Academic Librarians and Rank

January 04, 2008

Many young Ph.D.'s, frustrated by the teaching market and considering a career change, are curious to know what rank they would hold as an academic librarian. Would they be eligible for tenure or some other form of continuous appointment? And on what basis?

Those are good questions because, as it turns out, we have no one-size-fits-all model among academic libraries.

At some, librarians are considered "administrative/professional" staff members within the realm of academic administration. At other institutions, librarians are faculty members on the tenure track, and at still others, they are non-tenure-track faculty members. To complicate things further, the basis on which librarians are promoted seems to vary from place to place.

To get a better sense of the employment picture for Ph.D.'s, I conducted a survey in September 2006 with Thea Lindquist, an academic librarian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. We surveyed librarians in the United States and Canada who held Ph.D.'s in a particular field or a terminal degree such as an M.F.A. (We did not survey librarians who only held master's degrees in library science.) Our preliminary data and trends appear in the January 2008 issue of the journal, portal: Libraries and the Academy.

We found that librarians with doctorates tend to hold positions at research universities, and those institutions typically favor the administrative/professional model of appointment. Of the 664 doctorate-holding librarians who responded to our survey, slightly more than 50 percent indicated that they hold non-faculty positions (administrative/professional status), 37 percent said they hold tenure-track status as faculty members, and 13 percent said they are considered non-tenure-track faculty members.

Our results differ from a 1991 survey of 99 institutions by the Association of Research Libraries, the most recent statistics available. It found that only 31 percent of ARL libraries used the administrative/professional model while 35 percent offered tenure to librarians and 9 percent considered them non-tenure-track faculty members. The other 24 percent combined categories (one claims to have "administrative/professional status with tenure," for example, a confusing and contradictory formulation) or used other models entirely.

The greatest similarity between the ARL survey and ours is that both found that roughly 35 percent of academic librarians enjoy tenure-track faculty status.

Our results are even more at odds with broader surveys of academic libraries. When the full population of academic libraries is considered -- not just at research universities but also at two-year and four-year campuses -- the most popular employment model for librarians is one that offers faculty status.

A 1993 article by Charles B. Lowry in College & Research Libraries revealed that, as of 1990, a whopping 67 percent of all institutions covered by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education were granting their librarians faculty status (including tenure-track or non-tenure-track appointments), which means that fewer than 33 percent of such institutions were using the administrative/professional model (because some were using other models) at that time.

Bear in mind, however, that the number of institutions offering faculty status to librarians may have diminished since 1990; the vogue for offering librarians faculty status was already on the decline back then.

In short, if you are an academic librarian with a Ph.D. or some other terminal degree, you are more likely to obtain a position at a research university, and thus, you are more likely to be ranked as an administrative staff member of your university than you are to be eligible for tenure there. So let's consider that approach first:

Model No. 1: Administrative Professionals

Libraries with this model generally employ entry-level librarians as probationary appointees for two years. Your title might be assistant librarian or librarian I. You are not considered a faculty member, you are considered a staff member within academic administration.

After your probation, you apply for promotion to senior assistant librarian or librarian II, a second probationary appointment. Assuming you succeed, after three or four more years (depending on the institution) you must apply for promotion to associate librarian or librarian III. Once you reach this stage, you enjoy what is commonly called permanent or continuing status. It is sort of the equivalent of tenure insofar as the librarian is not required to seek further promotion but may choose to do so.

The highest ranks achievable have titles such as university librarian or librarian IV (or V).

At some institutions with this model, librarians can participate in universitywide governance (such as the faculty senate), are eligible to apply for research leave, can teach semester-long courses, or a combination of those.

Model No. 2: Tenure-Track Faculty Status

With this model, librarians are generally hired as probationary appointees at the professorial rank of assistant professor or the equivalent rank of assistant librarian (or librarian I, or II). After roughly five to seven years, you seek promotion to the associate rank. After that, you are tenured and can choose not to seek further promotion. If you do, though, you are eligible to become a full professor or university librarian.

Nearly all such librarians can participate in campus governance, and many are eligible for sabbaticals. Some are even allotted a certain number of working days each year during which to pursue research. Most are not allowed to teach semester-long courses, although I know of at least one exception to that rule.

Model No. 3: Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Status

These librarians hold academic appointments and are considered members of the faculty but are not eligible for tenure. At one research library with this model, entry-level librarians are hired as probationary appointees for two years at the rank of assistant librarian and can (but are not required to) seek promotion to associate librarian, senior associate librarian, and, finally, librarian after serving a minimum of three years in each successive rank. While librarians at that institution are never considered tenured, nor do they have continuing appointments, they are rarely fired.

They participate fully in faculty governance and serve on campus committees. They are not eligible for research leave but often do teach courses in library science, in their particular subject area, or in both (e.g., a course on "Internet Resources for German Studies").

Other Models

A few research libraries offer multiyear renewable appointments to librarians. Those appointments seem to be the least secure, although it is possible that renewal (at least at some institutions) happens as a matter of course.

Keep in mind: Some libraries offer two tracks for their employees: the tenure track, which requires research and publication for tenure; and a "continuing appointment" track, which does not. I know of one research library that started with a watered-down tenure system for its librarians, then converted to an administrative/professional model, and is now returning to a tenure system, but a truly rigorous one.

Overall Trends

It may be telling that, according to the 1991 survey by the research-library association -- a survey that included all of the Ivy League universities except one -- more than half used either the administrative/professional model, the non-tenure-track faculty model, or a hybrid of some sort.

It may also be telling that four-year colleges tend to use the administrative/professional model and that, in fact, according to a May 2001 article in College & Research Libraries News, libraries at four-year colleges were the least likely to grant faculty status to librarians.

By contrast, most community colleges use the tenure-track faculty model. Could it be that because many faculty members at community colleges do not have doctorates, their librarians seem more like peers?


How is librarian achievement measured? The typical categories include general competence in librarianship (cataloging, collection development, research education, reference service); professional-development activity outside the library (presenting a paper at a conference, learning a foreign language); research, academic, and creative work; and service (campus, regionial, or national committee work, peer review for an academic journal, serving on a grant agency's review board).

At some institutions, significant publication is essential for promotion; at others, it is not required at all or only to a limited extent. That makes sense because most librarians hold 12-month contracts, not 9-month versions, and so have more limited time to undertake research projects than classroom faculty members.

Which model a particular institution applies no doubt affects both how librarians are viewed by other professionals in the institution and how they view themselves.

I suspect that the ability to participate in campus governance alongside professors makes librarians feel as though we are truly integral to the direction, policy formulation, and fabric of the parent institution. Further analysis of our survey data will say for certain.

But in any case, continuous appointment is a good thing.

Todd Gilman is the librarian for literature in English at Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library.