An interesting question was raised by Lisa Allen over at the Facebook page for the ACRL College Libraries Section. Lisa wanted to know why ACRL maintains separate sections for college and university librarians when it is likely that many of us share and deal with the same issues. So myself and two other CLS officers had the task of responding to Lisa’s question – and that’s what we did.

Before I get to my response let me say that it’s a great question. ACRL maintains 17 sections (you knew that, right) and some are broad with large numbers of members, like CLS while others are quite narrow with many fewer members, like the Western European Studies Section. We should be asking ourselves if all of these sections are needed. Couldn’t we just combine a few of them since their members probably share similar concerns and issues? We’re no doubt always going to have overlap between the sections. Many CLS members are involved in information literacy activities, but so are members who belong to the Instruction Section. Likewise many CLS members are actually at “university” libraries, and there are absolutely shared concerns between college and university libraries. Sure, the academic libraries at Stanford University and Wofford College are extremely different, but who’s to say the librarians at these two institutions don’t share similar concerns – and more importantly couldn’t learn something new from each other.

For me that’s the bottom line – learning from your colleagues. Regardless of your library, if you find that your section membership enables you to learn new things to improve yourself and your library then that’s the most important thing when it comes to ACRL Section membership. And even though – to get back to Lisa’s question – college and university librarians share similar responsibilities, by virtue of membership in these two organizations you can actually learn and develop experience in rather different areas. But there are other specifics that lead me to believe that it continues to be important for ACRL to maintain both CLS and ULS, and I address some of them in my response to Lisa’s question:

Good question Lisa. I, as others do, maintain a membership in both CLS and ULS, so that I can keep up with both groups and their discussion lists. You are right on target when you note that the collib-l is a much more active discussion list. I’m not sure why that is. CLS is a larger section and perhaps that accounts for it, but it may also be that the ULS members go elsewhere for their conversations. To my knowledge the topic of merging the two sections has not come up, at least not in the six years that I’ve been actively involved in CLS administration.

It may seem like an odd separation, as we do have some common goals such as information literacy or faculty collaboration, but where we’re likely to see more of a division is in the research vs. teaching area. I suspect that some of the issues for ULS members are going to focus more on topics like institutional repositories, scholarly communication, and other topics that may be of less interest to CLS members who may be working in libraries with rather small collections and small FTE student populations.

I don’t know if others would agree but I think there is just a different vibe in these two groups and a lot of folks do like the CLS vibe, but like to keep an eye on what ULS is doing. That’s why I continue to participate in CLS even though I’ve moved on to a research university setting. Both groups have good programs at ALA Annual – and offer rather different discussion groups. I suspect that if we did merge them the single Section entity would retain most of what both now offer. It would probably be more a marriage of convenience than one that capitalizes on some synergy we’re not currently capturing.

CLS has been actively seeking out partnerships with other ACRL sections on programs and initiatives. I think that continues to present a good way for different sections to collaborate to deliver better services and programs to their members. I’d like to see us continue in that direction – separate but collaborative as needed.

One obvious advantage to a single CLS/ULS Section is that ACRL members could take advantage of all the offerings at a single price. Each section membership adds to one’s overall ALA registration bill. One obvious disadvantage is that with many academic librarians seeking to volunteer for service in ACRL sections and committees, reducing the number of sections would eliminate a large number of committee slots. As I weigh the multiple pros and cons of a CLS/ULS merger I lean towards maintaining two separate sections. I think each offers more than enough unique opportunties geared to the librarians at these different academic institutions to warrant their ongoing separate existence, despite what will always be some shared issues at both levels. But let’s continue to work at collaborating when it makes sense while we maintain our independence in support of those things that make us unique.