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Demonstrating the value of librarianship

Role of Academic Librarians – Support or Integration?

It has been a while since my last post, due in no small part to both the extremely busy time leading up to, and now fully into the academic winter break.  Part of the busyness was due to a debate amongst our librarian-faculty ranks starting to reach a climax.  This is that age-old, eternal debate on the status of librarians in academia.  Should we be faculty?  Should we be tenured?  What does it mean to be tenured?

I’m neck-deep in this debate, seeing that I’m serving the second of a two-year stint on our own Personnel Affairs Committee.  As such, I’ve been serving as both advocate for and a buffer against this issue.   I feel like I’m playing both sides of a debate, striving to make the case for supporting this move, while listening to all sides and concerns.  Towards the end of shepherding this issue through with the most support amongst our faculty, I’ve been investigating this issue once again, reading and re-reading articles and books on both librarianship and higher education.  I am seeking to answer my own questions about the costs, benefits and return on investment, value, and purpose of seeking tenure.  I’ve read opinion articles on both sides, research that point in both directions, and very little in the way of any definitive answers.

I am starting to see some patterns emerging, though.  One such pattern is the perceived role of librarians and librarianship in higher education.  There seem to be two relatively divergent views of this role – to support the educational and research needs of the students and faculty; or to be fully-integrated in the educational and research activities of the students and faculty.  I imagine it would be fairly apparent which view is more often associated with side of the tenure-track faculty debate. This only makes sense.  Supporting faculty makes it difficult to be considered on the same level as academic faculty.  Integrating the library and ourselves fully into the educational & research missions of our institutions is what it means to be faculty.

In 2005, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran two editorials – for and against tenure for librarians.  Voicing her opinion against tenure, Deborah Carver expressed concern that tenure “could hamper their (librarians;) roles” and that “librarians are in the service business.”  She expressed a common viewpoint about tenure, in that it “exists to support and protect the pursuit of diverse and specialized areas of research,” and that “(u)niversities create knowledge,” not libraries.  Another argument Carver makes is that librarians teach technique, not content, which is not controversial.  I will return to this thought later.

One book that is repeatedly referenced is A.D. Abbott’s The System of Professions.  This work, originally published in 1988, features librarianship as a case study of “system disturbances and the resulting contests” (Abbott, pg. 213).  I first read this about ten years ago when my former place of work was investigating new models of librarian ranks.  In chapter 8 (The Information Professions), Abbot summarizes the history of librarianship as a profession, which he characterizes as being associated with “qualitative information” (versus the “quantitative information” professions of MIS (management of information systems)).  I was particularly struck by his assessment of how librarians approached their use of the “cultural capital”, of which they had sole custody, in three ways: educational, entertainment, and access.  In the former two, the emphasis was on quality, “what ought to be retrieved”, the efforts of which gradually receded over time:

Under the influence of Melville Dewey, the defeated librarians retreated from education and outreach into the technical tasks of cataloging, bibliography, reference, and retrieval, basing on the profession on the function of access. (Abbott, pg. 218)

Abbott specifically mentions the “the most glaring case” (of conflicts) within the profession, that is faculty status.  This “brought the conflict between the access and education approaches into clear focus.”

The academic conflict captures a wider pattern characteristic of librarianship and information professions in general.  Deciding what is relevant information inevitably embroils the information client and the information professional.  The information professions are, by definition, involved in continuously negotiated and contested professional divisions of labor.  (Abbott, pg. 223)

Indeed, this conflict has not been resolved.  In R. David Lankes’ Atlas of New Librarianship, the influential and passionate LIS professor emphatically places education at the heart of librarianship.  Unlike Deborah Carver above, Lankes believes that “libraries create knowledge.”  And Lankes is not alone in his effort to re-integrate education into our profession, and this integrate libraries and librarians into the education and knowledge creation of higher educational institutions.  Consider the efforts to develop information literacy curriculum, which seriously overlaps with critical thinking.

This brings me back to Carver’s statement about teaching technique and not content, and technique not being controversial.  It is apparent, in this politically polarized era, that the technique of critical thinking is indeed very controversial.  Indeed, the Republican Party of Texas Platform specifically denounced the teaching of critical thinking skills in the public schools.  The concept of presenting all sides of controversial issues is itself controversial, requiring the protection of not only the profession (in the form of ethics, duly noted by Deborah Carver), but also by the institution, in the form of tenure.  But really, that is just a side-note to this post.

What I really wanted to focus on was this conflict of the role of librarians in education.  Notice that I specifically left out, “the support of”.  Do librarians have a role in the education of our students?  Do we have a role in the creation of knowledge, not just the access to?

Abbott refers to librarians “retreat(ing) from education and outreach,” effectively “surrender(ing)” these roles to academic faculty, particularly in the task of collection development.  It is fair to state that this trend continues with the transition to patron-demand acquisition (PDA).  That has been an argument against these programs, that librarians are once again surrendering their responsibilities.  But consider how carefully the pool of choices has been arranged, how inappropriate publishers, series, subjects, and genres have been filtered out, and how gaps in coverage, years, and quality have been added to enrich the waters in which our students and faculty wade.  That takes professional knowledge, expertise, large and abstract thinking.

