Monday, April 09, 2007

You need to keep up with the disciplines

I have written about keeping up before in this blog (here is a small example). As Arts and Humanities Librarian (A&H), one of the things I strive for is to keep up with the disciplines that fall under my subject areas. While I currently don't have memberships in organizations like MLA (the language one, not the medical librarians; if you need a reason, try keeping a few additional memberships besides ALA on a librarian's salary), I do read, or at least scan, a variety of journals in the A&H areas as well as English (my academic specialty) and education (my trade). To be a good subject specialist, you need to keep up with the subject. Presenting in an area within your subject specialty once in a while would be good. For me, time constraints prevent me from such. I do admit that I miss writing some literary criticism papers as I did back when I was in the English program. However, between the time factor and the lack of incentive at my current workplace, it means I won't be writing that paper on deformities and outcasts in a couple of science fiction novels I had in mind any time soon. I am not making the observation to gripe. It is a fact of life, so a librarian does what he can do. In my case, I read in other areas as well as my areas of interest, make notes, learn, and overall stay informed. And I do this not just for myself. I do it so I can have something in common with my faculty. The bottom line is that you need to know your disciplines well as an academic librarian.

I got to thinking about this after reading over Steven Bell's post on "The Value of Keeping Up with Disciplines" over at ACRLog. Mr. Bell presents a guest post by Neal Baker reflecting on MLA's recent report advocating changes in foreign language departments. Their idea, to put it very simply, is to look at foreign language study more as area studies in order to be more relevant.

Mr. Baker writes:

"Knowledge of the MLA report will help me to keep librarianship central to the Earlham College curriculum, and relevant liaison librarians everywhere can likewise benefit. I can first ask questions raised by the report with faculty, thereby demonstrating an awareness of disciplinary concerns. Second, the report gives me another opportunity to suggest resources that allow faculty to address the report’s concerns."

In my case, given that foreign languages fall under my liaison and subject areas, that report would be of interest to me. Like Mr. Baker, I can see myself using it as a way of opening some discussion with some faculty in terms of curriculum, collection development, and even instruction. When it comes to things like collection development, creating this kind of discussion is important. We should not be doing collection development in a reactive way based on vendor marketing and spam. I am sad to say that much of our collection development here is done on that basis, which I find inadequate, but I am quitting while I am ahead. I put a lot of time and effort into keeping up. Maybe it is a bit too much time if you ask one of my supervisors. However, this notion of keeping up with the disciplines is crucial to academic librarians. This is significant for those with subject liaison duties, and it is more important if you do instruction.

Here is what I would want to know, if I had the inclination to ask knowing I would get an answer. I want to know what other librarians in my unit do to keep up. I know one of the business librarians finds a few Wall Street Journal articles of interest because I get them forwarded in my inbox once in a while. However, those articles are either the ones related to libraries that the whole library sector of the blogosphere has covered ad nauseam by the time the business librarian hits the forward button, or they are the cute features like CEO salary lists, in other words, trivia. Now, light features may be of some interest, but I want to know what business-related journals you review if any and if you have read any recent articles of substance. Since we are an institution that serves mostly undergraduates (i.e. a teaching campus), I also want to know if you read anything in the field of business education and pedagogy. Another example would be the sciences librarian. I have no idea what this person reads, if anything, because we never hear from that person. Same goes for the English specialist. The only one I can cite that does some readings in her area is the Engineering Technology Librarian, who also posts to the library's blog on items of interest to her subject area.

We should be sharing more about our areas of interest. In order to do that, you should have something to share in the first place. I have a small theory as to why many faculty refuse to take librarians seriously, even when the librarians hold faculty status. Here it is: regular faculty think we can't handle anything related to their disciplines. Sadly, in many cases, that does seem to be the norm. In my case, I think I can stand up to any faculty in my area, and I can intelligently discuss issues and concerns of their academic fields. But the keeping up needed for that takes some effort. That is a part of why I keep this academic blog as well as a couple other personal blogs, so I can keep track of my keeping up efforts. When asked, "what have you read in our field? Did you know that we may be rethinking ways of teaching foreign language students?" I can simply point them to my blog, "yes, I read that last month, and here is what I think about it. Based on that, maybe we should consider getting more resources in this or that area. And let me tell you about some new books on Latin American area studies, in Spanish, we recently acquired."

When I started typing this, I just wanted to make a short reply to a post I saw in another blog. As often happens, one gets to thinking about other things, and so, I find my way over to thinking about my situation here. For two reasons. One, I think we could be doing a lot more. Two, I do get a bit frustrated when I get a guilt trip from certain people because I actually make the time and effort to keep up. I will be blunt and take a risk in saying it: when you can show me a documented trail of how you keep up with your disciplines, then and only then, can you come over and give me grief over me doing it. In my case, it goes along with my instructional as well as subject duties. It's more than teaching classes and looking over vendor notice cards. You need to keep up with the disciplines.


John R. said...

Hi Angel,

A lot of academics blog now, so that's how I keep up with history, but also with academic life in general. I'm not sure how many Latin American Studies grad students or faculty blog, but it would be worth looking around to see if anything exists. RSS feeds for academic journals help a lot too - that way you can skim titles and abstracts to at least get a quick feel of what's going on (and forward any interesting articles to appropriate faculty).

Regarding your theory of why profs don't regard librarians as equal (and the importance of keeping up with academic disciplines): read Reading and the Reference Librarian; the authors surveyed faculty and found that faculty expect librarians to be versed on some level with academic research (and many other things besides). Meaning that if librarians want to be part of the academic life of the university, librarians need to be more like academics (this doesn't mean librarians should all have PhDs; it does mean that more librarians should read academic literature). The cost is that there's less time to keep up with library-specific scholarship, but for subject librarians, it seems pretty necessary.


John Russell

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine why you would ever need to feel guilty about "keeping up" with your disciplines.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

John: Thanks for stopping by. That book has been on my TBR list for quite a while now. Given you may be the second or third person to recommend it, it may be time to move it up the cue. It seems from your description that they say a lot of what I think (or at least would help me validate what I am saying). I do think you need to be able to "talk their language." It's like a currency having a level of knowledge in the academic field you serve.

I am glad to see a lot of academics blog these days. I do follow a couple of academic (nonlibrarian) blogs as well as others. I think some more bloggers who are more specialized, say Latin American studies scholars, are needed. People like that provide a service to the rest of us who need to keep up, in my humble opinion.

Anonymous: Thanks as well for stopping by. I made the remark because at one point I was told by a supervisor that "I think you spend too much time on that blog." I am often pretty obvious about reading articles (I do it at the reference desk when things are slow, for instance) too. Anyhow, you are right, I should not feel guilty, neither should anyone else who is keeping up.

Best, and keep on blogging.