Unraveling the Bylaws Web: A Fresh Perspective on Institutional Memory

Editor’s note: This guest post has been authored by Stephanie Bennett and Rebecca Shaw. Stephanie is the Liaison Librarian for the Sciences and Rebecca is the Music Librarian at Appalachian State University.

Starting a new job can often feel like jumping into an unfamiliar river. You know how to swim, but you’re uncertain about the strength of the current or the temperature of the water. One very quick way to become acquainted with the ins and outs of a new institution is to dive head first into reviewing, revising, and writing new policies.

The following post is co-authored by two librarians who are new to Appalachian State University. Both authors hold distinct positions and come from smaller academic libraries that have different procedures and statuses from Appalachian State. Stephanie is a Collections Development librarian, serving as a liaison to the Science disciplines. Rebecca is a Music librarian who primarily works at the Nicholas Erneston Music Library, just a short walk from the main library on campus.

In early 2023, the University Libraries at Appalachian State University issued a call for volunteers to join a committee tasked with evaluating the Library Faculty Guidelines and creating accompanying Bylaws. These Bylaws are meant to assist with faculty governance at the department level. This process was in response to Faculty Senate-led revisions to the University’s Faculty Handbook. All academic departments on campus were engaged in similar work.

To initiate the process, a call was made for faculty librarians to join the governance body responsible for drafting the Bylaws document. Initially, we felt that joining the group would be unproductive. We would be two brand new faculty on a committee of seasoned librarians, joining a group that had already been working together as the Departmental Personnel Committee. Furthermore, this process can be highly procedural, with institutional memory playing a crucial role. Without it, important meaning can be lost. As new faculty, we lacked, for example, the previous knowledge that there were documents already in existence that addressed procedures. We also did not have the knowledge of the reasoning why those documents had previously been formed in the first place. However, a request was made for newer faculty members to consider joining, as a fresh perspective on policy was desired.

And so, our journey into drafting the Bylaws of our Library Faculty Guidelines, a completely new document for University Libraries, began. We started by reviewing existing Bylaws from other academic libraries. Several institutions, including Virginia Commonwealth University, Western Carolina, and the University of Cincinnati made their Bylaws documents available online. Our committee also reached out through ALA Connect to gain insights into how others approached drafting Bylaws. We received some wonderful feedback!

Robert Labaree from the University of Southern California recommended including provisions for updating the document while keeping it as concise as possible. He also suggested reviewing and aligning with the Faculty Senate Bylaws document to maintain consistency with our institution. Laura Gariepy from Virginia Commonwealth University shared that their library was considering a process to move away from Robert’s Rules of Order. This in turn led to our own discussion about transitioning library faculty meetings away from Robert’s. Although there are certain instances where we are required to use Robert’s Rules of Order, we do not necessarily need to use them for our faculty meetings. Moving away from Robert’s Rules could provide some flexibility, and conceivably allow others to feel more at ease with voicing their thoughts, without being overly concerned with restrictive procedure. 

The process of writing and revising Bylaws and foundational documents is a messy process that at times can be tedious. But it also offers an important opportunity to examine, question, and reframe how we want to function as a community of faculty librarians. Some of the topics discussed for inclusion in the Bylaws include: procedures for voting, special faculty status, faculty membership, and faculty governance committees such as the Appointment, Promotion, & Tenure Committee (aka APT). For example, when examining our process for voting, we discussed the process for making sure everyone’s voice is heard. We considered what might constitute an appropriate ballot. Would we only consider paper ballots each time? How would we handle absentee ballots, or would there ever be a time where we would rely only on electronic ballots? Moving forward, we will continue to have these conversations.

As one can imagine, navigating through multiple documents and ensuring consistency so that they all fit together seamlessly is a repetitive challenge, even for experienced librarians. For someone new, it can feel like treading water. As our committee updated the draft, we consulted with the rest of the library faculty for their input. This was done by sending out a draft for review where library faculty could add their comments. We also made space in our Faculty Meetings for open discussion of the Bylaws draft. Many suggestions lead to further revisions and discussions, and this process went on through several iterations. While this process can be tedious, it is a reminder for why having a provision in the documents for future revisions is so essential. 

We also will need to carefully align the library’s Guidelines and Bylaws with the broader institution. Without knowledge of past situations or institutional memory, it’s difficult to contribute ideas without the fear of potentially wasting the committee’s time. Concerns about important omissions and the fear of raising trivial apprehensions, are experiences shared by both authors of this post. But, truthfully, these fears have been alleviated by recognizing that the library is relatively ahead in the process compared to other departments on campus. As we continue this journey, we will make further adjustments to our foundational documents, the Library Faculty Handbook, and our new Bylaws. We are still swimming with the current!

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