Why I think faculty status for librarians is (generally) a bad idea

The Joint Committee on College Library Problems, a national committee representing the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities), and the American Association of University Professors, just released a Joint Statement on Faculty Status of College and University Librarians, reaffirming the recommendation that college and university librarians ought to be granted faculty status.
Let me state right up front that I think academic librarians play a vital role in the research and teaching missions of colleges and universities. And I think libraries at institutions like mine are well served by hiring librarians with very strong scholarly backgrounds — especially for positions with a disciplinary focus. And academic freedom and participation in university governance by librarians is cool and good and righteous. But slapping faculty status on librarians as a way to get those things, without a commitment to holding librarians to comparable standards as other faculty is a bad idea.
Unless we are held to standards for scholarship, teaching, and service that are equivalent to the standards used for hiring, promotion and tenure decisions for the rest of the faculty across our campuses, then we should not expect faculty status. I would be happy to be proven wrong on this, but it is my impression that librarians with faculty status are rarely held to equivalent standards for hiring, promotion, or tenure. A snarky way of saying this would be to note that I am absolutely certain that no scholar would get tenure at MPOW on the basis of teaching workshops, holding office hours, and publishing case studies — but that seems to be a valid and common route to tenure for librarians at peer institutions. For an even snarkier send-up of the state of library “research” see But What about the Academics?.
Less snarky, but same point, is to compare hiring criteria. I know of no academic library that regularly requires a PhD for librarian hires (plenty, including my own, require an advanced subject degree, with PhD preferred). I likewise know of no research university that does NOT require a PhD for faculty positions within academic departments.
The recent joint statement from the AAUP Council and the ACRL states that promotion and tenure “criteria and standards may differ from traditional classroom faculty, but they must be comparable in rigor and content” (emphasis mine). Where standards for librarians are truly comparable, either individually or institutionally, then perhaps faculty status is appropriate. But it seems to me that is rarely the case.

That’s it. That’s my whole problem with faculty status for librarians – that without comparable standards, it is meaningless, silly, and potentially counter-productive to the goal of promoting librarianship as a full-fledged academic discipline.

(Note: It occurs to me that I might someday apply for a job at an institution that grants librarians faculty status. In which case … Just Kidding! And of course, that institution is obviously an exception.)

15 Responses to “Why I think faculty status for librarians is (generally) a bad idea”

  1. 1 Barbara November 12, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    I am a defender of faculty status, though I have a feeling what passes for faculty status at many libraries isn’t what we have. Maybe it’s a better fit at a liberal arts college, too, where undergraduate learning is everyone’s business. We do what other faculty do – we all teach in ways that can be evaluated by faculty in other departments. We have the same expectations for scholarship. We also are on the same 9 month contracts as other faculty, are eligible for sabbaticals, and our pay is set on the same step system.

    The one thing we lack is the extensive training other faculty have, which means we have to be sure we learn constantly post-MLS and learn how to do research that we didn’t do in our professional education. This has not been held against us by other faculty (some of whom have MFAs or other terminal degrees that aren’t PhDs.

    Oh, and we operate as an academic department, electing a chair rather than having full-time administrators.

    What has been great about it – having more than half of us working toward tenure – is that the scholarly productivity has benefitted our library programs and our general ability to do our jobs in a big way. I think it has brought out the best in us and has given us opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise.

    I also don’t see the issue in a way … a musician in the performing arts has to provie his or her worth in terms of mastery and rigor as does a chemist, but what they do is totally different. Our T&P committees are used to variation between disciplines and haven’t had much difficulty evaluating or valuing what we do.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 2 AmyK January 15, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    What sense does it make for librarians to want to have tenure when the entire construct is under attack? Seriously, why get in the game now?

    I accept and celebrate the fact that our service to the academy is valid as it stands. Why build in work and responsibilities that do not fulfill our mission to support teaching and learning in the strongest, most direct action way possible?


  3. 4 Jimmy January 15, 2013 at 11:53 am

    “And I think libraries at institutions like mine are well served by hiring librarians with very strong scholarly backgrounds — especially for positions with a disciplinary focus.”

    You’ve mentioned this before on the blog (and in other forums).

    Do you have any evidence for the effectiveness of this approach vis-à-vis the alternatives?


    • 5 Chris Bourg January 15, 2013 at 12:02 pm

      That’s a great question!
      I don’t have any comparative data on effectiveness — although I would venture to guess that there is precious little data in general on librarian effectiveness.
      I have stories, quotes, and my own arguments/beliefs, which I think I have promised to expand on in a full blog post before. It’s probably time to actually write that blog post.
      The short version is that the kind of research support we want to provide to faculty here requires the kind of theoretical and methodological understanding of a discipline that is best attained via advanced study of that discipline, IMHO. Longer version coming soon, so stay tuned!
      Thanks for asking the question.

      Liked by 1 person

      • 6 Jimmy January 15, 2013 at 12:34 pm

        You’re welcome! Thanks for the quick response. I remember seeing your promise earlier, but I didn’t want to put you on the hook. It’s a busy time of year!

        I think this question is really a microcosm of the BIG question for academic librarians who plan to be around for a while: what is the ideal nature, type and extent of librarian/library staff expertise?

        I look forward to reading your thoughts.


  4. 7 Deborah Jakubs January 14, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    I agree with you but for a different reason. If we look back a few decades, the move for faculty status or some acknowledgment that librarians bring important academic skills was very important in establishing the profession on campuses and granting legitimacy of a sort to librarians. My concern about faculty status for librarians is simply that it sells librarians (and other professionals who work in libraries, a growing number as the paths to research library work become more numerous) short. Let’s face it, we are NOT “faculty” in the same way that university faculty are — as you point out, the standards and the degree of rigor differ. But librarians are learned and talented and bring skills and altitudes and services to the university that most regular faculty both admire and need. So rather than constantly trying to compare ourselves to faculty, and often coming up short, let’s celebrate the differences and complementarity. Yes, there are many PhD librarians, some of whom are adjunct in an academic department (I am) but our “day jobs” are very different from those of the faculty and we should be proud of what we bring to our universities.


  5. 9 Natalia January 14, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    Someone mentioned at THATCamp Theory–and this blew me away–that this was also sometimes used to achieve gender parity in academic hiring and tenure without actually having to change anything about the way the university does hiring or t&p.

    Liked by 1 person

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