Navigating (New) Relationships with Faculty: Valuing Service

I start my first professional position in less than a month. I repeat: less than a month! I’ll be one of three Information Literacy Librarians on Davidson College’s team. I have been thinking about what the transition will be like a lot lately and one topic really continues to stick with me, worry me, and challenge me. That topic is the idea of building and fostering relationships, not just with my fellow librarians but also with faculty.

The on-campus interview is so imperative for figuring out fit, not just for the employer, but also for the candidate. The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to not just to like the people I work with but also to have respect for them, share values with them, and have the capacity to learn from them. Moreover, if I don’t have a direct supervisor that will mentor me, advocate for me, and evaluate me fairly, I’m not sure any amount of money will make me a happy employee. I was lucky enough to find the right environment at Davidson.

Yet, thinking beyond my tiny department often makes me anxious. One of the great things about Davidson College is its faculty. I won’t be explicit here but when I was interviewing, I often found myself drooling over some of the accomplishments of faculty there. One example is the creation and development of a digital studies program, which makes critical analysis and ethical consideration of technology and its role in our lives a priority. The digital studies website lists the following as goals: “procedural literacy, data awareness, network sensibility, entrepreneurial thinking, iterative design, digital citizenship, information preservation and sustainability, and the ethical use of technology.” Talk about a librarian’s dream! It’s heartening to see these topics integrated into the curriculum in a meaningful way.

Nevertheless, it’s naïve to think that two or three faculty members’ values represent the majority. Moreover, even though I know this department does awesome work, how do I even reach out? Do I bank on healthy relationships already being established? (This isn’t always guaranteed. Sometimes new professionals actually have to spend time re-building relationships that were previously broken.) Do I go out of my way to schedule an appointment or audit one of their classes? Or do I take a more passive approach? I know that I might be complicating this a little bit, but I think this is a valid concern many new librarians face. New librarians in almost all areas, from data management to instruction, have to work with faculty and we have to start somewhere.

A better question I might ask goes beyond just establishing a relationship, one where the faculty member e-mails me once a semester to ask that I “demo the databases,” but also asks how I establish a fruitful, collaborative partnership where my work is seen as complementary and necessary to the instruction that that faculty member is doing. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, mostly because of the great conversation our profession has been having around this topic.

First and foremost, it is worth noting that this question isn’t just of concern to new librarians; even seasoned professionals are still grappling with how to improve their relationships with faculty and help faculty better understand their work. Maria Accardi’s new blog, Academic Library Instruction Burnout, addresses this issue often. In a recent post, “I do not think the Framework is our oxygen mask,” Accardi writes:

Despite my consistent and intensive and strategic outreach efforts, despite my partnering with faculty members who are indeed library champions who do get what we do and why, despite all of my efforts to chip away at the culture that marginalizes the very real teaching and learning work we do in the library, I’ll get a writing teacher sending his class to the library, with no notice, with a fucking scavenger hunt assignment that requires students to work with print reference books only. Please excuse me while I *headdesk* forever.

This frustration is echoed in Lauren Wallis’ post entitled “Smash all the Gates, Part 2: Professional Silenc*”:

This happens when you pitch an idea to a faculty member (perhaps at a campus schmooze event), and they act at least mildly interested–and then when you follow up via email, they never respond.  It happens when a faculty member books an instruction session but then refuses to engage in a discussion about what that session should look like.  It happens when faculty members don’t accompany their classes to library instruction.  There are a lot of examples, all frustrating. All of these silences serve to maintain a situation where subject faculty have absolute control over their students, their assignments, and (to a certain extent) the content of library instruction sessions.

Why does this happen? Why are librarians disregarded, silenced, and misunderstood? Both of the writers above make it very clear that these problems in no way represent the majority of the faculty they work with. Still, why is this a reoccurring issue across campuses?

On June 9th, a Pratt SILS course taught by Jessica Hochman, LIS 697: Gender and Intersectionality in LIS, led a #critlib discussion on feminist contributions in LIS. There were some great conversations on how the feminization of LIS inhibits our work and creates stereotypes that “pigeonhole(s) us in one-shot service models”. There were also examples of librarians’ work and expertise being undervalued and sometimes even ignored. Here’s a great summary of why:

Cudjoe tweet

The feminization of our profession means that we are often only seen as a profession that serves. Our work is often undervalued or forgotten because service is undervalued and many times, forgotten. Our society sees service work as less than, below “making” or “creating”. In “Why I Am Not a Maker,” Debbie Chachra states that the problem with making is that it is “intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.” And yet, “not making” is, as she says, is “usually not doing nothing,” and often involves doing things for others, including teaching and educating students.

