In a recent blog post in Library Journal, Roy Tennant briefly discussed an idea he borrowed from a talk given by David Lankes at a conference for academic librarians. The thrust of the talk, it seems, was that academic librarians need to find ways to “become indispensible to our faculty,” and I couldn’t agree more. However, I have a few concerns about the one specific example mentioned—becoming a faculty member’s “tenure librarian”—because of the way it both misunderstands and demeans the role of academic librarians.
Here’s the way Tennant put it:
David sketched a scenario where a faculty member up for tenure is approached by a librarian who says, “Hi, my name is John, and I’m your tenure librarian.”
The fictional “John” would have already pulled together citations to as much of that professor’s work as they could find, and would continue to assist the professor to make his or her case to achieve tenure by chasing down any missing citations, etc.
At first glance I didn’t think much about it, other than, “yeah, I probably wouldn’t do that.” But when I thought about why I wouldn’t do it, I became convinced that this particular task, and anything similar to it, would be the wrong action for academic librarians to take. It does display the research skills of academic librarians to faculty members, which is important, but becoming a “tenure librarian” crosses a line that we probably shouldn’t cross, because across that line is the slippery slope to servitude. It crosses the line between assisting research and research assistance.
That might seem obscure, so let me elaborate. Assisting research is what academic librarians do. Research assistance is what research assistants do. Is that any clearer? Okay, maybe not.
Let’s start with what research assistants do. Research assistants are usually graduate students who are hired to work for a faculty researcher, and they do just about any research-related tasks the faculty member desires. They perform tasks ranging from the mundane to the occasionally sophisticated, from finding articles and photocopying them for a professor’s files to analyzing a lot of material on a topic and culling the most useful information for the professor’s project. It’s a big time saver for those faculty members lucky enough to have them, but the work is relatively menial and can be time consuming.
Now let’s consider what academic librarians do that might be similar. Certainly a lot of us do various kinds of research, and we help all comers figure out how they might do their research more effectively. We teach undergraduates how to navigate basic resources and sometimes advise graduate students and faculty on various issues. If possible, we often work individually with anyone who needs help by showing them how to do what they need to do as efficiently and effectively as possible. We spend our time learning about the appropriate research tools and techniques for various kinds of research project and then sharing this expertise with people who need help with their own research projects. This is how we assist research.
The difference between the two roles lies in the teaching function of academic librarians. We don’t do people’s research for them; we teach them how to do their own research better. We serve the faculty, but we don’t serve as the personal research assistants of individual faculty members. Even if there were enough librarians for this to be possible, which is unlikely in most places, it wouldn’t be desirable from our perspective. Becoming indispensable to faculty members is a worthwhile goal, but not if it means doing their research for them. Essential should not mean servile.
The appropriate way to be a “tenure librarian” would be to teach faculty who needed help how to find all the times they’re cited for a tenure review. For example, a librarian friend of mine gives a workshop for faculty to teach them how to do that very thing. The underlying premise is the same for many of our research consultations. Faculty members want to do a kind of research they might not be used to doing. Librarians teach them the best tools and techniques to do that particular kind of research. And then the faculty (or their research assistants) do the research themselves.
Thus, while I’m all for outreach to faculty and students and anyone else who might use the library, librarians will be better off reaching out as professionals offering a service that assists research, rather than as underlings who do the research themselves. The first way presents our expertise, the second merely our desperation.