Reading Annie Downey’s Critical Information Literacy was like looking into a mirror that only shows your most awkward professional reflection. Her interviews with “critical” librarians (those who adopt a critical approach to information literacy and practice critical pedagogy) are some of the most honest, true-to-life experiences I’ve read from those of us who consider ourselves teaching librarians. Her descriptions of “turf issues” hit particularly close to home:
“it’s a long process to build relationships where the faculty members have some trust in the librarian and respect the librarian’s knowledge, and the librarian has to do it in a graceful way.” –quote from “Linda” (Downey, 2016, p.133).
Librarians described years of making “gradual changes” to classes and workshops, “tread[ing] lightly when it came to introducing new ideas or using [new] methods” in the classroom, and working hard to “gain the trust of [a] department’s faculty so that she could exercise more freedom in the classroom” (Downey, 2016, p. 132-133). To which I replied in the margins of the text in my special angry orange pen:
Why Must We “Gain” Trust?
It’s most disturbing to me that academic librarians are not automatically seen as experts in our disciplines of information literacy (critical or otherwise) and information organization. When an Intro to Women and Gender Studies instructor at my institution wants to introduce students to the concept of feminist economics, she calls on a colleague in the economics department to guest lecture. When a literature professor wants to offer students a deeper context for a novel set in France, she might ask a friend in the International Languages & Culture department to sit in and offer commentary during a class discussion. But as an academic librarian we are not necessarily seen as possessing valuable expertise until we prove ourselves worthy, which is virtually impossible to do if we aren’t invited into a class to teach.
Efforts at librarian-faculty collaboration privilege departmental faculty, even when librarians are members of the faculty at their institutions. Librarians work hard to seek out teaching opportunities within the curriculum, then must go the extra step of convincing faculty that they have something to contribute to students’ educational experiences. I have had so many conversations with faculty before, during, and after classes where they demonstrate pleasant surprise that I’ve planned out a lesson, given thought to my teaching, and even created assignments. As I stand there stunned, smiling, I can’t help but think, “What else did you expect? How little did you expect of me? What do you think it is I do?”
No, Really, Why?
The auto-librarian response to faculty who desire us to prove our worth is to work hard to do so. There is this belief within the profession that we are or have been somehow deficient, and now we must work to prove our worth to our colleagues in academia because we either a) didn’t do it before; b) tried, but were really bad at it; or c) are trying to make up for bad professional practice. We look inward and blame ourselves. We blame our graduate school training, internships, professional values, and practices. We blame our library administrators, librarian colleagues, predecessors, and librarians-in-training.
But we never blame academia.
We never blame the institutions that force us to beg for seats at the academic table and prove that we belong to be there. I sometimes wonder how my friends in the psychology department would respond if someone asked them, “Why are you on the curriculum committee? What do you possibly teach?” I can’t imagine my colleagues in the history department would respond well to a last minute request to “Come on in and do your history schtick tomorrow in my class, will you?” We can blame ourselves all we want. We can continue to create and attend conference presentations on collaborating with faculty. We can continue to read about ways to demonstrate our worth and our importance to our faculty through outreach. Or we could stop trying to prove ourselves and just assume that chair at the table–the one right in the middle– is our due the same as it is for every other faculty member at our institution.
I recognize that not all librarians are faculty at every institution (although I think we should be), but we are still a profession, despite decades of various work sociologists trying to say otherwise. Yes, relationships, including working and teaching relationships, are built on trust, but there is an implicit understanding that as a fellow faculty member or educator that you are, well, an educator. That understanding should extend to librarians as well. I realize that this sentiment may border on petulant: We are important! You need to think so! But that’s not really my intent with this post. I want us to internalize and embody the expertise we all possess. It is so easy (and so overdone) to denigrate our profession and blame ourselves for our current subclass position in academia. But that’s the power of, well, POWER. We think we’re in this spot–where we have to beg for classroom time and hope that we do well in that one class so that one professor will trust us with their class again–and it dictates our entire professional identity. This belief has created subsets of academic librarianship–liaisons, outreach librarians–that exist because we believe that we need to accept the current educational situation and work within it rather than upend it.
Yes, it’s easy to say, “Down with the hierarchy of academia!” but what would happen if we started to act like it didn’t really exist? What would our education programs look like? How would our jobs change? I think they are questions worth exploring as we perpetually engage in the “library of the future” dialogue and the never-ending back-and-forth of whether or not libraries even have a future. I think we do, and I think the library itself is the educational disruption.