There’s been a lot of talk about the place of librarians in academia. It’s something I thought about a great deal in the during the job search as I applied for tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions. I would have been happy with either position since I’m going to publish and speak regardless of whether or not anyone tells me to. But I never really understood why some libraries had a tenure track while others didn’t.

What specifically is the purpose of having a tenure track for librarians? To encourage publication? To put librarians on the same level as other academic faculty? To create job security? To get the respect we deserve?

I’ve pretty much spent my life being underestimated. I’ve always been small and look young for my age, and since the age of 14, I’ve had a chest that is disproportionatly large for my body type. For some reason, all this has lead many people to assume that I’m not very bright. I remember how shocked some people were in high school when I was accepted to Wesleyan University, and when I was the first person in my school to get a 5 on the AP History exam. People who know me well know that I’m smart, but at first glance, I guess I don’t radiate brilliance. At most of the jobs I’ve had, my co-workers like me because they think I’m a cutie, but what I really want is to be respected for my intelligence and what I do in my job. It’s getting better as I get closer to 30 (eeek!), and I’ve learned not to care so much about what people think of me. What does it matter? I know I’m smart. I know I can do good work. Who cares what people who barely know me think of me? I’ve taken the chip off my shoulder.

Maybe that’s why I like blogging so much. I don’t get judged for my age or my looks (or my chest). I’m judged for what I do and what I write.

At Norwich, librarians are “staff with faculty rank.” The only places I see our “faculty rank” coming into play is in payroll (we are paid monthly), vacation days, and in the ability to be a part of faculty senate and other committees. While we have a “place at the table,” we are certainly not seen as faculty members by the faculty or by IT. It is clear to me that the faculty members see us as support staff. They see us as people who help them find articles and help their students to learn how to do library research. They don’t see us as teachers, as creators of knowledge, and as experts in our particular field (librarianship). And in spite of our degrees and our knowledge, we are here to support the students and faculty. That’s our job. So while I’d love for faculty members to see me as an intellectual equal and to understand what I do, I don’t think tenure is what would do it.

When I was looking for a job, the places I interviewed where librarians were on the tenure track seemed like the worst environments. And let me preface this by saying that these may just be peculiarities of the places I interviewed at. At institutions where most librarians were currently on on the tenure track, there seemed to be a lot of competitiveness among colleagues (and not in a good “spurring you on” way). At one institution where most of the librarians had been there 15-20 years and had tenure, there was a real lack of interest in innovation. They chalked up the problems students were having with their OPAC to the poor quality of their student body and not to the OPAC being unusable. They made excuses not to change. I’m not saying that this is necessarily the norm at all institutions that grant librarians tenure, but it was what I observed in my limited experience.

I read the two articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) arguing for and against granting tenure to librarians. The person arguing against made the valid point that librarians can become involved in faculty committees simply by being given faculty rank (like at Norwich). However, she also argued that librarians don’t need the security of tenure because they are collecting knowledge not creating it. There I disagree. There are plenty of librarians who write and who do original research. There are plenty of librarians on the cutting edge of technology and are developing amazing applications. They are creating knowledge. If the purpose of librarians having tenure is to secure academic freedom for us (and the ability to take sabbaticals to do original research and whatnot), I’m all for it. But that is rarely an argument I hear.

Catherine Murray-Rust, the librarian arguing for tenure stated that librarians need to have a role in defining the future place of the library in the curriculum and in their institution. I agree that it’s important for librarians to have a role in curricular development and in ensuring the place of the library. But I don’t know why we need the tenure process for that. At Norwich, we don’t have tenure and yet the impact on the library is considered with every change in policy or new academic program (and my library director is the one who gets to do that impact study). My supervisor is on the faculty senate. Here is Murray-Rust’s rationale:

With faculty status, librarians find it easier to earn the respect of their faculty peers and administrators. They become credible academics who are capable partners in the shaping of teaching and research. As faculty members, librarians are more likely to have a say in establishing the criteria on which academe will judge libraries in the 21st century.

For those academic librarians who have worked in tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions, was there really such a difference in the way the faculty saw you in each position? Were you seen as academics? As teachers? As creators of knowledge? Or were you seen as support staff with tenure?

What’s important is that we have a voice in the future of our university and our library, not that we are considered “credible academics.”

Dorothea and Rochelle have both written about the relationship between librarians and faculty. While they agree about the importance being seen as “comrades in arms”…

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. [Comrades-in-Arms: The Professor and the Librarian by Rochelle Mazar]

…they completely disagree about the means.

Rochelle believes that we can challenge faculty members’ expectations of librarians one person at a time. She says that when faculty members get to know her, they realize that she, too is an academic and speaks their language. Rochelle can do this with her Harvard degree and the fact that she was a PhD student. But what about those of us who have two Masters degrees from Florida State University (or, heavens forbid, just one Masters degree)?

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?

My answer to that is “no”. I don’t want to be seen as one of them. I want to be seen as a member of the team (a diverse team). I want faculty members to see that we’re all working towards the same goals — graduating great students and promoting the university — and should work together because we each have good (but different) things to offer. In my work as a distance learning librarian, I not only have to convince faculty members that we should work together towards common goals, but IT as well. And that’s not an issue that tenure is going to solve. We need to show how the goals of the library are consistent and integral to the larger goals of the university. If we can fit our initiatives into campus-wide initiatives, we might be able to sneak collaboration in under everyone’s noses. If I’d wanted to be an academic, I’d have gotten a PhD in history. I wanted to become a librarian. Are we saying that just being a librarian isn’t enough to merit a place at the table?

Dorothea doesn’t want to be a member of the club. She dislikes the snobbery she saw in academia as a PhD student, and doesn’t believe that tenure is going to change faculty members’ minds about librarians:

What do I want? To do my job. Like Rochelle, I believe I can do my job best when faculty are receptive to what I have to offer. Unlike Rochelle, I don’t think the I’m-just-like-you-really card is the only, or the best, card in my hand. [Joining the club by Dorothea Salo.

I couldn’t agree more. How am I going to show faculty members that we should work together towards common goals and challenge their views of what librarians can and cannot do? By doing my job. I’m going to make myself visible by redesigning our website, creating fantastic tutorials, meeting the needs of the Online Graduate Program in new ways, and using cool technologies to communicate with online grad students. And maybe when they see what I do, they will give up their preconceived notions about librarians. And if they don’t I can live with that too as long as I am meeting the information needs of students and faculty. That’s what I’m here for.

Do librarians in other settings have these issues? Are school librarians not taken seriously by teachers? Do law librarians in law firms (especially those with JDs) have difficulty being seen as professionals by the lawyers they work with? Are corporate librarians asked to xerox things and get coffee? Why are some academic librarians so obsessed with being treated like academics? I know that the majority of people have no idea that librarians have Masters degrees — and sometimes even a second professional degree. And yes, we librarians have an image problem. But as long as I am helping people and doing a good job, I’m not going to worry about what people think about how educated or smart I am. Who cares if people don’t know we have degrees so long as they come to the reference desk when they need help? Will faculty members really be more likely to bring their students to our information literacy classes if we have tenure? I doubt it. The institutions I interviewed at that had a tenure track had the same problems with faculty that we have at Norwich.

Sure, I’d like to have the respect of faculty members, but I’d rather gain it by doing great work than by getting tenure.