Lessons from Academic Libraries about Building a New Academic Field

The field of learning innovation and academic librarianship can make common cause.
By Joshua Kim and Edward Maloney

In our 2020 book Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, we argued for the need to imagine a new interdisciplinary field, partly in response to the work of nontraditional academics who are aligning practice with research and teaching. This interdisciplinary field, which we named learning innovation, takes as its space of inquiry and applied practice the institution-level changes occurring across postsecondary education to align organizational structures with research on learning. Our hope is that this field will not only help us better understand the history of higher education but will also develop models that will align theories of organizational change with the unique characteristics of colleges and universities.

In the book, we did not explicitly discuss the connections between the emerging academic field of learning innovation and the established discipline of academic librarianship, at least in any detailed way. Those of us working at the intersection of practice and scholarship in learning innovation have much to learn, however, from the successes and challenges of academic librarians.

From the vantage point of the academic librarian, the idea that librarianship may serve as a model for others wishing to create a new academic field may sound a bit quixotic. As Alexis Logsdon and Danya Leebaw observed in their 2021 article for the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom, “Academic librarians sit at the periphery of the academy.” This is nowhere truer, Logsdon and Leebaw argue, than in the tenuous status of academic freedom for librarians. Not surprisingly, this tenuousness has complicated the efforts of academic librarians to secure institutional status and funding. Of course, the relationships of libraries to academic disciplines are as varied as those of higher education institutions with libraries. There is no one model, no one answer for how librarians fit into the academy.

As students of higher education change working outside of the academic library, we have some advantages in reflecting on the library as a model. Admittedly, our view of why those who do not occupy traditional tenure-track roles in academic departments can learn much from the disciplinary and institutional accomplishments of academic librarians may be overly affected by what appears to be greener grass on the other side of the fence. Each academic library faces challenges specific to its institutional context, however, and the grass is not always greener. Our goal is not to diminish the challenges of academic librarianship or of academic libraries but instead to accentuate the positive achievements that might illustrate what those in an emerging field of learning innovation can learn from the established field of academic librarianship.

The Library as Hub

The most visible achievement of academic librarianship as a discipline and libraries as a vital aspect of university life may be the physical evolution of the academic library. At both of our campuses, the main library building serves as one of the centers of academic life. It is difficult to imagine a more tangible expression of the evolution of higher education than the transformation of the design and function of the academic library. Once great repositories of books and journals, campus libraries today are hubs of social learning and centers of educational enrichment. In these buildings, librarians collaborate with students and professors across the spectrum of learning and knowledge creation. Yes, university libraries still have books. But the place that is the academic library is evolving to contain and reflect the complexity of the modern university. A college without a library is unimaginable, even in the digital age.

Perhaps the lesson of the physical evolution of the academic library for those of us seeking to build a new discipline of learning innovation is obvious. Space matters. It may even be true that, as higher education hurtles relentlessly toward a digital future—a transition accelerated since 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic—a physical manifestation of the values and services of the library may be more important than ever. The importance of the physical space applies equally to the new academic field we have proposed, where studio work happens alongside educational technology development informed by complex data modeling. The space needs of the field we have imagined are varied, complex, and form the hub of much of the change that higher education is experiencing.

This is not to argue that a campus space housing the work of learning innovation must achieve the footprint (or match the operating hours) of campus library buildings. Learning innovation spaces should be designed to reflect the objectives and practices of the discipline. Collaborative working spaces—the places where the applied work of learning innovation is done—should seamlessly transform into centers of scholarly dissemination and debate, while design activities need to coexist with media development and “extended reality” production.

Since the field of learning innovation takes the university as its unit of analysis—specifically, the alignment of institutional structures with learning science—the space occupied by learning innovation must reflect that alignment. Creating communities of practice both within and across institutions can be aided if practitioners have a place to go. A prominent and visible campus space for the practitioner-scholars of learning innovation would be both a signal of the discipline’s salience and a catalyst for its growth.

A Values-Centered Field

A second area where we see opportunities for learning innovation to emulate academic librarianship is in the latter’s articulation of values, particularly the importance of intellectual freedom. The concept of intellectual freedom is inseparable from the work of contemporary librarians. As enumerated in a document from the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), these intellectual freedom principles include the following:

  • Open and unfiltered access to the Internet should be conveniently available to the academic community in a college or university library.
  • Freedom of information and of creative expression should be reflected in library exhibits and in all relevant library policy documents.
  • Library meeting rooms, research carrels, exhibit spaces, and other facilities should be available to the academic community regardless of research being pursued or subject being discussed.
  • Whenever possible, library services should be available without charge in order to encourage inquiry.

