Taming Tenure as a Newbrarian

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Dylan Burns, Digital Scholarship Librarian at Utah State University.

This month I’ll end my first “year” at Utah State University, only about 3 months in real human time. That is when my tenure calendar, which trudged on before I was a glint in the eye of my search committee, ends the first year. Given the short amount of time I’ve been in Logan I believe I’ve done well in my position as Digital Scholarship Librarian, but the tenure dossier and meeting I schedule in few weeks still makes me think about the tenure process and what it means for librarians.

How am I approaching tenure?

A common refrain amongst faculty librarians is the “failed academic” route to our success. Many of us dreamed of being on campus albeit as research or teaching faculty rather than where we landed in the library. This doesn’t mean that the library wasn’t ultimately the spot in academia that fit my interests and goals the best; In fact, I will say that I should have been shooting for librarianship for a longer time that I actually was. We all hear stories from kids in library school (I can say that now right? Since I’m library #adulting?) where they knew from a young age that librarianship was their be-all end-all, but I wasn’t one of them.

What this means is that in my prior grad school life, I had a completely different set of research interests and projects which may or may not fit in my life as a librarian (depending on how much you squint). In my previous program I presented and published on gendered bananas in advertising and American diplomacy as well as the end of the world in country music. While the end products of my research, strange discussions of cultural politics of bananas aside, fit well in many humanities departments across the country, these aren’t the research projects that librarians need to make themselves better and improve the larger discipline.

What I do think these prior flights of fancy in scholarship give me is a larger context for the work I ultimately am doing as an academic librarian. In my meetings with faculty I can share these experiences with them and draw from my own previous life as a researcher to better design a digital scholarship unit at Utah State which confronts problems and assuages fears.

In a larger context though, I find that academic librarianship allows us to see the larger picture of both the University but the entire scholarly world. Scholars on campus are brilliantly narrow in their pursuits, a necessity of the current state of academia. Librarians, on the other hand, are interdisciplinary to their core.

This leads to a potential pitfall that all of us face. With the new brand of freedom granted by not having to take classes or read assigned texts I’m left with the burden of this freedom. I guide my own path, with the guidance of experienced librarians and my committee. I chose what to read and what skills to learn. This is a great freedom but also a deep frustration: What I am going to do now? In a lot of ways we are experts in gaining expertise. We guide researchers to their own information needs and goals. How do we do this for ourselves?

With my short year concluding I felt a lot of pressure to hit the ground running. I think that is a burden that all first year librarians feel. We see colleagues doing great work and we judge ourselves against what they’ve been able to do in years rather than weeks. Remembering that we’re new and these connections and projects take time to develop is key to early success. Sometimes we come to our jobs with projects in mind, I have some on the backburner, but when confronted with new environments and new colleagues it is imperative that we jettison those projects if new ones come along. I have taken every single opportunity to work with my new friends and colleagues on projects essential to the future of our library.

What I idealized as the Baudelairian scholar or poet in the tower who worked on scholarship as a singular and lonely force is ultimately the wrong approach. Librarianship is one where we can all work on projects together to further the field. Being open to collaborations and being interested in forming these connections has been one of the most important things I’ve learned thus far.

Furthermore, after decades of school, I think I tend to view most of interactions as competitions. Competitions for grads or grants or for articles or conferences or graduate assistantships and jobs. It is easy to carry this competitive edge into the job and tenure does not discourage that kind of thinking. But I remind myself every day that I am in competition only with myself and any opportunity to cooperate and collaborate carries everyone forward together.

In some ways tenure in library circles mirror current debates about accreditation for library schools, in that these are larger discussions over the professionalization of our occupation. How do we as academic librarians view our status at the university? There are some librarians who believe that we are second class citizens at the university, and I think this, unfortunately, might be more reality than fiction at some schools. What tenure and faculty status allows is a gravitas to our work and our status at the university.

As a first year faculty member, I have been attending workshops and classes with new teaching faculty, and I must pause and take heart that while I’m not a doctor I have the same role in the larger university machine. This is a hard thing for faculty librarians, including myself, to fully cure. But there are opportunities to find common minds in these interactions and I am thankful that faculty status allows me this kind of in with new professors. I research and they research. I teach and they teach. Even in my short time at Utah State some of my most rewarding experiences have been with working with faculty members as equals in the university’s mission.

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