Saturday, March 23, 2013

Librarians as Knowledge Creators

...or, the first post on my blog with citations at the end of it. (The publications I'm responding to here are not freely available online, otherwise a simple hyperlink would do.)

Yesterday evening I posted the following status update to Facebook:
Bookie's role in my life tonight: Cheerer-Upper for Mommy, who is seeing red after encountering certain viewpoints in her research and is snuggling with Bookie to make the red haze disperse. Anyone who challenges the idea that having a baby somehow detracts from scholarly output has never been lifted out of scholarship-induced frustration/anger/despair by a joyful little person.
And what viewpoint, you may be wondering, did I encounter that led to this reaction? Well, I'm working on a book chapter about developing a scholarly research agenda as an academic librarian (the second bullet under "Future" here). The book is tentatively titled Academic Publishing and Contingent Faculty, and in order to introduce my case study (of myself, really) I need to establish how and in what ways library faculty are "contingent." So I've been reviewing the literature on faculty status of academic librarians.

I always knew there was some angst in my discipline relating to faculty status. I have a lot of very talented, committed librarian colleagues at other institutions who do not have faculty status in the precise way I do; in fact, there is a spectrum of models related to faculty status/rank for librarians in academia, and one of the distinguishing characteristics separating the farthest end of the spectrum from the next variant over is whether or not a faculty librarian has access to tenure.

Before I continue with what may turn into a rant related to this debate (my apologies in advance if it does), there are two things I want to make clear at the outset:

1) Disclaimer: I am a tenure-track faculty librarian, with identical faculty status to my colleagues in other departments (so my rank is Assistant Professor, not a parallel/hybrid rank of Assistant Librarian, though this title existed in the past at my institution; it doesn't anymore, and junior faculty in the Library department come in as tenure-track Assistant Professors). I've never had a job in which this was not the case, since my current position was my first professional appointment after completing my MLS.

2) Just because I believe that library faculty should have access to tenure and identical faculty status to their colleagues in other academic departments on campus (and all of the responsibilities that go along with this), does not mean that I think my colleagues who work at libraries where librarians do not have access to these things are somehow "lesser citizens," or not doing their job as well as they could be. (This "lesser citizens" leap is often made in the literature (1) which is the only reason I'm mentioning it, and when it is it's usually meant to describe the attitude of faculty in non-library departments toward their librarian colleagues.) I admire and respect these colleagues of mine greatly and believe they do amazing, valuable library work. Most of them have more academic library experience than I do, and I view them as peers from whom there is much I can learn about what it means to be a librarian in an academic community.

Now, with all of this as background, here is the viewpoint I encountered in my reading last night that caused me to see red, encapsulated in a single sentence which I'll put in bold in the excerpt below:
"A few librarians engage in original research, but that is not the norm. We function as knowledge providers, not knowledge creators. Therefore, we do not need tenure to protect the pursuit of highly specialized research interests." (2)
I'm actually not interested in addressing in detail the tenure-for-librarians question, although research (3) (and common sense stemming from the "publish or perish" imperative) shows that when a librarian has access to tenure there are incentives and supports in place that encourage the pursuit of a scholarly research agenda resulting in papers, presentations, and other words, the creation of knowledge. Instead, I am interested in the claim that the function of librarians is only to provide access to knowledge, and not to create any in the process.

First: %^$%*&???!!!?!?!?!?!!11111!!! ... Okay now that I got that off my chest, I can proceed coherently.

Here are some reasons why encountering this viewpoint, from a Library Dean with the rank of Professor at a school where, yes, librarians have faculty status and rank, but no tenure (i.e., University of Oregon), and who wrote the above in 2005 (!!!), right as information environments were shifting in ways that are forcing us to reconsider what it even means to provide access to knowledge and information, let alone create it...ok, reigning in the rantiness. Put simply, I was shocked to see this in print. And here are some reasons why:

1) From where I stand it appears this statement was made in a vacuum, with no actual research into the scholarly practices of librarians. Nor into the value of said scholarly practices. Nor even into what it actually means to provide access to knowledge in today's information environment and that to do this requires the creation of knowledge as part of the process. But more on this below. Basically I couldn't believe the librarian (library administrator, actually) speaking could not see the importance of knowledge creation to our function as librarians. And for what it's worth, this doesn't have to be in the form of scholarly publications; I really mean it in a broader sense here, including learning objects, professional and scholarly discourse hosted on social media platforms, and pedagogical decisions related to teaching our students how to access the knowledge they seek. Perhaps she's right that the number of librarians engaged in original research, with the end goal of publishing, is lower than those that don't. I have some stats in the articles I'm reading on this, but even if this is true it's beside the point. That she then leaps to the conclusion that because it is not the norm means it isn't part of our function (or shouldn't be), is nuts to me.

2) The work I'm doing related to information literacy and social media proves her wrong. First, there's the framework within which I understand and teach information literacy, being referred to in the literature now as metaliteracy (4). This framework takes information literacy and reconsiders it within participatory information environments (i.e., social media), and suggests ways in which the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education should be revised to account for the changes in information environments over the past 10 years. Some ways related to knowledge creation include the recommendation that we teach students to effectively "produce original content in multiple media formats" (p. 74) and to "share information in participatory environments" (p. 75). This framework is grounded in constructivist learning theory applied to information literacy and is thoroughly developed (so, not coming out of left field and making these recommendations in a vacuum). If we're to teach our students to do these things, then don't we need to be able to do them as well? Librarians need to be knowledge creators if we're going to effectively teach students to be knowledge creators. To be sure, the librarian quoted above was writing six years before the metaliteracy framework appeared in 2011, but she still doesn't get a pass from me on this because it shows that she was not engaged in the information environments her librarians and students were at the time of writing, nor in applying information literacy theory to those environments, two things I would expect from a head of libraries at an academic institution. (FYI, you just got a sneak peak at some of the ideas that will appear in the next article I'm co-writing with my research partner, Teresa. The draft is over halfway done, so the connections between information literacy and social media, and what this has to do with teaching information literacy in the classroom, are very much on my mind right now.)

Image from Facebook Page Undominated Generation

3) And now that I've proven that I'm not reacting to this viewpoint in my own vacuum (as I hope #2 has done), here is the primary reason reading this statement in print last night bothered me so much. It illegitimized the very work I was doing when I encountered the statement. I was conducting a literature review for a book chapter that has been accepted for publication only to be told (in print) my function as a librarian was not to create knowledge, only to provide access to it. Not only that, but to add an extra layer of meta to this entire exchange, the book chapter I'm writing is about librarians as knowledge creators. (In fact, I now think I'm going to name the chapter something along those lines.) To be creating knowledge as a librarian, only to encounter a viewpoint that says what I am doing is not part of my function as a librarian, is absurd. I felt like I was suddenly in a Lewis Carroll story. Either I'm mad, she's mad, or we're both mad.

And so it was, once I finished the article I was reading in which this viewpoint was quoted and cited (thankfully the article I encountered it in disagreed with the statement being quoted), I stepped away from my work, and went to snuggle my Bookie. Her smiling, happy little self helped me let go of my frustration and, I admit it, anger at what I had read. And it provided for me yet another example of how important motherhood is to my work as a librarian.

The image of a sane scholar

And now that I've gotten all of that off my chest, I can get back to work at creating knowledge. Onward and upward!

(1) Coker, Catherine, Wyoma vanDuinkerken, and Stephen Bales. "Seeking Full Citizenship: A Defense of Tenure Faculty Status for Librarians." College & Research Libraries 71.5 (2010): 406-420. Print

(2) Carver, Deborah A. "Should Librarians Get Tenure? No, It Can Hamper Their Roles." The Chronicle of Higher Education 52.6 (2005): B10-B11. Print.

(3) Gillum, Shalu. "The True Benefit of Faculty Status for Academic Reference Librarians." The Reference Librarian 51.4 (2010): 321-328. Print.

(4) Mackey, Thomas P. and Trudi E. Jacobson. "Reframing Information Literacy as a Metaliteracy." College & Research Libraries 72.1 (2011): 62-78. Web. Accessed on 23 March 2013.