Librarianship, Degrees, and Perceptions of Educational Level

Rochelle has written a great post about faculty and librarians as being “comrades in arms.” Most recently, Meredith also blogged about whether academic librarians are faculty or support staff. The faculty status of librarians is a debate that is ongoing. If you talk to colleagues at my library, where we do not have a tenure track, nearly all will tell you that they wouldn’t have it any other way. At the same time, if you talk to other librarians at other libraries, they will tell you that they enjoy the scholarship requirements of their job, and they really enjoy the protection that tenure provides. I haven’t worked in a tenure track organization yet, so I can’t really speak to that issue. However, what I can speak of is my experience as a reference librarian and my interactions with faculty over the past three years. Rochelle writes:

And that’s the crux of it, always. We want the teaching faculty (and by this I mean anyone from the rank of associate professor on up) to see us as their equals, as comrades-in-arms in the daily battle to produce good scholarship, excellent graduates, and better the general welfare of our shared institution and Knowledge in general. We want a standing invitation to the faculty club. We don’t want to be seen as the help.

At my library, each professional librarian is responsible for being a bibliographer in one or more subject areas. The assignments are usually based on experience, coursework or degrees, or interest in a particular area. At times a librarian may be assigned a subject because we simply need someone in that area, and other areas that may fit better are currently all filled. Since starting three years ago, I have transitioned from American Studies (I have a B.A. in history) to Political Science, to Economics, and finally to Business, and I currently am the bibliographer for the Department of Economics and the College of Business. Each time I changed roles, I had to learn something new: New databases, new LC headings, new key journals, new indispensible reference books.

With each move, I also thought I had to learn more about the subject area itself: what were the faculty studying, what was the language or common terminolgy of the discipline, and how to find information for that subject area. I even tried taking a class or reading a few books in the various subject areas. Despite my work, I often felt ill-prepared when talking to faculty and students. I did not know as much as they did about their particular subject area, and I felt that hindered how much I would be able to help them. Honestly, I often felt inferior to many faculty and students, because I was not as knowledgeable in their subject area as they were.

Rochelle also writes about her experience with faculty perceptions of librarians’ knowledge:

But what I have noticed is this: no faculty expect a librarian to be as well-educated as she is. Case in point: when a faculty member came to visit me for some help, she expected us to have one degree apiece. Of course, we have three piece. It was a friendly conversation with lots of personal curiosity and sharing of experiences, but we all felt it in that moment; librarians are extremely well-educated people, and people, even faculty, tend to not expect that. Not over-educated, I would say, but far more knowledgeable about subject-specific academic life than most people give us credit for. And I’m getting used to that look, too, the one that says, oh, wow, you’re a real academic too!

My perception of my educational level has changed in my three years of working as a reference librarian. I too, used to equate education with the number and type of degrees someone had. I have contemplated several times about going back and getting a second master’s or even a PhD. Usually those thoughts were for the wrong reasons. I wanted the extra degree just for the paper that is was printed on, not for the knowledge gained in the process of earning that paper. I figured that an additional degree would provide me more academic clout with teaching faculty, my colleagues, and other administrators on campus. Perhaps it would, but those are no longer my motivations. I still entertain thoughts of continuing my education, but now I think I would do it for the right reasons. In my three years of working, I have learned that as librarians, we really never stop learning. And for me, getting an additional degree would be another step in the life-long learning process.

I have always been one to dabble in a number of different areas. Because of my dabbling nature, it will be a difficult process for me to decide what type of degree (and in what subject) I would pursue in the future. I’ve always wanted to know a little bit about everything, and commiting to a degree program might force me to focus too much on one subject area. One of the reasons that librarianship really fits me so well is that the job allows me to be exposed to a variety of subjects and disciplines. I don’t really have to commit to a degree program to become better educated. One day I can be doing research with someone on Albanian history, and another day I can be helping someone find data for a regression analysis of crude oil prices. I see the same thing with my colleagues in reference as well. They are some of the smartest people I know. Do they have multiple degrees? Well, most do not, but are simply well-educated through their daily interactions with faculty and students studying and researching a variety of disciplines. Most have pretty good relationships with the faculty in their subject areas. They are also very well balanced in their knowledge of a variety of disciplines. Does this mean that faculty regard them as equals? Well tenure track or not, we’re not going to be seen as equals. However, if we truly do our jobs right, we can equally contribute (albeit in a different way) to the success and growth of the academic community.

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One Response to Librarianship, Degrees, and Perceptions of Educational Level

  1. Meredith says:

    Great post! We librarians need to realize that we have just as much to offer “the academy” as faculty members do. But what we have to offer is different and shouldn’t require the same type of education. We are here not to be experts in one subject, but to competently help students in every subject. That’s what’s so great about your Biz Wiki (which I frequently show to colleagues in an effort to push the idea here). I love the idea of wiki as subject guide because it reflects the fact that faculty have a great deal of offer in the development of a list of great subject resources. We need to stop thinking of things as the “realm of the librarian” or the “realm of the professor”, but to see where each of us can be useful in the other’s corner of academia.