Temporal Tension Fields in Museums and Libraries


23 January 2022

Considering the context of social acceleration (Rosa, 2013; Tomlinson, 2007) and changes in professionalism (Jensen, 2019), this presentation aims to map and discuss temporal tension fields in the work of memory institutions’ staff (on the example of two countries: Estonia and Sweden). Even though in everyday work, specific dimensions of time are routinely captured in varying documents and agreements, there are still situations where time is understood differently, the pace of work suddenly increases, and conflicts are boiling – this is when some taken-for-granted dimensions of time suddenly become important. Theoretically, this presentation takes into account the diversity of aspects of time (Scriber & Gutek, 1987) from the practice-based perspective (Orlikowski & Yates, 2002). It focuses, therefore, on two main questions: what are the temporal tension fields in museums and libraries, and how do professionals to memory institutions cope within these tension fields?

This study is based on the constructivist grounded theory analysis (Charmaz, 2014) of 35 semi-structured individual interviews with 18 Estonian and 17 Swedish library and museum professionals from various types and sizes of memory institutions.

Main results
During the past few decades, the memory institutions’ professionals have encountered multiple time-related pressures and an increasing variety of work tasks. Still, the social pressure caused by colleagues, visitors, and partners adds even more complexity to this time-management ‘equation’. On the one hand, the librarians and museum professionals must resolve visitors’ and colleagues’ constant questions or issues. On the other hand, they also need to find opportunities to do focussed or slow work to ensure the responsible societal position of their institutions. As a result of these sometimes conflicting needs, specific temporal tension fields emerge (not just one, generic time pressure!). The temporal tension related to the quantity of work is manifested in the pressure of immediacy and in the pressure to complete more tasks in an allocated time. The temporal tension related to the quality of work simultaneously presents demands of safeguarding the institution’s relevancy and providing quality content to the visitors. The tension between prioritizing is emerging from the pressures of flexibility and multitasking and the need to cope with constant disruptions. And eventually, the tension in temporal autonomy means constant interplay between autonomy (of controlling one’s tasks and pace of work) and synchronicity (social encounters when one is not always in charge of her tasks and work pace). The analysis of interviews presents numerous examples of corresponding tactics to cope with these tension fields and create oneself a more sustainable work-life in the long term. Temporal and spatial distancing, varying aids to remember the many duties and synchronize the workday, are a few of the tactics that museum and library professionals apply.

In everyday work, the temporal tension fields are interwoven into the ‘fabric’ of time, tasks, and social relations: the denser this ‘fabric’ gets, there more pressure there is. While some temporal tensions can be alleviated by addressing them in contracts or agreements, some are hard to capture because of the nature of work in museums and libraries. The quick yet quality service itself entails controversy while being in the service of a university or a hospital, the community, or of the society means that museums and libraries need to set their work pace at least an equal if not even faster to efficiently meet the needs of their visitors and mother organizations. However, the afore-mentioned controversy is not only theoretical or rhetorical – rather, it is a practical challenge in the work-life of many knowledge workers who are responsible for safeguarding the intellectual and cultural heritage of humanity. Analysing temporal tension fields and seeking out useful practices to cope with temporal tensions thus helps to find some solutions to this challenge.

Directions for future research
The rural public or school libraries and specialized museums with just one full-time employee were nearly left out of the scope of this study. In addition to library and museum staff who often have a strong professional identity, guiding them in time-related decision-making, memory institutions are also fond of volunteers and interns or seek employees without professional education: how do they organize their workday and prioritize their tasks? As memory institutions collaborate with multiple other institutions or organizations and employ professionals from a growing number of various fields, we may need to ask how different jobs, depending on the professional background, are discursively constructed even within museums and libraries.

This work was supported by the Estonian Research Council postdoctoral research grant (PUTJD838) ‘The work pace of memory institutions’ professionals in the context of acceleration of social time’. The author also thanks the interviewees who found time in their busy workday to participate in an in-depth interview.


23 January 2022

Contributed by

Krista Lepik works as a lecturer in information science at the University of Tartu, Estonia. After defending her PhD thesis in 2013, she has studied memory institutions’ communication to their audiences and their relationships with the community. She completed a post-doctoral research project – ‘The work pace of memory institutions’ professionals in the context of acceleration of social time’ – at Lund University, Sweden, in 2019-2021. Even though the topic of ‘slow’ movements has interested her previously as well (especially in the context of the ‘slow’ library), the aforementioned project has provided her insights into librarians’ and museum professionals’ work pace related issues and temporal tension fields that affect their daily work.

Contributed as part of Symposium: Making Sense of the High-Speed Society