The great thing about our higher education system is the enormous diversity found in the approximately 4,000 institutions that offer degree programs. Having too many options is sometimes a challenge, but a more significant issue in American higher education is the disparity between the have’s and the have not’s. The same could be said of academic libraries. Some have incredible resources while others subsist on a shoestring budget. I’ve worked in both environments, and I’ve enjoyed both though I now tend to think there are greater benefits to working in the latter. For one thing, it forces you to be much more creative in how you attack problems because the luxury of just throwing money at them isn’t an option. The victories, when they come, may be small but are far sweeter and rewarding. If you are or have been in this situation, or if you’ve ever been part of a team that’s turned around a challenged academic library, I think you know what I mean.
I’ve also known academic librarians who work in the former and would never consider a position at the latter because they like the prestige associated with being at their well-off institution. That’s not to say they dislike their jobs but stick it out for the prestige, but they might not consider the possibilities afforded at less well-off libraries. That’s also not to suggest they see their well-resourced academic libraries as problem-free havens. Those libraries also have their share of difficulties and challenges, though they might be significantly different ones than what those at poorly-resourced libraries are encountering. And by all means, I’m not suggesting our colleagues who enjoy working at a prestigious institution are snobs. Having an abundance of resources – even despite the economic challenges of the past two years – is an asset, and I know well the advantages it can offer in allowing the library to make a difference for the academic community.
But do we define who we are in the field of higher education by where we work? This question was the subject of a short essay by David Evan titled “Going Home”, in which he visits his alma mater for a reunion and contemplates the contrast between it prestigiousness and the place where he teaches which is far less well resourced. He writes:
Like a lot of academics, I’ve had the interesting experience of working at institutions that are much less prosperous and prestigious than the one where I earned my degree…My undergraduate institution is rich and has been for a long time. Although its endowment has shrunk in the past couple of years, it could come close to supporting its entire generous annual budget through conservative spending of its endowment income. Even 29 years ago, when I was about to start as a freshman, it had physical and instructional resources that beggar those at most institutions. The faculty teaching load is 2-2; the average faculty salary is nearly twice that at my current institution (and my current institution pays quite well, relatively speaking). A degree from there has, beyond doubt, been a foundation for my subsequent career.For a long time, I had a strong urge to return to work at a similar institutionâ€”a rich, selective liberal-arts college with highly talented students in a desirable location. My first job was at a much less rich (not rich at all, actually), noticeably less selective liberal-arts college in a location that many young faculty members would find less compelling. None of my subsequent jobs have been much different.
While this section of the essay makes it sound like Evan regrets his employment decisions, nothing could be farther from the truth. He goes on to write about how much he has enjoyed and learned from all of his different experiences at the four institutions he has worked in his career, though none of them carried the prestige of his alma mater. He concludes by sharing what’s he’s learned over the course of his career and offer this as advice to others:
Prestige is an immense factor in the academy. We are acculturated by the “big brands” of higher education, and many of us were taught to measure our value by our professional proximity to those big brands. I am convinced that this is one of the main reasons so many academics are unhappy. They were highly talented, motivated students at the most prosperous and accommodating institutions in higher education. Being removed from that rarefied context can be a rude shock, and enduring it can be hard for many people. But there’s a lot to do in higher education that doesn’t depend much on prestige or even institutional wealth. There are a lot of worthy missions in colleges, and a lot of excellent places to have a fine career. I wish I’d figure that out earlier.
At ALA Annual there were several programs directed to newer-to-the-profession librarians. Many of the speakers and attendees were academic librarians. I attended one where the panelists were all new to their jobs and just starting their careers, and at another I was a panelist where we were all well-seasoned academic librarians reflecting on our career paths, and offering advice to newer colleagues. At all of these programs there were both presenters and participants from all types of institutions, both well and poorly resourced. The question of whether it is better to pursue a position at one or the other never came up. In fact, most of those new graduates still seeking their first position indicated they’d be willing to work just about anywhere; institutional prestige or the lack thereof was certainly not on their minds. Had it come it up I would have wanted those who attended these programs to know that where you work, as Evan eventually discovered in his career, should not define your status as an academic librarian, nor should any academic librarian feel inferior or unhappy because he or she doesn’t work at a “big brand” college or university. The rewards of being an academic librarian can be discovered and achieved at almost any institution – just as being at a prestigious one is no guarantee of job satisfaction.