Daily Archives: October 26, 2010

Experience vs. Reality

Last week I was at the ARLIS/NA Midstates Chapter fall meeting, graciously hosted by Chapter president Rebecca Price and the University of Michigan Libraries. In a panel discussion, Ray Silverman (director of the Museum Studies program at the University of Michigan) and Jennifer Gustafson (Practicum Coordinator for the School of Library & Information Science at Wayne State University) talked about the relationship between the digital and the real and its impact on museums as well as libraries.

Museums, they said, are getting away from the object and moving towards the experience, and they discussed The Henry Ford (no longer the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village) as an example. There, a $32 admission fee provides access to a range of experiences, from riding in a Model T to playing historic baseball.

Libraries, however, are also moving this direction. A great divestiture of physical collections is underway in the wake of our shift to the electronic and in preparation for – what? Several librarians at the conference discussed the wholesale de-accessioning of visual resources collections, something that has been underway for years now. Tony White, director of the Fine Arts Library at Indiana University, talked about the demise of the branch library and how he fears his library (now that it has absorbed the Visual Resources Center) may not be freestanding for much longer. Price brought up the de-duping proposal being discussed by the CICs: it begins with journals, but ends, we imagine, with thinner and more mobile physical collections, cooperatively owned, and research libraries whose floors of stacks have been transformed into flexible learning commons designed to hold the experiences of different audiences – first-year students, graduate students, faculty.

This is not only going on in the ARL libraries of the world – in my own mid-sized academic library we recently closed a branch (our science library) and have undertaken, along with other Ohio academic libraries, a massive deduping project, beginning with journals.

And what about roles? Silverman pointed out that as museums shift to providing experiences, curators actually become more like librarians, who have traditionally been less focused on collecting objects (though collect we do) and more on helping people. And White predicts that librarians’ roles as collection specialists will become a thing of the past as consolidated collections require less distributed expertise. Several weeks ago I blogged about this very future for electronic resources, though the reality on the ground right now makes it seem rather distant.

Ironically, Silverman predicted a “re-discovery of the real” – that the object itself will become more important than it’s ever been. But “the books are going,” as Price said. For libraries, what form will that object take when the books are gone? Will we create experiences with our special collections? Prize the digital object instead of the physical? Remember, for many, libraries’ brand is still books, and some people still want them, just like some museum-goers still want art. It would be awful to re-discover this reality only after the books are gone.

Earning Full Citizenship: A Response To “Seeking Full Citizenship”

Editor’s Note: ACRLog is pleased to offer a guest post on the long-debated topic of the appropriateness of tenure for academic librarians. In this post, Karen G. Schneider, Director of the Cushing Library at Holy Names University, responds to an article that appears in the September 2010 issue of College & Research Libraries titled “Seeking Full Citizenship: A Defense of Tenure Faculty Status for Librarians“. Many thanks to Ms. Schneider for her contribution to ACRLog.

“Seeking Full Citizenship” (Coker et al., College and Research Libraries, September 2010) notes that faculty status for librarians has been discussed for over a century. Nothing said in that article or this response will abate that discussion. But I knew I had to wade into these muddy waters when I opened an electronic copy of the article and searched its text, confirming my suspicion that nowhere in this article does the word “student” arise.

Any argument for a change to my status or the status of those I manage has to first meet this very high bar: does it work toward the higher good of the institution we serve?

As a library director (my third time in this role, though the first time in academia), my first priority is service to our institution—not just the library, but the entire campus, and by extension, all of higher education and librarianship and beyond. Every student who walks through the doors of this university deserves the very best service our library can provide, and that is our true north, the direction in which our compass-arrow quivers. Even our service to faculty, which we also take very seriously, is an extension of that primary responsibility to students (and I am betting my institution’s faculty would agree with that statement).

Therefore, by this standard, any argument for a change in status to a major demographic in higher education would presumably, at some point, explain how this change benefited the institution it serves—not as an ancillary outcome, but as a central transformation. Yet in “Seeking Full Citizenship,” the argument that there is a relationship between “elevated professional status and effectiveness in the discipline” went entirely unsupported. (And are we really so needy for proof that we are “real” academics that we must use phrases such as “elevated professional status”?)

Instead, “Seeking Full Citizenship” focuses on academic freedom (“[t]he primary protection that tenure gives all tenured faculty members”), job security, the ability to purchase risqué books (I can do that too, by the way), and (between the lines) the assuagement of our personal insecurities about rank and class.

