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A Primer on Library Titles

March 27, 2018


National Technical Library, Prague

National Technical Library, Prague

For those of us working in academic libraries, the myriad roles in our organizations are generally fairly clear, but for the rest of our institution it seems that our internal structures and designations remain unclear. What follows is an attempt to provide some clarity about the roles in libraries. It might help to offer some caveats to keep things on track here. First, there are surely exceptions to nearly everything I will write below. I acknowledge that, but rather than dwell on exceptions the goal here is to provide a generally applicable overview. The other caveat is that libraries and the library profession are undergoing some fairly significant structural changes. I’ll try to capture some of this shifting without overly muddying the waters.

Perhaps the easiest place to start is at the top of the organization. Academic libraries are somewhat akin to faculties or colleges in structure, so not surprisingly the role at the top is often known as dean of libraries. Depending on the institution, however, other titles may be university librarian (very common at large libraries), chief librarian, or director (less common in larger research libraries but fairly common at non-doctoral institutions). Perhaps adding to the confusion is that at many institutions these roles may have two titles, e.g., vice provost and university librarian. No matter the title, this person occupies the top spot on the organizational chart and generally reports directly to a vice president of the university, most commonly the VP academic / provost, although at some institutions the university librarian may report to the VP research or another VP portfolio. What this means is that they sit at the same level in the university hierarchy as the deans of faculties and colleges, generally serving on dean’s council or similar executive bodies.

It is important to stress here that there is one and only one university librarian at nearly all institutions. I’ve heard of examples of academic libraries that call all of their permanent librarians university librarians, but this is exceedingly rare. In other words, when one sees the title university librarian, it is correct to assume that one is dealing with someone parallel to a dean. Inside the library world, we generally call someone with the university librarian title a UL.

Academic libraries at universities, i.e., those with more than 30 or so employees (so not most U.S. liberal arts colleges, for example) will generally have a senior leadership team that consists of the university librarian/dean/director and one or more associate university librarians/deans/directors. These individuals are colloquially known as AULs or ADs and their number roughly corresponds to the size of the library and its staff cohort. My employer, a major research library yet relatively small by the standards of the Association of Research Libraries, an organization representing the 120 or so largest research and academic libraries in North America, has three AULs. Other institutions may have as few as one AUL or AD while larger libraries may have five or even more. These AULs or ADs most commonly have non-overlapping portfolios, i.e., various departments or individuals report directly to an AUL, although projects and tasks often cross the portfolio boundaries. Typical titles one might hear would be AUL for Public Services or AD for Research Engagement and Scholarly Communication; what comes after AUL or AD is an attempt to describe the scope of responsibility more or less clearly. As these individuals report to a UL or dean/director, they are most closely analogous to an associate dean.

The UL/dean/director and AULs/ADs together form the core of an academic library’s leadership or executive team. Some libraries include other individuals in this group, typically those that have a direct reporting line to the UL/dean/director, such as directors of finance, human resources, and/or advancement. Currently, I would estimate that well over 90% of ULs/deans/directors and their associate-level colleagues are professional librarians, in other words they have the terminal degree for the profession, commonly referred to as the MLS or MLIS (master of library and information science) although it often goes by a different name these days depending on the granting institution.

This is a good spot to clarify a very simply yet often misunderstood point about libraries. A common faux pas among members of the campus community–I’ve heard this from the youngest undergraduates and the most experienced faculty and administrators in my career–is to refer to anyone who works in a library as a librarian. I point this out not to establish a classist hierarchy–I consequently reject any such stratification–but to make clear that librarian is a professional designation based on a specific education. To attempt to make this clearer, I would point out that doctors are not nurses nor vice versa. Both are professions in their own right, with their own unique educational standards and roles in health care.

I would be negligent not to point out that there are individuals working in academic libraries with the librarian title who lack the aforementioned library degree. This is not a new phenomenon but rather goes back many decades. Individuals in such roles most often have a PhD and found their way into libraries based on specific subject expertise from their PhD program. Some of my librarian colleagues at Yale fell into this category. Since the founding of the Council on Library Resources’ (CLIR) postdoctoral fellow program in the mid-aughts, we have witnessed an uptick in the number of PhD holders without an MLS assuming librarian roles, a few even at the UL/AUL level. This has led to some pushback although that seems to have calmed somewhat in recent years. Many libraries, including my current employer, still require that any role with the title librarian be filled by someone with an MLS.

The percentage of a library’s staff that holds the title and rank of librarian varies widely from institution. I would suggest that the librarian cohort typically forms 20-40% of the total staff. At many institutions, librarians hold faculty status and pass through an up-and-out tenure system similar to that for faculty. At others, librarians may have ranks and fairly high job security with permanent (open-ended) positions, but lack faculty status. I’ve worked at two institutions with faculty status (and earned tenure) and at three without and could probably write a novel-length treatise on the pros and cons of either situation. It’s a touchy topic for many librarians so I will delicately skirt it here.

Beyond librarians, things become somewhat less predictable in terms of nomenclature, but one can see fairly common staffing trends. Most libraries have a number of individuals in managerial or professional roles that do not require an MLS but rather require other professional qualifications. The aforementioned human resources and financial roles would be two examples, as would a number of IT management positions in many libraries. Similarly, a role requiring a high degree of proficiency in a specific skill, such as GIS or data analysis, may well fall into this category. This group is most often smaller than the librarian cohort but often fills similar managerial roles.

Numerically speaking, the largest cohort in most academic libraries will be what we often refer to somewhat loosely as library staff, which can be quite confusing for those outside of libraries since everyone who works in the library is by a broader definition part of the staff. These roles go by various designations, including  library assistant, library technical assistant, or library technician. In Canada there are often college-level programs that offer certificates that qualify one for such a role; in my experience this is not the case in the United States (where I started in libraries as a library technical assistant). When one walks up to a service point of any type in a modern academic library, it is most likely that one will first encounter a staff member in this category, as they often fill what we refer to as front-line service positions. Their work is also critical in areas such as interlibrary loan, collection management, IT support, acquisitions, archival processing, and many others.

The synergistic contributions of all of the people working in libraries is what makes them successful as organizations. Having various types of employees with a wide range of credentials and training enables us both to remain solidly grounded in our traditional obligations as well as to branch out into new areas. It is also worth noting that many people working currently as librarians previously held roles of other types in libraries; similarly it is not uncommon to find individuals with an MLS working in non-librarian roles due to the general paucity of librarian roles and the number of MLS graduates.

Hopefully this relatively brief excursus helps our university colleagues beyond the library understand how we staff libraries and what our various titles and designations signify. Please feel free to ask questions and/or to offer feedback. I’d like to treat this post as a living document that evolves as libraries change.

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