I can’t help but wonder if the real faculty at those institutions where librarians are on the tenure track roll their eyes, snicker among themselves or just plain get annoyed by their library colleagues who refer to themselves as faculty members or carry ranks typically associated with faculty (e.g., assistant professor). Blaise Cronin certain thought they did. In his classic opinion piece “The Mother of All Myths” he obliterates the concept of tenure and faculty status for academic librarians (Library Journal 126, no. 3, February 15, 2001). While I never agreed with all of Cronin’s arguments, tenure may indeed hold some benefits for academic librarians, lately I’ve been thinking about the differences between the work of librarians and faculty. I don’t doubt that even my use of the phrase “real faculty” is going to set off a minor firestorm among those tenured librarians who think of themselves as faculty or even “teaching faculty” owing to the occasional bibliographic instruction sessions they conduct or the seat they hold on the faculty senate. You might understand why a faculty member would ridicule or be angered by librarians who think they are true faculty if you can imagine an individual who refers to him or herself as “librarian” because he or she oversees a room full of books (I encountered such a situation at a past job), but has no professional library degree nor is responsible for many tasks common to our profession. Do you think of that individual as a librarian or an imposter who’s use of that title devalues or even mocks your status as a professional academic librarian?
My regular reading of faculty blogs the last few months has given me a new appreciation for what is involved in being a member of the regular faculty and the challenges and responsibilities it involves. Take for example this post and discussion about frustrations of dealing with students at the blog A Ianqui in the Village. I’m tempted to write that faculty librarians rarely if ever get involved in these types of situations, but I fully expect that a reader will share a tale of a difficult student situation. Yes, I’m sure it happens from time to time, but certainly no librarian is likely to experience the range and regularity of complicated situations (students, chairs, other faculty) with which faculty have to routinely cope. If you regulary read the career commentaries published in the Chronicle you would likewise wonder how many library faculty deal with these situations. Crazed or scary students. Psychopathic senior colleagues. Backstabbing junior colleagues. Isolated experiences one would hope, but these are likely just the tip of the iceberg stories we hear. All librarians, tenure track and otherwise, also must deal with superiors, peers, and subordinates who create frustration. To my way of thinking, what separates the real faculty from librarian faculty is the relationship with students.
I’ve been teaching as an adjunct faculty member at an LIS program for a number of years. I refer to myself in any written or oral communication or interaction with students or colleagues as “adjunct instructor”. I avoid the pretense of calling myself “professor”. I’ve never felt the need to inflate my title for my own ego or to create window dressing in the hope other faculty will see me as their equal. I know they wouldn’t anyway, and I don’t care if they do. I’m only in it for the joy of teaching a subject about which I’m passionate. But when I do teach I feel much more like a faculty member than a librarian. What makes the difference? The enormous responsibility attached to working with students, even at the graduate level, and playing a role in their lives and their careers. This happens in a way that I or most librarians would rarely encounter during the course of our library careers. The nature of that relationship goes beyond grading papers or devising assignments. Yes, there are academic librarians who do this. But I suspect there are few tenure-track academic librarians who develop relationships with students in the discipline of the type and at the level that occur between students and the real faculty. And if and when such relationships do occur, they are just as likely to happen to both tenure and non-tenure track librarians. And there may even be academic librarians who have dealt with a troubled student or a serial plagiarizer. But I doubt that this, along with developing and planning new courses, advising students as majors in one’s discipline, working with fellow faculty to build the curriculum, sitting on the occasional doctoral committee, even comes close to equating the totality of what it means to be a full-fledged faculty member.
Debating the value of or need for tenure for academic librarians is something I’ll pass on in this post. Besides, those who want more on that debate can always get hold of the one between Murray-Rust and Carver in the September 30, 2005 Chronicle; they do a fine job. And whether I’m ultimately a supporter or opponent of tenure for academic librarians matters little. Those who feel strongly about the need for it are welcome to seek out a position in an institution where they’ll be on the tenure track. Those who wish to avoid it have many institutions to choose from as well. And I certainly have no intention, as did Cronin, of mocking or devaluing the work and contributions of tenure-track librarians.I know librarians at both tenure-track and non-tenure track institutions who do great work and even establish beneficial relationships with students. The point here is not whether librarians need tenure or not. It is how they refer to themselves when they are on the tenure track or have obtained tenure, and how that is perceived by our faculty colleagues. My simple proposition is that tenure-track and tenured librarians should take more time to read faculty blogs. Get inside the head of your faculty colleagues and then think reflectively about the difference between what you do and what they do. If that doesn’t leave the feeling of being a bit like the imposter librarian who simply monitors a room full of books without the full range of librarian responsibilities, then perhaps you’ve earned the right to hold a faculty rank. Then again, what’s so wrong with just being an academic librarian.