Deepening the Conversation

thinking about questions of authority, technology, learning, and 2.0 in academic libraries

would tenure pressures in public libraries make good changes?


This started out as a response to a comment in the comments (thanks for the inspiration Laura!) but went so far off track from the original post that I decided it deserved it’s own post.

Laura and I were discussing cataloging of genre fiction series, especially burdensome to public libraries. While I am a librarian, when it comes to public libraries, I am a consumer, a patron, a supporter, a friend. Definitely not very familiar with the inner workings and struggles of public libraries

So, as a librarian but not a public librarian, I am often surprised at the ways that public libraries have not apparently grappled effectively with the challenges posed by fiction, series fiction and especially genre fiction. This has often led me to consider that tenure — with it’s emphasis on research and thus innovation — may be better for the profession than I might always otherwise think.  In this case, would tenure pressures in public libraries have led to better grappling with these cataloging issues (and let’s not talk about the role of, say, cataloging professors in LIS programs and the roles they could or whould or ought to take in this kind of process. Let’s just not, and say we’ve washed our hands.)

To make clear my assumption here: since public librarians are not pushed to produce in the same ways that tenure track academic librarians are pushed, little time, space, resources are provided to resolving thorny issues in public librarianship. Or so it seems?

What do you think? off the mark completely?

also, I am a fan of being faculty (and will fight for it if challenged). I will produce and be professionally active whether required to or not, it’s my nature. But I do think, from time to time, about whether tenure track pressures best serve the profession, or do not. This should be no surprise to my readers, who probably have noted that I tend towards philosophizing, and find the oddest things to be sources of contemplation.


20 thoughts on “would tenure pressures in public libraries make good changes?

  1. I worked briefly in my public library when I was in high school, and have been in academe ever since. I’ll tell you what, though, if you want public librarians to deal with tenure issues AND the guy wearing nothing under his trenchcoat (and the homeless stinky dude, and the crazy screaming lady who thinks the Dell computer got her pregnant…), then they’re going to need to re-evaluate the payscale…

  2. heh. There are good reasons I am not a public librarians. Top of the list: there is not enough money in the world to make me want to make the things you say an unremarkable everyday part of my job!

    The payscale is already criminal!

    But what I was trying to suggest is that maybe pressure towards research and supporting the process of creating innovative solutions may make the work easier, may lessen some of the some burden? In ways that are not currently supported by processes in place?

  3. I don’t know that having tenure for public libraries would solve the problem, which I think is largely a matter of lack of time and money.

    Who would be covered by tenure in a public library? A large urban system might have multiple degreed librarians on staff, but a rural system such as mine has very few, and collection development gets done by a lot of different people. And many of those people have been around and working in libraries (and collecting genre fiction series) far longer than I have and are, consequently, in some ways better than I am at it.

    I think that cataloging issues for things like series fiction are also in large part — like everything else, it seem — due to the inadequacy of our ILSs and catalogs. Well, that and, again, time and money and availability.

  4. Also consider that many catalogers in PLs are not professional staff/MLSs and that a lot of PLs, by choice, mostly do copy cataloging. (Happy to report that our TS staff does a great job of making our records more useful to patrons.) Would you advocate tenure for ref staff? If so, what would our product be?

  5. I think I was mostly positing on how pressure to innovate brings about a lot of changes in academic libraries that maybe are not as present in public libraries. And I was thinking abotu how the tenure/produce to promote model drives that in the academic environment. I wasn’t putting out a fully formed plan, and you guys are right — there’s a lot of other variables I didn’t address.

    A lot of academic librarians complain that they don’t have time to produce scholarly work in the way they might be expected to be, and I’m not saying you are wrong. Public libraries are not in any way staffed to take on the kind of research that even the least strenuous tenure process would require. Obviously, any sort of change with an emphasis towards more innovation, less just making magic out of never enough, would involve different staffing models, and funding would have to change, just as a start.

    And, in no way was I saying that I think public librarians don’t do great work — they do amazing work in really difficult circumstances! I was just pondering where academic libraries might be without the forces of tenure. Would we be more focused on getting the essentials done? What kinds of tools and innovations would we be suffering without if we weren’t pressured by the need to implement research projects and publish their efficacy?

