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Groundskeepers, Gatekeepers, and Guides: How to Change Faculty Perceptions of Librarians and Ensure the Future of the Research Library

Daphnée Rentfrow
(Daphnée Rentfrow, a former CLIR Fellow, has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and is currently enrolled in the MLIS program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign).

In November 2006 in Chicago, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) convened the Roundtable on Technology and Change in Academic Libraries to discuss the future of academic and research libraries. Leaders of the library profession discussed the impact of technology, the need for professional leadership to take on the challenges posed by new technologies, the characteristics new library professionals must possess to engage with the transformation of the profession, and the possibilities for the library’s future relevance in society and higher education. The themes and conclusions of the roundtable were collected and presented in narrative form, and made available on the ACRL Web site.1 Among the many valuable insights offered by the participants was the observation, worth reproducing here in its entirety, that academic and research libraries are facing a moment of opportunity that, if seized and capitalized upon, can place the library at the center of the academic and scholarly mission of the university.

The changes that are occurring-in technology, in research, teaching and learning-have created a very different context for the missions of academic and research libraries. This evolving context can afford a moment of opportunity if libraries and librarians can respond to change in proactive and visionary ways. There are diverse and unmet needs now arising within the academy-many of which closely align with the traditional self-definitions of academic and research libraries. To the extent that libraries and their leaders can reposition themselves to serve these evolving needs-which pertain in part to the centralized storage, description, and delivery of academic resources, and in part to the organization and support of scholarly communication within and across higher education institutions-libraries will emerge as even more central and vibrant resources for their institutions.

There is little to argue with here, and much to embrace and look forward to. I would like to add my perspective to the conclusions offered by the roundtable in an attempt to add some specificity to the conversation about how libraries and the profession can best position themselves in the new scholarly context of the early 21st century. In particular, I will focus on the importance of collaboration, “public relations,” and professional training.

I have been asked to share my thoughts here because of my experiences and background. The feeling, apparently, is that as a scholar and teacher with a PhD in the humanities, a former Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Fellow, a master of library and information science (MLIS) student, and a collaborator and consultant/writer on library issues, I have some unique perspective to offer. I like to think this is true. Certainly, as someone who “backed into” librarianship by way of a thematic research collection and who spent her CLIR postdoc year learning from leaders such as Deanna Marcum, Clifford Lynch, Don Waters, John Unsworth, and Susan Perry, I have had a unique and privileged introduction to the issues currently dominating the profession. But as someone who finished a doctoral program at an Ivy League university without once meeting my subject specialist (or even knowing what one was), as someone who taught courses without conferring with a librarian and who never encouraged undergraduates to do so, and worked on a thematic research collection without thinking of metadata or preservation until I had a panicked reason to, I also know fairly intimately the failings of, let’s say, “public relations” and “outreach” that afflict academic and research libraries. My comments here will reflect that duality, or what I prefer to call “hybridity.”

In the essay cited above, the authors write that

Libraries and librarians have exemplified the ideal of a higher education that combines knowledge in depth with contextualized understanding of different fields and domains. The very fact of developing and managing a collection conferred on librarians a degree of authority and influence in shaping the process of research and education. Faculty have understood well-built collections as a means to enhance their own productivity in teaching and research.

This may have been true in the past, but I am fairly certain that most librarians in academic and research libraries today would not list “authority and influence” as their most recognizable traits. In fact, most librarians I know express frustration at the lack of understanding about their roles in the intellectual life of their institutions. New technologies of information, copying, and exchange have changed basic conceptions of knowledge production, management, and stewardship. In the process, the logic goes, “everyone” thinks they can find and interpret information and so no longer need an intermediary, and “everyone” thinks that “everything” is on the Web. While these generalizations, like all others, are gross simplifications, they reveal all we need to know about the general zeitgeist surrounding what was once the domain of trained librarians. This perceived democratization of access to our shared cultural texts has had the side effect of devaluing and demystifying the library profession. Unfortunately, in the “everyone” of the clichéd hyperbole we can include our most learned colleagues, university faculty.2

Faculty, to my mind, are the single greatest challenge facing the modern research and academic library. Without faculty support and understanding and without their regular collaboration with librarians, the research library will not survive. It may remain as an interesting museum piece or storage facility, but it will no longer be the heart of the institution.

But the opposite is also true: If we can get faculty and scholars to be willing and eager collaborators with librarians in their course development, teaching, and research, then we will have guaranteed the active and irreplaceable role of the library in higher education, no matter how many books are digitized or how much shelf space is given over to cafés.

