A Tale of Two Offices

An account of daily life and office politics viewed through the experience of working in two libraries with very different management styles. From the libertarian socialist newsletter, The Red Menace.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on January 11, 2011

By Elaine Farragher

I have been an office worker for all of my working life; specifically, a library worker. I've worked in five libraries, in one as a part-time worker and in the rest as a full-time employee. All of these libraries have had their unique intrigues and goings-on, their own particular relationships and power struggles.

For the purposes of this article, however, I would like to single out only two of them, which for me represent two aspects of the challenge that office work presents to those seeking to bring about radical change.

Both are large institutional libraries with about the same number of staff, around 15. This is a fairly average number of people for an office. (Offices will probably never resemble the large assembly-line factories, for even the very largest offices are nearly always broken down into units and departments with distinguishing aisles and partitions between them).

I should mention that my experiences have only been with women, both as co-workers and as bosses, men still being fairly rare in library work, although this situation is slowly beginning to change.

The Work

Library work is very exact, picky work. Thousands of books must be made easily accessible by giving each book its own set of cards, classification number, cross references, etc., in numerous files which must all be arranged so that any little reference can be found at once. It all takes a very high level of organization and co-operation between sections of the library and between people.

A library itself is usually divided into three functions: the technical services department, which actually creates the files and catalogues for the books; the acquisitions department, which orders the books (frequently put under the technical services department); and the reference department, which guides users in their use of the library. Some libraries have a strict division between departments, with each staff member working only in one place. Other libraries rotate the staff between the different departments for the sake of both variety and flexibility.

Division of Labour

Library staff are sharply divided into two groups, librarians on the one side, and everybody else on the other. The non-librarians are mostly library technicians (this is what I am); in addition, there may be a secretary and/or a bookkeeper thrown in.

The library technicians are either trained at a technical or community college (as I am) or have simply received experience through working. The training programs are fairly new (six years), but now it is becoming more and more difficult to find a library job without having first attended a community college.

Librarians must have received a Master of Library Science degree.

The difference in pay between librarians and library technicians is considerable: technicians start around $8,000, while librarians get $6,000 to $10,000 more.

Although in the libraries in which I have worked there has been a pronounced split between librarians and technicians, this is not true in all cases. In some libraries, particularly the public libraries, the groups work together more closely and belong to the same union. The great difference in salaries, however, ensures that there continues to be a division between the two.

Some libraries also distinguish between clerk typists and library technicians. I worked in one such library as a clerk-typist, but I didn't find the division to be very significant.

The librarians possess a good deal of authority, but at the same time their authority is far from being clear-cut or absolute. They consider themselves professionals, but at the same time they are very much employees, responsible to their superiors and to those who control the purse-strings. Still, to the technicians, the overriding fact is the librarians' power over them. They have the power to hire and fire, and that is quite enough to make them your boss.

Some librarians are starting to feel threatened by the presence of increasing numbers of library technicians, since the technicians have been trained to do just about everything a librarian can do. Some smaller libraries are now being run by technicians, and in many libraries where both are present, there is a certain tension between the two groups. Librarians are jealous of their positions, while technicians want to be given more interesting jobs and more responsibility so that they can make use of the skills they have been taught. At present, technicians' jobs are mostly clerical in nature, a constant source of frustration and resentment.

Librarians and technicians both get two years of library training: But technicians take it at a community college which only requires a high school diploma for a prerequisite, while librarians need an Honours B .A. before they can be accepted into the Master of Library Science Program. The course for technicians stresses the practical: office management, materials, cataloguing, and computer application are among the courses taken. The training for librarians includes the same things, but the emphasis is more theoretical than practical.

The division of work in the library assumes a broader knowledge on the part of the librarian, not of library matters, but of the world as a whole. Since libraries have mostly to do with the organizations and diffusion of knowledge, it is assumed that the university education equips the librarian to deal more effectively with research questions.

