Academic Librarians and Library Scholarship

What would be the difference between librarians classified as faculty and librarians classified as staff?  The first thing that comes to many people’s mind would be that faculty librarians are promoted based upon their scholarship/research outcome and are often given the title of professor just as other teaching faculty members in academic departments.

But, really, what would be the internal –and not external such as promotion criteria and job title– difference between faculty librarians and staff librarians? One may naturally assume that librarians who are faculty will be expected to spend more time on scholarship and research while librarians who are staff may focus more on daily library services. But is it really the case? Not many librarians in a faculty position actually can afford time for research and scholarship except outside their normal work hours and the weekends. Taking a sabbatical for research would be a rare luxury.

Although it is a nice thing for a librarian to be given a faculty status, there is a big difference between an academic librarian’s daily activities and those of a usual teaching faculty member. Not every librarian teaches regularly; no academic faculty is expected to provide services like what a library offers on a daily basis.

For librarians classified as non-tenure-track faculty, there is even a stronger inconsistency between their everyday work and what is expected of them. While there is no tenure issue that may justify spending time on research/scholarly activities, as faculty they are still expected to engage in some level of research/scholarly activities while performing all other library service-related duties.  It is problematic that while librarians are expected to spend most of their time on providing library services, research and scholarship may function as a more important criteria for evaluation and promotion later on.

On the other hand, there is a strong component of research in every librarian’s work. Particularly these days, librarians are expected to keep up with changing technologies and to be innovative in planning and executing both traditional and new library services. This requires a significant amount of research. But if you are a librarian classified as staff, your research activities may not be properly recognized and rewarded.

So we have problems in our hands. Should librarians focus on traditional scholarly activities such as writing research papers? Or should they rather invest more of their time on researching on and implementing new services and programs? Should librarians be given more time for continuing education and research? Or are librarians to be clearly distinguished from academic faculty because of the nature of each group’s daily work is significantly different?

In his recent article in Library Journal, “the Value of Innovation: New Criteria for Library Scholarship” Eric Schnell, Associate Professor/Librarian of Prior Health Sciences Library of Ohio State University argues that academic libraries need to create rewards systems based on the unique attributes of our field as well as individual departmental goals and needs and that recognition and achievement must be measured using criteria that both value the activities of academic librarians as they exists today and are flexible enough to adapt to future changes.

I think it is a high time to resolve the inconsistency between what academic librarians do on a daily basis and the criteria by which those librarians are rewarded, recognized, and promoted. And it should begin with admitting that academic librarianship is quite different from other areas of scholarship. Academic librarianship involves the continuous development of new customer services and the refinement of internal processes, as Schnell correctly points out. Furthermore, the continuous development of new customer services relates to many different areas such as metadata, collections, web services, systems, reference, and instruction.

The traditional model for faculty activity—teaching, scholarship, and service— is not a basis upon which librarians’ activities and academic librarianship can be properly evaluated, measured, recognized, and rewarded. We need to find a way to reward librarians who work differently and appropriately in the fields of their choice so that they can prosper no matter how they choose to pursue and develop their academic librarianship. We need a definition of academic librarianship that would represent well what successful librarians do most of their time, not what they may do during the weekends or outside the work hours in order to meet the promotion criteria.

About Bohyun (Library Hat)

Bohyun Kim is the Associate University Librarian for Library Information Technology at the University of Michigan Library. Formerly, she was the Chief Technology Officer and Professor at the University of Rhode Island Libraries.
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