Serve the Servants: Do Academic Librarians Serve Faculty or Do We Have Some “Higher” Calling?

Many faculty members complain that their students treat them as though education were on a service model: I (the student) paid for a product (my education) and you (the professor) are here to serve me. So, serve me!

Quite understandably, we might think, many faculty don’t like this. They believe that educators have a higher calling than to serve in a capitalistic sense. What is this higher calling?  To teach students to think critically. To get them curious about the pursuit of truth. You know, to educate.

This is interesting, I think, when we think, as academic librarians, about our working relationships with faculty. Many of us are “liaisons” to various departments (for example, I’m the “philosophy librarian” at my university). Some of our roles are more nebulous, such as “information literacy coordination” or “Undergraduate Success Librarian”, where we’re often working with large first year courses in, say, English or Communication. What’s interesting about these working relationships (as opposed to, say, semester-long librarian-led information literacy courses) is that librarians are, in some vague sense, dependent on these faculty.

One reason for this, of course, is that we “serve” the research needs of students and faculty in these areas. For example, if faculty need books, we order them, and if students or faculty need assistance with research, we help them. It’s our job and it’s pretty much as it should be.

Things start to get more difficult when we think, as I and many others do, that our job is to teach information literacy, and that one really good way to do that is to embed our instruction within specific course research. I think about this a lot, because I think that one difficulty that comes up in practice is that there’s librarians who have a strictly “service” oriented approach to working with faculty: (a) if it wasn’t requested by a faculty member, it’s not their job to teach it, and  on the other hand (b) if it was requested by a faculty member, it’s not our job to suggest something else.

I see this all the time during questions I’ve gotten when presenting in various platforms and I don’t believe in either premise, yet I continue to see both (a) and (b) having an enormous impact on our work as librarians. It’s really led me to believe that our self-concept has a huge impact on whether we’re serving our students’ best interests. And this is the important thing.

Let’s just take the simplest example of that.

Suppose a faculty member requests that you show their students “the databases.” “Just show them the databases and how to cite stuff.” No assignment, that’s the request.

Now, we know that this is bad practice: if our goal is to teach information literacy, this doesn’t even come close to providing students with the deep critical skills we can offer them that will facilitate their ability to interpret the world around them. And it’s not even an effective way to teach databases. What the students will probably end up learning is that the library is boring.  I don’t blame them.

I realize that I take for granted many librarians having the professional self-esteem to suggest things like “I’m happy to offer your class instruction! Is there some kind of research assignment in the class that the students have? We could focus the session on the skills they’ll need to complete their assignment. I’ve found that students really find this valuable.” (Or whatever). But I’ve never personally had a faculty member object to something like that. Nor has any librarian I’ve ever known who has tried.

Now, of course, most requests will be more sensible than the example I gave. But I think it’s important to remember when thinking about such requests that adopting a servant mindset puts us in a bad position as educators. Librarians, as knowledge brokers, do inhabit a somewhat strange and unique position in the academy, in the sense that many of us don’t have our “own” classes. I think this is a large part of the servant mindset. As my friend Alex Carroll recently put it to me, it can create, in many librarians, a real need to be liked by faculty: “If I suggest other things they won’t like me, and if they don’t like me they won’t invite me to their class.” I think that probably both those claims are false. I have no idea what any faculty member on my campus feels about me personally but many certainly seem willing to work with me, and I suspect the reason is that they must think something I’m doing is important for their students to know.

That, I think, is the “higher calling” of librarians: to serve your students’ interests as an educator. This isn’t to say that you don’t collaborate with faculty in the best possible sense as a colleague. Of course you do. That should be too obvious to be mentioned. But I think we should think less about “serving” faculty  and think more like educators and faculty about how we can help students develop information literacy skills. If we do that in the same way that other faculty think about teaching their subjects, the rest will follow. The importance of information literacy will be self-evident.

Like Drake says: “Know yourself, know your worth.”



Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel, The Library Game

2 responses to “Serve the Servants: Do Academic Librarians Serve Faculty or Do We Have Some “Higher” Calling?

  1. Great post; I agree completely. I think that even with the least sensible of requests, librarians can take a positive mindset and turn it into a good session. At times it might involve a bit of creative interpretation.

    For example, take that request to “just show us the databases.” We could either hear “show us which buttons to click in these two databases” or “show us the deeper structure and core features of all academic databases so we can apply that knowledge to new situations.” As you say, I don’t think any faculty members would object to the more valuable lesson.

    I also think that in many cases they might not know exactly what to request in a session. I think we as librarians can do better at communicating the types of sessions we offer and how students will benefit. Most of us have information literacy faculty pages or even instruction menus, but the challenge is preventing it from becoming a long wall of text that no faculty are actually going to read. And in many cases (especially colleges with a high percentage of adjunct faculty) it’s tough to get that message out to them.

    • Kevin Michael Klipfel

      Andrew, thanks for your great comment. I really like the way you refer to us inserting our expertise as librarians to determine the nature of a request as “creative interpretation.” I think this is something I often do. For example, in an e-mail in response to a request, I might say something like “Given where the students are at in the research process and the research skills they’ll need to successfully complete the assignment, it might be useful to focus on …. e.g., [developing an inquiry question from a broad interest] …[learning to think about information as evidence], and so forth. Here are a couple things we might do related to [developing a research question.] What do you think?” This relates, too, to your second point. It reminds me, in a way, of standard reference transactions, where we take it for granted that we’ll need to reinterpret the patron’s request in some way because they might not be quite sure what they need.

      Also, the adjunct thing is something that has been coming up for me personally, in my own work, and I’ve had several people ask about it during presentations. It seems like it’s become a challenge many librarians in academic institutions are increasingly facing. It is, in effect, creating a process where we as librarians may have a harder time getting a concrete foothold (I suspect this is especially true for instruction librarians who work largely with first year programs) within a department, and instead are trying to reintroduce our information literacy programs to an ever-changing cast of characters.

      It’s one reason I’ve taken it to be really important to have a website which states pretty clearly, “These are some concrete ways our program can help you with some of the research problems your students face.” It’s so much better, I think, than just saying “We can help your students with research!” because we then get to define in a robust way what “helping your students with research” means. Even if we have buy-in from the coordinators of those programs, it’s nice to be able to have something concrete to show people teaching in the program.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment!

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