A Tale of Two Offices
By Elaine Farragher
1 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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I would like to share ideas, thoughts, and problems with other
people working in offices, either through correspondence or through
personal contact. There are so many unsolved problems and difficulties
of how to act politically in an office environment that I feel this
would be useful to me, and I hope it would be useful to other people
as well. Please write to me c/o The Red Menace. If you would
like to have any of your comments or ideas or experiences published
in this newsletter this would be very useful for starting an ongoing
dialogue about office work (or any other work for that matter) in
The Red Menace.
First published in Volume 2, Number 1 (Summer 1977 issue) of
Originally published under the pseudonym Kathleen Cole.
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