Academic Librarians as Knowledge Creators

Donna Witek
Associate Professor and Public Services Librarian
The University of Scranton


Despite support from national organizations like the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), pursuing research and scholarship remains a challenge for academic librarians, even when the literature connects these activities to greater effectiveness in the practice of academic librarianship. This essay examines the history and present state of the questions of faculty status and tenure for librarians, and relates these questions to that of performing scholarly research and creating and disseminating new knowledge as an academic librarian. It then offers as a case study my experience identifying and pursuing a research agenda in collaboration with a faculty colleague in another department at my institution, with the goal of both sharing what has worked for one academic librarian (n=1) while also critiquing the system within which that success has occurred. The essay concludes with a list of creative strategies academic librarians can put into practice to become successful knowledge creators in the field of library and information science.

Keywords: academic librarians, faculty status, tenure, scholarly publishing, library research, library and information science, collaboration, information literacy, social media



Earlier this year, Meredith Farkas published a post to her blog titled, “On tenure, after three years on the tenure track” (2014, July 23). The post is a critique of tenure for librarians in which Farkas argues that having access to tenure does not guarantee that the experience of producing scholarship will always be an enriching one. The post also addresses faculty status for librarians, which is a separate but related question to that of tenure for librarians—one can have faculty status but not have access to tenure. In Farkas’ experience working both on and off the tenure track, and in both cases with faculty status, she concludes that having faculty status but not tenure is the most supportive and academically free environment for producing scholarship.

And yet, one of the purposes of tenure is to protect academic freedom for those who have received it (1940 Statement of principles, 1990). A possible explanation for the difference between Farkas’ experience and the experience associated with the ideal of tenure is the fact that Farkas’ experience in a tenure-granting academic library is limited to the five- to seven-year probationary period prior to receiving tenure—a period which is typically rigorous in its expectations for scholarly activity, even as each institution defines and situates the idea of “rigor” within the unique culture of each tenure-granting institution. This makes the question of whether tenure for librarians achieves its intended goals of enabling scholarship and protecting academic freedom a complicated one to address, since there is a clear divide between working on the probationary tenure track and having received tenure and the protections it provides.

Farkas’ post sparked an online public discussion among academic librarians that sought to explore, parse, and better understand the relationship between tenure, faculty status, and the academic librarian’s ability to produce scholarship in the field (Tenure discussion, Farkas, 2014). There was quite a bit of variation in personal experiences with these related questions, and a surprising lack of systematic research seeking to better understand these questions beyond the personal anecdotes librarians both with and without tenure and/or faculty status offered within the context of this important, complex public discussion.


Despite this apparent lack of systemic evidence, both the library literature and the standards and guidelines of national organizations with stakes in these questions do offer analyses of and perspectives on the academic librarian’s professional role, and how this role relates to both faculty status and tenure on the one hand, and the librarian’s ability to produce scholarship on the other.

A Look at the Literature

The professional association for academic librarians in the United States, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), first spoke out in support of faculty status for librarians in 1971 (Standards for faculty status for college and university librarians, 1974). The standards adopted by the ACRL membership at that time include a description of the academic librarian as one who “[through] his own research into the information process and through bibliographic and other studies . . . adds to the sum of knowledge in the field of library practice and information science” (p.112). Here is a statement from the ACRL dating back over forty years in which the academic librarian is described as a creator of knowledge; furthermore, this activity of creating knowledge is in turn tied explicitly to faculty status.

Two years later the ACRL produced a set of criteria and procedures for appointment, promotion, and tenure of academic librarians (Model statement, 1973), a document which was revised in 1987 and completely reworked and updated in 2010 (Guideline for the appointment, 2010). It argues that “utilizing these criteria and procedures will insure that the library faculty and, therefore, library services will be of the highest quality possible” (Guideline for the appointment, 2010). This statement connects both promotion and tenure of academic librarians to high quality library services, at least insofar as the quality of services can be gauged by the quality of the librarians providing them—a strong endorsement for tenure for librarians coming from the profession’s national organization, just two years after its similar endorsement for faculty status. Significant to this discussion is the fact that both of these ACRL documents, the “Standards for Faculty Status for College and University Librarians” (1974) and the “Guideline for the Appointment, Promotion and Tenure of Academic Librarians” (2010), describe performing scholarly research and creating and disseminating new knowledge from that research—activities that characterize the traditional faculty role—as essential to the academic librarian’s professional performance.

Additional support of faculty status for librarians came from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1973 when that organization’s Council adopted the “Joint Statement on Faculty Status of College and University Librarians” (2012), first endorsed by the ACRL in 1972. This “Joint Statement” (2012) argues that because academic librarians teach by “impart[ing] knowledge and skills to students and faculty members both formally and informally,” research by “contribut[ing] to the advancement of knowledge valuable to their discipline and institution,” and serve by “engaging in meaningful service and outreach to their profession and local communities” and on “campus-wide committees,” academic librarians are required to “function essentially as part of the faculty.” The “Joint Statement” (2012) goes on to say that participation in these three processes—teaching, research, and service—is the “essential criterion of faculty status.” By connecting these processes to the academic librarian’s job function, the “Joint Statement” (2012) is a valuable contribution to the discussion of the relationship between the academic librarian and performing in all three areas of faculty responsibility, including that of research and scholarly activity. The “Joint Statement” (2012) was revised by members of ACRL and AAUP in June 2012 and the revision was approved by the ACRL Board of Directors in October 2012.

