I’ve been thinking about this topic in response to a couple of things I’ve read lately. One is this blog post by Meredith Farkas giving her thoughts about tenure after leaving the tenure track (along with numerous comments) and the other is a discussion on an ACRL listserv about whether College & Research Libraries should try to include more than the empirical research studies that seem to be the norm. Since I started drafting this post, Barbara Fister has also responded to Meredith.
In the interest of disclosure, I should note that I am not now nor have I ever been on a tenure track as such. The librarians at Princeton don’t have faculty status, although we do report to the Dean of the Faculty and we do have a three-tiered promotion structure and a tenure-like status called “continuing appointment.” However, while that process does reward publication, it does not require it. My previous professional librarian job had no faculty status, no promotional structure, and no tenure-like status. Not only have I never been on the tenure track, when starting out I deliberately avoided jobs where the librarians had faculty status and tenure requirements. I’d have taken one of those jobs in a pinch, but I definitely didn’t want one.
Meredith and others are debating the merits of having tenure and faculty status, and I’ve heard a few librarians over the years tell me I’d be better off with faculty status. Campus governance, respect from the faculty, etc. That’s possibly true, but I seem to have done okay without it. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever lacked the respect of the faculty members that I’ve come into contact with, even as a lowly librarian interacting with relative academic superstars. I can’t imagine the Princeton faculty members ever considering the librarians as equals to them professionally, but they do seem to consider us as capable professionals in our own right and I’ve yet to have an unpleasant or demeaning experience with any professor here.
For me, this is a sign that the librarian tenure debate might be affected by place. Perhaps there are institutions where a lack of faculty status would mean a lack of respect, or that a lack of participation in governance would harm the library or the librarians. There’s a lot to be said for faculty status, but I have found no reason to agree with the more diehard proponents that faculty status is always necessary for professional well being. There are a lot of librarians at good universities who don’t have it and don’t miss it. However, I also disagree with those who think tenure is always restrictive rather than liberating. That might also depend on place. While I didn’t write much prior to being granted continuing appointment, I didn’t hesitate to speak my mind or take risks at work if I thought the cause worthwhile. The prospect of being up or out in six years didn’t silence me, but I understand there might be institutions where librarians might feel they had to remain silent to keep their jobs.
I avoided such jobs mostly because of the publishing requirement. I don’t think it’s too immodest to say that writing and publishing themselves weren’t obstacles. While there are a lot of librarians who struggle with both, I haven’t been one of them. However, I knew the sort of empirical research studies that seem expected in jobs like that would be a struggle. I’m not trained to do them. I don’t want to be trained to do them. And I have no interest in writing and usually very little interest in reading them. In the C&RL discussion, someone mentioned librarians writing articles based on critical inquiry who feared for their tenure chances because they hadn’t cranked out social science studies. That was not going to be me. While a lack of tenure wouldn’t silence me, a requirement to publish social science research articles would have harmed me, either by forcing me to write stuff I didn’t like or by keeping me from publishing at all.
It’s a pity, because there are librarians out there writing some good stuff that doesn’t fit in with the empirical, quantitative social science model that seems to be the norm. I’ve seen historical, philosophical, or political writing about libraries and librarianship that’s pretty good, and often much more readable than most LIS writing, and if the tenure process serves to stymie such writing, then the library literature is better off without tenure. For that matter, the literature of most scholarly fields would probably improve if tenure wasn’t a publish-or-perish process.
The great thing about not being a faculty librarian on the tenure track and not having my work judged by empirical research ideologues is that I can publish whatever I want, and there are always places to publish. I once had a practical ethics article rejected from a conference proceeding because the reviewer claimed that such an “opinion piece” wasn’t appropriate for this scholarly book. That reviewer seemed not to know or care that there are scholarly genres other than the empirical research study, or that a lack of quantitative data doesn’t reduce arguments to “opinions.” The only thing that irked me at the time is that I’d been asked by the editor to take a brief conference presentation and write it up as an article. That was just as well, since I then published it in an open access journal where it would actually be read. I didn’t need the publication, but there’s no reason to waste a piece of decent writing.
I don’t think there’s much doubt that the social scientific empirical research study is considered the gold standard of library scholarly publishing. My question is, why? At least from practicing librarians, many of them are terrible. Even I, committed humanist that I am, can often spot the flaws in such research. Librarians typically don’t have the time or training to do these things well, and yet they’re expected to and probably wouldn’t publish so many if they weren’t. The average results speak for themselves.
The reason is possibly because that’s what LIS professors usually publish. As an academic enterprise, LIS professors seem long ago to have decided that library science is a social science and that social scientific research methods were the appropriate methods. Creating that norm makes it easier to unify a field of study and to evaluate research from other LIS professors. Because this is what they do, and these are the people who have the time and training to publish the most rigorous stuff, the publishing model has become the norm, with librarians trailing along behind trying to keep up while working 12-month contracts and usually not having PhDs in LIS or social science disciplines.
I, on the other hand, resist this ideology, because I believe that the “science” in library science doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as the “science” in social science. The science of library science depends upon an older 19th century meaning of science, something like an organized body of knowledge about a field. In that sense of science, library science is definitely a science, and a fairly well developed one. Thus, while there’s nothing wrong with engaging in social science research related to libraries, there’s also no reason why such research should define what sort of scholarly work about libraries is appropriate. Library Science might be a social science, but being a librarian is an art. There’s absolutely no reason that libraries can’t be approached in a humanistic manner. It’s just that most LIS professors aren’t humanists.
That seems to me to be a big divide in the profession. LIS professors are social scientists, but most people going to library school to be librarians are humanists. Plant someone like me in a job where I’m expected to publish social science research and it’s going to be pretty bad, plus I’m going to hate writing it. That’s a recipe for garbage research and misery that I wanted to avoid. Let me approach the profession rhetorically, philosophically, or even historically, and the results, although perhaps not outstanding, at least won’t be embarrassing.
Thus, in retrospect, I avoided faculty status and the tenure track not because I was afraid of research, or that I couldn’t write, but that so much LIS research is unnecessarily narrow, and the expectations for research are equally narrow. When LIS is unjustifiably defined as only a social science, when most LIS professors are social scientists, and when most of the leading journals in the field expect that sort of writing, that tells humanists like me that whatever scholarship I might produce is unwelcome, unvalued, and sometimes just plain misunderstood. The clear message for me as a library school student and then a new professional was that mainstream LIS scholarship was something I wanted nothing to do with and that wanted nothing to do with me.That was fine, because my experience, and I suspect I’m not alone here, is that most of that social science LIS research is largely irrelevant to my work or to my professional interests.
I have no problem with faculty status or tenure for librarians, but I also don’t consider it a necessity at every institution. The value might differ depending on circumstances. However, I am glad that there were good academic libraries where someone like me could write and publish what I wanted, rather than being constricted by the social science expectations of mainstream LIS publishing. If faculty status and tenure for librarians with expectations to publish social science research were universal, I’d probably be in another profession, which would be too bad for me because I’m pretty happy doing what I do.