Roxanne Shirazi’s brilliant talk, Reproducing the Academy: Librarians and the Question of Service in the Digital Humanities, offers a similar analysis. She states that once women start to make up to close to 50% of a workforce, that work is devalued and no longer pursued by men because it becomes seen as “women’s work” or service work. Within her talk, Shirazi begs the question, “do librarians work in service of scholarship or are they servile to scholars?” (original emphasis). She concludes that because librarians’ work reproduces the academy, through teaching students, organizing scholarship, and preserving information, we are often seen as less than and at the bottom of the hierarchy that is academia.

In essence, what is feminized, what is service, what is emotional and affective labor is devalued in our society not only because of the type of work it is but also because of who has historically done that work. Chachra notes, “Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by the order of men.” Worse, the devaluing of our work is often connected to stereotypes of librarians and their function within the academy. In “Ice Ice Baby: Are Librarian Stereotypes Freezing Us out of Instruction?,” Pagowsky and DeFrain write, “Our stereotypes are not just annoying or humorous illustrations of us, they can seriously impact the work we do and the respect we are afforded” (emphasis mine).

Pagowsky and DeFrain find that librarians are in a difficult position, often seen as too “warm,” because of their helping and nurturing status but also often too “cold” or “sterile,” because of the librarian stereotype centered on uptightness and introversion. Moreover, they find that warmth is often seen as mutually exclusive to competence which creates a challenge for “librarians who want to both be taken seriously on campus… and yet who also endeavor to effectively reach students and show care.”

I’ll admit that I’m a little depressed and overwhelmed. Are you? I won’t pretend to offer any solutions here. I think it’s safe to say that this issue is much more complicated and complex than that. I think, though, that all of the insightful librarians that present these issues also leave the profession with something to build an answer upon.

I was originally going to title this post “Establishing and Advocating for Relationships with Faculty: Moving Beyond Service.” Huh, moving beyond service? Reading all of the blog posts, talks, and articles above made me realize that we don’t need to move beyond service. Service is why I joined this profession. I love that I get to broaden and expand my worldview every day simply by helping others do research about topics that I would have never been exposed to otherwise. I love teaching students about the intricacies of information creation and value. I love connecting faculty with information that will improve their research, their research practices, and maybe even the world. My love of service is not the problem. The problem is that service is seen as less than, below, unequal to other functions in the academy.

I realize now that this problem is pervasive to my work, but I can’t solve it alone. Can I solve it at all? Wallis asserts that there has to be some level of acknowledgement of “the fact that there are different power relations at play in these collaborative [faculty-librarian] relationships” and that these relations are “embedded in the hierarchies that make up academia, in both the social stratification of varying job ranks and the hierarchical classification of service and scholarship.” In addition, even though Pagowsky and DeFrain ask that librarians stop thinking of the warm/competent binary as mutually exclusive and instead think of their work and presentation on a spectrum between the two, they conclude that “our place on the spectrum is contingent, in part, on society as a whole changing its expectations.”

It would be absurd to claim that librarians must carry the full weight of changing how they are perceived and valued. The way our society devalues work that is seen as feminized, even though it is critical, central work, is not our fault. It is a structural issue that furthers the oppression of some communities and the power of others.

I think, though, that there has been a call for librarians to start advocating for themselves and the value of the work that they do. Angela Pashia, Kevin Seeber and Nancy Noe led a conversation at LOEX this year entitled “Just Say No: Empowering Ourselves and Our Expertise.” The session walked participants through why, when, and how they should say no to faculty and also gave them a space to practice saying no and reflecting on what that felt like. Here is the litmus test the presenters gave participants for whether or not they should say no:

why say no

But what does saying no really mean for our profession? Wallis suggests that when we always say yes, not only are we reinforcing “the exclusionary nature of academic Discourse,” while also “acting as gatekeepers while simultaneously accepting and perpetuating our own marginalization.” By saying no, are breaking down some of these barriers, little by little. We are practicing what we teach to students, that all voices in a conversation matter and that there is value in all different types of contributions.

