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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2011

Academic Librarians Are under Attack

By Wayne Peters
This is not the first time the above headline appears in this forum. My predecessor, Penni Stewart, penned an article for the Bulletin with the same title in December 2009. While the headline was certainly true then, it is disturbingly more so today. We cannot ignore the troubling circumstances facing academic librarianship at our universities and colleges and the need for all academic staff to vigorously defend this integral part of the academy.

Professional academic librarianship has become prey to bean-counting managers who see technology not as a tool to enhance our institutions’ teaching, scholarship and research but as a money grab, even when it contributes to the de­struction of our libraries and aca­demic librarianship. At a time when we are flooded with streams of information coming at us in all forms and from all sources, it is extremely odd and contradictory that libra­rians would be deemed less than essential.

In her article, Penni cited a number of ways in which attacks on academic librarians occur. Their jobs are being deskilled, unbundled and, often, simply eliminated by library administrators. In the pro­cess, much of the work generally recognized as the responsibi­lity of professional academic libra­rians is being reassigned to lesser-trained staff or is being outsourced to external agents. There are attempts to devalue the specialized skills typically held by academic librarians and to treat them as “gen­eralists” in an effort to increase management flexibility within the organization.

Library administrators typically point to two motivations as rationale for this transformation. The first is the need to cut budgets. The second is the availability of new information technologies that can be used to transform how libraries operate. When challenged to move their institutions forward in this information-intensive age, administrators are generally quick to employ new technologies in pursuit of enhanced service offerings.

The troubling reality though is that the implementation of such technologies is almost always seen as providing desirable opportu­ni­ties to reduce budgets. To this end, ad­ministrators seize the chance to use technology to justify the widespread deskilling and unbun­dl­ing of professional academic librarian work.
This then allows them to either reassign work to lower-paid, non-academic librarian staff or eliminate tasks from academic librarians’ normal responsibilities. Either way, the end result is that our institutions end up with far fewer academic libra-rians on staff who are providing much less expert support to the institution’s teaching, scholarship and research and contributing much less of their own academic work to the greater academic good. For our institutions, though, the budget-cutting goal is accomplished.

Of course, both information and our libraries are evolving with technology but the fundamental principles which underpin professional academic librarianship remain the same; they transcend technology platforms. All information is for use. It must be made available to as many users as possible and with as few barriers as possible while saving the user time and effort. It must be
adaptable to new carriers and formats. It must be provided with an understanding of any bi­ases. And, in all of this, it is the work of academic librarians which helps describe, re­trieve and manage this information for the benefit of the academy.

It seems now that the discussions occupying library directors are more about using technology to fit corporate and marketing interests while aiming to increase traffic through library doors, yet ignoring the quality of service provided. The technology is driving the discussion to focus more on the packaging and delivery of the information than on the content, which is what academic librarians provide and, more important, what they understand.

This technology-over-librarians mentality ultimately has disastrous impacts on the quality of the academy. Academic librarians are integral to all of its teaching, scholarship and research, both in support of academic staff right across our campuses and in pursuit of their own teaching, scholarship and research efforts as trained academics.

Academic staff associations must work hard at the bargaining table to achieve language to protect academic librarianship. A critical piece of this is language that recognizes academic librarians as full members of the academy with all the rights and protections afforded to other academic staff colleagues. Associations must work even harder to de­fend this language at all times.

Most important, it is incumbent on every non-librarian, academic staff member to rethink how librarians are perceived and portrayed on our campuses. Do we see them as information agents whose sole role is to support our students and our work? Or do we see them as academics in their own regard who serve the academy as our colleagues?