Academic Librarians of the Night

In the past year, and I know it is not a new topic, there has been much discussion over involvement in ALA and other professional organizations and the myriad of reasons why speakers end up as speakers. Just a couple of days ago, the Liminal Librarian had some nice thoughts which promoted me to get this draft out of the not ready yet box. Dorothea, in writing about conferences recently, discussed the two types of conference speakers, people who get paid and people out for whuffie, name recognition of sorts.

The thing that always comes to my mind regarding speaking at conferences is something that Dorothea barely touches upon. There is the general complaint that many of the speakers are academic librarians, but we are the ones who have the most access to funding, though not always much, and we are the ones who have to have whuffie to pass our reviews, get tenure, and keep our jobs. This process makes academic librarians, in many cases, much like paid whores, only we do not get paid.

For many of us, we need a collection of things to pass tenure. We must be involved on a national level in something that enhances the profession. We must write meaningful things that other people will read and that are so profound, we might be asked to give an actual presentation down the line. We must also serve our home campus and library on mindless committees which suck the time out of your day and sometimes the life out of your job.

This is, of course, a very pessimistic view. Some academic librarians have it worse than others, the process tends to vary, but some aspect of the above items is needed to keep your job beyond about three years. This means that we are desperate to be asked to speak, to get our article published, and to get appointed to an ALA committee. Sometimes these things are easy, sometimes it is who you know, and sometimes you are just SOL. Thus we run around, begging for attention, essentially whoring ourselves out to anyone who will take us, so we can pass our reviews, keep our jobs, and put food on the table.

I am lucky and actually like the committee and interest group of which I am a member. I have been lucky enough to have some good opportunities come my way. The only thing I have left to do is sucker someone into letting me have a microphone for a small expanse of time. Karaoke anyone?

However, I still feel like I can not say no to things and that this pressure to perform leaves me with no bargaining power. How can I advocate in a meaningful way to be paid for my time when I am trying to procure something I need so badly I will do anything to get it. (well, within reason) I can not refuse speaking at ALA, TLA, or whatever if they will not pay me because I have to do it to keep my job. I have no power to assess myself worth and charge accordingly. Thus, I become a lady of the night with no limits and no economy will change my value, because I have none.

This is a hard reality for new librarians to face.

I am not saying that our tenure process sucks, but it does and not just for librarians. Any process by which you are promoted based largely on how many people recognize your name as opposed to how well you actually teach the next generation is a faulty system in my mind. In fact, my campus community just adopted this brilliant plan for evaluating professors. Can’t teach? Who cares!?

–Jane, I care

12 thoughts on “Academic Librarians of the Night

  • June 9, 2006 at 4:29 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m pouring a month’s time and energy into writing for publication and prepping a conference presentation — not because I long to be famous, or think my ideas are THAT original and groundbreaking — but because I have to. And I only hope that in doing so I have a positive impact on my community of professionals, but would I do it otherwise? Not this way, no. Not now. Not under this burden of responsibility.

    I’d love to contribute to my profession because I had the drive to do so, instead of the requirement that I do so.

    I think we should gather up all the cool kids and start our own library. ‘course, we’d probably have to pay each other in whuffie…

  • June 9, 2006 at 10:49 pm

    >This process makes academic librarians, in many cases, much like paid whores, only we do not get paid.

    So, we’re just screwed?

