Service work is broken

Here’s my hot take: Service on library committees should be required for all library employees.

Relying on committees to accomplish work that is operationally necessary to the library, while also expecting (read: allowing) those committee seats to be filled by “volunteers” is a recipe for failure.

“But, if it’s required then it’s not service!” Don’t worry, I’ll get to that.

Here’s the problem: Some employees volunteer for too many committees and often do so repeatedly. On the flip side, some employees never volunteer for any committees. As a result, the same group of people tend to run the committee culture of the library year after year. To say nothing of the limited bandwidth of those employees who over-extend their service work. This becomes especially problematic when committees that are essential for library operations cannot be adequately staffed because of staff turnover, burnout, or overwork.

A case study

Recently, I ran the numbers on the committee rosters at my library. At MPOW, people serve on anywhere from 0 to 6 committees. A handful of folks serve on 5-6 committees. A handful more serve on 0-1 committee. Surprisingly, there are much fewer who serve on 2-4 committees. It’s an inverse bell curve.

Obviously, this is not an equitable distribution of labor. Setting aside for a moment the complicating factor of ex officio appointments, one would hope to see a more even distribution of committee appointments. When committee membership, however, is based entirely on volunteers, this is what you get: a handful of people carrying the bulk of the labor. Not surprisingly, the people serving on 5-6 committees tend to be the ones who also serve continually year to year. (How they manage to get any of their day-to-day work done is beyond me… speaking as someone who used to fall into that 5-6 group).

A proposal

Let’s say an organization has 50 library staff. Let’s also say there are 20 committees (working groups, task forces, etc.) with 5 seats on each. Ideally, each employee would serve on 2 committees. That would be enough to cover the labor needed to staff all of those groups.

“But, if it’s required then it’s not service!” Ok, let’s address this part.

With the exception of ex officio appointments, no one would be required to serve on a specific committee. In fact, there would be no guarantee you would serve on the committee of your preference. So in this regard, there is still the potential to do work above and beyond your job description. Secondly, each committee would have designated roles: chair, vice chair, secretary, archivist, etc. Thus, there would still be opportunities for leadership and work beyond simply showing up to the meetings and contributing to the conversation.

Mix it up

We could make this even more interesting. Here are a few ideas:

Term limits: No one could serve on the same committee for more than three years or two terms, whichever comes first. Three years is enough time to get up to speed and get into a groove. Not only does this have the added benefit of keeping certain folks from running the show, it bakes diversity into the whole system, ensuring that new ideas can arise through new combinations of people. Moreover, it allows more people the ability to experience a wider range of library operations, thus deepening institutional knowledge.

Directors/managers can’t be chair: Academic libraries outside the R1s suffer from a lack of opportunities for leadership. What if department heads, deans, and/or directors were not allowed to be committee chairs? Chairing committees could be a leadership opportunity that is exclusively set aside for non-management staff, allowing them the opportunity to hone those skills.

Opt-outs and overages require approval: Because our main goal is an equitable distribution of labor, serving on fewer than or more than 2 committees (or whatever the expectation is) would require justification and approval.

Rotating seats for ad-hoc committees: Throughout the year, new task forces or new working groups may need to be formed. Instead of once again asking for volunteers and seeing the same folks as always step forward, appoint seats based on a rotating roster. So if a search committee needs to be formed, you can appoint 5 people above their 2-committee limits, but the next time a search committee needs to be formed, you cannot go back to those 5 people until you’ve cycled through the whole employee roster. This way, you avoid the same people always working overage each year.

Ex officio

There is still the problem of ex officio appointments: people who serve on committees because of their role in the organization. For example, as the Head of Outreach, I sit ex officio on my library’s Outreach and Engagement Coordinating Committee. Similarly, the Head of Collections sits ex officio on the Collection Development Committee. What exactly is the rationale for those ex officio seats?

If the rationale is so that the lead of that operational unit is a part of those conversations, that could easily be replaced by clearer committee charges and reporting structures. For example, the vice chair of the outreach committee could be tasked with regularly reporting a summary of any meeting to the Head of Outreach; and anything requiring the department head’s approval could be sought at that time. The same would apply to any ex officio appointments that exist for the purpose of liaising.

Final thought

Notedly, this only works in a library where there are more committee seats than employees. This post is a hot take, so I don’t feel obligated to work out all the details or arguments. It’s just been rattling around in my brain for some time. I admit that committees do help to break up the monotony of my work, but when so many are operationally necessary, and yet we can’t fill those seats, then the problem is not in the people, but in the system.

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