Librarians are also the decision-makers. While the technicians can catalogue the books, the librarians like to decide whether the book should be put into one subject classification rather than another. Usually the judgements required on such questions are purely matters of opinion which matter little one way or the other as long as the book can be found and read. But these finer discretionary matters are considered to require the wisdom of a university education. Neither technicians nor most librarians really believe the rationale behind this division of labour. There is little doubt that technicians have all the skills needed to run a library. But the rationale behind the strict division of labour is highly advantageous for those who benefit from it, and so, since they have the power, it continues.

Two Libraries

There are two specific libraries that I particularly want to concentrate on. One represents for me the old traditional view of how to run an office and treat employees; the second has a more 'modern' approach which is becoming more common in the offices of today. They each present difficulties which must be understood, but the newer method, I believe, presents the more serious challenge to those interested in organizing and understanding office workers.

The libraries, which I shall call A and B, are both institutional libraries, but there the similarity ends.


Office supervision can take more than one form, as I have discovered. The most common and straightforward technique is simply the traditional boss-employee relationship. This is what exists in Library A, where things are very laid-down and definite. Lowest on the totem pole are Technicians 1 and Technicians 2. They in turn are supervised by Technicians 3. These in turn are accountable to the librarian in charge of their department, and these for their part are responsible to the Head Librarian. Everyone knows her place, has her own function, and never steps out of it.

In Library B, there is a different approach entirely, an approach that seems to be much more effective and also much harder to deal with. In this library, technicians are given a great deal of responsibility, and very little supervision. Technicians 1, 2, and 3 largely work together. The very distinction between is considered by most to be stubbornness on the part of higher management (outside the library) who control salaries in the library. If the Head Librarian had her way, everyone would be a technician 3. The set-up is somewhat egalitarian, by the normal standards. For example, everyone, with the exception of the head librarian, shares the two worst jobs: filing and shelving. The more interesting but heavy work-load jobs are rotated to a different person each year, a fair, but not entirely efficient system since a few of these jobs take a lot of training.

But the measure of egalitarianism that exists in job divisions doesn't lessen the contradictions of the work process as a whole: in fact, it aggravates them. The over-riding fact about Library B is the extremely heavy workload, and the immense pressure that is put on everyone to get it done. Moreover, because several of the jobs are shared, there is continual pressure to get the work done, not from the librarians in charge (as is the case in Library A) but from one's co-workers, from other technicians. This peer-group pressure is much more effective, and nerve-wracking, and harder to deal with, than any close supervision by librarians would be. If you are dealing with a boss who supervises your work, then it is normal to use whatever ways exist of resisting the pressure to do more work. You find ways of trying to lessen your workload, and you use them. But when you are dealing with your equals, you find yourself rushing frantically through whatever task you are doing as fast as you can so you can help out with the shared tasks. You don't want to let others down by saddling them with work you haven't done, and you also don't want to be thought of as someone who doesn't carry her share of the load.

As a result of this peer group pressure in Library B, people relate to work in a way that is very different from normal attitudes in a large institution or business. For example, people don't cheat on time by arriving late or leaving early, since there are always others around to see that you don't. Perhaps nothing will be said, but you always have the feeling that your actions are being noted and disapproved of. In no time, you internalize the pressure, the pervasive work ethic. It becomes a form of conscience. In Library A by contrast, to cheat on time, to leave early, to take long lunches, to avoid work, is one of the main objectives.

The same kind of thing holds true for sick days. In Library B, no one takes sick days unless they are really sick. Meanwhile, in Library A, it is generally agreed among technicians that to take a sick day when you are sick is to waste a sick day.