  • June 10, 2006 at 9:23 pm

    Thanks for your post. Just two observations. One – librarians are on the tenure track at only about 50% of academic institutions. There are many librarians at the other 50% who aren’t required to publish or present but do so because they enjoy conducting research, sharing ideas with colleagues, and forcing themselves to learn and master new skills. Two – while quite a bit of the publications in academic library journals suggest “written because I need to get tenure” research doesn’t have to be a grind (as it seems to be for Jenica). It can also be an opportunity to learn a new skill or master a new technology. For example, most of us have subject expertise. A research project could be conducted on some topic that forces one to conduct more analysis, deeper reading or exploring a new research methodology as part of the process of publishing or presenting. If you have to do research, might as well make it a learning experience and enhance your own value as a professional. These may not be incredibly original suggestions but perhaps it will put a more optimistic spin on what seems like a depressing discussion. Perhaps that’s one of the big differences between academic librarians on the tenure track and those who aren’t when it comes to publication and presentation. I’ve never been on the tenure track and for me publishing and presenting has always been a challenge and a reward in and of itself – no pay needed (although I do accept honorariums when offered). It has never seemed like a grind or noose around the neck. But then – I could stop anytime I want. I would like to see the definitions of scholarship broadened for academic librarians. Why not value a blog. I’d like to think more librarians will benefit from this blog than a research article in a journal that not likely to get read by many librarians.

  • June 12, 2006 at 8:39 am

    I could not agree more. I feel lucky that I have been able to pursue things that I like and have them count towards my review process. That being said, this space does not contribute towards my review, but my involvement with LITA Blog does. I think that some libraries have a broader definition of scholarship and for that I am grateful.

    I hate being told what to do sometimes and that part of me grinds under this system. I guess what I am really advocating for is a bit more flexibility, as you have suggested.

    It also irks me that conferences are so darn expensive to attend. I want to be compensated in some way if I am contributing to the conference. I know that this is a wish I may never see fulfilled in ALA, but I can dream.

  • June 12, 2006 at 8:58 am

    As Jane’s husband and financial backer I have to say that I wouldn’t mind a little compensation for her attending these conferences. Especially since her job requires her to do it.

  • June 13, 2006 at 11:27 am

    It’s not as simple as tenure-track or not. At MPOW we’re being told we have to publish more even though we’re not tenure-track.

    Whether that mandate is going to stick is another question entirely, of course…

  • June 13, 2006 at 4:43 pm

    I work at a non-tenure track institution and we don’t *have* to publish and/ or present per se. But a part of our evaluation is based on service and professional development. We get points for doing stuff like going to a conference, publishing a paper, working with a community organization. Then said points are added up and factored into our final eval score.

    I do what speaking and such that I do because I like it and like to make my, albeit tiny, contribution to the profession. But our situation does make it easy to seem like a (poorly paid) point whore.

  • June 13, 2006 at 4:52 pm

    I looked at your comment and the first time I read “…factored into our final eval score” I read:

    “factored into our final EVIL score”

    Librarians, we are evil.

  • June 14, 2006 at 12:21 am

    Jane, I can remember being a new librarian and scrambling to get on ALA committees (which I did) and what-not to gather “whuffie” (that’s a new term for me). I soon learned that although those initial experiences were better than I could ever hope to have again, they weren’t where I could make the best contribution. I found a niche that worked for me, and that has factored into actually making a decent income on the side (Mr. Rochester, pay attention). So I encourage you to hang in there, and to seek out the niche that you can uniquely fill. I have confidence you can, since you are articulate and have something useful to say. That’s almost the entire battle. Now take it into journal or magazine articles, books, and other modes of communication and before long you’ll be getting paid speaking gigs.

  • Pingback:ACRLog » Blog Archive » Tenure-Driven Publication And Presenting Need Not Be A Grind

  • June 14, 2006 at 8:59 am

    Jane – I had to 2x check to make sure I didn’t type “evil”! And they could definitely be used interchangable. Our evals are certainly evil.

  • June 14, 2006 at 5:18 pm

    I’m with Steven, in that I’m not on the tenure track, and generally able to do what I want when it comes to professional activities. Which makes me much less stressed about it, and makes the activities themselves more fun (though Jane’s comment over on ARCLog about what happens when it is time to look for another job gave me pause).

    Dave’s point system creeps me out. “Sorry Dave, you are five points shy of your merit pay raise; looks like you shouldn’t have turned down that nomination to the holiday party white elephant committee.” Or, worse, “Sorry, Dave, but Sue has ten more points than you this year, so your new office is the broom closet.” Though the point system is more in line with Doctorow’s whuffie, as presented in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, where everyone is very conscious of everyone else’s standing.

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