Service provider or academic partner: Where to draw the line?

jente sandstrand

Drawing a line?

I have long wanted to write something about the contributions from academic librarians in research projects. First, I wanted to wait until the term was over because I wanted time to think about this, and then I waited because I wanted to find the right words. I wanted to get this right, because this is important to me. Today, I am writing this even though I could have thought some more or found better words.

I have worked in academic libraries for 15 years. During that time, I have changed and the libraries I have worked in has changed along with the institutions they have served. Perhaps even more interesting is that the role of the librarians have changed, too. A few lines of explanation is perhaps needed. (I`ll get to the point, I promise..) I said that I have changed. Yes, I have changed in many ways, but professionally the most significant change has been that I have changed my focus. When I started 15 years ago, my focus was always “Whats in it for my library”. I was very library centric. I wanted a good budget for the library because I wanted freedom to build a good collection, nice furniture etc. (I was a school librarian back then, btw.) After working in a school library, in a ministry library and in a university library, my focus has shifted. I still want the library to have a good budget, but not for the librarys sake – for the patrons. I want a good budget so that we can provide services and academic support to enhance learning and research. I think I have also learned the value of evidence-based practice in libraries. It is important that we have solid research as well as user experience and our own experience and bring this together to build good library practice. It may not seem as a very significant change on paper (or blog), but for me it has changed the way I work. The libraries have changed, too. From being mainly a document provider and a more distant partner (delivery-on-demand) for students, the digitalisation and research support needs have made it possible and necessary to provide new services and to see our roles in a new light.

There are plenty of articles, book chapters etc. that discuss the roles of academic librarians. I am not going to list everything that I have, but see my article on library-faculty collaboration to get an idea (Øvern, 2014). The main point I want to make here and now, though, is that library-faculty collaboration is often problematic because of the skewed power relation between the parties. The librarians know that the route to the students goes via their teachers, and we are desperate to find a way in to the classrooms. Therefore, we usually not only obey our masters` first whistle, but even assume almost doglike admiration for the teachers that see our contributions as something worth “sacrificing valuable class time” (yes, that is a direct quote, but I`ll not give the source) for. (OK. Maybe I exaggerated a little, but then again, maybe I didn`t.) It doesn`t help that we are so trained as service providers, that we find it extremely hard to just say no to people. This way, I think we also often are stuck in unproductive “collaborations”, because we are afraid that if we protest or suggest very different models for teaching, the teachers will stop asking us to contribute all together. But if we never suggest what to us may seem as better ideas, then they will never see our potential as real academic partners either. Librarians generally know more about the faculty than vice versa, an assymetry that both groups are aware of, but only the librarians find problematic (Christiansen, Strombler & Thaxton, 2004, p.117). And as Ekstrand and Seebass (2009) found: librarians are regarded as excellent (service) parners, but that is not the same as seeing them as valuable academic parners (p. 84). Librarians are not integrated in study programmes and often forgotten in planning sessions.

These power relations become even more problematic when it comes to research support. I have several times been asked to help with literature searching etc. in research projects. Once or twice only, have I been told that I will get co-authorship for my efforts. Once or twice. Of course, I wouldn`t dream of demanding co-authorship if my only contribution to the project would be something like suggesting appropriate databases or handing over some search terms that could useful or something like that. But where do I draw the line? When does it become acceptable for me to say, I can do that, but only if I am listed as a co-author?

This is an example (not from reality, but quite close):
Two faculty members, one of whom were also connected to another university, asked me if I could provide support for them for a systematic review. When I asked what kind of support they were looking for it was clear that it is more than just suggesting search strings and doing a few introductory searches in some databases. It was much more than that. Basically, they wanted me to set up tables, do the searches and use a flow chart. In a systematic review, the design of searches, and getting it right in all the databases as well as putting it into tables and flowcharts represents a lot of work. It would be like building the foundation of a house. Yet, I was not offered co-authorship. I asked them a few more questions on their deadlines etc., but before I had received answers and decided to muster up the strength to ask for co-authorship, they informed me that they had found another librarian (from the other university) to do the job.

It seems there is always somebody who is ready to answer when they hear the whistle. Why it was so important for me to get co-authorship? The contribution would have been the same whether my name was on it or not. Yes, but if I could have had my name on it, then I could have sacrificed the very little R&D time I have to my disposal without having to postpone my qualifications programme. If I am to succeed with this, then the little time I have to produce some new knowledge will have to be put to good use. Egotistic? Sure. But for the faculty involved it wouldn`t have mattered as much to share that research point (Norwegian measurement system), but for me it was important. Again – the power relations are not balanced.

So – what should I do? What should WE as a profession do? Is it ok that faculty get a “yes” from somebody else if they get a “no” from me? When should I say no? When should I demand co-authorship? Why is there no guideline for these partnerships?

