From the Guest Editor: Lessons from the Library

By Danya Leebaw

Academic librarians don’t quite fit in. We move within two professional spheres that overlap but also have their own distinct concerns and values. Librarians are deeply embedded within higher education institutions, and some of us are like traditional faculty members in having tenure, research obligations, and teaching roles. Many academic librarians, however, lack faculty status and are lumped together with a wide range of staff who work on campus. Beyond the academy, we learn and associate with librarians from all kinds of places—the public library, the school media center, the archive, the special collection. Notably, a bedrock principle shared across all library types is intellectual freedom, considered by the United Nations to be a fundamental human right—an umbrella concept that is broader than, but includes, academic freedom.

Over the years, academic librarians have sought faculty status and tenure in order to obtain the strongest possible academic freedom protections, economic security, and workplace respect. The Association of College and Research Libraries, the Association of American Colleges (now the American Association of Colleges and Universities), and the AAUP first issued a joint statement more than fifty years ago calling for academic librarians whose work “requires them to function essentially as part of the faculty” to have faculty status with eligibility for tenure and academic freedom protections. Why do academic librarians need academic freedom? An obvious reason is that we must be able to use our expertise to build collections for our campuses, without interference. But librarians also need academic freedom to perform all sorts of other work, especially given how often our responsibilities involve controversial topics and information: teaching students, answering reference questions, creating exhibits about library materials, developing catalog entries so that materials are findable, and much more. Librarians’ work is essential to the academic mission and also often comes under scrutiny from administrators, faculty colleagues, and the public.

In this special issue on libraries and librarians, authors explore the concept of intellectual freedom and its complicated relationship to academic freedom as well as the status of librarians on their campuses. They frame these topics within our current context of academic labor precarity, far-right and state-sponsored censorship, neoliberalism, and—of course—a global pandemic. In studying the particular conditions of libraries within academia, the authors in this issue surface many larger truths applicable to the whole.

For example, examining the status of librarians on their campuses offers larger insights into academic employment, campus hierarchies, and working conditions. Two articles in this issue explore the position of librarians on their campuses and consider the broader implications of librarians’ status. In the view of Joshua Kim and Edward Maloney, librarians have achieved an enviable centrality and earned enduring respect in higher education, which they see as a model for their own field of learning innovation. Librarians are guided by deeply rooted professional values—including intellectual and academic freedom—that have solidified their campus roles. But in practice, this isn’t always the experience of librarians—at the University of Virginia, for example, librarians’ roles have been anything but solid. Keith Weimer’s case study explores how UVA cycled through a variety of faculty and faculty-like statuses for its librarians in recent years, signaling the potential impermanence of job classifications and offering key takeaways for librarians experiencing this uncertainty on their own campuses.

Librarians’ skepticism about administrative attempts to change their status is well-founded. In this age of austerity for higher education, abstract understandings of academic freedom are insufficient. In his contribution to this issue, Sam Popowich argues for an explicit materialist foundation for the fight for academic freedom. Popowich writes that “it would be useful to adopt a communal conception of freedom, freedom produced by collective obligations” rather than an “otherworldly” understanding of intellectual freedom. Martin J. Brennan’s case study in this issue serves as a real-world illustration of Popowich’s argument. Brennan tells the story of his union’s fight to include academic freedom protections in the librarians’ contract during 2018 negotiations. Administrators and librarians often lack a shared understanding of librarians’ rights and roles; collective bargaining is one avenue to solidify and materialize academic freedom protections.

This issue also grapples with the current moment’s alarming rise in censorship and threats against libraries and library workers. Nonwhite and LGBTQ librarians and those librarians with other marginalized identities are especially at risk, as are materials and programs dealing with issues of race and gender. Emily Drabinksi, 2023–24 president of the American Library Association, links these attacks to the neoliberal project of undermining public institutions. Drabinski calls on us to resist these forces, arguing that “the fight for higher education must be a fight for the library as well.” Reanna Esmail, who like Drabinski has been the target of right-wing harassment, writes in her article about the hidden actors and incentives behind both censorship efforts and data capitalism. Esmail proposes critical information literacy as a means of countering disinformation and assaults on intellectual and academic freedom.

It might seem strange to advocate for librarians’ rights at a moment when tenure itself is increasingly under threat. However, if libraries are truly the heart of our campuses (as is often claimed), then the issues we face should matter deeply to our faculty and administrative colleagues. A weakened heart means the entire body is at risk. Librarians have a rich and robust set of disciplinary values and practices and a professional community that connects us to matters outside the academy. We are also leaders in areas of emerging interest for academia, including open access, interdisciplinarity, research collaboration, and community engagement. Yet we are often excluded from contributing fully to our institutions because of our frequently marginal status and relative invisibility. A central theme of this issue is the need for solidarity: between traditional faculty members and librarians, between higher education and other public institutions, and among librarians of all types. The only way we, and higher education, will sustain ourselves and prosper is by coming together.

Danya Leebaw is the director of the social sciences department at the University of Minnesota Libraries. She previously worked as a liaison librarian at Carleton College and Emory University. Her research focuses on workplace conditions for academic librarians through a critical theoretical lens, and she had published and presented on academic freedom for academic librarians since 2017.