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Alyson Vaaler, formerly an assistant professor in the business library, wrote in a blog post that the process caused a “collective trauma.” Should she renounce her faculty status, with its autonomy, prestige, and research expectations, to remain true to her identity as a librarian? Or was academic freedom, membership in faculty governance, and job security so valuable that it was worth giving up the professional identity that felt most natural to her? In the end, Vaaler chose to remain as a staff librarian and still received the small raise that she would have earned with tenure, though she worried that the tangible demotion in status would leave her feeling as if she were “not enough.”
The choice that Vaaler and other Texas A&M librarians faced represents a cultural problem with deeper roots. Throughout the past year I have reported on flagging morale among tenure-track faculty members, which has caused some to leave academe altogether and others to either withdraw from their work or set pragmatic boundaries for themselves. Those problems have long plagued academic librarians. Many institutions hire librarians strictly in a staff capacity, but even universities that offer tenure-track appointments reveal an abiding prejudice among faculty members and administrators toward librarians. The Texas A&M University library system, which has included many first-rate scholars, was reduced in the president’s own words to a “service unit.”
Denigrating language of this kind clashes with a statement on faculty status for college and university librarians that the Association of College and Research Libraries, the American Association of Colleges and Universities, and the American Association of University Professors issued jointly in 1973 and reaffirmed in 2018. While many institutions continue to reduce faculty lines, the ACRL, AACU, and AAUP agree that “where the role of college and university librarians … requires them to function essentially as part of the faculty, this functional identity should be recognized by granting of faculty status. … The function of the librarian as participant in the processes of teaching, research, and service is the essential criterion of faculty status.”
I have come to think of academic librarians as akin to the engineers who maintain the electrical grid. Without them, many university systems would go dark. But colleges increasingly treat librarians like convenience-store clerks waiting to help faculty members and students at their points of need or impulse. Why is it that academic librarians are rarely viewed by their faculty colleagues as experts, collaborators, and equals?
When new faculty members approached librarian Jamie Byerly at Shorter University, in Georgia, it was often because they needed help finding a building on campus. Sometimes, instead of giving directions, she would accompany them to their destination while giving her elevator pitch for the library. And she would ask her new colleagues to consider inviting her to class. Despite her efforts, Byerly struggled to book even a few visits to classes every semester. Eventually she left. “I couldn’t keep working where I felt no value or support,” she told me.
Teaching faculty need to recognize librarians as collaborators and partners, rather than an afterthought.
Byerly is now a reference and instruction librarian at Clarke University, in northeast Iowa, where she has built collaborative relationships across the campus. But she was warned about faculty members in graduate school: the potential for misunderstanding, the default assumptions about status inequities. Consequently, she still runs through multiple drafts of an email before approaching a colleague she has never worked with before. “I want the first impression to be good,” she said. “If I’ve never worked with you before, then I’m careful. I always err on the side of not trying to start an argument.”
There is a term for Byerly’s caution: deference behavior. As mixed-methods researchers Lyda Fontes McCartin and Raquel Wright-Mair explained in a recent study, academic librarians frequently prioritize the goals and preferences of teaching faculty over their own, even in cases where better library resources or approaches to research could improve student learning. Even when librarians have faculty status, their disciplinary counterparts can be demanding and presumptuous. It is common for faculty members to request that a librarian visit their class on short notice, for brief periods that do not allow for meaningful instruction, and sometimes even as a substitute when they are absent due to illness or conference presentations.
A research librarian at a graduate school on the West Coast told me that academic librarians are accustomed to disciplinary faculty members assuming that the library will assist with grant projects, such as providing data repository work or collection support for a new curriculum. Some faculty members only notify the library of their inclusion in a grant proposal the day after the application is submitted or shortly after funds are awarded, rather than consulting with the library much earlier in the process. “There is an inherent power imbalance between teaching faculty and librarians,” he told me. “Teaching faculty need to recognize librarians as collaborators and partners, rather than an afterthought.”
Some of these markers of disrespect are subtle, more microaggressions than frontal attacks. But the blowback that librarians receive from disciplinary faculty members for requesting more class time or suggesting other changes to instructional requests is often overt. I once overheard a faculty colleague shouting at a librarian over the phone, “I just want you to be a consultant!”