  6. having to fight for tenure in public libraries sounds like a plan to me. but then i remember all the tenured academic folks i know who gave up and stagnated after they got tenure…

  7. Even if public librarians had the pressure via tenure, there still would be no worthwhile innovation going on. Public libraries simply do not have the same access to research dollars and other resources that Academic libraries do.

    Also, libraries do have pressure to innovate, it’s just more on the ground and community-focussed rather than catalogue based.

    Then again, we are also just too dang busy trying to keep the stuff that people want available in our collections.

  8. Your tenure system must be more effective than the one I recently left. All but the four junior faculty members were tenured, and I don’t think an ounce of innovation or forward thinking occurred among the tenured folks, unless it involved ways to increase their salaries, decrease their responsibilities, or both.

  9. Anna,
    I have been known to be a bit of an idealist! And, I’m not saying the tenure system is a universally good thing here. But the subject and fiction-series cataloging um, absences, got me wondering if it would be different if academics were faced with those kinds of problems, and if so, why? The tenure process seemed to be a likely impetus. Staffing and funding models rose to the top as the comment conversation developed as perhaps equally likely reasons any such complications are generally solved within academic library workflows.

    But I think you nailed a big bonus and problem with the tenure system in general: all those tenure track folk are working and innovating and generally taking on leadership and GSD — which is an excellent thing. But the overall percent of tenured faculty librarians moving and shaking would appear to be negatively impacted by the receipt of tenure. Not true everywhere, but true in many many places.

  10. OK. I’ll say it and get myself in trouble. Ever notice that the people starting and chiming on the Library 2.0 stuff were predominantly public librarians (or came from a public librarian past)? Jenny Levine, Michael Stephens, Michael Casey, Jessamyn West, Helene Blowers etc. etc. etc.. Public libraries are very innovative and tenure (IMHO) would completely muck things up.

    The bottom line on genre fiction catalogue issues has less to do with innovation and more to do with lack of coding/design infrastructure. It’s very difficult for public libraries to say “we want to spend 150,000 more dollars to hire some programmer/designers to update our website.” That message would be threatening to a city council (they want to have a marketing powerhouse, so they can influence public opinion about the budget? no way!). Conversely, it’s much easier to say “we want to increase library hours in a neighbourhood” or “hire staff to engage teens.” That’s why so much more is pumped into branches than web innovation.

  11. Ryan, not troublemaking at all– you’re completely spot on. I had forgotten about how much of the 2.0 clamor was from public libraries (and how much that irked me for a long time — I’ve apparently gotten so over that not that I had forgotten!)

    I hope no one was hearing me say Public libraries are not innovative! I was pondering why some of the “big” infrastructure issues that relate more to Public than Academic libraries have not been resolved yet. And wondering if Academic libraries had similar in the past, and tenure was an engine towards resolving them.

    I accept that (1) my ponderings were ill worded, and perhaps ill conceived, and (2) there are better answers to the question of why.

  12. The issues I have with librarian tenure (after almost 10 years as a public library professional) are as follows:

    1) I have no intention of staying at the same library system for more than 3-5 years at a stretch. There’s a whole caste of mercenary public librarians who have to job-jump at the best offer whenever possible. Having to compete with even more entrenched interests would be unnecessary, especially if I were leaving after 2 or 3 years.

    2) ‘Library Research’ is regarded by my peers (defined as public librarians ages 22-32) as mostly a joke. My first question for all of the new professionals who visit my department is ‘What did you hate about Library School.” The answers I get are hilarious and unprintable in most forums. We all agree that the best education we received in our Master’s programs was from adjunct faculty and local library directors.

    The ever-changing nature of the public library environment awards experimentation and quick, budget-based thinking. We do not have the luxury of time.

    3) Many public librarians avoided academic libraries for precisely the reasons you listed as strengths. I don’t want to do research, start petty battles over titles and stature in an institution, or become entrenched in an institution. I thrive in the dynamism of the public library.