This is not easy work. Wallis is right in her assertion that “coming out of silence means we will make some people angry.” But our profession will never be one of true partnership and engagement unless we break our silence. Advocating for our value and the value of our work will, unfortunately, continue to be a very necessary skillset. Wallis asserts that we will have to break our silence as a group, as an institution, as a profession for there to be progress. We will have to share successes (and criticisms) with each other, learn from others’ experiences saying no and then hopefully (eventually) heartily saying yes, and start a larger conversation that teaches all librarians—especially new librarians—that their work is worth advocating for and that they have the support needed to come out of decades of practicing silence.

This brings me to my final point. What advice would you share with the greater library community? When have you said no? How have you been empowered? What tips would you give to new professionals or librarians just starting at a new institution? How do you establish healthy partnerships with faculty members? How do you talk to faculty members that don’t understand the value of librarianship, information literacy, metadata, data management, digital scholarship, preservation, etc. etc.? How do you converse with faculty members that are champions of the library? How do you advocate for your time, resources, and expertise? How do you let help faculty and administration understand that service is central to the mission of your campus?


Accardi, M. (2015, May 14). I do not think that the Framework is our oxygen mask. Retrieved from

Chachra, D. (2015, Jan 23). Why I am not a maker. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Pashia, A., Seeber, K., & Noe, N. (2015, May). Just say no: Empowering ourselves and our expertise. Presentation at the annual meeting of the LOEX, Denver, CO. Retrieved from

Pagowsky, N. & DeFrain, E. (2014). “Ice ice baby: Are librarian stereotypes freezing us out of instruction?” In the Library with the Leadpipe. Retrieved from

Shirazi, R. (2014, July 15). Reproducing the academy: Librarians and the question of service in the digital humanities. Retrieved from

Wallis, L. (2015, May 12). Smash all the gates, part 2: Professional silenc*. Retrieved from

10 thoughts on “Navigating (New) Relationships with Faculty: Valuing Service”

  1. Sarah, good luck with your new job! The Davidson College librarians certainly do have a strong reputation of accomplishment.

    Your post ends with many really important and challenging questions, so it’s hard to do justice to them with short comments. But I’ll try anyway…

    As you meet faculty and begin building collaborative relationships with them, remember that your goal is *not* to push library agendas or our latest framework for information literacy, etc. Instead, as a subject liaison, my goal is to help *solve their problems*.

    So ask each prof: How can I and the library help you out? Do you need better research tools as you work on publishing for tenure? Do you need some suggestions for managing your citations and files? Do your students’ research projects/papers suck? Well, thank you for telling me about those things, what if I did this for you or worked with your students to…

    And of course in the process, you might get into teaching or co-teaching, research consultations, advocacy for scholarly communication alternatives, helping research projects incorporate information literacy needs and standards, etc. — but that’s the happy background side effect, not the starting point.

    Otherwise, try to identify the influential faculty, or the ones teaching research-intensive classes or incorporating experiential learning projects. You might want to start with the department heads.

    Finally, record success stories and for heaven’s sake, don’t be afraid to tell those stories to other faculty and campus admin types. The reluctance of librarians to do that (including here at UNCG) drives me crazy. Public service stats are nice but are abstract and boring.

  2. Sarah, this was such a timely piece for me because I’ve just completed a fairly in-depth lit review on faculty-librarian collaborations. The conversation- and frustration- about the lack of equality between librarians and faculty goes back at least to the 1970s. I don’t believe this is an issue that can be “solved” but rather one that needs to be continually addressed. We talk a lot about what we want and how it will benefit the students’ learning, but that hasn’t gotten us incredibly far in 40 years. Something that has helped me immensely is to find out more what professors’ lives are like. Hardesty’s 1995 article “Faculty Culture and Bibliographic Instruction: An Exploratory Analysis” (Library Trends, 44(2), 339-67) still has resonance. Mark Bauerlein’s nostalgic NYT piece about professorship resulted in some outstanding responses, including The Tattooed Professor’s “I will not be lectured to”: At the very least, making friends with teaching faculty on your campus can be incredibly revelatory. What are their priorities and pressures? If research is prized above service and teaching, as it is on many campuses, then what is the benefit to them of spending time collaborating with librarians? You need to figure out that hook.

