Opposite sides of the cafetorium: notes from a THATCamp Southeast session on librarian-scholar collaboration

"Will You Go to the Dance with Me?" by wireheadinc
"Will You Go to the Dance with Me?" by wireheadinc

I attended a session at THATCamp Southeast (which Shawn Averkamp proposed) on ways to promote collaboration between librarians and scholars (a subject close to my heart). We took notes together using a collaborative Google doc, and here’s my attempt to summarize.

“We get paid to be interrupted!”

The academics in the room started out by saying that they weren’t sure when it was appropriate to ask for assistance from a librarian. At what point, they wondered, are we impinging on the librarian’s time? Librarians responded that it sounded as though they needed to give out better information about the specific services librarians offer, like research interviews. In general, they said, they welcome any kind of consultation. “We get paid to be interrupted!” one librarian said.

This led to a discussion of some of the limitations of the research interview with the subject specialist. A couple scholars explained that the moment when they need help comes when they cross disciplinary boundaries; thus, visiting a particular subject-area specialist sometimes doesn’t seem helpful. Librarians explained that it’s always possible to consult with multiple subject-area specialists at once.

Professional expectations inform our behavior

It emerged that both librarians and scholars are subject to professional pressures that inform their expectations of each other. Scholars were surprised to hear that it’s professionally important for librarians to claim research interviews. “You like that?” one faculty member asked. “I always thought I was bothering you!” Scholars were also surprised to hear what a great professional boon it would be for librarians to be credited as collaborators. “I had no idea about the professional expectations for librarians,” a faculty member said. Librarians told scholars how much they’d appreciate professional recognition like inclusion on a dissertation committee.

We paused here while Brian Croxall mentioned the Collaborators’ Bill of Rights developed at the recent Off the Tracks conference at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. Brian urged librarians and faculty to familiarize themselves with the recommendations and insist on proper credit.

Scholars explained that the pressure of the tenure-track sometimes has the effect of making academics more timid than they might be about investing in unconventional collaboration and scholarship.

Sara Fuchs pointed out that faculty have more power than they realize; their word goes a long way with administrators (an observation that accords with my own experience).

Different professions, different cultures

We talked about the fact that the two different professions have different cultures, which can sometimes lead to misunderstandings. I explained that grad school encouraged me to be pugnacious and outspoken; academics are expected to be able to fight for their ideas. Librarians, on the other hand, have to work closely with each other and in a hierarchy, which means that they must practice a more gentle kind of diplomacy. I think academics might sometimes mistake this tact for timidity or intellectual inferiority.

Non-judgmental mentors for grad students

Ted Friedman asked librarians whether they go to the professional conferences for their subject areas, like MLA. Jason Puckett estimated that perhaps one-third of librarians do. The grad students in particular mentioned how useful it would be to consult with a subject-area expert who is not a professor, and therefore wouldn’t judge him or her for a lack of knowledge. We talked about the possibility of librarians offering frank, nonjudgmental advice to grad students — say, the top 100 books you need to be able to say you’ve read in your field. Grad students were enthusiastic about this kind of role.

A matchmaking service for collaborators?

Heather Martin asked scholars how she could interest them in collaborating on digital projects. “The only time I’m not interested in collaborating,” said Ted Friedman, “is when someone doesn’t recognize the merit of an idea.” We talked about the need for a kind of matchmaking service: one that would match potential collaborators on digital projects. (Bethany Nowviskie later tweeted that something like this in the works.)

Jason Puckett showed us a journal called Collaborative Librarianship.

How can we keep having these discussions?

We all wanted more forums like this discussion, where we could have honest conversations about what we want from each other. A number of people mentioned the fact that these opportunities don’t seem to exist. Sometimes librarians are invited to faculty meetings, but sometimes they’re not. “Would you like to be invited?” Ted Friedman asked. “It sounds burdensome.” Katie McCormick replied that while showing up at every faculty meeting might not be helpful, many librarians would appreciate the opportunity to come with an agenda when it’s relevant.

Nate Kreuter compared librarians’ and scholars’ stunted interactions to a middle school dance. We’re both standing on opposite sides of the room, he said, eager to dance but unsure how to initiate.

Paul Fyfe explained that at Florida State, he participates in a digital discussion group that includes staff members, librarians, faculty, and grad students — a promising form of collaboration that doesn’t distinguish along professional lines.

I loved this discussion, and particularly the good faith and enthusiasm in the room. Ted Friedman said that one of the things he liked best about THATCamp SE was the chance to see how librarians think about things like metadata and preservation. I totally agree. THATCamp’s insistence on flattening out hierarchies led to some of the first honest group discussions I’ve seen between scholars and librarians, including some (gentle) airing of frustrations and some real pushback from librarians. It was exciting for me — and, I think, for a lot of scholars — to see librarians insisting on their professional credentials and making us understand why what they do is important. I’d love to find ways to keep having these conversations.

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7 thoughts on “Opposite sides of the cafetorium: notes from a THATCamp Southeast session on librarian-scholar collaboration

  1. Thank you very much for this insider perspective on scholar-librarian dialectics. As a independent professional working in the area where Scholarly Publishing, Research Libraries, and ICT&Higher Education meet, I am very interested in these processes of interaction. They are, in my view, important indicators of the intertwined roads that education, information literacy, and the facilitating of information processes are taking.

  2. This is such an important conversation to have, and a big ‘thank you’ is due for sharing it with us! I’m currently an MLS student, although I’m starting a PhD program in the Fall semester in the same field. One thing we’re talking about today on the Hack Library School blog (hacklibschool.wordpress.com) is the PhD in this field, because we teach (mostly) practitioners but we also are scholars. I feel like this comes with a different set of expectations than academics who are teaching other academics, and my fellow students have confirmed this. There’s some great discussion centering around how the LIS professor can better structure a classroom around the LIS students’ needs, and your post spoke to that need for communication and collaboration. I would love to be a part of continued discussions about librarian-scholar collaboration, particularly how myself and other PhD hopefuls can use that discussion to inform our teaching and get students to think about these issues early on.

  3. Miriam, thanks so much for posting this detailed summary. For me as well, this was one of the most invigorating and eye opening sessions that I attended, for all the reasons you point out here.

  4. Thanks for the comments, all! I’ve been thinking more about the session in the last couple of days. I’ve been thinking in particular about the fact that librarianship, like all scholarly professions, is undergoing some pretty drastic changes. As a recent transplant to an academic library, I’ve watched librarians grapple with these changes by continuously asking scholars how they can be more responsive to their needs: lots of surveys, focus groups, language about marketing and assessment, etc.

    This is obviously admirable. But I’ve been thinking, too, about what Katie McCormick said in our workshop: that while librarianship includes service, librarians aren’t servants. Scholars at THATCamp told me that one of the most exciting aspects of the conference was hearing librarians push back: insisting on being heard, insisting that librarians have things to teach scholars, too. It strikes me that scholars and librarians can only learn to advocate for each other if each is fully aware of the value of what the other does.

    So, to the extent that it’s my place to say any of this, I’d like to see librarians continue to speak up with the force and persuasiveness I saw over the weekend.

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