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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2009

Academic Librarians Are under Attack

By Penni Stewart
Academic librarians and librarianship at Canadian universities and colleges are in trouble. Pointing to the need to cut budgets and making use of new technologies, library administrators are deskilling and eliminating the jobs of librarians.

Two senior academic librarian positions at McMaster University were declared redundant last spring. More recently, librarians at the University of Western Ontario, who were bargaining their first collective agreement, came close to a strike over threats to their academic status. At McGill University, threats to academic freedom and academic status led librarians to ask CAUT to establish a committee of inquiry into academic freedom.

There is the temptation to cite the influence of technological change agents — especially omnipresent web search engines — and the development of sophisticated library catalogs, databases and resolver linking technology as factors in library employment. But without an understanding of the information universe, beguiling technology is the quick road to a multitude of often unreliable references. Indeed, as demands for information literacy expand, academic librarians are increasingly drawn into teaching students how to understand this new information universe in order to make the best use of the constantly changing automated tools.

Behind the front lines, librarians have also been responsible for acquiring and preserving library collections and an increasing number and variety of other library records. Many academic librarians have ex­pertise in a specialized area, with a graduate degree in that field as well as a degree in library and information science or archival studies.

University librarians are part of the academic staff and their professional responsibilities include research and professional scholarly work. Yet, increasingly, library administrators are replacing specialist librarians with “generalists” as a means to increase flexibility but at the cost of decreasing effective service to the academic community. Others are viewing the academic librarian’s job description as a group of tasks that can be unbundled and given to library technicians.

At risk in all this is academic freedom, not to mention vital professional jobs. Academic freedom is key to librarians, who have a duty to ensure that information and ideas are widely accessible. Rather than rendering academic freedom obsolete, technological change produces new challenges. Academic librarians have been in the forefront of the struggles over intellectual property and copyright protection.

They have played a central role in defining what access to information means and why unfettered access is so important to demo­cratic societies. Librarians are on the cutting edge of redefining the meaning of academic freedom in the face of constantly changing technology.

Librarians are subject to financial pressures which have resulted in campus administrators’ increased reliance on the casualization of academic work. The idea is to replace academic staff with lower-priced substitutes, many of whom have doctorates but cannot find a tenure-track job. At some of the largest Canadian institutions at least half of the teaching is done by part-time teachers. But the challenge facing librarians is even more fundamental, as it involves “deskilling” their professional work.

Since people without the same level of training as librarians cannot do the work, job functions of librarians are being downgraded or divided into narrow technical areas and transferred to other employees. In many academic libra­ries, work generally recognized as exclusively the responsibility of professional librarians has been reassigned.

At other institutions support staff are used at the reference desk, and they may sit on Library Councils and other committees as part of the “professional” team. Some libraries now combine all library services at a single desk that is not staffed by an academic librarian. Cataloguing has also increasingly been outsourced. Cheaper than all other options is using student assistants to provide support in areas such as information technology.

Another cost-saving strategy is to freeze the librarian complement, as student enrollment continues to grow. And a related strategy is to not fill librarian positions vacated by attrition.

There are also attempts to devalue specialization, and treat the skills of librarians as generic. In the new, pared-down library, academic librarians are being told they can no longer expect to work mainly or exclusively in their area of disciplinary specialization. During recent bargaining, administrators at Western proposed that they should have the right to reassign staff from one library to another without regard for speciality.

Technological innovations and budget efficiencies are also changing the academic librarian role. Developing and managing collections — traditionally a key component of the academic librarians specialized role — is now more often a centralized managerial decision reflecting the way purchases are made as package deals.

As the role of librarians becomes narrower and more managed, academic freedom is being whittled away. At some institutions librarians are reporting that management is seeking to supervise curriculum and course preparation, control access to governance activities and scholarly and professional conferences, and supervise librarians’ scholarly work by reviewing papers and grant applications prior to presentation or publication.

There is an urgent need to defend the role of librarians in our post-secondary institutions. Effective defense against the assault on the profession requires the support of the much larger number of academics at an institution. And the most effective way to enshrine protections is with aggressive and effective collective bargaining.