Working in the University

Libraries and their leaders often focus inward on library issues and to have stronger connections with professional library associations than within their own college or university communities.  This was never optimum and it is no longer possible, if the library is to really serve its institution.

Historically, a faculty library committee has been the connection between the library and the rest of the campus.  I have found this far less effective than it is imagined to be.  Such committees pay close attention when budgets are being cut or when library leadership is questionable.  But maintaining useful interaction in ordinary times is difficult.  Often serving on the library committee is the least desirable of “service” for faculty.  The powerful faculty who would best serve the library have the least time and don’t want to be bothered in good times. 

My provost and I discussed this issue at length over the years we worked together.  We settled on – in trying times – appointing an ad hoc committee of powerful faculty to address the issues at hand.  The rest of the time, we would do without such a committee.  Instead, during ordinary times, I would use my ex officio position on the faculty senate council to keep key faculty up-to-date on library issues.  It was through my position on the council that I was able to get an open access task force established and a policy drafted and passed by the full faculty senate. 

Big data, digital humanities, and open access publishing are (according to the Chronicle of Higher Education) among the top digital issues for campuses.  Each of these has opportunity for libraries.  Librarians should be using their interactions at all levels of the institution to educate faculty about our knowledge of those issues and our ability to contribute significantly. 

Making Connections at the Top

As the new library director I found it easy easy to lay the groundwork for on-going relationships.  Senior administrators and senior faculty are eager to find out who you are, and some of this interest can be turned into enduring one-on-one relationships.  Making personal connections, doing your homework on each person you meet, asking them about their goals and challenges are good beginnings for an on-going relationship.   Getting each person past their limited view of librarians is essential; coming across as someone with broad interests opens doors for both casual and serious interaction.

I’m always interested in hearing about problems – by asking issues people had with the library or what they’d like us to do that we haven’t, I set a climate where honest expression of grievances is welcome.  In my first year I made one very good friend and ally accidentally.  When I ran into a professor at a grade school function, he mentioned in passing that the second volume of a French classic was missing, I had it replaced and had him notified. 

I’ve tried to get included in groups that meet regularly.  Some have paid off, some haven’t.  This is easier with administrators than with academic deans.  I’ve done both.  Although the connection with academic deans seems to most likely, their issues turn out to be tuition, enrollment, tenure, and faculty recruitment.  And their issues are more tied to the academic calendar than major library concerns.  If librarians at your institutions have faculty status, then they should be included in faculty committees.  But the library leader, even if called dean, has issues very different from the academic deans.  Scholarly publishing and intellectual property issues need faculty input, but are anathema to deans.  These two particularly are issues the deans consider the purview of faculty and not to be dictated by deans. 

I had hoped that when I became a director, I could avoid the surprise of new faculty being hired in subjects for which we lack library resources.  Some of these surprises can be avoided, by listening carefully and reading the fine print in university, school, and department statements and plans.  But I learned that sometimes, the posting for a faculty position is so broad that the applicants might be from three different specialties.  The most impressive may be hired and be the one for which there are few library resources. 

Financial Relations:  We library directors are managers of large-scale organizations and have issues in common with the institution’s financial management and campus computing.  Good relations with senior university financial managers are essential.  Library budgets are so unlike others that spending time building close ties to university finance staff is essential.  You need to convey that the costs of the information content are irrational and have little to do with ordinary inflation or cost-of-living increases.  And, you must convey the drawbacks of paying for books and journals in even installments over the fiscal year.  Most accountants want to see expenditures spread out evenly over the year; they get upset when they see eighty percent of a budget line expended in the second month of the fiscal year.  Every time there are changes in university accounting staff, you have to do educate them anew. 

Computing:  In several institutions, I’ve had close ties with senior leaders of the university computing organization.  And my library technology staff have built parallel connections with their counterparts for big-picture planning and for day-to-day operations.   Networks, standards, data management, and student and faculty support are areas for constant collaboration.

Human Resources:  The size of the library and its tendency to follow standard practices results in its often being the testing site for new human resources systems.  Establishing and following standards and rules is core to our nature as librarians.  So we are trusted to give new systems a thorough test and to provide frank and honest feedback.  Having that trust from human resources serves you well when you need to get approval for reorganizations, position upgrades or eliminations, and totally new positions.  And we do that often in these fast-changing times.

Parallel Connections with Teaching and Research 

When I was a young librarian, using the library meant going there.  The journals, the books, the indices and abstracts were all in the physical library.  So for librarians, simply being in the library and visible enabled us to keep in touch with our users.  But face to face contact with our library’s users has been almost eliminated by our advances in delivering both services and content to the users’ electronic devices.  Reference librarians’ pain at the loss of their walk-in customers is fresh.  Library leaders had to help these staff accept this reality and define new strategies to reach our users and find ways to make sure they were getting the best out of what we make available.

We had challenges.  One was to define what our users needed that was not being provided online.  The second was to make sure our staff had the skills and resources for active rather than reactive service.  But an overarching challenge – especially in a research institution – is to convey to faculty what knowledge we have of their disciplines.  Faculty recognize that we are not they – creators of new knowledge in their disciplines.  But they are not aware of our expertise:  is about how knowledge in their discipline is structured, published, archived, and accessed.  We know where the odd resources are and the keys to them.  And, we have built the technological and human connections for accessing those resources. 

The numbers of librarians (the majority) who are introverts make reaching out uncomfortable.  Library leaders need to accept that many staff need help building the skills required for everyone to be comfortable in unfamiliar situations.  Create workshops that share research on communication and engender discussion. Then provide role-playing practice for approaching strangers, entering into ongoing small group discussion, gracefully moving on from such a group, and making other people comfortable.  The library‘s or the institution’s human resources staff can create such workshops.  Or turn to your local professional organization to create and offer such workshops for your region.  We called our workshop Working the Room, or Breaking and Entering. It was picked up by one of our regional service providers and provided statewide.


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