Despite support for faculty status for librarians from both the ACRL and the AAUP, the reality is that not every institution grants faculty status to its librarians to the extent endorsed by these two organizations—a circumstance that has effects on the academic librarian’s ability to do research and produce scholarship, as the literature will show. Bolin (2008) has created a “librarian status typology” (p.418) that accurately describes the continuum of librarian status types in institutions of higher education in the United States. This typology incorporates both faculty status and access to tenure in its proposed status types, making it a helpful schema to consider when parsing out the separate and interrelated relationships between faculty status, tenure, and the ability to produce scholarship. The four status types in Bolin’s typology (2008) are:

  1. Faculty: Professorial ranks [1] [with tenure]
  2. Faculty: Other ranks with tenure
  3. Faculty: Other ranks without tenure
  4. Non-faculty: Professional or academic staff [without tenure]

When we relate this typology to the question of doing research and publishing as a librarian, the reality is that the higher in this list a librarian finds him- or herself, the more practical supports there are in place for doing research and publishing. [2] There is also a direct relationship for librarians between having access to tenure and being motivated to produce scholarship (Gillum, 2010; Coker, vanDuinkerken, & Bales, 2010). A recent study published in College & Research Libraries found that “academic librarians with faculty status and tenure-track positions are publishing the most regularly in high-impact peer-reviewed journals than other academic librarians” (Galbraith, Smart, Smith, & Reed, 2014). It is arguable, then, that the first two status types in the typology—the two that include both faculty status and access to tenure—are more ideal for doing research and publishing than the second two status types, at least when considering practical supports and motivation for doing so.

The ACRL recognizes this disparity between librarian status types, a recognition that is reflected in its sister documents, “Standards for Faculty Status for Academic Librarians” (2012) and “Guidelines for Academic Librarians without Faculty Status” (2012), where the latter is meant to address the “rights, privileges, and responsibilities” of librarians who by their lack of faculty status are not covered by the former. And yet despite the presence of a variety of librarian status types, what remains consistent across all status types is the fact that the daily work of the academic librarian benefits from its integration with the three essential criteria of what it means to be faculty—teaching, [3] research, and service—and even the librarian who has access to tenure, faculty status, and shares professorial ranks with his or her colleagues in other departments—in other words, the academic librarian working in the best possible circumstances—still faces challenges in fulfilling these three areas of responsibility.

Of these three areas of faculty responsibility, the most challenging area for librarians to incorporate into their daily work is research. The primary reason for this is lack of time, often attributed to the 40-hour work week and 12-month contract typical of most academic librarians (Gillum, 2010; Coker, vanDuinkerken, & Bales, 2010; vanDuinkerken, Coker, & Anderson, 2010; Hill, 1994; Garner, Davidson, & Schwartzkopf, 2009), though a lack of rigorous training in research methods and writing also plays a role (Gillum, 2010; Coker, vanDuinkerken, & Bales, 2010). Academic librarians are also faced with the dual task of conducting research in order to maintain a personal scholarly agenda while also providing research support to others, which means the knowledge, skills, and dispositions for how to research well must be at play in all facets of the librarian’s job role, not just in the facet focusing on the librarian’s personal research agenda.

Despite these challenges, the importance of research to the role of the librarian has been documented. Gillum (2010) notes that “[having] a body of theoretical knowledge is vital to librarianship as a profession” (p.327) and describes the results of a study where it was found that “research performed by librarians in their scholarly writing process actually helps them with their daily problem solving” (p.323). Hill (1994) makes connections between the faculty role and the field of librarianship which include a recognition that librarianship is an “academic discipline in its own right” (p.72) that “depends on cooperative development of and adherence to standards” (p.73), and which is an “applied field” where the “laboratory is the library itself” (p.73). These connections all speak to the important role of research to librarianship, and offer an entry point for practicing librarians into ways of thinking critically about their daily tasks as research problems to be solved through observation, data collection, testing/piloting, and critical reflection.

How One Librarian Became a Knowledge Creator: A (Personal) Case Study

With this complex situation in mind, the remainder of this essay will address the question of how an academic librarian can develop and pursue a research agenda that is both manageable and enriching within the inherent limitations of the librarian’s day-to-day job. It is clear to anyone who is a librarian that knowledge creation is something all librarians do by virtue of being a librarian—whether one is required to do research and publish or not—because knowledge takes many forms, and knowledge in all its forms has value to the profession. However, this essay intentionally situates knowledge creation within the context of doing research with the goal of disseminating new knowledge through formal scholarly activities such as conference presentations and articles, in part because it is in this context that I (the author) have grown to understand myself as one who creates knowledge, which makes it the context in which I am most qualified to speak.

