the practice, in response to the UCLA protests, has been New England Archivists, which said in a statement that its own study in 2016 of the prevalence of “contingent” hiring of archivists had shown the practice was “prevalent” and “widespread” in the northeastern United States.

Observers do allow that the practices occur in a broader context, one where institutions struggle to optimize their hiring of archivists and other library workers.

The causes, the group suggested, again echoing the UCLA temporaries, include chronic underfunding of institutions, strong reliance on intermittent grant funding, expansion of the gig economy throughout American employment, and “an imbalance in the supply of and demand for trained archivists.”

As Karen Adler Abramson, the president of New England Archivists, said via email: the archiving world readily allows that contingent employment is “both valuable and problematic at the same time.” She said many cash-strapped archival repositories would be hard pressed to remain in operation without relying on temporary appointments. And, she added, “term employment can serve as an entree into a highly competitive job market, as well as hone professional knowledge and skills.”

But none of that, she said, excuses using temporary postings “as a means to circumvent the creation of stable, professional-level, and benefited positions.” She added: “This form of contingent employment, we see as detrimental to the profession and as a source of great concern.”

Resolution seems unlikely

In the short term, resolution of the UCLA dispute doesn’t appear likely. UCLA has not budged on the UC-AFT’s demands, and there are far more of those than simply the fate of temporary archivists. The union has been pressing a variety of claims, with virtually no progress. Bargaining began in April 2018 over a contract that expired in September. Martin Brennan, a copyright librarian at UCLA who is on the UC-AFT bargaining team, said: “The university is comfortable dragging things out, which is unfortunate. We’re trying to get to a deal but we’re willing to stick it out.”

The union is fighting for a variety of concessions from the university system. Those include pay that permits residency within reasonable commuting distance of University of California institutions. Also being negotiated is academic freedom for librarians, and its associated guarantees; in response to that demand, the UC system insists that should be granted only to “instructors of record” of courses of instruction, not to librarians, even those who might be dismissed for research-related advice they give to scholars or students.

As numerous as the union’s bargaining items are, the issue raised by the UCLA temporaries is far from lost among them, Brennan said: “We recently asked our membership which are the more important of about a dozen issues that we’re bargaining for, and salary was very high, but the temporary archivists’ situation is right below that.”

In January, the UCLA temporaries’ grievance shifted to the arbitration phase. Meanwhile, union-management bargaining has become more pitched, and more militant, as it often does before agreement is reached. The union, in anticipation of a protracted struggle, has begun building a strike fund. Not just hard-nosed union reps are pushing the firm stand, but also many librarians, belying their reputation as retiring types.

Within that broader struggle, the UCLA permanent-temporary archivists epitomize an employment phenomenon that has rapidly pervaded American academe: reliance on “contingent” employees, their jobs never secure. At present, some 73 percent of American academics are not tenured or in a tenure-track teaching job.

It’s a shocking statistic, but it has been coming for 20 years and more. A significant turn away from that mode of hiring doesn’t seem likely — not in teaching ranks, and certainly not in support staffing.

The administrative ranks should be OK.

Teresa Mora of the Society of California Archivists says the profession has not come to terms with the issue, nor even adequately discussed it: “I don’t think we have really had frank conversations on the issues.”

Certainly it is not new, she says: “I’ve been part of this conversation before; every once in a while it comes to a head.”

UCLA and other archivists and librarians seem determined to keep it on the boil, this time around.

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