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

Librarians – research support or research partners?

To say that the research activity at GUC has increased is a gross understatement. From 2004 to 2012 we went from having 8,2 publication points (1) to 88,6 points. In that time we have also gotten our own PhD programme and PhD research positions as well as grants for faculty staff members who want to get their PhDs at others institutions.

So – what about the librarians` role? Are we still just research support staff – a person you can call when you need a little help with your reference manager or to dig up a copy of some ancient journal article? OR do we see a new role emerging..?

Several librarians I have talked to lately has spoken about their competence in seaching, finding, evaluating sources and documentation now being sought for something more than “support”. Mariann Mathiesen, a librarian at the Norwegian knowledge center for health services, was part of a research team. Not only did she give advice about knowledge organisation subjects, but she actually did the systematic searches involved in the study that the team was working on, and Mathiesen was made co-author of the study. (Btw, read her excellent, award-winning Master`s thesis – if you read Norwegian..) Is this the way of the future? Can we become valued partners in research teams?

Of course, there are some questions:

  • Resources: Do libraries have the resources to let their librarians engage in research teams?
  • Skills: Do all librarians have the necessary skills to do the job properly?
  • Interest: Are librarians interested in these kinds of tasks?
  • Interprofessional knowledge: Do researchers know that they can ask librarians about these issues?
  • Will: Do the researcher want to engage librarians – as equal partners?

I think it very likely that some research teams here at GUC could have had good use of the librarians` expertise in knowledge organisation, and I (personally) would be very interested in participating in such a team (as a partner), but I also think that I would have to learn by doing, and that I would be a little anxious about not getting it right the first time (Control freak= me). I have talked about Embedded librarianship before, and I still very much believe that we need to be better integrated in the academic environment at our institutions. Being true research partners in teams would certainly be a step in the right direction here.

I read the article “Librarians as Partners: Moving from Research Supporters to Research Partners” by Monroe-Gulick, O`Brian and White(2013)  today – and the article served as inspiration for this blog post. Although the article didn`t really provide me with much new information, I think the fact that it is being discussed at all is interesting. And then again — it seems like we (meaning the library profession) is moving in very different directions. On one hand we are to be “learning centres”, focussing our efforts on our students and to provide them with the academic writing skills they need as well as more traditional services like access to information. On the other hand we need to be/ want to be partners in research teams. These are interesting times to be a librarian. I think that we`ll see more of this professional developments and that we are moving towards a less unified perception on what a librarian is. There will probably be no such thing as “core competensies” to all librarians in a while. We will be “research librarians”, “teaching librarians”, “digital service librarians” etc. and probably have less in common than we do now. The questions are: How do we handle the transition? Are we willing to live with the consequences of our choices?

Well – these were just a few musings (and rants) on a Thursday afternoon. And now– coffee!

Monroe-Gulick, A., O`Brian, M.S., and White, G. (2013). Librarians as Partners: Moving from Research Supporters to Research Partners (online) URL: (25.04.2013).

(1) Here in Norway there is a system of awarding publication points for different types of research publications. The institutions then receive monetary support according to publication points achieved.