To this end, my experience as an academic librarian who developed her research agenda after some considerable floundering is offered here below. I will take the reader through the milestones of my first major research project, beginning with my hire as a faculty librarian on the tenure-track who is required to be successful at doing and sharing research, through finding a research partner and collaborator whose research interests I would come to share, working with the Institutional Review Board (IRB), collecting and analyzing data, and disseminating the new knowledge we created as a result of both the data collected and the research process as a whole. In this way, this essay is first and foremost a case study that offers one way to develop a successful research agenda as an academic librarian, and is not meant to be exhaustive of the possible paths open to the academic librarian tasked with research responsibilities.

Though I am one of those fortunate to have been appointed both on the tenure track and with professorial rank—along with all the supports and privileges this status type affords [4]—this essay will offer a critical look at what is gained by this circumstance as well as what remains a challenge even with faculty status and access to tenure. This approach will also provide an opportunity to share creative strategies for doing and publishing research within and around the confines inherent to the academic librarian’s position. At the end of this essay a list of concrete strategies for how to pursue a worthwhile research agenda as an academic librarian will be summarized.

Publish or perish, but what about?

When I interviewed for the position of Assistant Professor – Public Services Librarian at The University of Scranton, a mid-sized private urban liberal arts university, I expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of conducting research and writing for publication, not yet knowing what it would entail on a practical level. The position is a tenure-track faculty position, which means that publication is not only encouraged but required to stay on at the university past the probationary six-year pre-tenure period.

In many ways, I had no idea what I was getting into, not having received the rigorous training in both research methods and the ins and outs of the academy that is built into the PhD programs completed by my non-library faculty colleagues. For my part, I was just grateful to be offered an “entry-level” position (i.e., professional library experience preferred not required) in the field I trained for, and my only points of reference for the research requirement were the papers I researched and wrote during my Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program. Little did I know that writing a paper in graduate school is quite different from conducting original research and writing it up for formal publication as a faculty researcher, though it is a lesson I would learn soon enough.

The University of Scranton’s Faculty Handbook (2014) states that in order for faculty librarians to qualify for tenure they must give evidence of “significant scholarly or other appropriate professional activity as presented by the candidate and as evaluated by the candidate’s department” (p.54). More specifically, I was informed by my department that in order to be evaluated as having met the research requirement for tenure, I would need to publish two articles in peer-reviewed journals in the field of librarianship.

Having no benchmark for what are low, normal, or high expectations in academic librarianship for publishing in order to be supported by one’s department for promotion and tenure, and since none exists in the literature, I recognize just how variable and culturally situated within each institution this factor is. As the online public discussion begun by Farkas’ July 2014 blog post illustrates (Tenure discussion, Farkas, 2014), there is immense variety among and between academic libraries and the librarians working at them regarding publishing expectations and practices.

Knowing none of this as an early career librarian on the tenure-track at my particular institution, the expectation that I publish two articles in peer-reviewed journals prior to my sixth-year tenure review seemed manageable with five years ahead to achieve it, and with no publishing experience on which to draw in order to conclude otherwise. Nonetheless I was advised to spend my first year getting oriented to my day-to-day responsibilities before beginning the work of identifying a research interest and pursing an investigation that would end in publication.

Soon enough it was my second year in the position, I was fully oriented to my daily tasks, and I knew it was time to begin work on my research agenda. But what could I write about? I was faced with my first real challenge related to performing research as a librarian: identifying a research project that would be worth my time, manageable within the confines of my other responsibilities, and marketable to a peer-reviewed journal in my field.

I use the word “marketable” here even as I cringe at its applicability to my early career understanding of the landscape in which I worked. With such a short clock I was racing to accomplish my two peer-reviewed articles, I felt there was no time to leisurely explore topics that may or may not find a readership right away, as judged by editors and peer-reviewers in the traditional publishing model. In retrospect, if there is one element of tenure for librarians I am critical of, it is this necessity for the early career researcher to limit research activity to areas that are easily matched to traditional (and thus “vetted”) publications.

At that time in my career, “marketability” was a survival instinct layered into the research process itself, for better or worse. And so, as a second-year academic librarian I did my best to draw on the bit of research methods training I received during my MLIS program. That training taught me that one option for coming up with a research project was to pursue research that informs practice. As such, I looked to my day-to-day projects and tasks to identify an area that could use improvement, hoping that by doing so I could generate a “best practices” study to share with the profession. Considering I hadn’t even immersed myself in the professional literature before deciding how I might add to it—my first step toward doing good research should have been to read, read, read—the naiveté of my early approach to research is perhaps forgivable.

And regardless, it didn’t work! My plan was to write an article sharing the process of improving some aspect of my daily work as a librarian. Despite this plan, whenever I attempted to conduct research about my daily library tasks, the work actually felt more disconnected from my responsibilities rather than less. In hindsight, I realize what was missing from my earliest attempts to conduct research for publication, the vital “secret sauce” of good research: curiosity. In developing this curiosity over the years since, I have learned that its source for me is a wider (dare I say theoretical, conceptual, and aspirational) perspective of the field and how my daily work fits within it—a perspective I had not yet developed by my second year in the profession.

Absent of curiosity about my daily library tasks, my research requirement went from being a source of promise and excitement to being a source of anxiety and panic. I needed help, but I did not know what kind of help until it appeared in the form of my colleague Teresa Grettano, writing instructor in the Department of English & Theatre at my institution.