I am not alone in thinking that attention to faculty is of primary importance. The September/October 2007 issue of EDUCAUSE Review was dedicated to that premise. Entitled “Back to School: It’s All About the Faculty,” it included the title article and others, like “Wikis and Podcasts and Blogs! Oh, My! What Is a Faculty Member Supposed to Do?” and “Faculty 2.0.” The assumption was, correctly, that reaching faculty and helping them understand why and when they require the collaborative energies of information technology (IT) specialists is key to advancing the goals of higher education and the IT profession. The same is true for libraries.

Unfortunately, non-librarian faculty members often do not appreciate the need for collaboration with librarians, nor do they see the library in more than traditional terms. The seismic changes that have affected librarianship and the ways in which the profession can and should be intimately involved with advanced research and undergraduate education have, for the most part, not changed how scholars think of the library. Faculty, at least in the humanities, have misconceptions about the modern research library in part because literary theory and cultural studies theory have made it unnecessary to include discussions of editions and bibliographic theory in a literature course. Once theory “killed” the “author” and made texts into contexts, there was little reason to concentrate on topics like the history of the book, editions, primary sources, and archival research. Alternately, other scholars in the humanities have developed an entirely new field around these questions, and yet librarians again have rarely been key players in the field. Humanities scholars who were early advocates for and scholars of computing developed their interests in small networks of subspecialists that quickly became coteries whose scholarship and publications often excluded the non-initiate. The field remained (and, arguably, remains) small and limited in such a way that librarians are often as excluded from the field, as are traditional humanists who have not “caught on” to the intellectual value or labor represented by, for example, text encoding or thematic research collections. Sadly, the exclusion of librarians in both undergraduate course development and advanced scholarship has created a climate in which librarians find themselves struggling to explain their role in research and teaching even to university administrators.3

Consider the following example. In September 2005, The Chronicle of Higher Education online published two position papers on whether or not academic librarians should receive tenure, and then opened a forum for debate of the issue. One commenter, identified as “senior prof,” wrote in the forum that “[T]enure is for those who teach. [L]ibrarians are nothing more than part of the university staff. Is anyone out there recommending tenure for other staff such as office secretaries or the groundskeepers?” Putting aside the issue of tenure, this comment highlights the problem facing the profession as it begins to change its role in the landscape of the modern academic and research library. The sweeping changes in technology, information management and distribution, preservation, and discoverability have already affected the way research is conducted and shared, and these changes will only accelerate in the coming decades. Heated discussions are already taking place in the academy concerning which paradigms will most likely influence future hiring and promotion criteria. Consider the Modern Language Association (MLA) Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion, which has recommended that the humanities need to move away from the “tyranny of the monograph” and to recognize the legitimacy of new scholarship produced in new media.4

Just as future faculty hires will be expected to integrate new technologies and interdisciplinary strategies into their teaching and research agendas, and just as changes in hiring and promotion will begin to reflect these changes, academic research librarians will be tasked with accommodating new models of scholarship, promotion, and collaboration at the institutional, national, and even international levels. Their own hiring and promotion practices should similarly change to accommodate these models. This will require a shift in the conception and structure of the professional training librarians receive-one that will constitute an escalation in “applied” librarianship with a concurrent understanding of the new rigors of scholarship and the shifting boundaries of disciplinary inquiry. Simply put, the professional degree that has been the entry ticket into librarianship must place greater emphasis on how library professionals will meet the challenges of working closely with scholars and faculty while still ensuring the integrity, viability, dependability, and usability of the library itself.

