My town maintains an old dairy farm from the turn of the 20th century that now contains public gardens, a CSA, and community garden plots. In the Summer and Fall, I love to walk through the gardens and see all the amazing flowers, fruits, veggies, and more growing there. I love the mix of well-manicured and wildly overgrown there. It’s the kind of place where if I’ve had a bad day it’s guaranteed to transform my mood. What is most incredible to me is how a disparate group of dedicated volunteers maintains the whole thing. Where it looks manicured, where it looks wild, careful hands made it so. I tried gardening and I am impressively bad at it, so I’m in awe of what these incredible people have accomplished. So many hands contributed to making this natural antidepressant what it is. That labor does not go unnoticed by me at least.
I’ve been spending the last weeks of the quarter focused on updating tutorials. Anyone who makes tutorials (video, interactive, text+screenshots, etc.) knows that they can be a nightmare to maintain. As interfaces change, class assignments change, and the tutorial technologies themselves change, you need to go in and make tweaks to your tutorials. Some recent changes have required me to go into and update literally all of the tutorials I created since 2019 using Google forms. It’s a lot.
And it has me thinking a lot about maintenance. Its invisibility. Its lack of value or recognition. Its status as care work and sustainable work (which should make it more valuable, but actually makes it less because we live in freaking bizarro capitalist nightmare world!). Its status in contrast to “innovation.” And I really do believe that the way we reify innovation in our society creates a devaluation of maintenance. Science historians Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel write a lot about this (in fact, nearly every article I found about innovation vs. maintenance was written by at least one of them). In their article, “Make Maintainers: Engineering Education and an Ethics of Care,” they write about how engineering as a profession has “celebrated and centered” innovation to the point of almost ignoring maintenance in the core literature. They also describe how the major awards in their field reward innovative work. But what’s worst is how maintenance and the maintainers are either denigrated or treated like they’re invisible:
This focus on innovation has an unfortunate side effect, which has been to obscure so many other aspects of technology and its social consequences. More troubling, innovation is often treated as value-in-itself and as a panacea: technological change will save us without our ever having to enter into human dialogue. At its most extreme, innovation-speak actively devalues the work of most humans, including most college graduates, and could actually harm the self-conceptions of students who end up in completely essential but non-innovative careers. To put it another way, chronicles of various acts of creation and innovation are not one and the same as the totality of human experience with technology. Indeed, when we reflect on human life with technology, we conclude that most human effort around technology involves maintenance, repair, upkeep, and mundane labor.
Russell, A. L., & Vinsel, L. (2019). Make maintainers: Engineering education and an ethics of care. In Does America need more innovators?. The MIT Press.
Maintenance work isn’t fancy or flashy. It’s incremental improvements or other labor made to existing infrastructure to keep it functioning and meeting existing/emerging needs, which in terms of sexiness, doesn’t hold a candle to building new, cool, innovative things that didn’t exist before. But how can we deny that maintenance is critical? My tutorials being out of date or unusable literally impacts students who are assigned to complete them. In a recent talk I gave about slow librarianship, I mentioned that we need to not only reward the creation of new things, but also but the maintenance and incremental improvement of existing infrastructure. Heck, I’d just be happy if I felt like my maintenance labor was seen at all. In fact, if I didn’t mention it here, no one but my husband (who has to listen to my whining) would know that this work even happened. As Russell and Vinsel write in the New York Times, “Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as mere drudgery.”
Too often in libraries, maintenance isn’t even factored into a project’s planning. The focus is on what it takes to build the thing, to get it done; not the larger lifecycle of maintenance and incremental improvement. Five years ago, we launched our Information Literacy Teaching Materials toolkit, a repository of activities, handouts, videos, interactive tutorials, and more to support disciplinary faculty teaching information literacy. The whole point of it was that as we librarians made stuff in the future that we were happy with (a tutorial, a video, an activity we did in class), we would document it and have it added to the toolkit. Do you know how many instruction librarians have added or updated content in the past five years? I’m pretty sure it’s just been me. I know my colleagues are making things. They are brilliant and talented instructors who design excellent learning activities. But because our department doesn’t place value on sharing our work or incrementally improving our existing infrastructure, no one makes time to document and add or update content or even to market what we already offer. We plan for the short-term and move on to the next shiny thing (or dumpster fire) that grabs our attention. If we are building things for the long-term, we need to also plan for the long-term. And I’m just as guilty as anyone because I led the project that built the toolkit and never planned for how we were going to maintain it. Bad Meredith.