Research through Teaching

The University of Scranton Weinberg Memorial Library has an internal funding opportunity called the Information Literacy Stipend program whose goal is to “integrate information literacy into academic courses to develop the information literacy skills of students,” available to part- or full-time faculty teaching semester-long courses (Information literacy stipends, 2014). Information literacy is the theoretical framework in which librarians teach research skills, and is grounded in a set of standards developed and endorsed by the ACRL called the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (2000), hereafter ACRL Standards. [5] When a course instructor applies for a stipend, the application must include the course in which information literacy will be integrated, a description of how this will happen, and the name of the librarian with whom the instructor will collaborate to meet the goals of the stipend program. Because this last item is required before the instructor submits the application, the instructor must reach out to the librarian who has subject expertise in the course subject, establish a collaborative partnership around the instructor’s information literacy goals, and agree to work together to see the goals through to completion. This collaborative partnership facilitated by the stipend opportunity is one of the primary goals of the program.

During fall 2009, as I entered my second year as a librarian at the institution, Teresa applied for an Information Literacy Stipend for a new course she was designing called Rhetoric & Social Media. During this course students would examine and practice how they make meaning with information on social media, specifically Facebook. When Teresa asked which librarian she should contact to collaborate on the stipend, she was given my name as the liaison to her department.

This would be the second Information Literacy Stipend I would collaborate on since beginning in my position in 2008, so I thought I knew what outcomes to expect from the experience: stipend collaborations conventionally fit into the areas of teaching (because they involve information literacy instruction) and service (since the stipend is awarded to the course instructor, not the librarian). So although the collaboration with Teresa sounded very interesting—particularly the social media aspect of the course—I entered into the collaboration with my undefined research agenda far from my mind.

As Teresa and I began work on the stipend application, we saw two different ways we could incorporate information literacy into the course. The traditional way would be for the course instructor to develop a research assignment related to the course content, and for the librarian to provide instruction on how to find, access, evaluate and use information sources related to the students’ research topics. However, since the object of study for the course was Facebook, and Facebook is a tool that facilitates finding and sharing information among connected users, a more compelling way to teach information literacy presented itself. Teresa and I found we could align the ACRL Standards (2000) with common behaviors on Facebook and connect these behaviors to the process of conducting research in an academic context.

At this point, two things occurred. First, Teresa invited me to co-design the course and to co-teach it when it ran in spring 2011. Second, and more significant to my formation into a librarian-researcher, I realized I was participating in pedagogical decisions that were grounded in the theoretical framework of my discipline. What’s more, these decisions heavily incorporated social media, a phenomenon which was causing many exciting changes in my field, though I couldn’t yet say what those changes were. Teresa and I were asking exciting and relevant research questions as a result of our teaching partnership—two areas of faculty responsibility we were both required to fulfill. At that moment—in collaboration with another researcher in my scholarly community—I observed my research agenda finally taking shape.

Convincing the Institutional Review Board

Due to the fact that Teresa and I were designing a course from scratch, the length of time between applying for the Information Literacy Stipend and the course actually running was a year and a half. Once the stipend application was submitted, the work of incorporating information literacy into the course goals and assignments began. In addition, we realized our research questions about information literacy and social media required the use of student course work as study data to be analyzed after the course had run. This meant that students would be human subjects and the Institutional Review Board (IRB) became involved.

The IRB is tasked with protecting the rights of human subjects who voluntarily give informed consent to participate in research studies conducted by members of the university community. Teresa and I knew we needed to submit an IRB application to be approved for using student course work as data in our research investigation. After several months of work, in early December 2010 we submitted our application for collecting study data during the course, which would begin at the end of January 2011.

In response to our application, the IRB asked for clarification about two aspects of the research study that particularly concerned them: coercion and privacy. The IRB’s concerns were complex and required a detailed back-and-forth with a representative of the IRB in order to be resolved.

The question of coercion, i.e., whether students would feel forced to participate in the study because the Principal Investigators were also their course instructors, was characteristic of pedagogical research done using data collected in the classroom. The solution was to safeguard the students in two ways: 1) by designing the procedure for informed consent such that Teresa and I would not know who agreed to participate in the study until after final grades had been submitted to the registrar, and, 2) by making it very clear in writing to both the IRB and the students that students would be required to do the exact same work whether or not they agreed to participate in the study, and that all work in the class would be graded based solely on the course-related learning and growth evidenced within the work.

This required the use of a research assistant to collect informed consent forms at the start of the semester and keep them secure and secret from Teresa and me until final grades were submitted. Although this made our research procedures more complex than planned, protecting the rights of our students and receiving the approval of the IRB to proceed with the research were more important in the long run, both because it made our research ethically sound, and since without IRB approval we could not publish findings based on the data, an admittedly pragmatic yet important factor at play; and so, the changes were made.

