March 21, 2018

Assisting Research Versus Research Assistance | Peer to Peer Review

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.

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. The difference between being of service and being a servant is a issue I take very serious, and you are right to raise the issue. I do believe that librarians should be actively engaged in faculty research, but as a collaborator, and not simply more grunt labor. However, in the case of tenure, I disagree with your take.

    First tenure is one of (if not the) most important decision a faculty makes. A virtually lifelong commitment to a person’s career is a serious matter. So much so, that it is elevated from an administrative procedure, to a faculty referendum. For example, while normally the onus is on a tenure candidate to build their case, in many situations it is the Promotion and Tenure committee’s task to gather data, analyze that data, and present it. In all of this, it is the faculty themselves that do this work.For librarians to be part of this process, it means they are part of a high-impact, high-importance faculty process.

    I would also argue that while I very much agree that librarians’ role is about teaching (well, facilitating learning), that role is highly contextualized. We should not do this facilitation that same way for the freshmen, the graduate student nor the faculty member. In the case of tenure we retain the learning role, but the agent learning is not the faculty under review, but the larger faculty as a whole. And this is where things get really interesting for me.

    By being a deeply involved partner in the tenure process librarians not only show off their skills, they become part of the learning function of the entire college/university. We capture the intellectual output of faculty to add to the institution’s memory. We can also begin to understand the trends and emerging challenges of scholarly communications. These days a tenure case is not a simple search in Scopus orW of Science ti involves interpreting blog hits, participation in social media, self-publication, tool and data set creation. By being an indispensable part of how the university judges impact, the librarian can better guide the whole university in terms of scholarly output, archiving, search and the like.

    Lastly, the librarin is part of the academic enterprise. In addition to the teaching function there is a research component (just discussed really) and a service component. To be truly respected and part of the academic enterprise we must also show that we are willing to bear a portion of the load in critical academic activities (serving on committees, etc.) Shouldn’t we be strategic about those service obligations for the betterment of our position within the college?

    So I’m with you. Librarians should not be servants, nor treated as grunt labor. However, to be peers they must contribute to the whole enterprise through service, and we can do so while advancing both our teaching and research functions through integrating into the tenure process. Our beneficiaries are not the tenure candidate (though they may benefit), but the whole university/college.

    Thank you for furthering this conversation.

  2. Special Librarian says:

    Hm. We in the special libraries world (especially research institutions) make a whole lot more money than academic librarians (I was one once, so I know what I’m talking about) doing just this–working with high-level research staff by performing activities such as complex literature searches in specialized databases (a citation index such as WoS or Scopus would be such a db), analyzing, and presenting the results to them (and doing this in much more sophisticated databases that WoS or Scopus and in many different and complex presentation formats) so that they can get on with the business of USING those data to do what THEY need to do, such as discover new ideas, methodologies, or in your case, get tenure. Get off your high horse–teach undergrads how to do research and help your faculty get tenure, help them find the info they need so they can get on with their business of their own research–which is WELL beyond searching databases. You’re an information professional, they are faculty researchers. Deal with it.

  3. Suzanne Bell says:

    Oh dear. I probably shouldn’t do this, because the last thing I want is to get involved in an argument but – I don’t seem to be able to leave this page without responding. I simply don’t agree. At all. I attended the conference at which both David Lankes and Roy Tennant spoke, and I found it utterly convincing and motivational. [Let me insert here that I’m not a starry eyed young thing: I’ve been an academic librarian for a (very) long time; I don’t find many things motivational any more.] Maybe this additional context will help explain why I found this “I am your tenure librarian” idea so convincing: What Lankes went on to say was that what usually happens in a tenure case is that the faculty member sends his grad assistant to the librarian for training on how to do these searches… but Lankes then said [words to the effect of] “does it make sense that we could show this grad student in 5 minutes what we have spent considerable time developing expertise in?” Now, I know: I’m sure we’d spend more than 5 minutes. Making it such a brief period of time may have been an exaggeration to emphasize his point, which was that perhaps showing other people in a fairly brief session what we have spent years learning how to do well – that THAT is the demeaning activity, *that* makes what we do seem simplistic and like anyone can do it. (And full disclosure: I also have never seen doing things for people as demeaning.) To me, doing it for them is taking best advantage of each person’s expertise: the faculty member is best at research, writing, and getting published. I am a sock-dollager searcher. Why should the faculty member have to learn my craft? Isn’t it more efficient if s/he does what s/he is good at, and I do what I’m good at, and thus make sure nothing is missed, that s/he gets the best, most complete list possible? To me, this is a collaboration, not servitude. Division of labor. Sorry, that’s beginning to sound strident. I just – well, like I say, I’m sure I should have kept my mouth shut, but somehow I couldn’t. I feel so completely the other way. (And let me add that yes, of course I believe in teaching people so they can do things for themselves – but not in every situation. I think there are times when we should highlight our expertise by using it and presenting the results, rather than trying to train others.)
    Different points of view are good! Although it agonizes me to write something out in public like this, I’m glad you wrote this post, because it made me mentally revisit those wonderful talks and just WHY I found them so convincing and important. Thank you.