I used to spend more time on the other side of the equation. While I’ve always done some maintenance work, I was definitely doing more that would be put under the category of innovation. And I got a lot of attention for that work. I won major awards for that work. Do I think any of it was more valuable than what I do now? Not at all. But it was seen as more valuable. And that will, of course, incentivize people to focus on innovation over maintenance time and again. I came up in our profession during a time in which books like The Innovator’s Dilemma were trumpeted and we were all cautioned to become “entrepreneurial” lest our libraries become irrelevant. The focus then becomes being innovative over meeting actual patron needs or centering our neediest patrons. I remember one library “innovator” who wrote about “getting ahead” of patrons in terms of adopting cool technologies they aren’t even using yet. Is that how we best meet patron needs or is that how we win awards and get to keynote conferences? Why do we incentivize this shit?
I remember back then, just after I finished my book on using social software in libraries, I wanted to write a book about innovation (I know I know!). I was curious about what kinds of organizational cultures and management styles foster innovation and encourage people to take risks. Was there a formula? But now, I look at all those places that were doing the hot new innovative things in the aughts and getting all the attention and I don’t hear anything about them. And those “innovative” projects seem not to even exist anymore. Remember how excited people were about being able to add tags in the library catalog? <eyeroll> What I wonder about now, really, is what sorts of organizational cultures foster and reward good maintenance work? Are there libraries in which this work is prioritized? I’ve worked on a lot of projects at three very different academic libraries, and never was there a plan for maintenance developed as part of the original project planning. Never. We either hashed out those details after the project was complete or we ignored it and put out fires when they happened. In the software world, it’s said that maintenance is 60% of the costs of a project and I’d argue that it’s pretty similar in libraries, even with projects that are not tech or software-focused. If it’s the majority of the work, shouldn’t the people who do it be celebrated?
Innovation has also often pushed progress for those with privilege at the cost of those living on the margins. From people like Robert Moses who were hailed as heroes and geniuses for building “innovative” freeways for White commuters that decimated communities of color, to the Internet and the digital divide, innovation has often been designed for the privileged majority. I think we saw the same in the Library 2.0/Web 2.0 movement and even in the makerspace movement (though there were/are some makerspaces focused also on tools that really benefitted a wider array of people in their community like sewing machines, STEM learning kits for kids, etc.). Who does tagging in the catalog or 3D printing really benefit? Is that library as focused (if not more focused!) on and putting as much money and time into meeting the needs of their patrons from historically marginalized groups and patrons living in poverty?
It’s no surprise that maintenance is undervalued because it is very much a form of care work. Care work is literally the foundation of our society — what allows for innovation to happen at all — and yet it is treated like something optional or unvaluable. Workers involved in care work tend to be paid less (if at all) and tend to be women and BIPOC. Russell and Vinsel write in yet another article about the devaluing of maintenance:
Feminist theorists have long argued that obsessions with technological novelty obscures all of the labour, including housework, that women, disproportionately, do to keep life on track. Domestic labour has huge financial ramifications but largely falls outside economic accounting, like Gross Domestic Product.
Russell and Vinsel (2016). “Hail the Maintainers.” Aeon.
It’s not difficult to draw a line from cooking and housecleaning to stacks maintenance and making sure the library’s web resources are running on the latest software versions. All are tasks that are deeply necessary and all are tasks that are largely invisible. But that invisibility is a choice; a choice determined by our society’s fetishization of innovation. And I think it’s no coincidence that most people doing maintenance work in our society have the least privilege. Of course the people in power want to celebrate and reward innovation, because they want to celebrate and reward themselves!
Another reason for the low status of maintenance is because it isn’t valued in our statistic-keeping or in the stories we tell about library value. Our library collections are all about size and how much it grows and gets used each year. We don’t report on the processing, the evaluating, the weeding, the mending, the barcode replacement, the shifting, and all of the other actions that go into the care of our collections. How often is that work ever cheered or even written up in an annual report? And yet it’s critical! Similarly, there’s nowhere for me to record the labor I’m putting into making sure these tutorials are up to date and meeting the evolving needs of our students. It’s 100% invisible and unaccounted for, even though these tutorials continue to benefit students and many are assigned for a grade in specific classes. If I stopped keeping them updated, no one in my library would notice. If all I cared about was doing what would get rewarded by the powers that be, what would my motivation be for maintaining a tutorial?