Boss-Worker Relationship (Authority)

An equal contrast exists in boss-worker relationships. In libraries, and in offices generally, there are two basic kinds of relationship. Most frequently, you will have the standard pattern of a boss who insists you know your place and stay in it. But in some cases, and Library B is an example, you will encounter the boss who doesn't want to seem a boss, the boss who simply wants her staff to form a big happy family, one, of course, in which the head of the family is deferred to by all the other members. In a library, the choice of pattern, or some variation of it, is almost entirely dependent on the attitude of the head Librarian. Even other librarians must yield to her when all is said and done. This power of the Head Librarian, the degree to which working conditions in a library depend on her, often means that when frustrations arise, they are blamed on one person, or on one's immediate supervisor, instead of on the system itself. For example, in Library A, everyone blames the problems that exist, such as boring work, widespread tension and general discontent, on the Head Librarian and her second-in-command. Office politics are dominated by the relationship between the two, who openly dislike each other and constantly blame each other for things that go wrong. The assistant always tries to get the rest of the staff on her side against the Head. Sometimes the terms of the situation are accepted as they are laid out, but on the other hand, there was a wide-spread and oft-repeated sentiment that "If they (the librarians) would all go away, we could run the library much better ourselves."

However, when you have a library such as B, where the Head Librarian has very liberalized, 'non-authoritarian' ideas, the situation is fundamentally the same as under the traditional approach. Orders may be coated with verbal sugar, but they are still orders. The Head Librarian is still responsible for the library and answerable to those who ultimately control it.

Thus, the Head Librarian in Library B dresses very casually, and loves to ask in a jovial voice how everyone is doing. But no one is fooled. She has the power to fire, and has used it when she hasn't liked how someone was doing. She keeps the work flow at such a constantly high pitch that no one has the chance to even breathe. She frowns on long vacations, is suspicious when someone takes a sick day off, and cannot be disagreed with, all just like any regular authoritarian librarian. Because of the prevailing myth of equality and friendliness, however, these realities are often shrouded in a dense fog.

In Library A the Head Librarian is in a way much easier to deal with precisely because she does not try to be a pal to her employees, and is in every way a strict authoritarian person. Plainly, she is the enemy, and everyone knows it and acts accordingly.

New Style, New Pressures

In Library B's 'egalitarian' system, everyone is given the opportunity to do whatever interesting job is around. But this, too, has its negative side. For now it becomes damning evidence of lack of initiative, drive, and ambition, if you do not seek out and ask to do more demanding work. And to lack these qualities, or seem to, is a mortal sin in the 'new-style' office of today, with its militant view of how work should be seen.

One incident can illustrate the pressures involved. In Library B there is Mary, a quiet, shy person who is fairly content with the routine work she does and who has never asked to be taught anything else. Even though she does her work well, her supervisor, a Technician 3, did not approve of her attitude and complained to the Head Librarian who gave Mary a month in which to change, or be fired. (One technician, whom Mary was especially friendly with, was even ordered not to talk to her!)

The line, therefore, is no longer "you must work harder for the benefit of the library", but "you must work harder for your own benefit." You must learn new things, take on more responsibilities, assert yourself, be decisive, and a go-getter. For the purpose of enabling the office worker to do just that, courses in assertiveness, leadership, and career planning are offered to the clerks and typists of the institution governing Library B. The Head Librarian frequently encourages the staff to attend. Ostensibly, this is seen as a push to get more women into the top positions of the institution, but the net result is great pressure to do more, take a greater interest and give more of your energy and psyche to work than you would otherwise be inclined to do.

Politeness and Decorum

One major way in which offices differ from factories is the facade of "civilized behaviour" which rules the interactions between employees and bosses, and among employees. Open anger and hostility are very seldom expressed. Even if your boss has screwed you royally earlier in the day, no matter how much you despise and detest her, at tea break or whenever, you make polite, superficially friendly, conversation.

In Library A, the hostility between librarians and technicians is at time very intense, but someone visiting the library would never for a moment suspect that the staff were on anything but the friendliest of terms. Nevertheless, although open rebellion or abusive language would be unthinkable, there are other ways to get around the facade of friendliness. (However, one avenue that is not open in an office, unlike a factory, is sabotage, since every discrepancy in records or files or correspondence can be traced back to a single individual.) In an office, indications of employee hostility often take a social form.