That 83 percent of librarians are women suggests that a strong current of misogyny runs beneath these interactions. This has long been known to librarians, at least since Dee Garrison published “The Tender Technicians: The Feminization of Public Librarianship, 1876-1905” in 1977. Garrison explains that the growth of undercompensated but highly credentialed positions in academic libraries near the end of the 19th century led universities to overwhelmingly recruit women. This demographic imbalance promoted the sexist perception of the librarian as a warm and accommodating hostess.
In their journal article McCartin and Wright-Mair explained that even though academic librarians are aware that undue deference harms their professional and personal identities, they are often denied representation in the very governance structures that might level the playing field. As a staff librarian, Byerly cannot vote on curriculum or policy proposals that might affect her role. As she told me, “You’re focused on trying to get in with faculty and hope that the faculty then advocate for the library.”
There are between 26,000 and 30,000 academic librarians nationwide. The U.S. Department of Education reported 34,423 library positions at colleges and universities in 2012, but this category included both librarians and professional staff. The American Library Association listed 26,606 academic librarians in a 2018 fact sheet, but this report did not distinguish between those in faculty and staff roles. The lack of clear data on how many academic librarians there are in the United States reflects the opacity of the profession, even to its insiders.
Krier said that she has never felt unwelcome in faculty governance. “Nobody has ever been like, ‘Oh, what are the librarians doing here?’” she told me. “But I also think they don’t really understand what we do.” Ignorance about library expertise among disciplinary faculty members can complicate the tenure process for librarians. Without a nuanced understanding of how a library faculty member’s workload differs from that of teaching faculty, governance systems can create new inequities. For instance, Krier and her colleagues enjoy participating in campuswide committees, but maintaining membership on more than a dozen committees, the Faculty Senate, subcommittees, and working groups sometimes overwhelms her department of four.
A library administrator, whom I’ll call Schneider, said that participation in governance is a way for librarians to feel seen as colleagues and accorded the same respect as their disciplinary faculty counterparts. Schneider is dean of libraries at a public university in the West, where she has been trying to rebuild morale among her staff despite resource stagnation under a Republican state legislature. “The more I try to uncover and expose and resolve some of these long-time challenges, the more challenges I’m discovering,” she told me.
When we spoke, Schneider was freshly piqued by “How Do Academic Libraries Spend Their Money?” an Inside Higher Ed blog post that raised questions about how academic libraries spend their budgets, especially around “people costs” — salaries and benefits. The author, Joshua Kim, claimed that he was merely trying to interpret data from the U.S. Department of Education, but many librarians took him to task on Twitter for failing to consult an academic librarian before publishing his “guesses” about what the data meant.
“We haven’t been telling our story well,” Schneider said. “And guess what? That’s because the nature of librarianship is to serve. That’s core; it’s fundamental to what we do. It’s taking pleasure in supporting the work of others. But historically, generationally, it’s really been a challenge to get librarians out there and explain.”
Schneider recognizes the risk of conflating service with subservience. She believes the pay gap between those on her staff with faculty status and disciplinary faculty on campus reflects unmistakable gender discrimination. According to Krier, librarians at Sonoma State University receive less pay than any other tenure-track faculty member at the university. Likewise, library faculty at Schneider’s institution make $12,000 less in annual salary, despite holding 12-month contracts, than their lowest-paid disciplinary faculty counterparts, who hold nine-month contracts. “The salary base was baked in the cake generations ago,” Schneider said. “I do think people are waking up to that. People are starting to put their foot down.”
Andrew Jewell recalls a shift in his thinking when he accepted a tenure-track library position after completing a traditional Ph.D. in literature. Jewell is now a professor of digital projects and co-director of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. For many years he served as lead editor of the Willa Cather Archive, a digital resource that attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year. The collection includes full-text scholarly editions of Cather’s fiction, a searchable digital collection of nearly 3,000 letters, and many other primary and secondary materials. Whereas Jewell had been trained, as a literary scholar, to privilege his critical arguments over scholarly resources, he found it invigorating to help build a custom resource with practical value for teachers and researchers. “But I didn’t do this all by myself,” he said. “Working in a library is a team-based approach to problem solving … There have been many contributors to the Cather Archive all along the way.”
