November 17, 2017

They Really, Really Like Us | From the Bell Tower

Sometimes we academic librarians get down on ourselves. We may think our future outlook is bleak. We may even think we’re facing an imminent crisis. We may believe that it’s because no one appreciates what we do—or even knows what we do, for that matter.

There’s a popular phrase attributed to the actress Sally Field: “You really, really like me.” The story goes that she said this upon winning her second Oscar in 1985. The facts show that she never said this, but only stated, “You like me.” Somehow it morphed into something different, and became a part of our popular culture—which we know because if you search for that phrase on Google you get loads of results.

Well, academic librarians, you can stop being so depressed for at least a short while—because someone really likes you, too.

You mean they actually like us?
There’s no question that our profession is facing some serious challenges. We have every right to worry about our budgets, the skyrocketing cost of materials—and no one listening to us about open alternatives, a stagnant workforce, students not knowing what we want them to know, and all sorts of other issues. While it won’t make those problems go away, we should celebrate the value we provide to our communities—even if the members sometimes fail to let us know.

Sometimes they do, however, and I’d like to offer three examples from non-library academics—not just those students you helped get As—who have written essays declaring how wonderful academic librarians are. I’d take just one. But three, all within a relatively short time span, is a truly special treat—and we should all appreciate it. It might even put a smile on the face of those doomsday prophets.

Honor the librarian
In her Inside Higher Ed blog, Maria Shine Stewart, writes about how important it is for those working at colleges and universities to be kind to each other. She wrote a column titled “Honor Your Campus Library” that, to my surprise, received too little notice in our community. Shine dedicated a column to the virtues of academic librarians—who she really likes:

But I think they sometimes might be more clearly celebrated on our campuses. Yes: celebrated…Above all, I’ll bring my gratitude and respect.

I’m not claiming that Shine’s column about academic librarians was inspired by an IHE essay I wrote, but Shine did email me in response to what she thought was shabby treatment of a librarian. In my essay, I had the audacity to give some recommendations about how faculty could create a learning experience for their students. Several comments made a point that as a librarian, I had no knowledge of what happens in a classroom, nor did I have any right or experience that qualified me to give teaching advice to real faculty (never mind that I have over 20 years of experience as a classroom instructor and LIS adjunct, and multiple courses in educational technology and pedagogy).

It was insulting and narrow minded, and Shine wanted to respond. She actually thinks we should be celebrated. Shine points to three qualities she most respects: patience, intellectual curiosity, and organization skills. The piece of the essay I liked best was Shine’s advice to her faculty colleagues:

[S]pend more time in your academic library—and perhaps not only in your area of specialty…. I suggest that you take the time for the two-minute conversation with a staffer (he or she may not be able to spare more)—and consider extending that conversation elsewhere on campus over coffee or lunch. Keep communication flowing.

I certainly hope more faculty will pay attention to this. Getting to know each other and building relationships, in the long run, is good for us and even better for students.

Get the most out of your librarian
Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog, Carol Saller, took a different approach to give a message similar to Shine’s: take time to get to know your librarians. In her post, “Getting the Most Out of Academic Libraries—and Librarians“, instead of extolling the virtues of academic librarians, Saller lets them do the talking.

Those quoted mostly share their frustrations in wanting to help students to improve their research skills, but not getting those opportunities. Saller asks, “So with librarians ready and waiting to give all they have to give, why is connecting library services with those who need them so difficult?”

We know the answer. One librarian, Bob Kieft of Occidental College, supplied it: “We need to partner with faculty so that the concerns for information literacy education and librarians’ knowledge of student work practices will inform the design of assignments and even courses.”

It’s great when our academic colleagues use their blog platforms to share an important message about the value of academic librarians—and even better when they let us make our own case.

Making sense of the digital world
Perhaps the Inside Higher Ed blog post “In Praise of Librarians” by John V. Lombardi is the one that surprised me the most, for two reasons. First, as a busy academic administrator, he doesn’t blog all that often. Second, when he does, it’s usually to point out what’s ailing higher education.

Not this time. From his perspective, academic librarians are all about what’s right with higher education, especially in our time of digital content overload. Lombardi writes:

Fortunately for my psychic tranquility, the librarians are ahead of me, they are on the case, they are transforming our world of information with creativity and imagination…They know that our information world, previously limited by physical constraints of time, space, and expertise, is now limitless, bounded only by bandwidth.

These reflections are based on Lombardi’s visit to the Association of Research Libraries meeting. You and I know that those ARL events are attended by academic librarians, who, wonderful as they are, hardly represent the salt of the library earth. Just the same, they certainly impressed Lombardi. He recalls, “I left the meeting happy, when I expect to leave discouraged. I do not have to worry about these issues myself, it turns out, because these librarians have the problems and the opportunities well in hand.” Well done, library deans, on representing the profession.

Reality check time
While it’s great to receive kudos in such a public way, there’s no escaping that much work needs doing. This profession does face some wicked problems, but I’m optimistic that we’ll figure out. We’ve got some pretty smart people with enthusiasm for making a difference working on it.

Admittedly, three public recognitions of the value of academic librarians does not constitute universal acknowledgement of our contributions to higher education. No doubt we have our detractors as well. What troubles me is that too often we are our own worst critics, and too infrequently take opportunities to realize that we are appreciated. So let’s accept the pat on the back as we toil away, and know that although they may not say it enough, the folks we serve really, really do like us.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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