Librarians Remind Faculty that Academic Freedom is a Labor Issue

tags: libraries, academic freedom

Danya Leebaw is the director of the social sciences department at the University of Minnesota Libraries. She previously worked as a liaison librarian at Carleton College and Emory University. Her research focuses on workplace conditions for academic librarians through a critical theoretical lens, and she had published and presented on academic freedom for academic librarians since 2017.

Academic librarians don’t quite fit in. We move within two professional spheres that overlap but also have their own distinct concerns and values. Librarians are deeply embedded within higher education institutions, and some of us are like traditional faculty members in having tenure, research obligations, and teaching roles. Many academic librarians, however, lack faculty status and are lumped together with a wide range of staff who work on campus. Beyond the academy, we learn and associate with librarians from all kinds of places—the public library, the school media center, the archive, the special collection. Notably, a bedrock principle shared across all library types is intellectual freedom, considered by the United Nations to be a fundamental human right—an umbrella concept that is broader than, but includes, academic freedom.

Over the years, academic librarians have sought faculty status and tenure in order to obtain the strongest possible academic freedom protections, economic security, and workplace respect. The Association of College and Research Libraries, the Association of American Colleges (now the American Association of Colleges and Universities), and the AAUP first issued a joint statement more than fifty years ago calling for academic librarians whose work “requires them to function essentially as part of the faculty” to have faculty status with eligibility for tenure and academic freedom protections. Why do academic librarians need academic freedom? An obvious reason is that we must be able to use our expertise to build collections for our campuses, without interference. But librarians also need academic freedom to perform all sorts of other work, especially given how often our responsibilities involve controversial topics and information: teaching students, answering reference questions, creating exhibits about library materials, developing catalog entries so that materials are findable, and much more. Librarians’ work is essential to the academic mission and also often comes under scrutiny from administrators, faculty colleagues, and the public.

In this special issue on libraries and librarians, authors explore the concept of intellectual freedom and its complicated relationship to academic freedom as well as the status of librarians on their campuses. They frame these topics within our current context of academic labor precarity, far-right and state-sponsored censorship, neoliberalism, and—of course—a global pandemic. In studying the particular conditions of libraries within academia, the authors in this issue surface many larger truths applicable to the whole.

For example, examining the status of librarians on their campuses offers larger insights into academic employment, campus hierarchies, and working conditions. Two articles in this issue explore the position of librarians on their campuses and consider the broader implications of librarians’ status. In the view of Joshua Kim and Edward Maloney, librarians have achieved an enviable centrality and earned enduring respect in higher education, which they see as a model for their own field of learning innovation. Librarians are guided by deeply rooted professional values—including intellectual and academic freedom—that have solidified their campus roles. But in practice, this isn’t always the experience of librarians—at the University of Virginia, for example, librarians’ roles have been anything but solid. Keith Weimer’s case study explores how UVA cycled through a variety of faculty and faculty-like statuses for its librarians in recent years, signaling the potential impermanence of job classifications and offering key takeaways for librarians experiencing this uncertainty on their own campuses.

Read entire article at Academe

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