  13. Yes, there is innovation in public libraries–but it does tend to be in the area of public services, not cataloging. Hey, Maricopa Co. is doing away w/ Dewey completely. That may be innovation, but it also may not address structure of information issues. Do issues w/ quality of genre cataloging lie w/ individual public libraries or rather w/ other institutions? I don’t know of a single public library that does original cataloging of genre fiction–they’re using CIP data; does responsibility lie w/ LOC?
    The other issue is that for academic librarians, their peers within the parent institution are professors (or so they assert). Many public libraries are part of municipal governments; who then are their peers? City planners, public health nurses, street engineers–tenure is a completely foreign concept in those fields. City Human Resources departments have the legal obligation to treat employees in all departments equally; you can’t impose a standard to retain one’s position in one department that isn’t equally applied in another.

  14. Great conversation here. I won’t go over the many good points about innovation in public libraries or tenure for public librarians. I think librarians who are dedicated to their communities will be innovative. Furthermore, there is just as much dead wood in academic than in public.

    To the original point, genre classification is an art not a science. This author has written Romantic Suspense, is it a romance, or does it go into Action Suspense Horror? She has also written mysties, do you break the author up so it is in the right genre? What is the disservice to the author if you cannot find all of their work, especially if you love their writing no matter what the genre? Is this a system, technological, or tenure problem? No, it is the overcomplication of a simple question and it is all based on local interpretation (or if you are a copy cataloger, don’t care).

  15. Why expect the public librarians to do this kind of research? You would think that there would be some LIS faculty members who would want to do research that would have direct impact on the kind of facilities where many–if not most–of their graduates end up working. By doing so, their research could really be used to enhance the classroom learning experience of their students. Not that eye movement/screen studies and retrieval algorythms aren’t useful, but it could be argued that this type of research is a bit more removed from the everyday challenges faced by the profession–and some of those everyday challenges are worthy of being investigated, too.

    Just my personal two-cents’ worth.

  16. “little time, space, resources are provided to resolving thorny issues in public librarianship.”

    You said it.

    Larger systems may have some resources for their upper level staff to deal with some of those issues, but really, we’re there to serve the public and that takes up most of (if not all of) our time, space and resources.

  17. See, I really liked the idea of tenure in public libraries. I already see librarians who have one foot in retirement land who are already stagnant – maybe they would finally be required to do something other than coast along with tenure-type responsibilities. I suppose I would say that a promotional track could be developed – something that says you want to be a Lib II, why don’t you prove you’re worth it rather than just base it on seniority? Of course, this really isn’t too feasible with the economy the way it is. Public librarians are over-worked, under-paid and dealing with, well, the guy with nothing on under the trench coat. However, I’d like to see something, anything to kind of shake up the old guard a little. That’d be pretty nice and fantastically interesting.

  18. I don’t like the pressures that a tenure track position brings and that’s a large reason why I chose the public library route. I would be constantly worried about whether or not I would be awarded tenure for my accomplishments and the worry would make my position less enjoyable and fulfilling. I want to publish because I’m inspired to do so, because I have something that I think is worth saying to the library community. I don’t want to publish to meet some quota or because I’m required to. I think the quality of what’s published would also suffer if people were publishing because its required of them rather than because they genuinely want to.

  19. Boy am I late to this party…

    I was talking with a public library director at a conference and we were both noting the main means toward higher pay in public libraries was management. She said there should be a category of master librarian for damn good, but non-management, librarians.

    Obviously, being a non-management librarian, I liked the idea.

    I would think hard-research and problem solving of this sort would be among the means of attaining this title and better pay she envisioned.

  20. Boy do I love #19 just above – I am a damn good, non-management librarian. I was a branch manager at one point, but this is NOT a good time to be in “management” at my particular library. I would love to take on longer projects and have more time to gaze at my navel. How many hours a week do academic librarians work on the reference or other public desk? And as for “funding models would have to change” – good luck. We’re just happy there is funding. So what are academic librarians doing when they are not “more focused on getting the essentials done”? Aren’t the essentials supposed to come first?

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