The Academic Librarian’s Identity Conflict

Just exactly what role do we play in higher education? Where do we fit into the structure of colleges and universities? On a day-to-day basis I suspect that most of us don’t think about this question. We identify ourselves within the structure of our own academic library organizations: cataloger; reference librarian; bibliographer. Our identification may also be shaped institutionally: professional staff; administrator; faculty. But when we attempt to identify ourselves on the industry level, where we sit becomes less concrete.

Identify is important to our sense of self-worth and self-esteem. When our identify is called into question, we may feel threatened or less secure about our standing in the organization. While in our library organizations we have a fairly specific identity, within the grander scheme of higher education academic librarians – no matter what their position or title – tend to get grouped into one of two categories: administrator or support staff.

Most academic librarians working elsewhere than the administrative office do not think of themselves as administrators. You teach a few dozen instruction sessions a year, and that makes you an instructor – not an administrator. You say you have faculty status and that makes you a faculty member – not an administrator. When you work at the reference desk you help students with their assignments which is another way of helping them learn – definitely not administrator territory. I agree with you. Front line librarians spend considerable time on non-administrative matters that would be identified as “teaching” or “instruction”, whether it happens in a classroom, at the answer desk or in a hallway. But when national data about higher education are collected and reported, we tend to be grouped in with administrators or support staff – not instruction staff.

Consider the July 2010 report from the Delta Project,a non-profit organization that studies college costs and accountability issues, . In examing trends in college spending between 1998 and 2008, there are data in the report worth reviewing. One of the findings that received the most attention in the popular press was the growth of funding for student services. One expert, Richard Vedder, in his reaction to the data referred to it as the “country clubization” of higher education – too much money is being spent on amenities to attract students while instruction suffers. But when one examines the data it’s clear that while spending for student services has accelerated in the past few years, the vast majority of college expenditures go to instruction – for which spending has remained fairly static.

I wanted to learn what the Delta Project report had to say about academic libraries. Unfortunately there’s nothing specific there. I did learn that academic libraries are not considered part of instruction when it comes to where the money goes. Rather, the library is grouped with “academic support”, which many faculty and higher education analysts consider to all be part of administrative expenditures. Here are the scope notes directly from the Project Delta report:

Instruction: Activities directly related to instruction, including faculty salaries and benefits, office supplies, administration of academic departments, and the proportion of faculty salaries going to departmental research and public service.

Academic support: Activities that support instruction, research, and public service,including: libraries, academic computing, museums, central academic administration (dean’s offices), and central personnel for curriculum and course development.

Admittedly, academic support doesn’t sound all that nefarious. We know that “administration” has taken on fairly negative connotations in higher education, particularly from the faculty perspective. And if it hasn’t just yet, a crop of new books about higher education that arrived in 2010 will do even more to paint academic administration as a glutton hogging on tuition and growing itself at a pace that is difficult to rationalize. One of these books, in particular, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, has received significant attention, particularly in the mass media. In varying articles and interviews, Hacker and Dreifus, share their thoughts on what’s wrong with higher education. While they take faculty to task in a way that’s reminiscent of Profscam, they make it clear that the rampant and unchecked expansion of the administration is causing great harm to higher education. It’s hard to deny the racheting up of college administration:

In 1976, for every 1,000 full-time students, there were 42 professional administrative staff members, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2008, the most recent year available, there were 84. At the same time, the number of full-time faculty members for every 1,000 students has declined, from 65 to 55, due to the greater use of adjuncts and teaching assistants.While fewer undergraduates are being taught by full-time professors, the number of administrators keeps growing.

They also point to questionable administration positions they’ve identified in their research: vice president for student success, residential communications coordinator, credential specialist, dietetic internship director, director of active and collaborative engagement, and coordinator of learning immersion experiences. They’re not saying these folks have no purpose, but they question whether the positions are truly fundamental to the mission of higher education or are simply evidence of out-of-control administrative hiring. What might they say about academic library positions such as “director of scholarly communications” or “coordinator of assessment”?