  4. I’m afraid my first comment didn’t make it through so I’ll try again.

    First I very much appreciate the difference you make between service and servant. It is an important distinction. I think librarians need to be more involved in faculty research at all levels, but as partners, not grunts. However, I think the distinction is misplaced in the case of tenure.

    There is no decision more consequential in the academy than tenure. A virtual lifelong appoint will impact the budget, the teaching, the reputation, and the culture of a school. This is why it is not an administrative procedure, but really a faculty referendum. P&T committees are composed of faculty. Decisions involves deans, and provosts, and presidents, and trustees. To be included in this process is not about research assistance, it is about the life of the university itself.

    You mention the teaching function of the librarian. That is appropriate. However, I think the idea that we would be teaching the tenure candidate about citation analysis is the wrong focus. We are really teaching the larger faculty about how to determine impact in scientific communication – our strength. Yes the candidate might benefit (and love us and see us indispensable), but the faculty as a whole will as well.

    By raising the teaching function, you also imply the research and service functions and I think they are worth a mention. In terms of research, by being in the tenure process we get to see the shape, changes and trends in scientific communications across disciplines. Do blogs matter, do conference papers, how many are there, is the library capturing that information? Imagine how much better we can support and teach the academy with a holistic view of the most productive years of faculty output.

    Lastly, as a member of the academy we have a service obligation beyond the desk or our assigned duties. Service on committees, etc. Shouldn’t we be strategic in how we fulfill that service? For example, in my school, a faculty member always serves on the P&T committee the year before they go up for tenure. This way they gain insight into the process and can see the process in action.

    Bottom line is that I agree whole heartedly that librarians must be more than servants of the faculty, but we must also adopt the obligations they find important. We teach, but we must contextualize that teaching. We simply do not (in my opinion should not) serve the freshman, the grad student and the faculty member alike. If we want to be respected, we must be a part of processes that are respected.

    In any case, I appreciate you furthering the conversation.

  5. Point well taken! I

    I think your idea of teaching the faculty or TAs how to do research to help bolster their tenure portfolios is the way to go. I see many a fall focus on faculty day workshop here!

    I’d also say a web guide (like a LibGuide) on the subject might be helpful too. I had so many doctoral students asking me about how to find journals in which to publish that I started giving workshops to them. When the faculty in the department started emailing me I knew I needed to do a LibGuide! (see ) I still do workshops for the faculty on how to find a journal in which to publish – but the LibGuide works as both a basis for my discussion and as a place they can come back to to find the tools they need.

    I think by teaching them these skills I do show how indispensable I am to them, thier tenure, and their research, and I can show them what a good teacher I am too! :)

  6. First, I want to say I don’t know what was up with any comments not getting through. I don’t have any control over the back end. Second, sorry for not responding sooner. I’ve been on vacation for 3 weeks and was pretty much ignoring everything.

    Suzanne, let’s think of it as a discussion rather than an argument. I’m perfectly happy for people to disagree with me, because if everyone agreed what would be the point of any discussions. You and David make some excellent points, especially about discovering “changes and trends in scientific communications across disciplines.” While I still would opt for teaching them how to fish, there are definitely upsides to your approach.

