Academic Librarians as Faculty: Why?

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Disclaimer: This has nothing to do with the rights of faculty in terms of layoffs and firing. This is just my opinion about whether or not academic librarians should really be considered faculty.

I am not a faculty member. I am not a professor. Most people would never mistake me for one. I mean look at me. (I do get grad student too often, but I guess I can live with that.)

There has been a lot written about academic librarians and tenure and the desire for faculty status. Meredith Farkas blogged about this issue some years ago, and I think she sums it up well:

Why are some academic librarians so obsessed with being treated like academics? I know that the majority of people have no idea that librarians have Masters degrees — and sometimes even a second professional degree. And yes, we librarians have an image problem. But as long as I am helping people and doing a good job, I’m not going to worry about what people think about how educated or smart I am. Who cares if people don’t know we have degrees so long as they come to the reference desk when they need help? Will faculty members really be more likely to bring their students to our information literacy classes if we have tenure? I doubt it. The institutions I interviewed at that had a tenure track had the same problems with faculty that we have at Norwich.

Sure, I’d like to have the respect of faculty members, but I’d rather gain it by doing great work than by getting tenure.

Four years later I don’t think there’s really been an answer to this question. I work on a campus where we are not tenured faculty. Instead, we are unionized and have “academic” status, like the lecturers. Our criteria for promotion are similar to that of tenure-track faculty, but there’s more emphasis on service, rather than research and publishing. I think this is a good model because service is my game.

When you get down to the heart of it, service is the cornerstone of any library, not just academic libraries. So why do academic librarians feel the need to be treated as equals with faculty when our jobs rarely entail the same responsibilities? Is it ego? Faded dreams? It’d be unfair to try to simplify it all into a short phrase, but I will say yes.

Todd Gilman wrote about the issue of academic librarians and rank in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I found it to be a good overview for people with graduate degrees considering an MLIS. (Honestly, I would put this in my “failed academic” pool, which I admit is somewhat perjorative.)

OK, so there’s the background, here’s my reasoning and opinion.

I like the idea of academic librarians as administrative staff because I think the hurdles for tenured faculty are not in-line with our duties and mission. I became a librarian to facilitate research. I did not become a librarian to write lots of papers and be constantly worried about being published. If that was my goal, then I should have lived my dream of a Germanic linguist. Does this mean I don’t want to conduct research for myself and the profession? Not at all. What I take issue with is the fact that we seem to think we have to perform those activities to justify our existence when I think they probably get in the way of our main mission – helping users. I worry that the pressure to publish contributes to the library echo chamber, and too many publications to feed the faculty track out of necessity obscure publications that genuinely push us to innovate.

I also worry that too many people see librarianship as a potential back door to faculty rank and status. They focus on the glamorous side – publishing, research, conferences- to the detriment of many of our jobs – content representation, instruction, research assistance, access. I can’t really fault people if that’s what is expected of them to continue to be employed at their institution, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a movement to change this.

Just because I’m happy to not be faculty doesn’t mean I think academic librarians aren’t worthwhile or that I’m ashamed of the profession. On the contrary, I think faculty status often is a misnomer that hinders us from being the best library professionals we can be. I think it helps contribute to a culture where there’s too much concerned placed on what our peers think of us and keeping up with the trends, rather than engaging our communities of how best we can serve them.

9 thoughts on “Academic Librarians as Faculty: Why?

  1. I love this part (my emphasis added):
    “I think the hurdles for tenured faculty are not in-line with our duties and mission. I became a librarian to facilitate research. I did not become a librarian to write lots of papers and be constantly worried about being published. If that was my goal, then I should have lived my dream of a Germanic linguist. … What I take issue with is the fact that we seem to think we have to perform those activities to justify our existence when I think they probably get in the way of our main mission – helping users.

    I like the Germanic linguist part because I feel the same, except in my case I’d be struggling to publish poetry or fiction. 🙂

    I agree 100% that our primary mission is to help users. And I have a knee-jerk reaction with regard to justifying one’s existence (whenever I hear that kind of phrase) — we’re here, we do exist, we shouldn’t have to justify it.

    Thanks for a great post!

  2. I think it’s interesting that you state that the issue articulated in Meredith’s blog post has yet to be resolved. Have you read the literature on academic rank (faculty status) for librarians? There is quite a bit of research on this, looking at various outcomes: productivity, work satisfaction, etc. But most of all, what librarians seem to forget, is that tenure (or it’s equivalent) and the tenure stream, preserves academic freedom for librarians.

    If you don’t want to see the erosion of academic freedom for librarians in academia, then some measure needs to be in place to protect it. Tenure may seem to be about job security or status, but it’s not. It’s about participating in the institution’s governance and the larger academic dialogue without fear of reprisal. It saddens me to see that some librarians don’t see the big picture about not being in the tenure stream.

    What we should aim for is a system that rewards the work of librarians (uniquely, and distinct from that of the professoriate) and recognized our profession’s contribution to the wider community of other academic librarians and academics. We do a disservice if we do not protect this right – the right to collect controversial materials, the right to share innovative ideas and to voice all opinions.

  3. How does being tenured secure our academic freedom? I have a contract, if I do my job well, my contract gets renewed. Professional development is part of my performance appraisal. As long as I am professionally active in areas that mesh with the goals and mission of my organization (which are pretty much in line with the profession) I am supported. How is my academic freedom being limited? We collect tons of controversial materials. We share and push the envelope when it comes to innovation. We value all opinions. Honestly, I’ve felt more stifled in all of those areas at the libraries where I *was* a tenured faculty member. What is described above sounds more like issues that can be tied to a work environment and organization….not solely to being tenure track. Is it because once we are tenured we are “protected?”

  4. Mary Carmen and Lorie’s comments allude to an even broader debate about tenure among faculty. Does it really protect academic freedom? (See, for example: http://chronicle.com/blogPost/The-Connection-Between-Tenu/7688/)

    I think it is important for academic librarians to have the same freedom to pursue controversial issues and participate in institutional governance that teaching and research faculty do – however that is achieved.

    I work at an institution that I believe has some of the most difficult tenure requirements for librarians. For the most part, I am happy to have a staff job in a research center rather than a tenure-track job in the library system – but I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both.

  5. I think this is a very good viewpoint.; however, one of the single biggest reasons that librarians should get academic status has less to do with librarians self image as much as it has to do with librarians being allowed “into the club”. The reality is that as a service profession one of the best things we can do is make sure that we anticipate what our clients need. How ca we do that if we can sit in on the curriculum committee meetings, the faculty senate meetings, the student promotion committee meetings, etc. These are the places where the big decisions are made about what our clients will learn and need to learn. It only makes sense that librarians have an active involvement in this process because while many professors will see the students in their class for a semester or a even a year, many of these students will be in the library for their entire educational careers.

  6. It all about opportunities, status and image. There is nothing wrong with that unless librarians are a select breed of human who are jusy happy to be in to tidy things up in the backroom…To be seen and never heard in management forums. Academic status is also about greater participation in creating and understanding the bigger picture: core business of the university research, teaching and learning. What better way to be and effective in providing service than that…

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