The other concern voiced by the IRB was student privacy due to the use of Facebook in the course. This IRB application was the first the IRB at our institution had reviewed involving social media in the classroom. The course is designed to situate student learning and meaning-making within the rhetorical spaces we’d be studying. We accomplished this through the use of a secret Facebook group made up of the students and instructors in the course, and a large subset of the study data would come from the students’ activity within the course Facebook group. The members of the IRB did not have enough knowledge about and experience with Facebook to accurately determine the level of privacy students would retain as participants in the study. [6] The solution was to describe in the second revision of the application precisely how we would use Facebook pedagogically in the course and the ways students’ Facebook activity in relation to the course would remain private. Once the study was properly and accurately represented, the IRB gave their approval for the study to proceed.

The entire IRB experience occurred over the course of a month and a half, from first submitting the IRB application to receiving approval to proceed after two different revisions to the application had been submitted. But for me, the most valuable outcome of the IRB experience was that it taught me to communicate about my research in order to validate the methods and procedures I helped design, while yet incorporating ethical considerations I had not thought of, resulting in a research study worthy (eventually) of publication. And now that the IRB had approved the study, the course could run and data collection could begin.

Modeling Collaboration

As spring 2011 approached, I prepared for my first sustained teaching experience where I would have the opportunity to be in the classroom with the same students throughout the semester. This arrangement was complex in several ways.

As stated previously, Teresa had invited me to co-teach the course, but with the caveat that I only do so if I could be appropriately compensated for the experience. Teresa refused to put me in a position where my role as a librarian might be exploited, and she encouraged me to only take on that which I could realistically fit into my daily workload. In this way Teresa exhibited respect and awareness for my limited time and resources as they related to the research project.

This left me with many details to work out: my goal was to optimize the experience while still maintaining my job performance in other areas, all the while keeping burnout at bay—a very real and practical concern at every stage of our research and teaching collaboration.

The amount of responsibility I negotiated for myself in the running of the course amounted to being physically present for the majority of class meetings; taking the lead on instruction for certain units and content related to my areas of expertise; grading the assignments for the lessons I’d be teaching; and making myself available to students outside of the classroom to answer questions about their course work. I decided not to pursue being added to the course as an instructor through the registrar; being financially compensated for my work would in turn oblige me to participate in grading student course work in a far more comprehensive manner than I knew I could with all of the other duties still on my plate.

In addition, the course was a recipient in the Information Literacy Stipend program, which meant it was already one of my duties to give of my time to support information literacy in the course. I was still listed as co-teacher on the syllabus, and the students related to me as such. But the situation required me to decide just how much I could formally commit to the course, and remaining flexible in how I participated was important as a safeguard against burnout.

That being said, when all was said and done the amount of time I gave to the first run of Rhetoric & Social Media far exceeded what I would normally give to a course I was supporting with information literacy instruction. I justified my level of involvement by articulating my work on the course as integral to my research and as a model of collaboration between librarians and teaching faculty. The latter was especially beneficial because this collaboration was setting both a precedent and a blueprint for how this kind of professional relationship might occur for others.

Without even realizing it, in representing our partnership to our colleagues in meetings and conversation, Teresa and I had hit on another aspect of our work that would be of interest to other practitioners in both our fields: how to successfully collaborate with faculty across disciplines. And another angle of our work that was valuable to others meant another potential avenue for scholarly activity related to the project in order to share that aspect of our work with others.

Finding the Time and Place to Write

When the course ended in May 2011, so did the data collection portion of the study. That summer also saw the end of my third full year appointed in my position—a milestone I later learned from my non-library faculty colleagues was significant to pass as tenure-track faculty, since it means your department believes in your ability to accomplish the requirements for tenure (otherwise they’d ask you to leave). My department must have seen the potential in the work I was doing with Teresa, because the next goal I faced was producing at minimum two articles sharing our research with the profession, with just a few short years in which to do it.

As I entered the writing phase of the research process, two challenges appeared which would be the hardest to overcome thus far because suddenly the “librarian” aspect of my professional identity was at odds with the “faculty” aspect. These were also challenges on which being appointed on the tenure track and with professorial rank had no bearing. These two challenges were lack of time and lack of place in which to write.

As the literature reflects, one of the greatest obstacles to doing research and publishing for academic librarians is the fact that we are typically contracted for twelve months and 40-hour work weeks. [7] Unlike non-library faculty, most academic librarians do not have summers free from their librarianship and service responsibilities to focus on their research for an uninterrupted stretch of time. The library remains open in the summer months, and even though library activity slows considerably, the academic librarian is still expected to attend to his or her daily tasks, which for the public services librarian may include liaison work, collection development, information literacy instruction, and reference work. [8]

This means that it is up to the academic librarian to make sure that research time—including time for writing—is built into his or her weekly schedule; it cannot be “saved” until an uninterrupted stretch of time because no such time exists for the academic librarian. In addition to the 12-month contract, the academic librarian typically works a 40-hour work week consisting of a generally inflexible daily schedule of time in the library. These conditions make it difficult to successfully schedule time to write.

Academic librarians also face the challenge of advocating for a suitable place to write for sustained periods of time. Whether a librarian specializes in public or technical services, there is a high likelihood that the librarian’s office space is outfitted with his or her librarianship responsibilities in mind.