We haven’t been telling our story well. And guess what? That’s because the nature of librarianship is to serve. That’s core; it’s fundamental to what we do. It’s taking pleasure in supporting the work of others.
The same collaborative principle applies to building a general collection. As Schneider told me, it takes a nuanced understanding of an entire campus, of the arts and humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and applied sciences, to purchase and organize resources strategically. “Somebody needs to have their eyes on a lot of balls in the air simultaneously,” she said. “The teaching mission. The research mission. Where are the strengths on campus? Where do you need to put your resources so that they’re getting the most impact? You have to have somebody that has their head around the whole game.”
If few disciplinary faculty or administrators understand the complexity of building a collection or coordinating digital systems so that they are usable, even fewer understand the plight of academic librarians facing dwindling or inflexible resources. Krier, the collection development librarian at Sonoma State, said that her budget has remained unchanged for 10 years, even though subscription fees for digital resources and streaming media have increased by 5-7 percent every year. If the costs rise but the budget does not, something has to give. Krier recently canceled a subscription to a streaming service because she could not justify paying $15,000 every year for rights to the same movies. “It’d be like just having to buy the exact same book every year, over and over,” she said. “That’s crazy. Why are we doing this?” But faculty members who just want access to the films they’ve always taught, or students who want the library to purchase textbooks that they can use for free, don’t understand that the library budget cannot accommodate every demand.
One way libraries or special collections might protect themselves against budget cuts from state legislatures is external funding. Jewell, the Nebraska professor, told me that the trend at most public universities is toward more private funds and less state support — and so investing in fundraising and donor support will be a top priority for academic libraries for the foreseeable future. The Willa Cather Archive, for instance, is sustained in part by a private endowment that funds a base level of staff and graduate students, even when grant funding is not available. The endowment not only provides a safety net for the archive, it allows university funds to go further.
Schneider agrees that external fundraising can help ameliorate budget woes, but she does not see it as a sustainable solution for academic libraries. To fund one faculty position in the library, Schneider said she would need an endowment of more than $3 million. To complicate matters, most university donors are alumni who give back to their majors or athletic teams. “Usually donors have something really specific in mind,” she said. “Not a generalist librarian that’s going to teach info lit. classes, or a librarian that’s going to rewrite cataloging standards and create all kinds of automated ways of managing our records.”
Resource scarcity and unhappy work environments contribute to a high rate of turnover in academic libraries. Elaina Norlin said that many academic libraries are seeing an uptick in failed searches. Norlin is a professional-development and diversity, equity, and inclusion program coordinator at the Association for Southeastern Research Libraries. It often takes more than a year to fill an open library position, which requires everyone else to absorb the workload in the meantime. Norlin told me, “When you’re recruiting people while you’re stressed and burnt out and not as happy working there, that energy carries through the recruitment process.”
In 2018, Fobazi Ettarh — then a librarian at California State University-Dominguez Hills — coined the term “vocational awe” to explain the tensions many academic librarians feel between their vision of the profession and the reality of it. Vocational awe is the belief “that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” If libraries are sanctuaries, then librarians are, by association, priests or martyrs. When this sense of divine calling is internalized, it enables deference behavior, but it can just as easily be leveraged by administrators or disciplinary faculty members to shame librarians for self-advocacy. “Awe,” Ettarh wrote, “is easily weaponized against the worker, allowing anyone to deploy a vocational purity test in which the worker can be accused of not being devout or passionate enough to serve without complaint.”
Many academic librarians turn to library science after other careers or avenues of study left them unfulfilled, only to discover that their disciplinary colleagues, who should be kindred spirits, or their supervisors, who should know their worth, cannot see them at all. As a scholar and faculty member, I have been as guilty as anyone of romanticizing the golden hours I’ve spent in the stacks or the archives, while ignoring the librarians who bring those spaces to life. Ettarh offered a useful corrective: “Libraries are just buildings. It is the people who do the work. And we need to treat these people well.”