Is it Time to Reassess this Paradigm?

Image Credit:

Last year, HLS’s founder Micah wrote a post about the “publish or perish” paradigm. He shares (or shared then, not sure if he still does) with me some apprehensions about the publishing model, in general, and how it relates to the library science world, in particular.

I entered library school wanting to be an academic librarian — an engineering academic librarian to be exact. But over time, as I’ve taken classes and had outside experiences, my desires have changed. I still want to work in an academic library setting (because I love the idea of working with such a diverse group of people), but not in the traditional academic librarian role (see my post on data curation; that’s what I want to do now). Regardless of my title, if I work in an academic library, one of things I’ll likely have to do is publish. I’ve been pondering over the last year about researching and publishing requirements of being an academic librarian. I want to build on Micah’s post by saying that I am not comfortable with academic librarians being considered faculty and having to publish as a requirement of tenure (another thing I’m not comfortable with for librarians).

Let me start by saying that I do enjoy informal research and finding new ways of doing something better or more efficiently. When I used to be an engineer, I devised novel ways to fix immediate problems almost daily. I knew the theory because I learned it in college, but I didn’t care so much about that, as long as it solved the problem. As a librarian, I want to meet the needs of my institution with novel ideas. In other words, I want to see where the needs are, then devise a solution that works in my library. If it works in yours, too, then great, but that should not be my focus. I’d be fine with simply publishing my thoughts on a blog, but I don’t want the pressure to publish peer reviewed articles in order to keep my job.

I know research and publishing are requirements of tenure track faculty positions at most institutions. It’s one of the three legs of the stool consisting of research, teaching, and service. But as practitioners, librarians shouldn’t be classified as academics simply because they work at an academic institution. Research and publishing requirements can be a distraction to simply being an excellent librarian. We can do great things without that pressure, so why not let us? Why not leave the publishing requirements to the regular faculty? Please don’t misunderstand me, I am certainly not implying that we don’t have what it takes to publish at the same level as a teaching faculty member — quite the contrary. Nor am I suggesting that we wouldn’t have much to add to the discussion. But what I am clearly stating is that conferring university faculty status and tenure requirements on librarians is superfluous.

I really want to hear from our readers on this issue. So my questions for you today are these: do academic librarians really need to be called faculty? I know it has a long history behind it, but that doesn’t make it the best way to do things. Do you think the publishing requirements of academic librarians are important or distracting? If you think it’s important, then why do we not require the same of other professions’ practitioners and even other areas within LIS, such as public and school librarians ? If you think it is a distraction, then what can we do to change the culture?

Categories: Professional Life

16 replies

  1. A couple of my thoughts…

    1) I am actually at an institution where I am known as a “Clinical Faculty” member. This means that I am faculty, an assistant professor, in basically every regard EXCEPT tenure. Here, clinical faculty are not tenure-track and are therefore evaluated on the merit of their ability to do their job and not on the other tenure criteria of service and publication. This has many pro’s and con’s but I just wanted to point out that some institutions are experimenting with this notion and so now “faculty” does not always mean “tenure track.”

    Part of this shift is due to the fact that libraries are changing and if a library hires someone to a do a specific job, they achieve tenure, and then the library realizes they no longer need that specific service – it’s harder for the library to be agile and adapt with someone now stuck in that position until they retire.

    2) Going off my point in number one, whether or not librarians NEED tenure and NEED to publish in order to be a good librarian is beside the point. Tenure is JOB SECURITY. I think that now more than ever librarians are looking for that reassurance and stability of achieving tenure. Even in my position now where I don’t have to publish or serve on any committees, I still do because I know that long-term my goal is a tenure-track position.

    I know this is an old conversation but I’m also interested to hear others comments.


    • I disagree that tenure is job security. Performing well in your job is job security. I would rather be let go for under-performing than kept on because I have tenure. The former is better for professional work ethic as it teaches a lesson.


      • What about being let go at the whim of a manager? All of the librarians at a local community college were systematically fired, and then invited to reapply for positions at less money and fewer benefits. You could be an amazing librarian, fulfilling your duties and serving students, and still be let go because an administrator feels that they don’t need librarians to run a library.


        • That is extremely unfortunate for those librarians, but I would argue that this type of occurrence is extremely rare. I was in the engineering profession (where there is no such thing as tenure) in some capacity for 15 years and I never knew anyone fired without just cause.


  2. I’m beginning library school this fall, with a first master’s degree in an academic field already, and I plan to become an academic librarian. As “clinical faculty” brought up above, job security is number one on my list of things I want, and the easiest way to achieve this in a university setting is through tenure.

    For me, coming from doing heavy research to get through the master’s degree already, I’m looking forward to, and totally willing to, publish or perish for that tenure if I can. I don’t think every academic librarian should be expected to, but in exchange for that job security (even though the university could fail, removing that job security) publishing is totally worth it to me.

    From a different angle, I think librarians should be considered academics, and faculty. From my own experience, librarians are every bit as important as my teachers were to finishing my degree. I learned a great deal from the librarians in undergrad and in my graduate program, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to provide that to another generation of learners.

    Also, i want the perceived prestige of being “faculty.” 🙂


  3. Going beyond the tenure and “publish or perish” mindset, I’ll ask this question: If librarians do not publish — particularly publish practical information like case studies — how will the profession develop? Perhaps the question should expand in the way it has in other academic fields (particularly the humanities and social sciences): What constitutes “publication?”


