Unpleasant vibrations: Ableism and the Library Assistant’s Manual

Last week I came across The Library Assistant’s Manual (1913) via the Paris Review (scanned version of the book here), and was drawn in by the list of personal qualities one should possess in order to be an effective library assistant. The charmingly archaic nature of some (e.g. “Are her vibrations pleasant?”; “Is she willing to wear rubber heels?”) was pretty endearing, but it also gelled with my own experience – all of the librarians I know love to be helpful, and nearly all of them own an impressive array of sensible shoes.

Criteria for 'sensible' is of course, open to interpretation. Marloes ten Bhömer Moldedleathershoe, (2003).

Criteria for ‘sensible’ is of course, open to interpretation. Marloes ten Bhömer Moldedleathershoe, (2003).

Still, as charming as this is, I wanted to comment briefly on another assertion from the same manual, i.e. that –

Qualities that unfit one for library work in general are physical weakness, deformity, poor memory, a discontented disposition… (p.18)

While I’d be very surprised to hear this kind of language spoken inside a library in 2014, I do find myself wondering how much of this kind of thinking persists in the workplace today.

The question of ability is on my mind of late, as I’ve been thinking about how changing the way a library operates may impact on library staff. In particular, the emergence of the “roving-reference” model, where the reference desk is removed and librarians move around the space, making use of mobile computing devices to answer patrons’ questions.

Leaving aside the possibility that getting rid of the desk might create the impression that there is no more reference service (and this is a very large thing to set aside), such a program might pose issues for staff who are not able to stand for several consecutive hours. It’s not difficult to imagine a situation where a staff member is suddenly unable to continue working – not because their skills or commitment have in any way diminished, but because of the increased physical demands a new program may be placing on them. If you’re unfamiliar with the spoons analogy for explaining life with chronic illness or impairment I’d encourage you to check it out. Coworkers may have just enough spoons to consistently get through their day, but struggle should the expectations of their role change.

Accommodations should of course be made, but this also has the potential to put staff in a difficult position, as it may mean disclosure – either in the form of a discussion with management about their health (which may negatively affect their career progression), or more indirectly, through the fact that some accommodations may be visible to other staff (e.g. providing a chair), leading to a worker being “singled out” in the workplace. Reading through the experiences described in the employment section of SHUT OUT: The Experience of People with Disabilities and their Families in Australia (pdf), it is clear that those living with chronic illness or impairment can face a host of struggles in the workplace.

To return to roving-reference as an example, I’d also note that this model has the potential to present challenges to a worker’s mental health. The traditional reference desk provides a well-defined area of personal space, and means that patrons seeking information will approach in a manner which is predictable and unambiguous. With a roving model, patrons may now come up behind a worker, grabbing or tapping them on the shoulder, or initiating other kinds of contact which can be surprising, unexpected and (in the case of physical contact) unwelcome. For staff who are living with mental illness, these kinds of experiences may be profoundly destabilising, possibly even triggering a panic attack – something which could render them unable to finish their shift, and which could have a number of ongoing ramifications for them in their workplace.

So the point of talking about this particular situation is not to dismiss the value of a roving reference desk – in practice I love this kind of idea, and thoughtfully implemented I think it can be fantastic. It’s to investigate the kinds of assumptions we make about what makes one “fit” for library service, and to illustrate the way in which making assumptions about our colleagues’ abilities may mean that we end up making changes which have serious consequences. For instance, if we unthinkingly alter our workplace in such a way that a staff member’s “fitness” for work is now predicated on their ability to stand for hours at a time, working will become more difficult for them, which has the potential to limit their career progression and effect their life in a number of ways.

There will be potential consequences for their library too, not the least of which being the possibility that they may eventually lose talented and dedicated staff (and their knowledge base, which of course includes –  among other things – a personal understanding of the kinds of accessibility issues some patrons may also be facing). I doubt that any library management team would intentionally create such a situation – as ALIA states in their Guidelines on Library Standards for People with Disabilities, “attitudes based on ignorance or misconceptions create barriers and they are most-frequent cause of inadequate or non-existent services.” (emphasis mine). 

Qualifications for library work, from The Library Assistant's Manual

Qualifications for library work, from The Library Assistant’s Manual (page 17)

Returning to the Manual, I’ve found a few more requirements for those wishing to excel in library work:

Enthusiasm for the work is a prime requisite in the librarian… (p.16)

…Library service in general demands tact, perseverance, adaptability, habits of precision and accuracy, with a fair amount of speed, ability to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials, and a strong desire to be of service.

Personal neatness, good temper, and a sense of humor are valuable assets in this as in other lines of work… (p.17)

It is of course possible to possess all of these characteristics in abundance and yet be (for example) unable to stand for several hours continuously. Which brings me to the social model of disability – the assertion that disability arises as a result of the way an environment is configured (a departure from the medical model, which focuses only on the individual and what they can or cannot do). The removal of a reference desk may disable a worker’s ability to perform their job. They’re not “unfit” for library work, rather, the environment in which they work is now “unfit” for them. And this is unacceptable, and easily avoided.

One of the reasons it’s so valuable to look at documents like the Manual is the opportunity they afford us to see our profession in a different context and examine it critically, to recognise common ideas and attitudes which continue to proliferate, and to learn from ideas which have been discarded in favor of better ways of doing things. So when we encounter an ableist statement like the quote which opens this entry,  we have a responsibility to ask ourselves: in what iterations does this attitude still exist? What kinds of assumptions are we making about the way we run our libraries in relation to disability? How can we address these shortcomings?

While more options for addressing these issues are available to workers than there were in 1913, they may present their own drawbacks or concerns. I think it’s worth paying attention to the way in which a 100-year-old attitude of prejudice persists, albeit in an (occasionally) more subtle fashion. Directly accommodating the needs of all staff could be a  low-cost, high-impact process, but a larger cultural issue remains. Given the recent discontinuation of Ramp Up and the overhauls being made to the Disability Support Pension, now more than ever we need to be particularly alert to the needs of those around us, and willing to interrogate our own assumptions and misconceptions on the subject of ability.

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2 responses to “Unpleasant vibrations: Ableism and the Library Assistant’s Manual

  1. That’s really interesting. I like your comments of the ‘roving desk’ policy, I’m not a big fan of it in libraries, shops etc. mainly because it can make the staff member more difficult to find for the customer. I hate having to peer around the shop for where to pay/inquire, with a big desk and big sign above it you know where you are. It’s interesting to read the issue discussed from the staff members point of view too, wonder if staff who work this way feel there are also positives to working this way.

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  2. Thank you for your comment 🙂
    It’s a tricky one because some people like being approached by staff, and others may find it intrusive. I think it works best when there is still a clearly defined place to go and ask questions – particularly in a public library.
    In my experience some library workers really enjoy having the opportunity to move around, talk to borrowers and experience their workplace differently, while others are less keen on the idea and prefer to take a more reserved approach. I think both styles are necessary, and allow individuals to play to their own strengths and interests. I’ve noticed that most staff move between the two extremes – someone who wants to stay at the desk on Monday may be feeling more gregarious on Wednesday (or vice versa), and it’s great to allow people that flexibility.
    Overall though, when we’re thinking about ideas such as new service models we need to be careful that we’re bearing all of our co-workers and their wellbeing in mind – it’s easy to assume that everyone’s capacities match our own, and as soon as we start doing that we run the risk of alienating people.

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