by Chris Bodenner

This post was bound to elicit backlash. A reader writes:

I was extremely disappointed to see this discussion on tenure take such a nasty turn. It's that not that I necessarily disagree with your reader's post about librarians and tenure - I think the burden of proof should be on librarians if they want to receive tenure. (This article from the Chronicle of Higher Education has a more informed and measured take on the subject.) However, in a truly uninformed and citation-less rant about the uselessness of librarians today, your reader really misunderstands the profession.

There are a number of universities that grant tenure, but the vast majority of academic librarians do not receive or achieve tenure. Of the institutions that do grant librarians tenure, most require that a *second* master's degree be held by the candidate for subject specialty. Indeed, at my own mid-sized academic library, I can easily name a half-dozen librarians with PhDs in non-library/information science fields, just off the top of my head. Furthermore, many academic librarians do teach or co-instruct classes.

As far as librarians "struggling to be relevant" or "find something to do," I literally have never met an academic librarian who has time to spare in their jobs. Yes, the work is shifting from the traditional passive model of information assistance - that is, waiting at a desk for the questions to roll in. And yet, it has shifted to a much more intensive and active role coordinating with IT departments and vendors to make the non-findable-through-Google electronic resources easily accessible to faculty and students. This is not to mention that librarians are at the forefront of digital storage issues, in addition to access and collection issues. Any other "free" time is now spent on outreach and collaboration with others.

And finally, the dig about the salary was really uninformed and misleading. Starting pay for the academic librarian positions in the Midwest are currently in the $35,000-45,000 range (max), depending on experience and qualifications. Given that many of these jobs require additional degrees or certifications, I really bristle at the implication that academic librarians are somehow overpaid and irrelevant.

Another writes:

Leaving aside the question of whether librarians should be tenured, I'd like to address some of the inaccuracies and mistakes made by your reader.

First, the only librarians I know who make the salary your reader states are working within corporate libraries or are at a high administrative level within the university (or have 25-30 years of experience).  In addition, many also hold not only the MLS, but PhDs in other disciplines relevant to their work - History, Sociology, English, etc.

And librarians do teach.  True, we don't usually teach semester long courses. But in any week, I teach 2-3 classes on finding information, using evidence-based research methods, using citation managers, complying with governmental mandates regarding open access to taxpayer-funded research, etc.

The tenure process for a librarian is no walk in the park, either.  One must show scholarship within and service to the profession - and that's usually with a professional travel budget of about $1000/year.  A single national conference can easily cost $1500 - between travel, registration, hotel, and meals.  It's awfully hard to perform any meaningful service when you can only pay for one conference, so most librarians I know that are on tenure track end up paying out of pocket for another one or two.  (Oh, and did I mention that the average pay for an entry-level academic librarian position is approximately $40K?)

A sabbatical does, in fact, generally require a research or service project, culminating in a book chapter, book, or peer-reviewed journal article.  True, the publications that come out of these projects may not be read by very many people, but that's sadly true across all academic disciplines.

As for relevance, in a world flooded by information (and colleges populated by students who arrive convinced that they already know how to find anything, but know how to filter nothing), most of my colleagues are busier than they've ever been.  When we're not working with faculty to integrate information management skills into their curricula, we're building research guides, helping our students (at all levels) find the information they need to write decent papers, working with administration to evaluate plagiarism-detection tools, and, yes, showing faculty how to use available tools to find research and data in their disciplines.

I'd advise your reader to find out who the liaison librarian or subject specialist is for his or her department or discipline, make an appointment, and find out what the librarian has to offer.  Yes, it's true that there are some duds out there - like any profession, we have our share of people resistant to change, or who don't want to be pushed beyond their comfort areas - but most have skills and knowledge to spare, and are happy to work with faculty in whatever way they need.

Another:

Your reader really believes that librarians are irrelevant in academia?  Really?  From my perspective as a professor, I really cannot imagine someone in academia making this statement.  Libraries are far from disposable for my work, especially for my research.  Books are still being written, journals are still being published, and electronic resources for academia are multiplying at a rapid rate.  Some fraction of this material is freely available online, to be sure, but the lion's share of it is not, and so the job of the librarian in evaluating new materials and choosing acquisitions and subscriptions is still a substantial one.

Another:

Far from needing to "find something to do with [my] time in this Google age," I find myself stretched almost beyond my limits, as do my colleagues.  Gone are the days when all we did was answer the occasional reference question and sit around looking at lists of titles to add to the collection.  On the contrary, now we are pro-actively involved in collection development, course creation, and digitization projects; creating consortia that leverage the collections of our peer institutions for the benefit of our user community; working with undergrads and grad students to guide them through the thicket of the nearly 1000 databases to which we subscribe so that they need not be dependent on the sketchy, uneven, and un-authoritative content that Google offers; offering reference services in person, as well as via phone, email, IM, and text; training faculty in the use of digital resources for their own teaching and research--and doing all of this while we watch our materials and operations budgets shrinking.  Oh, and we also attend a lot of meetings.

If your reader doesn't realize that this is what's going on at his or her own institution's library, then I question how much time he or she is actually spending there.

Another:

The internet and Google are great, but contrary to popular belief, not everything is on the internet. Also, most people do not know how to use the internet effectively when it comes to doing any sort of research. Libraries and librarians have been embracing technological advances and have been earlier adapters. For examples, libraries use tools like instant messaging for answering reference questions. In fact, MLIS and PhDs have been some of the first academic degree programs to be offered totally online by major accredited universities, because technology is so essential to the profession and because the profession has adapted so well to new technologies. Those “lists” are often essential subject guides that are of great help to students and researchers. Librarians curate libraries – they select what should be in the collection and what shouldn’t, which databases to subscribe to, what volumes should be weeded out. Libraries are an essential part of a successful university, and libraries need to be tended to.

Another:

Many librarians don't even call themselves librarians anymore - their roles are changing so rapidly some are calling themselves "cybrarians".

Yet another:

One reason that tenure for academic librarians may have evolved in the first place is a way to regularize benefits for a class of university employees who are not considered equal to administrators.  My institution likes to class librarians with faculty and claim that we have equal benefits (housing, child education, etc) although we are usually the first to be tossed over the edge when belt-tightening occurs.  We do not make anything even in the neighborhood of faculty salaries, however.

Another:

A 2009 salary survey of mid-level academic librarians (not entry-level, but also not library directors, who tend to earn salaries more similar to administrator than faculty salaries) conducted by the Association of College and Research Libraries found academic librarian salaries running between $38,379 to $58,675.

Perhaps the angry writer needs to learn how to do a better job of checking his or her facts. A librarian could probably help with that.

One more:

Unlike professors, who set their own office hours, most librarians work regular hours with full days. At some universities they also work nights and weekends. Additionally, they do not get summers or other long breaks off like many professors; instead, they get the same holidays and vacation time as staff. After all, most major academic libraries do not close in the summer.

I could write an incredibly long email about how your reader's assertion that academic librarians merely "make lists, answer the occasional reference question, and attend meetings" is incredibly far off the mark and show an ignorance about what goes on in good academic libraries, but I've read the post at the end of my lunch break and I have lots of work to do - in an academic library.

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