    • I’m not too worried about developing the profession. The fact that so many librarians publish and comment on blogs when it is not required for professional advancement is a sign, I think, that we will continue to push the profession without being required to publish. It appears that librarians are drawn to talking about what they do and how they want to improve their profession like moths to an animated JPEG of a light on Tumbler. And the formal, peer-reviewed publications will still have their important place, and those librarians who feel they can do best by publishing in them will continue to do so. But I just can’t imagine how forcing all academic librarians to publish to advance in their jobs does anything but force librarians who would rather be advancing the profession in other ways to do something they’d prefer not to do.


      • But how can we teach new ideas if no one is publishing them? While publishing on blogs is a great way to share ideas, I am not comfortable with the thought of doing away with the peer reviewed process just yet…


        • Let the practitioners be practitioners and learn from the academics. The academics, however, much start publishing practical information, not theoretical fluff. That said, no one is keeping people from publishing if they want to. I simply don’t think it should be required. But librarians can learn alot from other librarians, not through the publishing process, but through conferences and continuing education courses.

          I would also argue that publishing on a blog is an even better way of having work peer reviewed. It’s open for all the world to see, rather than being reviewed by three of your peers.


          • “The academics, however, much start publishing practical information, not theoretical fluff.”

            The trouble here is that I know very few academic who have any practical work experience – at least not full-time, professional work as a librarian or archivist. This seems particularly true with many of the newer faculty members, who proceed from MLIS to PhD. Practicums, internships, fellowships, etc. can’t substitute for hearing from someone with a number of years of experience trying multiple ideas to accomplish goals.


  4. In the UK we don’t have this system – we aren’t faculty in the same way, the concept of tenure doesn’t apply to us, and most of us don’t publish.

    I’m very happy with this arrangement because I dislike academic publishing quite a lot. I’ve published a book – but that’s written entirely on my terms, without jumping through any hoops, and in an informal style. I’ve been asked about writing for peer-review journals but have said no – I prefer to write either online or for professional publications about useful, practical things. Sometimes research gets bogged down in the research… Plus the whole method of writing academic papers is so much about form, it gets in the way of content.

    The trouble with a requirement to publish (and this applied across academia, not just to librarians) is that it’s the tail wagging the dog – you are told to output and THEN you look for something to research, as opposed to finding something of value and then looking to share it. Hence why so much academic writing is of no value to ANYONE ever, at all, except as an end in itself – and hence why we, as libraries, get duped into buying journals as part of packages, that no one ever reads, because the content is solely an excercise in ticking ‘publication’ boxes.


    • How are faculty/librarian relations in the UK with the librarians as non-faculty? I feel like I am constantly reading about librarians in the US wanting to be treated by other faculty as equals since that’s technically what they are and that faculty often don’t. So I’m interested in how that relationship works in a context where librarians and faculty are decidedly not the same thing.


    • I think this is a pretty dour view of academic publishing and forgets the merits of doing research. While I agree that the academic tenure structure may focus overmuch on publications, professors go into academia exactly because they want to do research and share their results and not the other way around. Additionally, as a scientist I can say that the process of peer review and publication is critical to moving a discipline ahead and solving important problems (like ending disease, improving energy efficiency, etc).

      When it comes to research and tenure in librarianship, I’m of mixed opinion. This is likely due to the fact that, being a scientist new to LIS, I don’t yet understand the types of research done in libraries. My thoughts are that if our research and publications are of the same quality of our professorial peers, then we should have tenure. Otherwise, we should have a different system that still encourages the sharing of information through publication.


  5. Sorry to come to this conversation so late, but I had to ponder this one a bit.

    The thing that seems to have been left out of this argument so far is any mention of the actual reason for tenure. Tenure isn’t about job security in the usual sense, the way a union contract might be about job security. It often has that effect, but that has never been the goal in and of itself. The primary objective of tenure is to ensure academic and intellectual freedom for those who are responsible for the cultivation of knowledge. It’s a way of providing assurance that even if you hold, express, pursue, or publish ideas that your institution doesn’t like, they can’t dismiss or punish you for it. We invoke this assurance in order to make sure that colleges, universities, research facilities, etc., can continue to fulfill their own primary objective, which is to contribute to the greater body of knowledge, even during times of social, political, or cultural change.

    So should librarians share in the privileges of tenure? Given that we are, at the very least, one of the mediators of faculty scholarship — i.e., one of our roles is to aid faculty in their own academic research — then I believe very strongly that yes, it’s absolutely necessary that we are protected by the same assurances that protect faculty. If we don’t have those same protections, then our own academic freedom is put at risk, and by extension that of the faculty. And that isn’t even taking into consideration our own role as creators of knowledge, beyond our role as its custodians.

    As for the requirement to publish: I find it a bit disheartening that anyone might perceive publishing as a chore to be avoided, and not as an opportunity to make a direct contribution to the same body of knowledge that we tend in our libraries. An academic librarian is one of a small fraction of the population who gets to learn for a living! Shouldn’t publishing then be one of the biggest fringe benefits of our work? There’s not even any necessity, as I understand it, that our research has to be related to the library. I’ve been able to interview one librarian who was tenured faculty at his university, and he spent his scholarly time on the subject of his first Master’s degree, his first intellectual love. That might not work as well for every academic librarian — the humanities folks among us might have an easier time making that work than the scientists — but this is still a chance to do work that you care about, above and beyond your library responsibilities, with the cooperation and support of your employer.

    I realize that this all sounds pretty idealistic, and yes, it it’s more complicated than just this. And I want to say that I think the discussion is absolutely valid, even while I respectfully disagree. But if we’re going to discuss it, I think we need to at least account for the original point of tenure in the university. It’s about freedom, not about job security.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s