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What is your work product?

I still wake up most Thursday mornings feeling that I’ve misplaced something. It’s a hangover from when Thursdays were the center of my week.

We had very distinct work products at my Former Place of Work Minus One (FPOW-1). While some projects were multi-year activities (funding and migrating to a new search engine, doing the same for our content management system, changing our content contribution model), and some were slightly abstract (raise usage, increase visibility), every day for five years I woke up with a very clear list of activities, many of them revolving around a weekly newsletter. Thursday morning (or sometimes, Wednesday night) was the moment of crisis, the Great Unveiling, when the newsletter went live, and if problems arose, a great wurra-wurra began. Our technical people learned quickly that it’s Thursday morning and they need to get out the newsletter.

This follows a pattern of satisfaction in my work life. I like a distinct work product, and I like it if my work day can focus on that work product. In the Air Force, where I worked on airplanes (and later supervised those who did), my work product literally took flight–a wonderful metaphor for my work life. Air Force work was hard, sometimes grueling, often exasperating, political, and daunting, but your work product sat on the tarmac around you. In LibraryLand, I’ve been happiest when my work life focused on clear mission-related outcomes. Call me a simple gal, but “turn a wrench, launch an airplane” works for me. It could even explain why I love to teach, because what better expression of clear work product is there than to travel along the arc of a syllabus toward a new land of knowledge for student and teacher alike?

My tension about library work is that it too often suffers from mission drift. In some libraries, the meeting appears to be the final work product. That is the only conclusion to draw when as much as 90 percent of a clocked work week is spent in meetings, and all other tasks are relegated to homework status or to stolen minutes early in the morning or late in the day. I have worked in libraries where the daily meeting schedule was so full I have had to decide between emptying my bladder and taking a sip of water or being on time to the next meeting. I have also worked in libraries where other workers would look at my calendar and tell me (not ask me) that I was available for a meeting, which they determined because my calendar said I had an “open” block of time, which of course was theirs to fill up with yet another meeting.

When the meeting is the work product, all normal workplace politics and dysfunction are transferred to the meeting structure. The life of the library revolves around who gets on what committee; which committee reports where; where meetings are held; and even whether non-members may sit in on meetings. The focus on what the meetings are to accomplish can get very hazy; it is not unheard-of for meetings to take place even when there is no agenda or known reason to meet.

All that, and yet there’s more: at one of my first library jobs, part of the work angst came from “meetings” where things were decided, and yet, the real decisions came later, at the meeting-after-the-meeting where the informal (and all male) power brokers met to decide how things would really go down–not the last time I would see that pattern in action. I wasn’t quite as distressed as my supervisor (largely because my work product at the time was not quite as tied up in the decisions from these meetings), but I felt her grief at knowing that her time was caught up in painfully lengthy meetings that in the end were charades.

So I am sympathetic to the angst Jane expresses in a recent post on A Wandering Eyre, and I’m not quibbling with her observations about generational differences (these are real; I know this because I’m really a Millenial with trifocals, wrinkles, and grey hair), but I’m wondering how much of the discouragement she feels is really about working in institutions where there are huge disconnects between the mission and the product, and where daily activity revolves around the meeting.

I don’t think this problem is unique to LibraryLand–in fact, I’m sure it’s not (and I remember one Air Force base in Germany where work dysfunction rivalled anything I’ve seen in our domain). However, it’s particularly pernicious for LibraryLand because we too often have a tenuous relationship with our mission to begin with.

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