Another consequence of that lack of accounting is that our individual amount of maintenance burden is not considered in determining our workloads. My liaison areas have requested a lot of tutorials and I’ve also made a lot of general ones for the greater good of the library. Thus, I have a huge maintenance burden that I do not get extra time to handle. There have been times when I’ve known information was out of date in tutorials and didn’t have the time to fix them because the work was not prioritized. But I suppose the quality of the education of students in an online class who we can’t see is far less important than the students in the F2F class in front of us. I have always had trouble with our profession’s prioritization of the patrons we see, especially when we know that the less visible and vocal patrons are often those who are the most oppressed with the greatest needs. Maybe I’m weird for not being moved by physical proximity, but I want to center the invisible students, the forgotten students, the struggling students.
In spite of the fact that maintenance can at times be tedious, I find it nice to revisit my work. It’s an interesting reflective practice. You get to see what your approach was at the time and hold that up against what you know now about students, that subject area, their assignment, their needs, etc. Sometimes I really wonder what I was thinking at the time, but mostly I’m just grateful that I know so much more now! It’s both humbling and an opportunity to make valuable incremental improvements.
I think about the privilege I’ve had of being able to be involved in both innovative creation and maintenance. I think it’s helped me to see more clearly which work is valued and applauded and which is not. Some of my colleagues never have that former opportunity; their work lives solely in the world of maintenance. Is it less valuable work? No. Is it less deserving of recognition? No. And I think these systemic issues are often at the heart of the overvaluing of public service and technology work in libraries and the undervaluing of the work of circulation, stacks maintenance, and technical services work, creating the divisions, siloing, and resentments often seen in libraries. I’ve always been frustrated by those divisions, but how much have I really done to uplift the maintenance work of my colleagues outside of my department? Definitely not enough. It almost (but not quite) makes me want to become a director or dean so I could make a point of highlighting great works of maintenance regularly. I can recognize and thank people for their work in my current role, but it’s not the same as being seen by the big boss.
There’s a lot more I’d like to say about maintenance vs. innovation — the connection between the degradation of maintenance and the degradation of the environment and the movement to focus more on repair as a sustainable practice, the right to repair movement, more on the connection of maintenance to the ethic of care, gendered labor in libraries, etc. — but I don’t want to write a whole scholarly article here. If nothing else, we should question the reification of innovation just based on what we’ve seen of innovators over the past few decade. Most of the people portrayed as disruptive geniuses (Musk, Bankman-Fried, Holmes, Jobs, etc.) turned out to be truly horrible people. Some did horrifically illegal things and others were so monomaniacal that they didn’t care how many human beings they harmed in pursuit of their vision. Many were both. Yet, still, we pay attention to innovators. We reward innovators. And our profession reflects the value we place on innovation in spite of the fact that so much of librarianship is stewardship and maintenance. We can’t change society, but we can change what is happening in our profession; at least at a micro-level. Read the works of Russell and Vinsel on maintenance. Think about how you are complicit in the denigration of maintenance and/or the reification of innovation. Think about how you can counter that denigration. Record it. Acknowledge it. Reward it. Are you part of an organization that gives awards? On a promotion and tenure committee? We each can make a difference, even if it’s just changing our own behavior and how we acknowledge maintainers. Do you know of examples in our profession where maintenance is given its due? Gosh, I’d love to hear about it.
Thanks to all of you doing maintenance work. You are the reason our professional worlds continue to function.
Some resources that really got me thinking:
Mattern, S. (2018). Maintenance and care. Places Journal.
Ramakrishnan, K., O’Reilly, K., & Budds, J. (2021). The temporal fragility of infrastructure: Theorizing decay, maintenance, and repair. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 4(3), 674-695.
Russell, A. L., & Vinsel, L. (2018). After innovation, turn to maintenance. Technology and Culture, 59(1), 1-25.
Russell, A., & Vinsel, L. (2016). Hail the maintainers. Aeon.
Russell, A., & Vinsel, L. (2017). Let’s get excited about maintenance. New York Times.
Russell, A. L., & Vinsel, L. (2019). Make maintainers: Engineering education and an ethics of care. In Does America need more innovators?. The MIT Press.
Russell, A. L. & Schlemmer, R. Is innovation the enemy of maintenance? The Agility Effect.
Seale, M., & Mirza, R. (2020). The Coin of Love and Virtue: Academic Libraries and Value in a Global Pandemic. Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship/Revue canadienne de bibliothéconomie universitaire, 6, 1-30.
Vuocolo, A. (2022). The Disappearing Art of Maintenance. Noema.
All photos copyright Meredith Farkas 2020-2022.