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.

14 thoughts on “Real Faculty In Our Minds Alone

  1. Again, I find studies like this very frustrating because of the focus on research libraries and nothing on libraries at 4 year or 2 year institutions. I am beginning to think that research libraries and university libraries are in their own world. It is too bad that community colleges do not have the monies to conduct the same kind of research.

  2. Some of the advantages of faculty status for librarians from the librarian point of view include better pay and benefits, better professional development, more integration with the campus. I think it works well for many institutions, though perhaps not all. It’s hard enough to recruit academic librarians, not sure why you’d want to get rid of something the great librarians of the past fought for and won. Steven–it sounds like maybe you’d be happier as an instructional technologist?

  3. Steven, I agree with you. Librarians are separate from, but similar to, faculty. I’ve done library instruction, and I’ve taught graduate students, and the responsibilities and duties are different. Similar, yes, but not the same. Of course I want good pay and benefits and if “faculty” is the category on campus that will get me that, I’m happy enough to be called faculty.

    As a librarian, I work with graduate students and faculty to help them improve their students’ ability to do library research. This takes many forms — instruction, of course (one-on-one and one-to-many), but also promotional activities designed to get potential students aware of how I / the library can help. This is in addition to library administrative tasks which help the library run as a department.

    So the tasks are similar — teaching & administration — but in different proportions, at least at My Place of Work. And as long as I can work towards improving students’ library research skills, I feel I’m doing my job.

  4. In a recent Chronicle piece on academic freedom, Stanley Fish nails on the head a crucial distinction between what Rentfrow describes above as “faculty” and academic librarians:

    “When all is said and done, academic freedom is just a fancy name for being allowed to do your job, and it is only because that job has the peculiar feature of not having a pre-stipulated goal that those who do it must be granted a degree of latitude and flexibility not granted to the practitioners of other professions, who must be responsive to the customer or to the bottom line or to the electorate or to the global economy.”


    The job of academic librarians simply lacks this “peculiar feature” that is central to the status of “real” faculty, and we should stop pretending we don’t already know this full well.

  5. One of the best things faculty status is having a librarian as a voting member on every senate faculty committees, as well as on the senate itself. That makes it much easier to integrate “academic librarians into the teaching and learning process”. For example, most campuses have something like an Undergraduate Curriculum Commitee, as well as a graduate version…

  6. I am still flummoxed by the implication that those of us who believe faculty status is a helpful condition for doing our jobs are obsessed with proving our status rather than with doing our jobs.

    As for Stanley Fish, I actually believe that being allowed to do our jobs requires some latitude for defending ideas that are unpopular rather than responding to customer service, given customers and the electorate may demand otherwise. Curiously, that latitude is more frequently needed by public librarians than academic ones, because our customers are more likely to defend having different ideas on the shelves. But I don’t see this as an argument against faculty status.

  7. Thanks for the pointer – this is full of things to think about.

    One of my main problems with the what it means to be a faculty member post last year, though, persists here and that is the focus I’m seeing on *teaching* In my experience, and I think that the phrase you quote above illustrates this – faculty do not consider librarians something different from faculty because we don’t teach enough. When I talk to faculty they are rarely surprised to find out that I teach. The perceived gap is in research not teaching. They don’t see library or information science as a discipline in the traditional sense, nor do they see librarians engaging in knowledge creation and discipline-building. The time spent interacting with students is really not the issue.

    There is movement, though not much, on many campuses to take the scholarship of teaching and learning, the scholarship of application, seriously in the promotion and tenure process and this is where librarians have an opportunity to find allies among other teaching-focused, student-focused faculty. But it’s essential, I think, to understand that in some cases those teaching-focused, student-focused faculty aren’t considered “real” faculty either. That in some disciplines and some departments doing research on how to *teach* math well, or geography well, or history well won’t get you anywhere in the P & T process.

    So when I argue that there is a benefit to faculty librarians there is a context there – and it *does* require a broader understanding of faculty than can be understood by traditional, disciplinary appointments. And my question about the prior post was – did it give traditional, disciplinary teaching too much weight? I think it did, and where I think that’s problematic is in this – if undergraduate teaching and learning is going to be a central goal for our campuses, those campuses need to consider more than disciplinary knowledge-building in their reward systems. And as librarians, I think we want to work to find allies, to open the conversations on our campuses up in those ways.

  8. Might it be possible that there is no need to conclude that all academic librarians should be faculty or not but rather that each institution is well-served by making the determination for itself what status librarians will have and that each “group” of librarians is best situated to make the case for their own setting? And, then – since variety exists in the world – each individual librarian can apply to those jobs that have the status he/she finds best suited to him/herself? Just a thought that variety might be a good thing …. from what I have seen, what it means to be “real faculty” varies quite a bit from institution to institution as well …

  9. Faculty status is more than just a nifty badge for we librarians at larger university systems to have (it is different at smaller and community colleges, perhaps) – the only way we make our voices heard in the governance structure is through the Faculty Senate. I’ve managed to make great contacts and argue points of policy through the Senate that i otherwise would have been unable to do and be taken seriously. In addition, without faculty status I wouldn’t have the opportunity to apply for research leave time to pursue research that affects library practice, which is important if we want to support practicing librarians who care to do research and publish instead of just the LIS faculty at LIS schools. It’s not simply a matter of wanting to be on the same level, it’s a matter of demanding faculty privileges for librarians and recognizing that we do faculty work – we teach, we provide service, we do research. There are organizations (smaller colleges and community colleges) that provide less of a faculty-driven atmosphere for those who don’t care for research and prefer to focus solely on the service they provide to students. Don’t paint all academic librarians with a single brush – it’s both annoying and simplistic.

  10. When I write about faculty status for academic librarians don’t get the impression that I’m against it. I acknowledge that there are definite advantages to having faculty status, and as some of you point out having a seat at the governance table is an important one. That’s not to say that academic librarians won’t have similar rights where they don’t have tenure. I was fortunate to previously be at an institution where the enlightened faculty welcomed librarians to join in the governance process and serve on important committees. Better pay and benefits? Perhaps. Do I think the time spent on building dossiers and tenure evaluations could be better used serving the user community? Yes I do. Do I think faculty status automatically provides equality with non-librarian faculty? Not really. Can that be earned? Absolutely – by both librarians with and without faculty status. Do I think every academic librarian with faculty status is obsessed with proving he or she is equal to non-library faculty? No, but I don’t doubt that some are – or will at least argue they are any time you suggest they aren’t.

    And while I’m not an instructional technologist I’d certainly like to think that I have learned and integrated many of those same skills into my approach to academic librarianship. From my perspective, having the ability to help faculty improve their pedagogy through better uses of learning technology is far more likely to help integrate the library into the teaching and learning process than being a member of the undergraduate curriculum committee (which I was at my previous institution – so I think I speak from experience).

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