Daily Archives: September 9, 2008

Real Faculty In Our Minds Alone

Late last week a number of library news sources pointed to the release of report from the Council of Library and Information Resources called “No Brief Candle: Reconceiving Research Libraries for the 21st Century“. The report contains eight essays that identify challenges facing academic libraries, and it offers a number of recommendations for change that may help to ensure the future relevancy of academic librarians. Library Journal described the report as “Harnessing the insight and experience of some two dozen stakeholders…the report offers a forceful call to action, and a penetrating take on the forces shaping the future of libraries and the academic enterprise”. I believe this report’s themes and recommendations will be somewhat familiar to ACRLog readers because we, and you through your comments, discuss and debate them here.

As I scanned the report I found something of interest in the article titled “Groundskeepers, Gatekeepers, and Guides: How to Change Faculty Perceptions of Librarians and Ensure the Future of the Research Library” by Daphnée Rentfrow, a former CLIR Fellow who has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. In this essay Rentfrow takes on some familiar themes of how to improve collaboration with faculty and obtain more professional recognition within the academic community. As to her qualifications to write an essay on these matters she describes herself as:

someone who finished a doctoral program at an Ivy League university without once meeting my subject specialist (or even knowing what one was), as someone who taught courses without conferring with a librarian and who never encouraged undergraduates to do so, and worked on a thematic research collection without thinking of metadata or preservation until I had a panicked reason to, I also know fairly intimately the failings of, let’s say, “public relations” and “outreach” that afflict academic and research libraries.

You may find what Rentfrow has to offer useful to improve your own public relations and outreach efforts with faculty. But something that caught my attention in her essay was this footnote:

By “faculty,” I mean non-librarian teaching faculty and scholars. While some universities offer librarians faculty status, while some librarians consider themselves members of the faculty, and while some librarians have Ph.D. degrees, anecdotal evidence shows that students, parents, faculty, and even university administrators rarely consider libraries [NOTE: not a typo – it actually says “libraries” not “librarians”] to be “real” faculty, or even intellectual peers. This problem of image is one of the biggest challenges facing the profession.

One of the reasons I found this footnote of special interest is because I took quite a bit of heat from several ACRLog readers when I explored similar themes in a post I called “What It Really Means To Be A Faculty Member“. Instead of just referring to “anecdotal evidence” I pointed to some real differences between what librarians do and what faculty do, particularly as our roles relate to student interaction. Perhaps the point is that it might not matter what we do or don’t do, because as Rentfrow points out as far as the rest of academe is concerned academic librarians are faculty only in their own minds. It seems I made the error of stepping directly on the landmind that Rentfrow tiptoes around.

You might conclude that Rentfrow adds nothing new to this debate, and if you read the essay you’ll see that it is about much more than this issue. Yes, we all know that as far as many “real” faculty are concerned we are nothing more than academic support staff no more deserving of faculty status than instructional technologists or IT support specialists. It may also be familiar territory to point to our profession’s failure to promote the ways in which we are equal to the real faculty and worthy of their respect and collaboration. But given my own attempt to inject some hard to accept reality into this discussion of academic librarians as “real faculty” I have to appreciate Rentfrow’s own honest approach and her admission that some of what she has to say will “offend some readers.” She writes:

Having experienced both [PhD and MLS education], I can understand why a scholar would bristle to be told that a librarian has an equal understanding of the rigors of scholarship and full course-load teaching. But I also understand that the average faculty member is largely ignorant of the changes that have affected modern librarianship in recent decades and the ways these changes (should) affect scholarship and teaching.

It may all come down to a question of what’s most important to academic librarians. Is it being recognized as a real faculty member and being deemed their equal? Or is it doing whatever it takes to work with faculty to partner in helping students achieve academic success regardless of what our status is in the academic community? No instructional technologist, learning center professional or IT specialist I’ve ever met seems as remotely concerned about their academic status as are academic librarians. They aren’t busy trying to establish their equality with faculty. But what I do see is that they are busy spending lots of time collaborating with faculty helping them to improve their pedagogy, their use of technology and their ability to bring the two together in connecting with students. Can you say the same for the academic librarians at your institution?

My apologies to Rentfrow for reducing her well-written piece to a few statements about academic librarians and faculty status. You should take a closer look at Rentfrow’s recommendations (63-64) as well as the overall set provided in this CLIR report (pgs. 10-11). I’m not sure they will resonate with frontline librarians and other library workers. I think they will seem either unoriginal, too ivory tower or simply too vague (e.g., “The functions of libraries must be aligned with the core mission of research and education at the institutional level. We need to create professional and practice layers that enhance research and teaching across disciplines”). As with the Ithaka report discussed last week there needs to be more attention paid to the integration of academic librarians into the teaching and learning process. This recommendation of Rentfrow’s expresses it best:

Librarians should work with departments and teaching centers to nurture the idea that the library is a part of all teaching initiatives on campus.

That seems eminently practical and of value to faculty and students – no matter what our status is.