Wearing Different Hats: Academic Service and Librarianship

Like many academic librarians, I’m on the tenure track, and with that comes the opportunity and requirement for academic service. I genuinely enjoy most of my service work, which ranges from membership in our faculty governance body to work on committees dealing with academic technology and curriculum development, among others. Right now I’m in the midst of a five-year commitment on a large grant-funded pedagogical project at my college. My time is devoted either to the project or to my work in the library on different days of the week, with some exceptions. I joke about taking off one hat and putting on another from day to day or meeting to meeting.

My library days are structured along similar lines as they were before my involvement in the grant project. But on my grant days I often don’t feel like a librarian: no library instruction, no reference, no information literacy program planning, no library meetings — only work related to my other service obligations. On those days I sometimes wonder: what does it mean when I spend more time outside of the library than inside?

Despite occasionally feeling as if I’m being pulled in different directions depending on which hat I’m wearing, I’m certain that my service work augments my work in the library. College service makes me feel connected to the institution, and allows me to gain a more complete understanding of and contribute to the college’s mission, going beyond the work I do in the library. I also think that academic librarians taking on service commitments can bring more visibility to the library on campus, almost a stealth form of marketing. Faculty in other departments whom I’ve met on various committees will sometimes contact me to ask a question about the library, and I hope that makes them more likely to send their students to the library as well.

My academic service outside of the library also helps inform my work as an information literacy librarian. In my roles on college-wide projects I’ve become much more familiar with the programs and majors available for our students, which facilitates making connections across the curriculum and planning information literacy outreach. College service work increases the number of faculty from other departments whom I meet who can be potential collaborators, too. I’ve drawn on these colleagues when we’ve wanted to pilot different initiatives for library instruction, and have sometimes sought feedback from them on our programs and efforts.

I hope that being in this space at the intersection of multiple identities can help push me to think in new ways about the role of academic libraries and about myself as a librarian and an academic. But despite the benefits of college service work, the crowding of these multiple identities that I inhabit is not always entirely comfortable — sometimes I wish I had two heads for my two hats. If you’re a librarian involved in academic service, what strategies do you use to reconcile your two roles?

Is A Response Even Worth Our Time

A Facebook friend messaged me to say “ACRLog needs to take this on”, in reference to this comment associated with a Slate piece on why tenure should be abolished. Andrew Sullivan who blogs for The Atlantic shared a few paragraphs from the Slate piece with his readers. It generated a fair number of comments in favor of and against tenure. No one in the academic librarian community seemed to care much about the original piece or the bulk of the comments until one of them attacked our right to have tenure.

My personal inclination is to ignore this comment completely. What I would like to take on is why academic librarians get their panties in such a twist so worked up about this sort of thing? This is an off-the-cuff comment to an opinion piece. It’s not like it’s a well researched, well thought out essay in The Chronicle that might actually dignify a response. For all we know the comment is from a disgruntled librarian who got turned down for tenure and now holds a grudge against librarians who have tenure. Are we so insecure about our professional status and our right to claim tenure status that we have to defend it against every feeble critique. And what’s the point of doing so anyway? Is there anything any of us could write that would change the commenter’s mind – or the mind of anyone who’s against tenure? We’ve all seen dozens of impassioned arguments for and against tenure. Have you ever read a single response or comment along the lines of “What you had to say actually made me change my mind on this issue”? I sure haven’t.

You answer, “but Steven, we should respond not to change this writer’s mind, but to make sure that all the other people who read it know that tenure for librarians is a good thing – and that we conduct really valuable research and that we are really, really busy helping faculty and students and that we really deserve tenure – and that if nothing else we have to correct misstatements and attack outright lies”. I understand that argument – we want the truth to be known. But who is it that we are so worried will read this tripe and believe it? Our faculty colleagues? Our academic administrators? Do we have so little faith in their ability to think critically about the issues that we feel the overwhelming urge to offer up a counter-argument? Do you think your provost will be swayed by this comment’s exquisite logic and well documented arguments? “Hmm, according to this anonymous comment, our librarians don’t have anything to do now that all research can be done with Google. Why did we let them have tenure in the first place? Maybe we should rethink that.” I’m sure that’s how it’s going to go down. Didn’t this article convince us that our academic administrators really do like us and that they have our backs – or are we going to let our inferiority complex get the best of us once again?

My preference is to just ignore this negativity all together. Rather than taking the time to write an impassioned essay defending an academic librarian’s right to tenure (which has already been done anyway) or justifying why we deserve to have our jobs, I suggest we all put our effort into doing what we do well every opportunity we have which is making a difference in our academic communities in service to our students, faculty and staff. If we do that well I think we’ll have no reason at all to constantly allow ignorant fools to push our buttons and manipulate us into responding just the way they know we will. So get your panties untwisted take a moment to think about this and then get back to work.