The most important area needing development, in my experience, is the professional training librarians receive. This is a touchy subject, and I am sure what I have to say here will offend some readers. Nevertheless, I believe it needs to be said. As someone with a PhD who recently completed her MLIS degree at the top-rated library school in the country, I clearly believe there is value in the library degree. But as someone with a master’s and a PhD in the humanities, I can also say that my library education was not as rigorous as my other graduate training-there is no comparison. And my point is that there shouldn’t be. Both tracks and both degrees are good for what they are good for. That is to say, the PhD trained me in scholarship, research skills, writing, and teaching. The MLIS is training me in general areas of librarianship and information management.5 Having experienced both, I can understand why a scholar would bristle to be told that a librarian has an equal understanding of the rigors of scholarship and full course-load teaching. But I also understand that the average faculty member is largely ignorant of the changes that have affected modern librarianship in recent decades and the ways these changes (should) affect scholarship and teaching. For these reasons, I have often been disappointed when the professor in one of my library courses makes a comment about inept and clueless humanities faculty members, and then enjoys a laugh with students, rather than addressing why there is a disconnect and encouraging discussion on how to bridge it. I have heard professors who have not earned a degree in the humanities talk about the needs and habits of humanists, focusing in particular on their lack of interest in the digital form, completely omitting conversations about digital humanities. I have been assigned readings that perpetuate the idea of faculty as “problem patrons,” yet offered no readings on collaborative initiatives or successful models of outreach to redress the problem. In other areas, I have been frustrated that conversations about digital humanities and thematic research collections have been left, for the most part, to advanced classes for those concentrating on digital librarianship. The topics should be addressed in any class with students possibly interested in working in a research library. I have been saddened that only a few professors encourage students to write about “big ideas” (that is, the cultural history of the book, cultural memory, the politics of preservation, representations of librarians, scholarship in the digital age) and instead have heard several professors and librarians assure LIS students that publishing in the profession is “easy” and that “most anything” can get published. If this is the talk in library schools and among librarians, can we really be upset or shocked when faculty feel collaboration with librarians is unnecessary?

On the other hand, I have been impressed with the quality of intellectual debate in most of my classes, the depth and breadth of courses, and my exchanges with other students. I have learned more than I had anticipated and while I learned just as much, if not more, as a CLIR Fellow, I am pleased with my decision to pursue the degree. In general, however, I feel that the curriculum of our library schools as it applies to academic librarianship, specifically in the humanities, needs to change if we hope to train new librarians who will be up to the challenges of working closely with scholars and faculty. One can envision these curricular changes in different ways, and another article would be the place to describe them. I am convinced, however, that the training and experience of humanities PhDs, coupled with intense introduction to librarianship through an apprenticeship or fellowship program, is one way to satisfy what will soon be a pressing need in the profession.

In addition to curricular changes, I see some professional ones that should be considered. They include the following:

  • Libraries should be open to hiring more individuals who do not have the ML(I)S degree but who come with scholarly skills and teaching experience that make up for the lack of the professional degree.
  • The profession should find creative ways to design new staff positions that serve as full-time liaisons linking the library and course development, especially in the area of digital resource use.
  • Librarians should demand more of their professional publications and should publish widely and often on intellectual and philosophical issues facing the profession and scholarly communication and research in general, publish in journals outside the profession, and contribute to conferences outside the profession.
  • Librarians should talk with each other across institutions and with the faculty who “get it” about how to persuade more faculty to collaborate on courses and curricular issues and should be willing to try both new approaches and approaches that failed in the past but that may now find footing.
  • Institutions should promote successes more vocally-relying on word of mouth of one satisfied faculty member cannot have the same effect as would a smartly engineered marketing campaign.
  • Libraries should demand more of university administrators-if the library does not get enough respect, it must find ways to command it.
  • Librarians should work with departments and teaching centers to nurture the idea that the library is a part of all teaching initiatives on campus.

None of these suggestions is new, and most are in practice-in some way, shape, or form-at academic and research libraries across the country. They are offered here as an affirmation and a reminder that the power to change perceptions of the profession rests within the profession. Change must take place in all areas, from training to hiring practices to professional development and rewards to institutional programs, but it must take place with vision and consistency.

Luckily, some models are available to us. For example, the hiring of non-MLIS scholars to positions of leadership in library schools demonstrates a change in attitude about the collaboration between librarians and scholars-digital humanists in particular. Similarly, having scholars in related fields teach in a library science program helps develop a sense of mutual respect and a model of collaboration that will shape how future academic librarians think about scholarship and their profession. This is especially true in the digital humanities. If librarians are to convince faculty that they are their intellectual equals, then the degree cannot be simply a vocational one. What is needed for the research library of the future are librarian-scholars prepared and trained by degree programs that require rigorous scholarship, publication, and teaching as part of the training. One model might be a separate track designed specifically for academic librarians. What matters is that we will need scholars with PhDs and experience in library-related issues as much as we will need degree-holding librarians with additional research experience. Either degree alone-PhD or MLIS-will not suffice to meet the needs of faculty, scholars, and students in the next decades.6 The successful research library of the future will have a staff composed of many types of librarians, and even some who go by a different professional moniker. Scholars with PhDs, MLIS-holding librarians, “hybrids” with both degrees, and others with neither degree will all have a role to play. Some will be housed in the library, some in academic departments, and some in teaching centers. Some will be unmoored consultants. The most successful (and healthiest) libraries, I predict, will be those in which the differences are not cause for territorialism or professional angst but rather are a source of mutual respect and collaboration.