    I’m also all for libraries saving the time of researchers, which I’ve argued for before. I just think there are ways for professional librarians to do this and ways not for them to.

    As for Special Librarian, I think I’ll stay on my high horse just for you. I like the view. For someone who supposedly makes so much more money than me, you sure do sound resentful.

    The tenure situation is a special case, and I think we can all agree on that. Even if I were to change my view on that special case, I don’t think I would support the “research assistant” role for academic librarians as a whole for several reasons.

    First, the kind of research assistance varies by discipline. In the humanities, literature searches are a relatively minor part of research. Usually advanced researchers find out about relevant material from colleagues, conferences, footnotes, or some other less formal method than searching disciplinary databases. I suspect this is true in much of the social sciences as well. Also, the sort of specialized searching that is necessary and available for some fields (e.g., law or business) just isn’t possible in the humanities, where the vocabulary is much less controlled than in some other fields. This is probably less true in the social sciences or sciences.

    In addition, there are the other things librarians do. Special Librarian might spend a lot of time doing complex literature searches, but my library doesn’t have people dedicated to anything like that. A lot of my time is spent on collection development, liaison work, committees and task forces, other professional duties, and professional activities outside of my daily work. Searching databases just isn’t something I spend a lot of time on, even for my own research.

    There’s also the question of feasibility. I work with relatively small departments, but still have about fifty professors for whom I’m the library liaison, plus a hundred or so grad students. I have colleagues with considerably more faculty they liaise with. And I’m aware of numerous academic librarians around the country who have even larger numbers of faculty, sometimes everyone in the humanities or social sciences. There’s just not time for librarians to offer those sorts of basic search services. That’s what research assistants are for. However, a possible counter argument is that probably only a small percentage of people would take advantage of any such service. Still, it’s something to think about.

    As an aside, the distinction between “information professional” and “faculty researcher” erodes when librarians are faculty researchers themselves. I don’t have faculty status as such, but I’m in a faculty-like system that rewards my own research and publication. Many academic librarians have faculty status or something similar, and they have their own research to do. Part of our professional time is allotted to that research, which takes away time for doing other people’s research for them.

    Anyway, thanks for the great comments. I’m rethinking a bit of what I wrote here in response.

  7. A question occurred to me: what if the faculty member does not get the tenure, thereby wasting years of labor plus having to suffer a negative impact on his or her future career? What if the person gets angry and decides to blame the tenure librarian for doing a lousy job, even though the librarian did an adequate job?

    Tenure decisions can very often become extremely bitter in my experience and there would have to be adequate reasons, and reliable protections, for a librarian to want to wade into such a potential morass.

    It seems than when you decide to do someone else’s work for them (which is how I see this proposal) when it has such a vital impact upon a person’s life as a tenure decision, it goes beyond a mere research assistant. There need to be adequate safeguards and assurances for all concerned: the faculty member, who is relying on the librarian, and the librarian, who may fall foul of a disappointed lecturer.

  8. James, I didn’t even think of that scenario. I certainly wouldn’t want to deal with an irate assistant professor who didn’t get tenure looking for people to blame.

  9. I’d like to suggest what I think is the missing element in the conversation so far: that of relationships. The note in Roy Tennant’s blog post that rings false to me is the librarian suddenly showing up one day and announcing, “Hi, I’m your tenure librarian.” When a faculty member is putting together a tenure package they’ve already been around the university 4 or 5 years. Where was the librarian all that time? Was the librarian at the department faculty meetings, and social events, getting to know that faculty member? Was the librarian collaborating with that faculty member to ensure that information literacy was embedded in courses where appropriate, and truly integrated, not just pasted on? Were the faculty member and the librarian collaborating on research initiatives, where appropriate?

    Some librarians are adopting a more relational approach to their participation in the organizations that employ them. They’re participating in the life of academic units and the university as a whole. They’re becoming known and valued as academic colleagues. These are the truly embedded librarians. Their initiatives are genuine, not forced, because those initiatives are built on preexisting relationships. I hope more academic librarians will work on building relationships so that when tenure time rolls around, they won’t have to introduce themselves.