May 26, 2017

Sympathy and the “Academic” in Academic Librarian | Peer to Peer Review

A couple of years ago I argued that one way to improve the user experience in libraries would be to develop sympathy with library users, which in academic libraries means primarily the faculty and students we serve. Librarians tend to be so comfortable in their own libraries that they forget what it’s like to use the library as a non-librarian.

In that article, I implied that imagination itself was often enough to give us sympathy with library users, and I stand by that. We’ve all been treated rudely by clerks or been confused by an irrational layout of a website or a building. Thinking about times like that helps us not to be the rude reference librarian or the sloppy web designer.

However, another method to develop sympathy is to do what our users do, which is mostly teach and research. For an example, see this recent article in C&RL News: Walking a Mile in their Shoes: Librarians as Teaching Faculty. In it, the authors discuss what it was like when several librarians began teaching semester-long courses that weren’t library-related. By doing so, they learned some useful lessons.

For example, they learned that “we might expect too much as librarians when we attempt to collaborate with [faculty] on information literacy initiatives.” Teaching a real college class for the first time made them realize how precious class time is and how difficult it can be to cover the necessary material even if not dedicating an entire class period to library instruction.

Some also learned how difficult planning a semester-long course can be. For librarians used to planning short presentations, it could be “a real challenge to figure out how to sequence and arrange the readings, discussions, and assignments so that they built on each other over the course of the semester.”

After teaching normal college courses, it’s easier to see why a library visit is less important for the instructors than it is for the librarians. Teaching is hard work requiring lots of planning, and usually the library isn’t part of that plan. If there is a place for the librarian in the classroom, librarians have to think more carefully about what that place might be, and think about it from the instructor’s perspective.

Scholarly research is one activity common to both faculty and students. Even more imperative than teaching, it’s important that librarians who help people do library research do some research of their own to remind themselves what it’s like to think of the library as a tool in your own work rather than as a place to work.

As I understand it, the push to make academic librarians into faculty was driven more by status anxiety than a desire to do research. Nevertheless, faculty librarians are all required to do at least some research. The drive to publish or perish has produced some bad research—in librarianship as well as all other fields—but even bad research requires librarians to place themselves in the role of active researchers and not just passive librarians.

Librarians don’t require faculty status or even publication to do the occasional research, though. All it requires is a library and some curiosity about a subject outside your daily job. Librarians who try to use their own library for research and are frustrated anywhere along the way have moved out of their comfort zone and into sympathy with faculty and students.

Better yet, try to use a different library, where you don’t have your own desk and computer and private space, or where the hours might be so short or the rules so restrictive that your time gets wasted waiting for material when you’d rather be reading it. Reading is the important thing. Everything else is an obstacle.

To eliminate some obstacles, my library has a rapid article delivery system for faculty. Whatever articles or book chapters they request are delivered electronically within 48 hours, even if that article is in a journal sitting on a shelf in the library. This service is very popular, as you can imagine. However, some have criticized the service because the library is spending money to deliver these articles when faculty could just walk over to the library and scan them themselves.

There is some merit to this criticism, especially if the library were in dire financial straits. However, I think it misses what the job of the faculty really is. They’re supposed to teach and do research, but walking over to a different building, looking up a call number, going several floors to where the journal is located, pulling it off the shelf, and then trying to find a scanner that’s not in use isn’t research. That’s all the time-wasting stuff scholars usually have to do so they can get down to their real business of reading, analyzing, synthesizing, and writing

Paying student workers to scan articles is cheaper than paying professors to and it saves the professors’ time for their real work. By working on the occasional research project, librarians can remember the difference between research and the grunt work it takes to get there. Save the time of the reader.

Gaining sympathy with academics means doing the things academics do so that we understand how the library fits into the larger academic mission. Providing good library service sometimes means we have to focus on the “academic” in “academic librarian,” to get away from just working in a library and think about the library as a place to help your work.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum ( is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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  1. Rick Anderson says:

    They’re supposed to teach and do research, but walking over to a different building, looking up a call number, going several floors to where the journal is located, pulling it off the shelf, and then trying to find a scanner that’s not in use isn’t research.

    Amen, brother! Well said.

  2. Thanks, Rick! It’s an easy thing to forget when you’re not the one trying to use the library.

  3. Barbara says:

    This is great. An added bonus to doing research in your own library – apart from wondering “why did we ever buy this awful book?” or “why are all the clocks in the library wrong in different increments?” – is that it can remind us how we felt when we were first bitten by the library bug, which probably was in a library, not in in an office that happens to be in the library.

  4. I have to say, after 25 years using academic libraries as a student, teacher, and librarian, it’s still the serendipitous discovery of interesting books while wandering the stacks that I enjoy the most, not sitting in front of a computer reading spreadsheets or writing reports or whatever. I think I became an academic librarian so that I wouldn’t lose access to academic libraries, not because I was driven to do academic librarian things.

  5. Great article, with some excellent points about the non-librarian perspective. Of course there’s a flip side to this, and that’s what can faculty, and/or administration do, to make my job easier? I understand if that comes across as petulant, and even misguided, since I understand my role is to support faculty and students much more so than one of their roles is to support the library, but it is a two-way street, even if most of the traffic is flowing in one direction. You allude to this when mentioning the time it takes to teach a semester-long course. I’m very appreciative of faculty who make the time for library instruction in their classes. Faculty, and perhaps even students, can and should participate in collective development, as well.