Academic freedom may indeed serve a higher good by exposing our academic communities to ideas that might otherwise not have a voice, therefore contributing to the benefit of our students, faculty, and society–but “Seeking Full Citizenship” doesn’t make this argument. It’s all about the personal advantage of academic freedom—an argument largely unpersuasive to anyone outside the library itself.

I must also shake my head at the solipsism of an argument that ignores the growing tenure crisis in higher education today. As “Seeking Full Citizenship” acknowledges, tenure for librarians really only gained steam in the mid-1970s, a time when the non-tenured teaching workforce began quietly but rapidly growing. Leave it to librarians to embrace a system at the very moment in history when it is shaking itself apart.

Nowhere in this discussion does the article acknowledge the trembling faultlines of the lopsided two-tier system that divides the teaching ecology between the dwindling percentage of tenured faculty—with their viable salaries, benefits, and job security—and the adjunct, graduate-student, and non-tenure track workforce that now supplies over 70 percent of the actual teaching in higher education. No solution has emerged, but there is at least tentative consensus in higher education that the current model is not sustainable.

Then there is the question of where we fit in the larger higher education ecology. The very title of the article is a rather telling admission of class anxiety, but it also begs the question: if untenured librarians feel like second-class citizens, what does that make the other workers in higher education? If there is truly an argument to be made for “elevated professional status and effectiveness in the discipline,” why not align with the academic majority—“Allons enfants de la Patrie!”–and advocate for better pay, benefits, and working conditions for all who serve institutions of higher education in such critical roles? Are these employees not our brothers and sisters, and does a rising tide not lift all boats?

Furthermore, much as I respect and enjoy the contributions of our tenured faculty, in terms of the library’s strategic vision, it is highly advantageous to be a peer with the other non-faculty academic staff, all of whom play central roles in the work of recruitment, retention, revenue generation, strategic direction, information technology, infrastructure management, and the other services and initiatives that keep a university as an entity fueled and on-track. That peer relationship is crucial for achieving our objectives, particularly in an environment of competing priorities. I would be embarrassed to learn that my peers in other departments had stumbled across an article insisting that librarians, lone among the academic bureaucracy, are endowed with numinous, ineffable qualities that justify their “elevation” to faculty status.

Finally, as long as I’m setting myself up as a piñata for faculty-status advocates, I will admit that the lack of faculty status at our library was one more selling point for taking this job. Having had experience in other academic environments, I was seeking an environment where I “interview for my job every day,” as one of my peer department heads puts it, and where others are equally challenged toward excellence. The very point of tenure is to make it “purposely difficult” (in the words of the American Federation of Teachers) to remove an employee—a limitation I did not want (not even for myself), and one that in fact steered me toward one position over another.

However well tenure has worked for the teaching profession, it is a questionable model for modern library administration—not only for individual libraries, but for our profession as a whole. I admit to a fondness for the romantic vision of the librarian-scholar steeped in contemplative and scholarly activities, but the reality is that the shape-shifting changes that have happened in librarianship in the last two decades mean we are all running startups, and we need all hands on deck for our organizations to continually reassert our relevance while we undergo (and ideally, lead) the massive shift from print to digital and from a focus on collections to a focus on services. We need to come to work every day driven by a sense of urgency and a push toward immediate excellence; we cannot afford anything less.

If your library has faculty status, so be it; I am not advocating the dismantling of any system in place—in any event, I predict the larger forces at work in higher education will take care of that. But not long ago, when asked how her library had moved from stodgy to innovative over a decade, a colleague responded, “Tenure was eliminated.” This is anecdotal evidence, but no worse than what is forwarded for the other side of this argument in “Seeking Full Citizenship.”

When I hear new librarians arguing for tenure status (and I was once one of them), I wish I had a time machine to push them twenty years forward for a week, where as administrators they will be coping with the outcomes of the system they helped create. At the very least, I carry this message from the future: you’re already a full citizen—now do everything you can for the rest of your career to warrant that status.

1. U.S. Department of Education, NCES, 2007 Fall Staff Survey, quoted in American Federation of Teachers, “Academic Staffing Crisis,” http://www.aft.org/issues/highered/acadstaffing.cfm

2. American Federation of Teachers, “The Truth about Tenure in Higher Education,” http://www.aft.org/issues/highered/truthtenure.cfm

3. For a cogent argument that tenure status is also a poor fit for librarians because our work organizations are team-based, see Steve McKinzie, “Tenure for Academic Librarians: Why it has to Go,” Against the Grain, September 2010, p. 60.