Comrades-in-Arms: The Professor and the Librarian

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about faculty status and librarians. I learned that academic librarians sometimes had faculty status (and, of course, tenure) while I was in library school, when I took a course on academic libraries. Until that moment it never once occurred to me that this might be the case. While librarians are employed by universities much like instructors with doctorates are, as far as I understood it the similarity ended there.

I had mixed feelings about this at first, all entirely personal. I had left the academic life when I went to library school, having very painfully dropped out of a phd program. I thought I was leaving those issues behind me. I didn’t think I would ever have to come before the scrutiny of something like a tenure review committee, or be expected to do research and publish for my dinner. When I decided to go to library school I thought I was making a determined step away from including these elements in my professional life. (Whether they were part of my personal life was another story, of course.) So I had two somewhat contradictory feelings upon learning that academic librarians often have faculty status; the first was whooohoooo fast track, baby, I’m right back where I thought I would be! and the second was oh dear god the stress and pressure is following me everywhere. Now that I understand and accept the nature of faculty status for librarians, I’m more or less at peace with it. But I find myself constantly re-encountering the debate in my daily work.

Much as I had no real sense of what kind of education librarians had before I decided to become one, my experience is that most faculty (including friends of mine) are in much the same boat. Gloria Leckie and Anne Fullerton beautifully illustrate the stark differences between what librarians think they’re doing in their work and what faculty think they’re accomplishing in theirs in their co-written article The roles of academic librarians in fostering a pedagogy for Information Literacy. The teaching faculty are here for the pain/joy of their discipline; librarians are here with a strong service ethic and a big dose of 19th century information organizational principles. We’re all in the same big happy union. So what does that mean? Do we want to be more like the teaching faculty? Do we want them to see us on the same footing as they see their colleagues?

And that’s the crux of it, always. We want the teaching faculty (and by this I mean anyone from the rank of associate professor on up) to see us as their equals, as comrades-in-arms in the daily battle to produce good scholarship, excellent graduates, and better the general welfare of our shared institution and Knowledge in general. We want a standing invitation to the faculty club. We don’t want to be seen as the help.

So how do we accomplish this?

I have no good answers for this question yet. I just got here, I’m still removing the packing material from my office. But what I have noticed is this: no faculty expect a librarian to be as well-educated as she is. Case in point: when a faculty member came to visit me for some help, she expected us to have one degree apiece. Of course, we have three piece. It was a friendly conversation with lots of personal curiosity and sharing of experiences, but we all felt it in that moment; librarians are extremely well-educated people, and people, even faculty, tend to not expect that. Not over-educated, I would say, but far more knowledgeable about subject-specific academic life than most people give us credit for. And I’m getting used to that look, too, the one that says, oh, wow, you’re a real academic too!

What I’ve noticed most of all is how my interactions with people at the university generally change once we get around to personal histories. Partly I think this is true in the same way it would be true with anyone you meet; the more detail you give about yourself in context, the better the conversation tends to go. You get to know each other. But when people find out that I am a Harvard graduate and a former PhD student at the self-same institution at which we find ourselves so happily employed, the conversation changes. I am at least nominally part of the pack. I know how it feels to be confronted with those long reading lists, gruelling seminars, the struggle of academic administration from the other side. I speak the language.

My friend Elizabeth saw it coming long before I did. She invited me to have coffee with her and a new faculty member one day last year, for a first time meet-and-greet with someone from the history department. She said she saw the moment the conversation turned; the language changed, the playing field became distinctly disciplinary, we had recognized each other as comrades. Comrades-in-arms, on the same side, coming from the same general place.

I’ve been conflicted about this, too. I have never been keen on flashing degrees around. I want to be respected for the way I present myself and what I have to say, not the pedigree of my degrees. And yet, this is the kind of connection and respect we’re looking for as librarians. Don’t we want to be seen as one of the pack with these people? Don’t we want them to understand that we get where they’re coming from, we know what sorts of obstacles tend to get in their way, and we understand that sometimes academic work gets really really boring? Who else can you admit that to but one of your own?

When I debrief myself on my meetings with faculty I find I have a lot to consider about what it is I’ve said. As I say, I’m still so new I still have that new-car smell floating around me, and to date all of my interactions with faculty have been unerringly positive. But I notice a pattern in the conversations. We’re never just talking about the matter at hand; it seems impossible to stay entirely on point. The conversations I’ve had with faculty range over the events of the day and their implications in theological, political, racial, feminist, or nationalist terms; the technology I’m recommending and its natural history in the earliest forms of education (generally lead by the faculty member him/herself), and so forth. Sometimes I feel like this might all seem like a waste of our time, just a happy chat, but something deep inside me insists that it’s not.