In my case, as a librarian who specializes in public services, my office is intentionally located in the high-traffic reference area, with walls and a door made of glass so my public services colleagues and I are always available and visible to students and faculty walking by; we call our office area the “fishbowl” because of this. This means even if I block off time on my calendar to devote to writing, doing so in my office is difficult because my visible presence in the reference area of the library invites interruption.

I realized I would have to be assertive about not only finding time to write, but also identifying a place in which to do it. It was a predicament I could not resolve on my own because the problems were inherent to my librarian role. My feelings about this circumstance remain complicated, since my role as a librarian is not something I want to change, nor could I do so even if I did. It was impossible for me to address on my own the structural problems of librarian labor as it relates to the expectation that I produce scholarship as one who is affiliated with and supported by my institution: to succeed at this required an appeal to my administrators.

The question of time resolved in the provision that librarians at my institution are entitled at this time to seven paid research leave days per year. In order to use this release time, the librarian submits a proposal which includes the proposed dates and outcomes of the time away. This proposal must be approved by the library department chair as well as the tenured librarians in the department, with final approval coming from the Dean of the Library. In addition, approval is not granted until it is clear that coverage for the librarian’s work while away can be arranged.

Once approved, the days are to be used in the way the librarian has proposed but the location of the work is up to the librarian—a luxury and a privilege, to be sure, and one I am aware not all librarian-researchers have. That my department offers this release time is an indication that my administrators are aware of and responsive to the specific needs of the academic librarian tasked with research responsibilities. But even with this release time available, the challenge of finding enough time to produce the amount of writing required to successfully publish—including all the messy, process-based drafting, revising, and editing required to reach the point where an article is ready for submission—remains a persistent issue for academic librarians.

As for the question of a suitable place to write, this is a much trickier problem to solve, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. At my library, a private office has been set aside and assigned a calendar that anyone in the building—faculty, staff, or administrators—can use in order to sign out the office as needed. My colleagues and I have been successful at utilizing this office in order to write. But this is at best a local solution to a discipline-wide problem. As an academic librarian, finding the time and place to write remains a challenge because I am, at the end of the day, a librarian.

Presenting the Process

When library departments and rank and tenure committees consider evidence of research activity for granting promotion and/or tenure to faculty librarians, “activities related to inquiry and research” may include “scholarly publication, presentation of papers, review of books and other literature, grants, consulting, service as a member of a team of experts, or other means of disseminating professional expertise” (Guideline for the appointment, 2010). For me and Teresa, the process of sharing our scholarly work related to the Rhetoric & Social Media course began even before the course ran.

Early in our collaboration Teresa identified a conference on the topic of information literacy but organized by practitioners in her own field of rhetoric and composition where she wanted to present our work. However, the conference would be in October 2010, when we were still in the planning stages of the course. This did not mean we had nothing to offer our colleagues by way of the work we were doing; in fact, the theoretical foundations for the course design had already been laid, and this was work conference attendees would benefit from learning about.

And so the first opportunity to share our research came when we presented “’I Found it on Facebook’: Social Media and the ACRL Information Literacy Standards” (Grettano & Mazziotti, 2010) at the Georgia Conference on Information Literacy. In it we presented the connections we had made between Facebook and the ACRL Standards (2000) in preparation for making pedagogical decisions for the course. In many ways the presentation was speculative, but our speculation was grounded in information literacy theory and had pedagogical implications. The significance of this presentation for us was in the fact that we were generating scholarly activity by sharing our research process, even as we were still in the midst of it, making it a successful first experience sharing our work.

Another example in which we presented the theoretical work we were doing in preparation for the course came when we were accepted to present a paper at ACRL 2011, the national conference in the field of academic librarianship. Our paper only mentioned the Rhetoric & Social Media course insofar as it was the occasion for our collaboration; this paper focused instead on the nature of the collaboration itself.

In “‘Hanging Together’: Collaboration Between Information Literacy and Writing Programs Based on the ACRL Standards and the WPA Outcomes” (Mazziotti & Grettano, 2011), we presented the analytical work we had done with the theoretical frameworks in each of our disciplines, identifying areas of overlap and complement between the work of librarians and that of writing instructors. Proposals for this conference were due well before the course ran, so again this was a case of identifying some aspect of our work which a particular conference audience—in this case, academic librarians—would benefit from learning about, and presenting a worthwhile snapshot of the greater whole that was our ongoing research study related to information literacy, social media, and collaboration.

Once the course had run, we knew we’d have preliminary findings to share. While the ultimate vehicle for sharing this information would be a scholarly research article in a peer-reviewed journal in librarianship (as per my tenure requirement), we knew our work would benefit from being shared with the professional community as soon as possible. We chose to present at PaLA 2011, a state conference in librarianship, in order to reach a different, more local audience than we had through our other conference presentations.

In Rethinking Information Literacy: Classroom Evidence for Incorporating Students’ Social Media Practices into our Professional Understanding (Mazziotti & Grettano, 2011), Teresa and I presented the effects of social media use on students’ attitudes toward and behaviors with information, based on the data we collected and analyzed from the course. Having the opportunity to articulate our findings to a conference audience sharpened our arguments and fine-tuned our claims. It also offered an occasion to work through the data and arrange it to tell the story we wanted to tell. All that remained was to formally publish our findings.

