Fifteen minutes before the Brooklyn College Library closed on a Friday afternoon in late October, a bald-headed man in a gorilla suit came to the reference desk looking for help.
Myles Bassell, a faculty member in the college’s business program, wanted help in his research on the global move toward creating uniform international financial reporting standards in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Before heading off to an annual on-campus Halloween party that he helped students organize, Bassell made an appointment with reference librarian Jill Cirasella to review his research strategy.
“I asked Jill if I could meet with her to discuss my research objectives because she is an expert in the research tools available at the library,” Bassell said. It was time to supplement his literature review with other sources, and Bassell needed to make sure he chose wisely in focusing the next phase of his work.
Academic librarians like Cirasella routinely assist other faculty with scholarly work. Their expert knowledge of specialized databases, public documents, historical archives, online search strategies, and library resources at CUNY and other universities can make them ideal partners for other faculty members’ research projects.
Library faculty are also able to play this role because they are scholars themselves. Cirasella has published a number of papers on the history of quantum computing research (which helps her assist computer science faculty) and on the role of Google in research libraries. In her writing on Google, she drew on her own interactions with students to encourage colleagues to embrace the search engine giant in creative ways, and use it to draw students toward using more advanced research tools. She notes that being an active researcher keeps her on the cutting edge of librarianship.
Maura Smale, an assistant professor in the Library Department at City Tech, is in the middle of a three-year study with Associate Professor Mariana Regalado of Brooklyn College on the scholarly habits of students at six CUNY campuses. Smale said their initial findings have already encouraged reconfiguring study areas at City Tech’s library to facilitate more privacy for students. NYC’s expensive housing market means that many CUNY students live in crowded conditions, making it hard to concentrate at home. “We’ve heard from students that they really value having the private space where they can focus on getting their work done,” said Smale.
Philosophical inquiry by Robert Farrell, an associate professor in the library department at Lehman College, led to a practical payoff for Lehman students. “My work studying the theory of skill acquisition and expertise put forward by Berkeley phenomenologist Hubert Dreyfus led to developing a new workshop for our Freshman Year Initiative program,” Farrell told Clarion. The workshop focuses on how to determine the validity of information in areas in which one is not an expert – an increasingly important skill in an era when students are flooded with online information sources, of widely varying quality.
“We are living in a knowledge society,” said Farrell, “and the nature of our profession has changed.” Through their scholarly work, CUNY librarians both keep up with and help shape the changes in how academic libraries operate today.
CUNY’s full-time library faculty, like those in other departments, must meet demanding research and publication standards for promotion and tenure. Their scholarship benefits both CUNY’s students and their colleagues in other fields. Yet while most other faculty receive summer annual leave, which they use for both vacation and their research projects, annual leave for library faculty is capped at four to six weeks. This makes it difficult to make progress on their research agendas.
CUNY’s 250 library faculty say they are long overdue to receive full parity in annual leave, and the union has made this one of its demands in the upcoming round of contract negotiations.
Library faculty carry out a variety of responsibilities that place them at the center of the University’s intellectual life, and this has only become more true with the information revolution of the past generation. Today they work with other faculty to make development of information literacy skills an integral part of course curriculum, and conduct thousands of instructional sessions per year to help students across the CUNY system make better use of library resources.
Information literacy is the ability to identify the information one needs, locate it, evaluate it and effectively use it. This increasingly vital skill is gradually being embedded throughout John Jay’s curriculum, says Ellen Sexton, a librarian who sits on the college’s undergraduate curriculum committee. Teaching faculty who propose a new course are asked to describe the information literacy goals for the course and how those fit in with the information literacy goals of the major. The faculty member proposing the course also meets with the library liaison to their department to discuss what library resources can be used in this course of study.
“The idea is to get the faculty member thinking about information literacy and what they can do,” Sexton said. “It’s fostering awareness.”
Farrell told Clarion that students at Lehman are required to take three workshops on information literacy during their first year. Lehman’s nine faculty librarians hold 75-85 freshman information literacy sessions during the course of the year, and conduct more than 300 workshops per year for all programs and departments at the school.
Much of an academic librarian’s day is taken up with individual requests for assistance. “For students, working with a faculty librarian at a reference desk is a lot like meeting with teaching faculty in office hours,” Cirasella said. “Given how crowded classes are, students really appreciate being able to get that kind of focused one-on-one attention.”
Whenever possible, library faculty use these one-on-one encounters as opportunities to help students think reflectively about how best to use the resources at their fingertips, building skills that students can use in the future. “We are putting students in a position of maximizing their freedom to take information and use it,” said Farrell, “so that they realize their full potential as human beings.”
The daily demands of CUNY’s libraries make it hard for their faculty to devote consistent time to writing or research without a greater amount of annual leave. “It’s impossible to put out a book if you don’t have a long block of time or a sabbatical,” said Rob Laurich of City College.
Junior library faculty do receive 24 hours of reassigned time, and Cirasella is using this to take one day of reassigned time per week for her research. She recently completed a paper on peer mentoring of librarians and is working on another on the academic benefits of having an art collection housed within a library.
Scott Sheidlower, librarian at York, spent a year gathering information for a book he is co-authoring on using humor to defuse students’ sense of being overwhelmed by large academic libraries. This past summer he used a 25-day block of junior faculty reassigned time to write 25,000 words, about one-fourth of the manuscript.
“Those 25 days made a huge difference for me,” Sheidlower said. “It’s the sort of thing librarians need much more of.”
Currently, up to 50 library faculty per year can receive a limited five-week leave for scholarly and creative work. After applying, they must go through several layers of campus bureaucracy to get their request approved.
“It’s not available to everyone, and some libraries are better than others about granting it,” one junior library faculty member told Clarion. “We shouldn’t have to apply for it – it should be available to all.” Another problem is the lack of replacements. When taking a research leave means more work for already overworked colleagues, or a huge backlog waiting upon one’s return, it’s a disincentive to scholarship.
Librarians’ faculty status has been a subject of contention in the past. CUNY granted tenured-faculty status and rank to academic librarians in 1965. “There was an expectation that they would eventually get the same annual leave as other faculty,” said Bonnie Nelson, a library professor at John Jay who worked in the CCNY library as an undergraduate and then a library school student during the early 1970s.
Nelson said that dream receded in the aftermath of the retrenchment that took place in 1975. In 2006 a new generation of faculty like Cirasella won inclusion in the provision for junior faculty reassigned time after mobilizing to make their voices heard. This Spring, library faculty turned out in force at the campus contract meetings held across CUNY, where they pushed for parity in annual leave.
“I don’t think there’s another faculty group as unified as us,” Farrell said.
Now library faculty are looking to build that same level of unity with their colleagues – joining the broad fight for the union’s contract agenda and seeking support for their own equity demands. They are taking the same collaborative approach to union action that is at the heart of their professional work.
Working together is something that seems to come naturally to faculty in CUNY’s libraries. “Whether it’s helping students and faculty or helping each other,” said Cirasella, “sharing and collaboration are what librarians are all about.”