Thursday, March 21, 2013

Are Librarians Faculty?

      A recent article published at the Chronicle of Higher Education website (sorry, the full article is subscriber only content) caught my eye. It is a report about a few schools that are considering or have begun changing librarians from faculty status to professional staff. This may be an indication of a trend among higher education generally. Nationally, the article notes, about two-thirds of all academic librarians are faculty, whether tenure-track or not.
      At my institution the librarians are non-tenured faculty. The library gets a delegation to the faculty Senate, and librarians serve on faculty committees. We've just recently been asked to update our faculty portfolios, for some kind of accreditation requirement. Or maybe it's bragging rights. For several years now I've been part of the faculty team in the annual showdown between us and the student Quiz bowl team. We hold our own.
      Over the years working in higher education, I've heard, as many have, the stories about professors who put themselves on permanent vacation or indulge in selfish & unprofessional behavior as soon as they get themselves tenured. So I'm not convinced that tenure should be expanded or even continued. I'd be fine seeing it phased out of higher education all together. But that's another topic. Do I think that it is important for librarians to have or keep or be given faculty status? Yes, I do. Very much so.
Librarians are part of the research and learning process. We're a big part, to be plain about it. Professors tell the students what information they should learn, the librarians tell them, and more importantly, show them where to find that information. We impose order on the world of information resources which is big, getting bigger all the time, sloppy & disorganized, littered across the Internet and polluted with all manner of misinformation, distortion, falsehood and irrelevant junk. Librarians pick out good stuff, organize it and put it within the student's grasp. Go see my old post about Why Librarians Rule. Humorous, yes, but it speaks truth. To state my point simply, we teach students. What do you call a group of university employees who teach students? Faculty.
     Several of the commenters to this article asked the same question that I asked upon reading this article. To wit: how does being removed from the ranks of faculty make librarians do their job better? The University of Virginia cites “the difficulty of defining the role of academic librarians today” as a reason for making the job classification change. The article does not elaborate on how the “role of academic librarians” is different in 2013 than it was in say 2009 when their librarians were faculty. Librarians are not surprised by change, our profession has been adapting and many think adapting well to all the changes in technology, fields of research and communication. We get the necessity of learning new skills and applying new capabilities. But we haven't forgotten how to 'kick it old school' and just know our collections so we can be that responsive search interface no computer can match.
     At East Carolina University, they're looking for greater “efficiencies” and deciding what “a library of the 21st century” looks like. Great. What they're not seeing, I think, is that the library is more than the stacks, and tables, and databases and print stations. To quote an old French guy, “Sans Maitrise, la Puissance n'est Rien” - (Without Mastery, Power is Nothing) and guess who provides the Mastery? The Librarians do.
      So I'll ask the question again – how will changing librarians' status from faculty to staff make us do what we do any better? Neither UVA nor ECU have an answer for that, at least not given in the article. One of the changes that I expect would happen as the result of such a move would be the withdrawal of librarians from much of their interaction with the professors. No more attending faculty meetings to learn what's going on, and the professors get no more input from other professionals with an “in-it-but-not-of-it” perspective. At least at our institution, the librarians do a lot of the book and resource selection, as many of the professors are too busy with classroom work to search catalogs and review sites to determine what resources to add to the collection. Would staff be given the authority to make those decisions? I don't know.
If librarians are not considered faculty, what is the point in requiring the advanced degrees in Information & Library Science? Why hire professionals if it is considered more of a clerical/administrative job? Well, there is the likelihood that the University could pay them less without the Masters' Degrees. Don't imagine that this thought has not crossed the mind of some Finance Officer somewhere.
      Well, to wrap up, it is not my responsibility to prove that making this change would be worse, it is the responsibility of the University administrations to prove that it will make things better. At least as far as this article explains the situation, UVA and ECU have not made this case. It is not wisdom to make changes without understanding why things are the way they are, and without a solid case for why the change is needed.

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