Does Where You Work Define Who You Are As An Academic Librarian

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 institution—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.

6 thoughts on “Does Where You Work Define Who You Are As An Academic Librarian”

  1. I have been thinking about this a lot lately – the differences between large and small schools and prestigious schools and regular schools. I find that working at smaller, perhaps less prestigious schools is much more rewarding. I’ve only had one job as a full-fledged librarian so far, but I’m loving my experience at a smaller school.

    It seems that at smaller, regular schools you have more to prove. They need more work in solving their problems. We don’t have the most amazing discovery service, or a huge budget, but we do a lot of cool things creatively with our resources.

    It also seems that you can experiment and be more innovative at regular schools. There isn’t a culture of “we’ve always done it this way.” There’s not as much bureaucracy. Because they have something to prove they want to try things differently and come up with fresh solutions, and that’s the sort of culture that I love.

  2. In my brief career (I suppose I’m one of the newer-to-the-profession librarians), I’ve also noticed that the prestige of the institution does not always correlate to the effectiveness, vision, or even resources of the library.

    Of course, most of the biggest hitters are also housed in super-well-funded institutions, but a more prestigious school does not guarantee more prestigious academic library.

    Innovations often come from smaller institutions more willing to take risks, not all “big brands” make their library a priority, and some of the most effective libraries I’ve seen work with an entirely different demographic than the selective school student body.

    Like other academics, it’s important to know which institutions are strong in our field, not just which are higher on the US News and World Report very general (and severely flawed) rankings.

  3. Thanks for this–it’s definitely true, but sometimes it’s hard not to feel a little cowed by fancier institutions that are in the same vicinity as yours!

  4. Interesting post on a topic that doesn’t seem to get discussed much. I agree that the prestige of the institution or the library would never be first on my list of things to consider when applying for a job. But I’ve worked at a small college where I was one of 2-4 professional librarians (the staffing varied depending on the finances of the school), and there was no room for advancement for me there. In order to advance in the profession, I had to move to a bigger place. However, one HUGE benefit of starting out at a very small library, as I did, is that you tend to get the opportunity to do a lot more different kinds of things than you would as part of a much larger organization.

  5. I think if one has the luxury of choosing which type they want to work for, it’s worth considering your own personality and work style. I’ve worked in a small academic library with 2 professional librarians and later at a larger well respected institution with scads of librarians.

    At a smaller place you are often asked to wear many hats, while at a larger place you may be able to focus on one type of project or service. A smaller library puts you closer to the bureaucracy and decision making process, while at a larger one you are often only told about changes when they happen, not in the planning stages. Also, each offer varying levels of advancement and supervisory opportunities. Also of issue is support for professional development and conference travel funding. Larger schools may offer more funds, but sadly this limits the types of voices and viewpoints heard at big conferences like ALA.

    I think the bottom line is that it’s good to remember when job seeking and interviewing is that you aren’t the only one being interviewed. It’s a chance for you to interview them, learn about what the school has to offer and decide if that fits with your career goals.

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