Caught Between the Old and the New

Over the past academic year I’ve worked on a research project with a colleague to study the ways that students do their scholarly work, similar to the project at the University of Rochester a few years ago. We finished with data collection for this year and are spending the summer analyzing our results. We’ve gotten an additional grant and plan to collect data at a few more sites next year; ultimately we’ll produce a comprehensive analysis of all of our data. But in the short term, we’d like to share our preliminary results and analysis from this year’s research.

Here’s my dilemma: the fastest and most efficient way to disseminate our results is to share them on the website we’ve set up for the project. When I was an archaeologist we wrote up an interim report after each field season and a final report when the project was complete, and I’m thinking along these lines. However, I’m also a junior faculty member on the road to tenure, and the currency of the realm is, of course, the peer-reviewed journal article.

A peer-reviewed article will take considerably more time to be published, up to a year or even longer, especially if our submission isn’t accepted on the first try (as seems true for most article manuscripts). I’m a strong advocate of open access publishing, and it just seems wrong to keep our data to ourselves for all that time. But I do value the peer review process, and while I hope that posting a report on our website would generate comments, there’s no guarantee.

Ideally I’d like to write both a preliminary report, to be posted online by the end of the summer, and a scholarly article, submitted around the same time and (hopefully) published sometime next year. I’m not sure that we have time for both, though. While the summer months are slower in the library, we’re still open, and there are classes and reference desk shifts to staff and programs to plan for next year. So we are probably going to have to focus our energies on just one publication.

As I’ve been thinking on this recently there’s been lots of other news in the world of academic publishing. The University of California proposed a possible faculty boycott of the Nature Publishing Group. And an unusual scholarly publishing project came out of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University: Hacking the Academy, a book that gathered all of its submissions in just one week. I can’t help but think that we’re in an odd scholarly communication moment right now, stuck between old and new worlds of knowledge dissemination, and I’m not always sure how to chart my course.

An Academic Freedom Quiz

As a profession we’ve spent lots of time debating academic freedom and tenure for academic librarians. Do academic librarians need the protections of academic freedom? If not, why do they need tenure? If yes, why are some on the tenure track and not others? These are questions for which there are no easy answers. But academic librarians should know the answers to basic questions about academic freedom and tenure that demonstrate their knowledge of these cornerstones of higher education. If we don’t have a firm grasp of academic freedom, its origins and function then how can we understand how it impacts our profession.

If you already have a deep understanding of academic freedom and intellectual freedom that’s outstanding, but if not or you want to test your knowledge, take this quiz. It’s based on information found in an article titled “Academic Freedom Issues for Academic Librarians” authored by Richard A. Danner and Barbara Bintliff in Legal Reference Services Quarterly, V. 25 (4) 2006, pp. 13-35. As Danner and Bintliff write:

Whether or not a university has chosen to extend the protections of academic freedom to librarians and professional staff, it is important for librarians to understand the implications of current and ongoing challenges to academic freedom, and be able to respond to them…It is essential for academic librarians to understand the differences between the concepts and the importance of academic freedom and tenure to faculty, students, and others involved in teaching and research.

1. Academic freedom is:
a) an inherent right granted to faculty
b) a protection guaranteed to those who have a faculty contract
c) a privilege granted to faculty by individual institutions
d) all of the above

2. A tenured professor directs a member of your library staff not to remove from the stacks several “library use only” books that need bibliographic maintenance work because she may need to refer to them at any time for her studies. Academic freedom gives the faculty member the right to do so. True or False?

3. Academic freedom is not a guarantee of freedom of speech. True or false?

4. Both tenured and tenure-track faculty enjoy the full benefits of academic freedom? True or false?

5. For academic librarians, having traditional intellectual freedom typically means:

a) a guaranteed right of free speech
b) a commitment to ensuring users’ access to information
c) a right to enjoy the protections of academic freedom even if not tenured
d) a form of academic freedom that applies only to collection development work

6. Which of the following organizations was the first to issue an official statement on the right of intellectual freedom:

a) american association of university professors
b) american library association
c) american civil liberties union
d) united nations

Now, to see how you did on the quiz go to the answers page. Whether you are an academic freedom expert or novice, get a hold of Danner and Bintliff’s article to refresh or boost your academic freedom awareness. I agree with the authors. Whether you have it or not, understanding academic freedom and tenure is an essential component of academic librarianship.

NOTE: the answers are based on information found in the article, and I’m aware that academic freedom, tenure and intellectual freedom issues can involve gray areas. So if you have a different interpretation of an answer or have additional insights to share, please add them with a comment.