Do academic libraries contribute to the administrative bloat in higher education? Whether academic librarians are administrators or instructors is perhaps not as important as how we demonstrate that we are fundamental to the core mission of our institutions – to educate the students and promote research and discovery that benefits society. With the exception of perhaps a few well-resourced institutions, I believe it is difficult to make a case that academic libraries contribute to administrative bloat. We certainly have our share of assistant deans and department heads, less so in college and small university libraries, but even many of these individuals are doing practical work that enables the library to serve its mission of supporting teaching, learning and research, along with programs and events that contribute to the cultural and intellectual heritage of our institutions.

Front line librarians and other staff may view what happens in the administrative office differently, and any new hire of an administrator rather than a practitioner may be perceived as administrative bloat. The bottom line as I see it is that academic librarians do little to contribute to the administrative bloat described by Hacker and Dreifus, but rather are victimized by it because when our institutions add more vice-presidents, program coordinators and just about anything that isn’t instruction or in direct support of instruction, it drains resources away from academic libraries and hampers our ability to perform our mission.

So what do Hacker and Dreifus have to say about academic libraries in their book? Actually, nothing. I read the book and there are no substantive references to academic libraries. In a way, given the overall tone of the book, I suppose that’s a good thing. But it might have been helpful for the authors to have visited and studied some of our academic libraries (they visited many of our institutions in researching the book). What they could have learned and what they might have said about all the things academic librarians do to contribute to student academic success, may have shed some additional light on our role in the academy and the resolution of the identity conflict.

6 thoughts on “The Academic Librarian’s Identity Conflict”

  1. Dear Steven B.:

    Your thoughtful critique of “Higher Education?” is appreciated. And heard.

    There are weaknesses to our book, at moments. At times we attempted to cover too much and at others, too little. Some of this is natural with such an ambitious work. We were attempting to cover the whole of a huge system. But the fate of academic libraries in the current environment of bloated administrative budgets, athletic empires, luxurious facilities, star professor salaries and perks–is not to be overlooked.

    Still, in fairness, I don’t think we ever implied that libraries were part of the bloat. We are pro-library, pro-librarian.

    Andrew Hacker and I are currently writing a new chapter for the trade paperback version of “Higher Education?” We want to write of all we’ve learned since publishing the book. When we said that everything except teaching needs to be justified, saw libraries as a very much a part of teaching and instruction. Perhaps we need to say it outright.

    And yes, we’d love to hear from librarians about their experiences in this new environment of concurrent budget cuts and super-indulgent spending. You are quite right when you say that academic libraries are not part of the bloat and indeed, we don’t characterize them as such–we are talking about football squads and their trainers and administrators to nanny every aspect of a student’s life or provide a myriad of services to adult faculty.

    Best, Claudia Dreifus

  2. This blog post is right on the mark. Identity is related to how the library is viewed, and how it is funded.

    I appreciated Claudia Dreifus’s comment to the post too. However, it is interesting that on quite a few campuses, librarians have administrative contracts, rather than faculty contracts. So yes, we are then counted as administrators, in the academic support arena. And this can lead to others (those who make funding decisions, and even faculty) to feel that at least some of the librarians (especially those they do not see in instruction or reference roles) are contributing to the bloat.

    What is essential is what Steven notes near the end of the post–we need to demonstrate that we are fundamental to the mission of the institution.

  3. I think “academic support” is a good description of the role the library plays. I also think, and quite cheerfully, that we are not fundamentally important–if we need to demonstrate that we are, we either aren’t or our audience thinks we are but thinks it’s so obvious that it’s not worth talking about (I vote “B”). The intellectual heart of the campus is in the classroom, and we are critical to supporting that.

  4. Steven, I enjoyed reading your blog entry along with the comments. I am a Public Services Librarian at an academic library. I am researching the concept of how libraries can demonstrate their worth not solely by supporting the mission of the institution but by enacting the mission. Ideas I have thought of addressing are “building community” and scholarship. Enacting the mission demonstrates a more active role of the library. I’d love to hear what others think on this topic.

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