Responses & Retrospectives: Toward Collective Change, A Response to Precarious Labor Practices and a Roadmap to Creating Ethical Grant-Funded Positions

This is the latest post in our series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession. Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives?  Please email the editor at with your ideas!

Sandy Rodriguez is an archives administrator with a background in audiovisual archives, digital repositories, and digital preservation. Her experiences as a contingent worker of color have shaped her views on labor ethics, identity, and power. She imagines a world where we can each show up as our full selves to build connections and shape perspectives that work toward collective justice.

Ruth Kitchin Tillman writes, quilts, and spends her workdays stitching together technical systems. Her research and service agendas focus on improving the working experiences of new professionals, from her EADiva website to technical onboarding to labor conditions. She envisions a world where human flourishing always comes before the bottom line.

If you started working in archives or libraries in the last 10 years (or even before that) you know the drill:

  • See a promising job post come by on a listserv;
  • Notice that it’s term-limited and possibly grant-funded;
  • Wonder about the salary, which is almost never posted, and whether it has health insurance;
  • Perform a mental cost-benefit analysis based on location, how badly you need work, and whether you can pull off a move with no reimbursement;
  • Choose whether or not to apply;
  • Repeat.

Some of us have taken the jobs. At times it’s a great stepping stone toward secure work. More often, it leads to years of moving and churn, forcing. For others, family responsibilities and stable employment elsewhere have delayed or even ended our preferred careers because we simply can’t afford the risk.

We want to change these norms and expectations. By publishing “Do Better” -Love(,) Us:  Guidelines for Developing and Supporting Grant-Funded Positions in Digital Libraries, Archives, and Museums, we provide principles, guidelines, and conversation that we hope will guide that shift.

Ask for What You Need

Our group came together in early 2017, inspired by Stacie Williams’ DLF Forum 2016 keynote “All Labor is Local” and our own experiences as workers, as grant reviewers, and as people who wanted the best for our peers. We identified grants as an early focus, not because they’re the only source of precarious labor, but because funders set requirements which applicants and recipients must follow.

We guided our work by the principle “ask for what you need.” Is it better for a funder to support 5 jobs which create poor working conditions or 3 which ensure workers have equitable salaries and critical benefits such as health insurance? Instead of encouraging a climate of lowballing in an attempt to get funded and destructive positions for more workers, we want funders and institutions to focus on what’s actually necessary to make a good position.

Treat Colleagues with Respect

It’s not just about the money/benefits. Within the profession, we all have responsibilities to each other. Building on the Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, we made sure to address ways in which these positions should treat the workers in them as our colleagues in creating the outcome of the grant. These range from crediting workers to ensuring that they receive orientation about institutional knowledge on the project’s history and adequate supplies.

Respecting colleagues also looks like treating each other as people with a past and future. The excellent open letter from the UCLA archivists spells out ways in which precarious working conditions affect the whole life of the worker, as well as the ways in which it harms the operations of the institution. Although the letter came out well after our initial draft and first revision, we took inspiration from it in our final revisions.

Our Process

The principle “ask for what you need,” shaped the group’s process as well. We would determine what the next step should be, figure out how to make it manageable, and ask everyone to share in the process. For example, we first knew we needed to track down all the existing best practices for labor in LAM and adjacent fields. Even if they were dated, we might find inspiration on what to do… or what not to do. Next, everyone in the group committed to read one (most were 2-5 pages) and report on highlights at the next call. The momentum moved us forward quickly, so that our first draft was done in about 6 months.

The work was somewhat interrupted as we first sought feedback at the 2017 DLF Forum and determined that an IMLS National Forum grant could be an opportunity to get comments on this work but expand it much further. The draft provided a starting point for our Collective Responsibility Labor Forum. After the second meeting of the forum, which has separate outcomes, we regrouped with the original writers and sought feedback from the forum participants: how have our perspectives changed? What new voices have we heard?

What Comes Next?

Releasing a document doesn’t make the change happen. Endorsing a document doesn’t put it into practice. The situation won’t change unless all of us are willing to work together on it. We want this to be a roadmap. We want it to be something you can point to when defending a choice. We want funders to take these factors into consideration.

Change starts with normalizing conversations and challenges about labor. Let’s talk about the things we tacitly accept at work and their impact on workers. Let’s put ourselves on the path to a more equitable future by building connections we’ll need for the collective pressure that’ll get us there.

This post was written by Sandy Rodriguez and Ruth Kitchin Tillman. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.


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