Meredith Wolfwater described her experiences with tenured faculty in her post in 2005, experiences that forged her opinion of the issue.  Despite now being in a tenure-track position, this opinion had not changed over the years, as her more recent posting clearly states, although she adds more nuance to her reasoning.  Initially, Meredith states flatly that,

 in spite of our degrees and our knowledge, we are here to support the students and faculty. That’s our job. So while I’d love for faculty members to see me as an intellectual equal and to understand what I do, I don’t think tenure is what would do it.

She also makes a common complaint that tenure establishes a complacency and stifles innovation.  Of course, she admitted that this was based solely on her experiences at a particular institution.

Her more recent experience actually embedded in the tenure-track system brings out other concerns, notably about the poor quality of research that is published for the sake of publishing written by individuals who are poorly trained in research methods and analysis.  She worries that the tenure system effectively dilutes the quality of LIS research.  However, she does return to her original stance that librarians support faculty and students.  Indeed, Ms. Wolfwater wonders why we do not feel more of a “kinship with student affairs (and vice versa), because there are some valuable collaborations that can happen between those units. We really do share the same goals.”  Indeed, this is happening at many institutions, with the library being physically surrounded by offices of student support services, including writing labs, tutoring offices, registrars, and financial aid.  I wonder what role the librarians see themselves at these libraries?  I wonder what their faculty statuses are? Were the decisions to co-locate these facilities top-down or bottom-up or collaborative?

I’m only just now starting to research the possibility of conducting a systematic review and history of faculty status in the LIS literature.  I am seeking what may be illusory – answers to some straightforward and some not-so-clear questions – how many librarians are considered tenure-track faculty at how many institutions?  What are the differences in morale, salaries, production, innovation, involvement, and perceptions by other faculty & students between those with and without faculty status?

An article released in pre-publication from College & Research Libraries (C&RL) by Meredith Farkas, Lisa Hinchcliffe and Amy Houk provides the most recent data.  They had surveyed library directors sampled using weighted sampling methods, asking them about building a culture of assessment.  Their demographic questions provide generalizable data, at least at the library level (n=675):

Tenure and faculty status are sometimes cited in the literature as both facilitating factors and hindrances in building a culture of assessment, so the authors asked respondents what status the majority of their librarians have. A total of 65% (n=456) of respondents have faculty status of some sort, while 35% (n=233) do not. Of those with faculty status, 54% (n=245) are tenure track and 46% (n=191) are non‐tenure‐track faculty. The numbers in each status category – tenure track faculty (37%), non‐tenure track faculty (29%), and staff (35%) – are quite close to each other. Since the sample is representative of the population of academic libraries in the United States, it can be inferred that the numbers are similar in the general population. (Farkas, et al., 2014)

So, it appears that librarians at about 35% of all academic (4-year or higher) are tenure-track faculty.  In their article, these are not broken out by specific levels of institutions (undergraduate, masters or doctoral).  Interestingly, they did not find an association between faculty status at the institution and having a culture of assessment (technical note: the authors analyzed the data using cross-tabulations, which tested associations using the Chi-squared Goodness of Fit tests, and developed probability values (p-values) using Fisher’s exact test):

Faculty status also was not found to be significantly associated with having a culture of assessment. The authors looked at faculty status in two different ways and found that in neither case were there significant associations. When looking at librarians who are tenure‐track versus those who are not, a p value of 0.40 was found. For librarians who have faculty status versus those who are staff, the p value was 0.63. Faculty status was also not significantly associated with being involved in a campus‐wide assessment initiative (p=0.77). (Farkas, et al., 2014)

So, it appears that having a culture of assessment, arguably an innovative idea, does not depend on the faculty status of the institutions.

So, what are some patterns of those who support tenure-track faculty status for librarians?  The “pro” argument to the 2005 CHE opinion pieces provided the common arguments, of course, center around academic freedom, collaborating with faculty at equal levels, and greater respect from disciplinary faculty.

But I think Barbara Fister has made the heart-felt and compelling statement.  In her response to Meredith Wolfwater’s most recent posting against tenure-track status, attempted to provide more personally-relevant reasons for supporting tenure-track status (emphasis added by me because I find them so compelling):

Here’s why tenure matters to me: it asks my colleagues and me to take teaching seriously and do it as well as we can in whatever form that takes as we support student learning, which is what my institution values most. It involves us in the life of the college through service, and that gives us the opportunity to see our work in the context of the entire institution’s mission and operations. It gives us support (though never enough, it’s there) to be formally curious about the world, the freedom to ask the questions we find compelling, and an obligation to share what we learn for the public good and to speak up when necessary. It tests us to see what we’re made of but, in exchange, guarantees that if we say unpopular things or ask difficult questions, our colleagues will have our back. It makes us better librarians and it prompts us to approach the world of information with a streak of independence and a disposition to inquire – worth practicing if we want to encourage these qualities in our students.

The pattern I see in this debate centers not on issues specific to the benefits and opportunity costs of tenure, but rather on the perceived role of librarians in academia.  Are we supporters of, or are we integrated into, the academic missions of our institutions?


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This entry was posted on December 30, 2014 by in Academic Libraries, LIS Profession, LIS Research.
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