Where do I draw the line? (Seriously, I`m asking.)

NOTE: This blog entry was not written to, in any way, suggest that faculty is in the habit of exploiting librarians or are trying to belittle me or my contribution. This is not my experience. I have many working collaborations with excellent faculty members that are productive, constructive and interesting. Even in the example I mentioned above, I don`t think that this was done by malice or as an attempt to put me in my place, but rather as a pragmatic way to get the help they wanted as quickly and efficiently as possible. This blog entry was written to emphasise the sometimes problematic situations that arises from the skewed power relations between faculty and librarians, and I have no other agenda than to share my experience with this, and to hope for better guidelines. It is not my intention to offend either faculty or librarians, and I hope therefore that any lack of clarity of thought or words will be forgiven.


Christiansen, L., Stombler, M., & Thaxton, L. (2004). A Report on Librarian-Faculty Relations from a Sociological Perspective. The journal of academic librarianship, 30(2), 116-121. doi:DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2004.01.003

Ekstrand, B., Seebass, G. (2009). Integrativ informationskompetens: Diskursöverbryggande samarbete mellan akademi och bibliotek. In B. Hansson, A. Lyngfeldt (Ed.), Pedagogiskt arbete i teori och praktik (pp. 83-101). Lund: BTJ Förlag.

Øvern, K. M. (2014). Faculty-library collaboration: two pedagogical approaches. Journal of Information Literacy, 8(2), 36-55. doi:http://dx.doi.org

Hello office!

my officeHello office! I`m back!

Well, I have been on maternity leave since November 2015, and in many ways it felt like I had been gone for much longer. The merger with Sør-Trøndelag and Ålesund University Colleges and the Norwegian University for Science and Technology (NTNU) as well as getting a brand new library system (ExLibris` Alma) made me feel a little overwhelmed at times, but I hope that I`ll get the hang of all the new systems soon. I try not to let all my new tasks, for example learning the new library system and all its quirks, reading all the new procedures and trying to find the information I need for dealing with students and staff – as well as getting to know some of my new collegues, get to me. Fortunately, the years of “budgeting time” (as we like to call it) and careful planning has taught me that time is not an infinite resource. This autumn semester I will have to concentrate on my teaching efforts as well as participating in a couple of projects. If I can get it done, I will also finish a draft of a paper I am working on and learn the basics of the library system. The rest will simply have to wait. It is exciting, too, this process!

This autumn, my mantra will be: “Just in time – is good enough”. It`s good to be back:)

Why don`t students ask librarians for help?

Illustration of a man with question marks over his headI am currently reading up on some things connected to a project that I just started. I have had a book called “College libraries and student culture: what we now know” on my reading list for months, and so far it has been very interesting.

I remember reading in Head and Eisenberg (2010)`s study that students Google, ask their professors and peers, friends – and even family members before asking librarians for help with their studies. Just now I came across the same thing in Miller and Murillo (2012)`s chapter in the book I mentioned.

Miller and Murillo (2012) suggest some reasons why this happens. Possible reasons for students not seeking help from librarians include:

  • They don`t know what we do, and therefore do not think that they can ask questions regarding academic writing. If they ask librarians about anything, it is usually about the whereabouts of a physical book. (Depressing stuff..)
  • Some have had bad experiences with librarians, and they are saying that librarians appear little approachable and helpful.
  • Librarians use words that patrons do not understand, like “circulation desk” and “reference desk”.
  • Students suffer from “library anxiety”, a feeling of nervousness or of being “lost” in the library.
  • Students and staff feel that librarians often give a lot more information than they needed, and that they feel overwhelmed by it.

I find this very useful. How should we work to reduce “library anxiety” for our patrons? What could I do to make the experience easier to the students? What can I do to be more approachable? How can make the students more aware of what we can do for them?

I do not have the answer to all of these problems, but I think maybe we should rethink our desks (they are too big, and we are harder to approach behind them), our web presence needs to be even more thought-through and we need to be more “plain-spoken”. I personally need to stop giving the students “all the options” when all they asked for was a solution to a simple problem, and maybe we could all do a better job at marketing what it is that librarians really do. We have some work to do here..



Duke, L. M. and A. D. Asher (eds.)(2012) College libraries and student culture: what we now know. Chicago: American Library Association

Head, A. J. og M. B. Eisenberg (2010) Truth be told: How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age. Washington: The Information School, University of Washington.

Miller, S. og N. Murillo (2012) Why don`t students ask librarians for  help?: Undergraduate help-seeking behavior in three academic libraries. In: Duke, L. M. og A. D. Asher (eds.),  College libraries and student culture: What we now know. Chicago: American Library Association, p. 49-70.