Asked to determine 10 assumptions about the future that would have a significant impact on academic libraries and librarians, an ACRL research committee chose the following assumptions as their top two:

  1. There will be an increased emphasis on digitizing collections, preserving digital archives, and improving methods of data storage and retrieval. Academic libraries have an opportunity to make their unique collections available to the world in unprecedented ways. In fact, the digitization of unique print collections may emerge as one of the primary missions of academic libraries in the 21st century. Librarians should collaborate with disciplinary colleagues in the curation of data as part of the research process.
  2. The skill set for librarians will continue to evolve in response to the needs and expectations of the changing populations (students and faculty) that they serve. Changes in skill sets among library professionals are well under way. Entry-level salaries are increasing, due in part to the increased expectations of a new generation of professionals who have other career options. The aging of the profession can be viewed as having a number of positive benefits, for as retirements increase, new opportunities will open for a new generation of MLS librarians and other allied professionals. Libraries that are open to creating new career paths within their organizations are in an optimal position to embrace the future.7

Digitization, collaboration with disciplinary colleagues, new skills for the librarian, open-minded hiring practices-these are the issues that must take priority in the profession if it is to remain relevant. If successfully managed, all will result in renewed respect for the profession, increased opportunities for collaboration, and increased institutional support.

The research library safeguards those materials that make it possible for scholars to do their work and for students to explore their own interests and to develop their curiosity. It is a space of intellectual exchange-with others, with one’s self, and with the thinkers and texts of the past. It is the home base of highly trained professionals dedicated to harnessing, guiding, preserving, and complementing the knowledge produced by the scholars, teachers, and students who use the collection. Reaching the faculty and scholars who are served by academic and research libraries must be the priority for the library profession if we want to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The creation, preservation, dissemination, and stewardship of knowledge is the library’s core mission. By reaching out to and collaborating with faculty and converting them to the belief that librarians are central to their own research and teaching, the research library will come to once again house, both literally and symbolically, the heart of the university and to represent, in practice and vision, the very best of the ideals of the liberal arts.


1 Gregory Wegner with Robert Zemsky. February 2007. Changing Roles of Academic and Research Libraries. Available at

2 By “faculty,” I mean non-librarian teaching faculty and scholars. While some universities offer librarians faculty status, while some librarians consider themselves members of the faculty, and while some librarians have Ph.D. degrees, anecdotal evidence shows that students, parents, faculty, and even university administrators rarely consider libraries to be “real” faculty, or even intellectual peers. This problem of image is one of the biggest challenges facing the profession.

3 Several of my recent conversations and interviews with library directors have touched on this very topic; namely, that university provosts and presidents often express surprise when the library petitions for a larger budget or more staff, or argues for more involvement in curricular issues. There have even been anecdotes of administrators asking, with a straight face, “Isn’t everything on the Web?” While these stories are mostly apocryphal, they capture the general sense of frustration library leaders are experiencing.

4 Stanton, Domna C., et al. 2007. Report of the MLA Taskforce on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion. Pp. 9-71 in Profession, edited by Rosemary G. Feal. New York: The Modern Language Association of America. The report also includes recommendations for evaluating scholarship in and about new media and on evaluating collaboration and collaborative authorship in the humanities.

5 I purposely pursued a broad and generalized course of study rather than a focused one in, say, digital librarianship. My goal in attending library school was to see the ways in which the profession was defined and taught through immersion in coursework, and I wanted a range of perspectives.

6 Todd Gilman and Thea Lindquist recently published the results of their survey of librarians working in academic and research libraries who hold doctoral degrees in a discipline other than LIS. Their essay, and a planned follow-up essay on the professional tracks available to PhD-holding librarians, should prove useful to the conversation on the future of the research library. See “Academic/Research Librarians with Subject Doctorates: Data and Trends 1965–2006.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 8(1) (January 2008): 31-52.

7 Mullins, James L., Frank R. Allen, and Jon R. Hufford. 2007. Top Ten Assumptions for the Future of Academic Libraries and Librarians: A Report from the ACRL Research Committee. C&RL News 68(4). Available at Accessed December 4, 2007.

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