I’ve spoken before about the problems librarians face when they focus on the tools and only the tools; when people consider us only capable of parsing Boolean and giving instructions on how to use the library catalogue, we project a very surface level of our understanding. If we don’t talk concepts, we don’t get respected as people who get concepts. So when I’m talking to faculty, I get meta really fast. We talk about end goals and possibility; marginality and public notebooks; academia writ large and moving toward a lofty goal. The fact that I can get us to point A to point B in technical terms is the smallest part of the conversation. I don’t do this on purpose, with the express goal of gaining a particular kind of respect, but I do it all the same. I can only imagine it has something to do with the long hours I’ve spent contemplating not just the lot of librarians, but also what it is I want to spend my time doing and talking about. Since I’ve gained all my technological knowledge in a humanities environment, maybe I’ve just been trained to think about it concepts-first, pedantic details later. But I’m drawn to thinking about this approach within the profession as well. Does this serve me well? So far so good.

I realize I’m at a huge advantage, given my background and my position. A librarian interested in subject-specific metadata knows a lot, and I have nothing but respect for these people. But I can easily imagine how a sociology metadata expert would be seen by a sociologist; what, you think you know more about my field than I do? When I think about the relationship in these terms it seems impossibly antagonistic. But as an Instructional Technology librarian, I’m generally going in to these meetings as the person bringing knowledge on something sociologists don’t know anything about and know they’re not expected to be experts on; I bring them expertise they aren’t expected to have. My entry into the departments is possibly the least threatening around. The more threatened people feel by technology, the more pleased they are to see someone who can help them out with it.

So what’s most important in creating a good working relationship with departments and individual faculty members? The degrees on our business cards? Our attitudes toward them and their work? Our attitude toward our own work and its value? What we bring to the table in the most practical of terms? I suppose it’s got to be a combination of all of these things, but I’m still working on the fine-tuning.

11 thoughts on “Comrades-in-Arms: The Professor and the Librarian”

  1. Eh. I have extremely jaded and cynical opinions on this point, which I won’t deface your blog with. I’m facing some of the same questions, though, and your thoughts are inspiring me to make a few remarks on my own blog.

  2. Excellent post! Whether or not I end up with faculty status, this is how I want to experience and live life.

    Thank you for the eloquent reminder of why I’m in school!

  3. You make some great points here that I’m certainly going to go away and think about.

    At any rate, it may or may not be a relief to you to hear that librarians having faculty status is a peculiarity of North America. Elsewhere, we remain support staff.

    I don’t think librarians have a good relationship with LIS faculty, let alone faculty from other disciplines, so it can be difficult.

    I don’t have any answers about creating a good relationship either, but spending time getting to know their needs and research, especially in a field other than our own academic past, is a good start. It’s all about trust.

  4. I am not familiar with academic librarian-specific issues, however, this issue does not seem to be academic specific. I am in a corporate library in a specific industry and recently met another corporate librarian in an entirely different industry yet all three of us are having the same issue – getting respect where you work.

    I think it’s easy to know where an engineer stands, where a designer stands, where a lawyer stands as whole companies are created for them. But a librarian mostly works within these industries so from the get-go is an outsider. I think this must be the problem.

    Forgive me if all this is obvious to you, and everybody else, but I’m just figuring it out – or, getting the tip of the iceberg.

    Did you not experience this same issue in your previous librarian jobs? I’ve really only had the one job, but in my readings and research, am beginning to find it pervasive.

    Of course they introduce you to this in library school itself but I never quite realized what they meant by ‘having to prove yourself’ in your library position. I just thought it meant do a good job. But no, it involves communicating with your co-workers in such a different way than they experience it. I wish this had been explained more in library school because it is such a shocker.

    Again, my experience is limited, but I thank you for allowing me to post.

  5. Actually, Stacey, this is my first job as a librarian, so I don’t really have much to compare it to. So we’re in the same boat! I don’t know much about the issues around special librarianship, but I’d be interested to learn more.

  6. Unfortunately I don’t really have any great websites to share with your or docs, that I can think of, on the topic of special librarianship issues. I am monitoring a listserv about knowledge management kwork.org. The latest topic is discussing types of KM, but also, inevitably, it brings up the issue of the profession not getting enough recognition.

    I’m still thinking that it has something to do with the fact that librarians, information professionals, etc., don’t actually do the work and aren’t the ‘stars’ of the work. And in fact, another common theme is ‘what do these librarians actually do?’ The dewey decimal system? (The ever-echoing first question.)

    In special libraries it is most complicated because there don’t seem to be any standard titles or departments, much less tasks per role.

    So, sometimes your role gets overtaken by other groups (IT, HR, etc.) because those are generally accepted necessaries of a corporation. I think KM, specifically, needs become more of a standardized effort/group/discipline.

    But with regards to talking meta and working in academia, I wonder that you wouldn’t get that same initial response entering as a regular professor as well. It seems that many people want to keep their slice of the pie and don’t feel comfortable participating with other people, colleagues, or others which might help their end product – the student.

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