An unexpected but welcome outcome of presenting at conferences was follow-up invitations to submit formally written versions of our work to publications whose editors attended our presentations. The first conference presentation we gave in 2010 resulted in an invitation to submit an article based on our presentation to the peer-reviewed journal Reference Services Review. When we did so, our conceptual paper was accepted on the condition that when we had analyzed our study findings we would submit a follow-up research paper to the same journal in order to conclude the work begun in the first. These papers were titled “Information literacy on Facebook: an analysis” (Witek & Grettano, 2012) and “Teaching metaliteracy: a new paradigm in action” (Witek & Grettano, 2014).

“Information literacy on Facebook: an analysis” represented my first peer-reviewed journal article and came with the promise of a second, ensuring that I would meet the tenure requirements identified by my department at the time of my hire. Our PaLA 2011 presentation also resulted in additional invitations to share our work, including an invited column in a professional bulletin (Information literacy gets social, Witek, 2012). All of these experiences illustrate that scholarship begets scholarship—a very exciting by-product of disseminating scholarly work beginning early in the research process. It was a principle I would remember when beginning work on other research projects in the future.


In a September 2005 Chronicle of Higher Education column, a library administrator argues that academic librarians do not need access to tenure because they “function as knowledge providers, not knowledge creators” (Carver, 2005). This essay, documenting the research agenda of just one academic librarian, is evidence that this library administrator’s claim is false, making it a weak basis on which to argue that librarians do not benefit from or need access to tenure. Even if we set aside the questions of faculty status and/or tenure for librarians—questions which need to be researched and studied systematically across the profession (anyone in need of a research agenda?)—it is clear that the benefits to the practice of librarianship of doing research and communicating that research to others are high.

The course Rhetoric & Social Media has run three times at The University of Scranton, with plans in place to run it again in spring 2015. Teresa remains the primary instructor on the course, with my level of involvement dependent on my workload during each semester it runs. We improve the course each semester based on our ongoing research, and I always teach the content areas related to information literacy, though by now Teresa could easily teach these areas if the need arose. Furthermore, I continue to find ways to transfer what I have learned during this research study into other aspects of my practice of librarianship; certainly my information literacy instruction in other courses has improved for having co-designed and co-taught a course with my colleague from another academic department.

Given the constraints explored above, we need to think creatively and holistically about our professional responsibilities in order to fulfill our role as knowledge creators—a role shared by all practicing librarians, not just those required to do research and publish, although the focus and scope of this essay was on the latter. Concrete strategies that will enable the academic librarian to pursue a worthwhile research agenda based on the above experience include:

Approach areas of responsibility holistically: Consider ways that work conventionally considered teaching/librarianship or service might dovetail into research, and combine the work such that you are serving both responsibilities with the same activity. Research projects like the one documented in this essay, where the classroom acts as a laboratory for investigation, enable the librarian to be both researcher and instructor within the same range of activities.

Build on each new opportunity: Don’t be afraid to share your work with your colleagues even in its earliest stages. Sharing your research process with others in the many modes and genres of scholarship available to researchers today is a great way to create knowledge through communities of practice. Start early with conference presentations and then pursue any opportunities that come your way as a result of presenting your ideas to others.

Collaborate with colleagues in other areas: Identify opportunities to collaborate with faculty in disciplines outside of the library, and try to find faculty across disciplines with whom you share research interests; if it is another junior faculty member in need of scholarly activity, you both stand to gain by the partnership—not only in terms of research productivity, but more importantly in terms of the relationships formed as a result. Many disciplines including librarianship value interdisciplinary research, which makes collaborative work appealing both for its content and for acting as a model of collaboration for others.

A final outcome to consider is the fact that a librarian’s first research experience will result in skills and insight that are transferrable to future research projects and other professional contexts. Through my work on the Rhetoric & Social Media course, I have developed the curiosity and vision required to identify a problem or question that is relevant to both the daily work of librarianship and to the scholarly discourse of my discipline. The experience has also filled my toolkit of research knowledge, skills, and dispositions, which I’ve already begun applying in other research contexts to explore new questions or problems. Furthermore, working collaboratively on my first big research project has taught me the value of human relationships to research, giving me the experience and confidence needed to strike out on my own research path when the research question is better suited for independent investigation.

Through this experience I have become an academic librarian capable of creating new knowledge in my field. The goal of this essay was to offer one model for how to become an academic librarian who is a knowledge creator—and in offering it, creating new knowledge in the process.

But even further, I invite my colleagues in the academic library profession to share your research and publishing experiences, critically and reflectively, in formal or informal venues, so that we can grow our professional knowledge base of what it means to be an academic librarian who is a knowledge creator.


[1] “Professorial ranks” refers to the ranks of Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor, which are shared by non-library faculty, while “other ranks” includes parallel ranking systems such as Assistant Librarian, Associate Librarian, and Librarian, or Librarian I, Librarian II, and Librarian III, etc.

[2] As Farkas describes in her July 23, 2014 blog post, this statement is contestable when situated in distinct institutional cultural contexts; and yet, in my own experience, the time and resources offered to me to produce scholarship are only available to me because of my tenure-track status.