What It Really Means To Be A Faculty Member

I can’t help but wonder if the real faculty at those institutions where librarians are on the tenure track roll their eyes, snicker among themselves or just plain get annoyed by their library colleagues who refer to themselves as faculty members or carry ranks typically associated with faculty (e.g., assistant professor). Blaise Cronin certain thought they did. In his classic opinion piece “The Mother of All Myths” he obliterates the concept of tenure and faculty status for academic librarians (Library Journal 126, no. 3, February 15, 2001). While I never agreed with all of Cronin’s arguments, tenure may indeed hold some benefits for academic librarians, lately I’ve been thinking about the differences between the work of librarians and faculty. I don’t doubt that even my use of the phrase “real faculty” is going to set off a minor firestorm among those tenured librarians who think of themselves as faculty or even “teaching faculty” owing to the occasional bibliographic instruction sessions they conduct or the seat they hold on the faculty senate. You might understand why a faculty member would ridicule or be angered by librarians who think they are true faculty if you can imagine an individual who refers to him or herself as “librarian” because he or she oversees a room full of books (I encountered such a situation at a past job), but has no professional library degree nor is responsible for many tasks common to our profession. Do you think of that individual as a librarian or an imposter who’s use of that title devalues or even mocks your status as a professional academic librarian?

My regular reading of faculty blogs the last few months has given me a new appreciation for what is involved in being a member of the regular faculty and the challenges and responsibilities it involves. Take for example this post and discussion about frustrations of dealing with students at the blog A Ianqui in the Village. I’m tempted to write that faculty librarians rarely if ever get involved in these types of situations, but I fully expect that a reader will share a tale of a difficult student situation. Yes, I’m sure it happens from time to time, but certainly no librarian is likely to experience the range and regularity of complicated situations (students, chairs, other faculty) with which faculty have to routinely cope. If you regulary read the career commentaries published in the Chronicle you would likewise wonder how many library faculty deal with these situations. Crazed or scary students. Psychopathic senior colleagues. Backstabbing junior colleagues. Isolated experiences one would hope, but these are likely just the tip of the iceberg stories we hear. All librarians, tenure track and otherwise, also must deal with superiors, peers, and subordinates who create frustration. To my way of thinking, what separates the real faculty from librarian faculty is the relationship with students.

I’ve been teaching as an adjunct faculty member at an LIS program for a number of years. I refer to myself in any written or oral communication or interaction with students or colleagues as “adjunct instructor”. I avoid the pretense of calling myself “professor”. I’ve never felt the need to inflate my title for my own ego or to create window dressing in the hope other faculty will see me as their equal. I know they wouldn’t anyway, and I don’t care if they do. I’m only in it for the joy of teaching a subject about which I’m passionate. But when I do teach I feel much more like a faculty member than a librarian. What makes the difference? The enormous responsibility attached to working with students, even at the graduate level, and playing a role in their lives and their careers. This happens in a way that I or most librarians would rarely encounter during the course of our library careers. The nature of that relationship goes beyond grading papers or devising assignments. Yes, there are academic librarians who do this. But I suspect there are few tenure-track academic librarians who develop relationships with students in the discipline of the type and at the level that occur between students and the real faculty. And if and when such relationships do occur, they are just as likely to happen to both tenure and non-tenure track librarians. And there may even be academic librarians who have dealt with a troubled student or a serial plagiarizer. But I doubt that this, along with developing and planning new courses, advising students as majors in one’s discipline, working with fellow faculty to build the curriculum, sitting on the occasional doctoral committee, even comes close to equating the totality of what it means to be a full-fledged faculty member.

Debating the value of or need for tenure for academic librarians is something I’ll pass on in this post. Besides, those who want more on that debate can always get hold of the one between Murray-Rust and Carver in the September 30, 2005 Chronicle; they do a fine job. And whether I’m ultimately a supporter or opponent of tenure for academic librarians matters little. Those who feel strongly about the need for it are welcome to seek out a position in an institution where they’ll be on the tenure track. Those who wish to avoid it have many institutions to choose from as well. And I certainly have no intention, as did Cronin, of mocking or devaluing the work and contributions of tenure-track librarians.I know librarians at both tenure-track and non-tenure track institutions who do great work and even establish beneficial relationships with students. The point here is not whether librarians need tenure or not. It is how they refer to themselves when they are on the tenure track or have obtained tenure, and how that is perceived by our faculty colleagues. My simple proposition is that tenure-track and tenured librarians should take more time to read faculty blogs. Get inside the head of your faculty colleagues and then think reflectively about the difference between what you do and what they do. If that doesn’t leave the feeling of being a bit like the imposter librarian who simply monitors a room full of books without the full range of librarian responsibilities, then perhaps you’ve earned the right to hold a faculty rank. Then again, what’s so wrong with just being an academic librarian.