In Library A, for example, one practice, much disliked by the technicians, was the "afternoon tea break" when everyone, in two shifts, would gather into the staff room and have tea and cookies, the librarians discussing their concerns, while the technicians listened politely. (The mess from the afternoon tea was always cleaned up by one technician, Sarah, an, older woman who was in the lowest category of technicians even though she had been there 32 years and knew the library and every book in it heart. I once asked my boss why all the staff couldn't take turns cleaning up and the answer I got was that the technicians shouldn't expect change too fast since not long ago the staff room was for the librarians only who if they chose would "invite" one or two of the technicians in to join them. Such was the historical perspective of the library that the technicians were still supposed to feel privileged to join the librarians for tea!)

But change did come to the tea break, resulting in a 'tempest in a teapot' that helped challenge the all-pervasive myth of friendliness. Specifically, one new technician arrived who found it difficult to adhere very strictly to the traditions of politeness. If asked politely by a librarian if she would do something for her, Myrna would simply say "No" or ask "Do I have a choice?" At the tea break, Myrna would nonchalantly eat as many cookies as she felt like eating (everyone paid into a cookie fund) rather than just politely nibbling one or two. She sprawled comfortably on the couch, making no particular effort to squeeze over to make room for librarians; the librarians suddenly found themselves sitting at the table across the room. The attitude was a bit contagious; soon librarians, who were used to doing all the talking and having the technicians listen quietly and deferentially, found themselves competing with loud conversations among the technicians that sometimes reduced the librarians to listeners. In the social context of the library, it was a breath of fresh air, almost revolutionary.

At Christmas the librarians were driven past the breaking point by these developments. Before Christmas, library staff would receive boxes of chocolates from various users of the library. Traditionally, the boxes would be opened by a librarian and passed around. But Myrna simply opened the boxes by herself, ate as many as she could, and encouraged the other technicians to follow suit.

The librarians were furious. The assistant head librarian called a special meeting of librarians (only) to discuss the situation! At the meeting, the librarians voted to cancel the cookie fund so that there would be no more cookies at the tea break for the rude and selfish technicians to gorge themselves on!

To those of us who are accustomed to thinking of power struggles at the work place as involving strikes, sabotage, and walkouts, all this will seem like very small, childish stuff indeed. In Library A, however, it marked the breaking down of a pretense of the greatest friendliness, and the beginning of a much more overt understanding of the power relationships that prevailed. The unilateral decision over the cookie fund led technicians to demand that they participate in staff meetings and have a part in making these and much more important decisions about the work in the library. Ever since, a greater sense of polarization has existed in Library A, resulting in a tension around the work process and power relationships

The fact of a trivial incident taking on wider proportions is not unusual in an office environment. In any work place, in fact, it is the small, everyday, almost insignificant events which can be the most effective in bringing out ever-present discontentment and resentment. The little things are seized upon as representing general feelings, unarticulated and perhaps not specifically thought-out and defined. They are concrete manifestations of a general sentiment which suddenly becomes clearly understood when a small event crystallizes and illustrates the issues at hand. When one feels annoyed and silly that "such a little thing should cause so much fuss", it is because the little thing is far more than what it at first appears to be.

On the question of office decorum and politeness, it is interesting to speculate why this tradition has hung on for so long. There is no doubt that much of it has to do with 'middle-class' attitudes of 'niceness' and politeness. But what does middle class mean in this context? Office workers are after all also working class, working in a reality very different from the myths that underlie traditional office decorum.

Trust and Solidarity

In Library A, management was autocratic in the extreme. Technicians were never consulted, were given the most menial and boring jobs, were closely supervised, and were in general treated as the personal servants of the librarians. For example, every morning I was required to change my boss' date stamp, turn the page on her calendar, make sure her paper tray was well supplied, and had to carry the day's new books a few feet from the book shelf to a place where she could examine them with greater ease. What the technicians resented in this situation was not so much the work itself, but rather the lack of respect with which they and their abilities were treated. But on account of such treatment, there is a great deal of cohesion, trust, and solidarity among the technicians. If a technician makes a mistake in her work, she can trust another technician not to let the head librarian know, but instead to help her cover it up. Technicians confide to each other when they plan to take their sick days and what excuse they are going to give. In other words, the battle lines are draw. You know who your friend is and who your enemy is. Life is simple and straightforward.