    I also think that “one shots” get a bum rap, but I can save that for another time. 🙂

  3. How best to engage with classroom faculty? No easy answers, but much of that may be a function of self-confidence developed over time, perhaps with the help of a mentor or two, perhaps including someone not a librarian. Most librarians will find that once they’ve been at it for a few years, and served on a faculty-wide committee or two, that classroom faculty (vis a vis library faculty or librarians) have no corner on intelligence, problem solving, critical thinking, getting things done. Learning this helps.

    Further, an individual library’s standing, often a matter of how the higher administration and the faculty generally views the library, also contributes. Advice: if you’re an academic librarian looking for a job and you want to be a first-class citizen, find out how the library director or library department chair and the librarians in general are viewed. Sure, there are harmful stereotypes, and some libraries perpetuate them, but hopefully most are doing quite the contrary. Work there, learn there.

    Otherwise . . . in my experience “service” may be fraught with misunderstanding. Broadly speaking, a college library department’s reason for being is to define and accomplish a changing and expanding set of operations supporting and enhancing the academic enterprise–I.e. to get work done so that learning happens. It’s the library’s job. Better, it’s the library’s career. And a vital part of that work Is to find new work–usually in collaboration with non-librarian faculty, often via the formal curriculum, and to do that work well. Viewing essential work as “service” begs the question, will suggest to some that it’s not essential at all, will suggest to some that at best it’s secondary to what classroom or research faculty do.

    I hope people considering academic librarianship do so because they like ideas and thoughtfulness of all sorts, because they like conversations around ideas and best practices, because they believe in and support the give and take of scholarship, because they want to learn and teach, because they want to engage with smart people, and because they believe that they and their libraries can better encourage and direct student learning.

  4. Sarah, thanks for a great post, and best wishes for your work at Davidson!

    I’d like to think about service a little more: should service be a primary goal for all academic librarians? If it’s a goal only for (generally female) research/reference/instruction librarians, why is that? (As opposed to men in tech, who may not be expected to perform service in the same way). Are librarians choosing service, & if we’re being acted upon to choose this, what other choices are out there? Does having tenure or faculty status make a difference in the perception of librarians as scholars, teachers, or servants?

    And if I can get more pointed: what about the librarians for whom service isn’t a primary motivation? What else can or has librarianship been, both for a librarians’ internal sense of vocation, and in our relationship to the people and institutions around us?

    Thanks for a great post that ties a lot of ideas together!

  5. Celia, thanks for your thoughtful comment! I especially appreciate that you nod to tenure (“Does having tenure or faculty status make a difference in the perception of librarians as scholars, teachers, or servants?”), as that’s definitely something I missed in this post. I won’t be on the tenure track at Davidson and I obviously have no experience with tenure-track librarianship. I have heard mixed things about the value of tenure in academic librarianship; however, it seems to me that at least having some form of shared governance, where we have a seat at the table to talk about curriculum decisions, administration, what we do, etc. is important. I will definitely continue to think about this in the coming months.

  6. Darrow, thanks for your comment. I agree that working with faculty is definitely a learned skill, and one that many LIS students have little to no experience with. I held two assistantships over my graduate school career and I can’t say I have any experience developing and maintaining a relationship with faculty. That’s why I think I might be more anxious about this particular area (and… well, it’s pretty important!).

    You’re also right that culture is also so important. We often walk into good– or bad– scenarios that have been developed over decades. Thanks again for the advice!

  7. Candice, I’m so pleased that this post coincides with the work that you are doing. I’m really excited to check out the resources you mention. Thanks for raising such thought-provoking questions.

  8. Steve, thank you! I’m excited to be in a state with such awesome colleagues 🙂 I will definitely utilize the great points you make. Finding library champions/ advocates is a great place to start. I also appreciate how you value stories/ testimonies/ qualitative data about our interactions with faculty. I think it can be a much more rich way to explain what we do and why we do it. And sharing success stories with each other might help with some of the burnout issues we are dealing with. I hope to meet you at an NC event at some point!

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