The concept of intellectual freedom is as fundamental to the nature of the university as it is to the value of the university in society. The profession of academic librarianship is one of the greatest bulwarks protecting this concept. The values of intellectual freedom transcend institutional hierarchies and cross-university differences, in no small part because they are reflected in the discipline of library science. They constitute a significant portion of the beliefs, thinking, and practices that go into constructing the culture of the academic library, both within a university and in an inclusive and vibrant academic discipline.

Taking the values-centered field of academic librarians as a model, learning innovation should seek to articulate the foundational principles upon which the discipline might be built. Intellectual freedom is not the only set of principles to which academic libraries adhere. If we look across a variety of mission and value statements of academic libraries, common themes of access, diversity, equity, inclusion, and service emerge. These are shared values common to academic libraries and other divisions, units, and entire institutions.

We highlight the principle of intellectual freedom because it exemplifies how a set of distinctive values has become closely associated with the practices and culture of academic librarians. Any set of principles that learning innovation seeks to develop should similarly strive to be faithful to the work of the discipline while also differentiating that work from other parts of academia.

Laboratories for Study

The third area of confluence is very much related to the second. Academic libraries serve a layered function at institutions, particularly those with schools of library science. Libraries and academic librarians provide a service to the institutions of which they are a part, as we have discussed. But they also are a laboratory for the study of library science—a living laboratory with a practical function. Libraries adapt to their institutions, but the institutions grow and often thrive because of how libraries can help institutions see where the most important aspects of academic life are thriving.

Because the field of learning innovation takes the university as its object of study, the institutions at which scholars of learning innovation work are necessarily their laboratories as well. What we learn about institutional history, leadership, and change is directly informed by the practices of our home institutions. This is not always an easy balancing act to maintain. A laboratory can be truly successful only if it can show failures as well as successes. Highlighting failures in leadership or institutional strategy is never comfortable. It’s much harder to do so at your own institution, especially without the protections of academic freedom and (often) tenure.

Faculty Status

This leads us to the fourth and final area where those seeking to build a new academic field of learning innovation might learn from academic librarians: the fight for faculty status. A theme that runs through Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education is that the academics most likely to affiliate themselves with the learning innovation field are likely not to be found in traditional tenure-track roles. Rather, the scholars of learning innovation can also be expected to be its practitioners, working in newly emerging campus academic innovation and online education organizations. Concluding with discussion of faculty rights and obligations may seem like burying the lede. Absent the protections of faculty status, ranging from academic freedom to participation in the governance of the institution, the field of learning innovation will likely never take its place as coequal with more established disciplines.

The Joint Statement on Faculty Status of College and University Librarians, adopted by the ACRL and endorsed by the AAUP, offers an elegant, powerful, and concise argument for faculty status for librarians. Advocates of faculty status for learning innovation scholar-practitioners could do worse than borrow from this document. The statement makes clear the importance of the role that librarians play in the intellectual life of an institution and the parity within the academic culture and protections that go with it.

That a defense of the faculty status of academic librarians was necessary demonstrates just how difficult this goal will be to achieve for the practitioner-scholars of learning innovation. Academic librarians have been fighting for universal recognition as faculty members at least since the publication of the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. This fight for faculty status has occurred in the context of the success of academic librarians in establishing and developing their scholarly discipline and of the contributions that academic librarians make to student learning and knowledge creation. Learning innovation is a new field with no such track record. If the experience of academic librarians is at all indicative of the challenges ahead, moving scholar-practitioners of learning innovation beyond classifications as staff will ultimately be a very long journey.

Those academics who are beginning to self-identify as learning innovators can seek to make common cause—wherever possible—with academic librarians. In understanding academic librarians as our older and more successful cousins in the quest to move from the periphery to the center of the academy, learning innovators should endeavor to become students of the academic library. In doing whatever we can to collaborate with academic librarians and support the work of academic libraries, learning innovators will gain essential allies and valuable teachers in our efforts to bring to life a new academic discipline.

Joshua Kim is the director of online programs and strategy at Dartmouth College and a senior fellow at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University. His email address is [email protected]. Edward Maloney is the executive director of the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, a professor of the practice of narrative literature and theory in the Department of English, and the founding director of the Program in Learning, Design, and Technology at Georgetown University. His email address is [email protected].