[3] As Coker, vanDuinkerken, and Bales (2010) document, there is a trend in the field of librarianship to replace “teaching” with “librarianship” in the promotion and tenure materials for librarians, since not every librarian “teaches” in the same way that faculty in other departments teach. When this change is made, it is up to the library department collectively and each librarian individually to communicate through theoretical and practical documentation what it means to effectively practice librarianship. The Faculty Handbook Committee at my institution has recently approved this change for members of the library faculty pursuing promotion and/or tenure.

[4] I claim my status type to be “fortunate” both from personal experience where faculty status and access to tenure enrich my professional role, and based on the literature examined above, which articulates more broadly the practical supports for performing research and producing scholarship that this status type affords. Thus, my perception of my own fortune is situated within both the culture of my institution and the specific question this essay is addressing: How can the academic librarian fulfill the role of knowledge creator, a role essential to the academic librarian’s professional life?

[5] The ACRL Standards (2000) are currently undergoing an extensive revision led by an ACRL task force of information literacy researchers and practitioners (; this revision process was begun in earnest in March 2013, three years after Teresa and I began our work together, so addressing it in detail is outside the scope of this piece.

[6] The IRB’s primary concern was the privacy of student course work (i.e., activity within the course’s secret Facebook group) in relation to the “public,” i.e., anyone on the web. This was the concern we addressed in the revision of our application. However, the question of privacy of student course work in relation to Facebook the company is a much more complex one which did not come up with the IRB, though it was one of the main focuses of the course. Every student who took the course in spring 2011 already had a Facebook account, so participation in the course as a student did not require that any of them join Facebook and accept Facebook’s terms of service; if it had, another ethical dimension to the course would have presented itself. Teresa and I are working on student safeguards related to this ethical dimension so that if it ever comes up in future iterations of the course, we will be prepared to address it ethically and pedagogically.

[7] As I write this essay, I take as a given the goal of a healthy personal-professional life balance. Although the trope of the academic who lives and breathes their work day and night throughout the week may be grounded in the real life practices of many academics, in my own professional life I have found that without a clear boundary for what work comes home and what work stays at the office, both my health and professional performance suffer, thus defeating the purpose of bringing the work home with me in the first place. I am grateful to work in a department and for administrators who understand the positive effects of breaks from work on work performance, which has empowered me to take this stance. In light of this, a response to this section of the essay along the lines of, “Well, just take your research work home with you,” is not a solution I can endorse.

[8] This list of tasks is typical for a librarian specializing in public services; librarians specializing in technical services would have different daily tasks that make up their practice of librarianship.


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4 thoughts on “Academic Librarians as Knowledge Creators

  1. “Considering I hadn’t even immersed myself in the professional literature before deciding how I might add to it—my first step toward doing good research should have been to read, read, read—the naiveté of my early approach to research is perhaps forgivable.”

    Donna hits on a point I haven’t seen in other discussions about librarians and tenure. We often lament our lack of training in research methods, especially compared to those with PhDs, but we generally don’t discuss another huge part of doctoral studies: immersion, over several years, in a relatively narrow area of information and knowledge.

    We can spend all day talking to students about scholarly communities and finding the conversations in scholarship, but in the hustle and bustle of our days, are we taking enough time ourselves to read?

    Perhaps because we librarians are often avid readers, I think we gloss over how important this is and how we don’t always do it. Even in the rush towards tenure, it’s so important to ground ourselves in the discipline more than what we get in two years of an MLS program.

    Thanks for this reminder! As well, thanks for an insightful, thoughtful, and honest discussion of your path towards tenure.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Joan!

      I agree, immersing ourselves in the discourses of our discipline/professional community/ies is not given enough air time in discussions about doing and publishing good research as a practicing librarian. It is ironic because, at least for those of us who teach information literacy, it is a principle we do our best to teach our students in order to make them responsible researchers/writers as they contribute their own voices to the discourse surrounding a particular topic–i.e., it is much easier and effective to select sources for your argument once you have read multiple sources and perspectives/voices on your topic. And yet, we often forget to do this ourselves!

      I know in terms of the curiosity I touch on briefly in this piece, there is no way I would have developed it if not for delving into the literature on professional topics I care about, writing pointed exclamations in the margins in response to what I am reading (two typical ones in my marginalia are “YES!!! and “UGH!!! ). Those exclamatory responses I now recognize as the seeds of future research investigations for me, as I seek to build on and respond to what it is I just read. (Scholarship is/as a conversation, right? :) )

      You also touch on a point I didn’t make explicitly (or even consciously, though I suppose it is there implicitly), which is, the more library literature a new researcher reads, the more refined that researcher’s understanding of good research methods becomes. Reading an article reporting on a study that was conducted well, using solid methodologies, is a very different experience from reading an article reporting on a study that was shoddily designed, or even incomplete in its design considerations. The more one reads, the easier it is to spot these differences, and presumably the less likely it is that the one doing the reading will repeat the mistakes in the “bad” studies in her own research, and instead seek to emulate the solid methodologies modeled in the “good”.

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