In Library B, on the other hand, where the boss wants to see "a big happy family", the battle lines are confused and obscure. If asked, all the technicians in Library B will agree that the head librarian is really fair, friendly, and good to them. Yet one constantly hears mumblings that "Lena is giving a hard time about that" or "how does she expect me to do all this?" Yet , because of peer-group pressure, a technician has to be as fearful of another technician finding a mistake as of a librarian finding it, perhaps even more so. For the technicians realize that they are really the ones who keep the library running smoothly, and they feel responsible for it. It is not unusual here for one technician to lambaste another for a mistake she has made, and have no qualms about criticizing her in front of everyone else. In one staff meeting, one technician said that check-out slips for books were not being properly filed and that the other three technicians were being careless. I was shocked. Why couldn't she have approached the people individually without complaining to the head librarian? The result was tension, suspicion, and a closer watch by the head librarian on the front desk. But no one else seemed to think her action reprehensible.

I can only conclude from my experience of these two libraries that for solidarity to exist, the battle lines must be clearly drawn. Where they are not, entirely different contradictions can arise. Where they are, it is everyone's first instinct to resist exploitation. Where they are not it is more difficult. The worker who wants her job to have some meaning for her is the easiest one to exploit. She will work harder and longer to get the more interesting jobs so that the daily routine will not be so much drudgery. But this also puts her into competition with her fellow workers, and undermines solidarity.


It is interesting to note that in Library A, where there is a strong worker-boss polarization, there is no union. In Library B, where power relationships are more confused and more hidden, there is a union, although it is a large union that covers the entire institution of which the library is a part. (In fact, the only way I found out there was a union in Library B was that I noticed union dues were being taken from my pay cheque. I never saw any communication from the union, or met a union representative, or heard anyone talk about the union.)

However, in other libraries where I have worked, unions have played an important role, although a contradictory one. Specifically on the question of the work to be done, unions were often seen as instruments of keeping the worker doing boring and uninteresting tasks, through their insistence of a strict adherence to job descriptions, which kept workers from learning new jobs or from moving easily between tasks.

Office Workers & Class Struggle

Many of the people I have known in libraries, and in other offices, have resigned themselves to their life of nine-to-five, typing, filing, answering the phone, and taking orders. Whether or not they are married, hope to be married, or have decided to stay single, most know that their salary will always be needed and few have dreams of escaping (except the dream of winning the lottery).

More particularly, most library technicians have no hope of becoming more than they are since the field is a dead end. No matter how long you work, you can never become a librarian without going back for years of schooling. Many have a dream of getting their own little library somewhere to run all by themselves, which a few technicians have managed to do. But most technicians, in spite of their dreams and talk, do not really see a way out of their humdrum workaday life, and reserve most of their plan-making for what is going to happen after work. They are, in other words, very much like most other workers.

This should hardly be surprising. After all, office workers have been around for a long time, as long as capitalism with its need for records and correspondence has been around. But, although the tasks of office workers are closely linked to and necessary for the movement of industry, capitalism has always sharply separated the two groups. In their offices, office workers have also been separated from each other, often much the same way as a woman is in the home, under the thumb of a boss who is usually male (although this is not the case in libraries). Often, her skills are not nearly so important as her appearance and her ability to charm and flatter. As a result, office workers have been often left behind in the development of working-class consciousness, both as a result of their own identification with the boss and the boss' prestige, and because of chauvinism and prejudice on the part of union militants and organizers. They are, nevertheless, a section of society that the left ignores at its peril.

First published in Volume 2, Number 1 (Summer 1977 issue) of The Red Menace.
Taken from the web-archived version of The Red Menace website.