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The Rules Are Always Changing: An Explorative Review of the Lived Experiences of Faculty Librarians During the Tenure Track Process

Published onDec 12, 2023
The Rules Are Always Changing: An Explorative Review of the Lived Experiences of Faculty Librarians During the Tenure Track Process


As academic faculty librarians in the midst of the tenure track process, the authors are investigating the differences in written and unwritten expectations, standards, and formal requirements used in evaluating faculty librarians during the tenure-track process. In this piece, we explore the “possible pathways for creating systemic change in what is valued and recognized in academic careers” by building upon existing literature—both research-focused and case studies—to examine ongoing structural challenges in the promotion and tenure process of faculty librarians. The essay will discuss how the written standards and advertised library and university goals of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility do not always align with the lived experiences of faculty librarians as they move through the tenure and promotion process and how this discrepancy affects retention and may create burnout for faculty librarians, particularly librarians from underrepresented backgrounds. To conclude, we provide suggestions for future areas of research that institutions can use to look at their own unwritten rules and how these could be better aligned with written guidelines.

Positionality Statement

The writers of this piece came to this project with differing identities and a shared desire to see improvements to the promotion and tenure process for academic librarians. Christina Miskey is a first generation graduate student, assistant professor, and is disabled and part of the LGBTQ+ community. Her interest in this topic stems from her lived experiences navigating academia with little support, and efforts to improve systems so future librarians don’t experience the same obstacles. Stephanie Fell is a white, cisgender woman. Her interest in this topic arises from her lived experience working in multiple contingent professional librarian positions for more than a decade. Brittani Sterling is a first generation college student, graduate student, assistant professor, and Black American. Her interest in this topic stems from a combination of lived experience, and continuous efforts at providing equitable and inclusive experiences for BIPOC academic librarians.


The Higher Education landscape is a complex behemoth with lots of titular implications, divisions, individual colleges, departments, and units, with just as many mixed messages, organizational cultural cues, and institutional knowledge to accompany them. There are many different institution types, promotions systems, and job classification schemas within Higher Education. This can make for an employment experience that is rife with technically clear job duties that seemingly lead to a linear path to success, in this case tenure. Faculty members who are motivated toward the promise of a career safety net may find the promise of “forever work” in a tenure system appealing.

Unfortunately, this promise can come with unexpected challenges derived from implied, unclear expectations that academic faculty are expected to abide by, and institutional mores that one is expected to have an internalized understanding of. Considering the differences among positions with statuses beyond the full-time tenure track, such as adjunct faculty or visiting faculty, it is easy to see that finding pathways to advance can get complicated rather quickly. The complexity of the roles of faculty librarians can be rather daunting. In addition to some teaching, these roles often encompass both public service work as well as the many more functional and compartmentalized skills. Faculty librarian positions can range from scholarly communications, legal research, public service, archiving, and ensuring that collections and information are discoverable. These are just a few of examples of the types of roles that librarians might fill at any given academic institution.

In this article, we will discuss the challenges of being tenure track faculty librarians at a large R-1 institution, how this varies from the general faculty experience and its tenure expectations, the challenges of holding the shared title of librarian professor while operating in largely different functional, technical, and teaching expertise, and the way in which diversity, equity, and inclusion play a role in trying to make sense of the ever changing rules.

Hidden Rules vs Written Rules

There are common themes present in much of the literature discussing librarians as faculty—these themes include debating whether librarians should have faculty status, offering advice on making it through the tenure process, and the importance of mentoring. What the literature doesn’t explicitly discuss is how there can be a disparity between the written tenure and promotion policies that librarians must follow to obtain tenure, and the unwritten expectations put upon tenure track librarians by peers, library leadership, and the institution. However, there are clues in the existing literature that suggest an ongoing issue with changing, unwritten, implied, and sometimes conflicting expectations.

It has been well established that librarians are generally not as prepared for the rigors of tenure due to their terminal degree programs, which tend to focus on a broad range of subjects and functional areas, such as teaching and other practical skills, rather than preparing librarians for research positions in the way that a PhD program would (Pasche-Wood & Gallaspy, 2022; Tysick & Babb, 2006; Cameron & Pierce, 2021). This is exacerbated by what are frequently described as a lack of “clear-cut guidelines among institutions regarding what constitutes scholarship or service,” (Garner, Davidson & Schwartzkopf, 2009) and a lack of consensus on whether librarians’ position responsibilities should be evaluated as “librarianship” or “teaching” to stay comparable with other university faculty positions (Holderman, 2021). Without clear guidelines, tenure track librarians “may be forced to travel an ambiguous tenure track alone, with little or no mentoring or administrative direction (Tysick & Babb, 2006)” thus having to rely on their tenured colleagues for advice, though their experiences vary (Rutledge, Casucci & Kelly, 2023).

Service expectations, for example, are not often stated explicitly in tenure and promotion guidelines within the library or at the institutional level (Rutledge, Casucci & Kelly, 2023). In fact, tenure policy documentation may state that scholarship and service requirements represent equivalent time spent, but there may be additional unwritten expectations for what “constitute[s] appropriate service contributions” implying a “tacit understanding” that “non-tenured folks [should] minimize service in order to get enough research done to merit tenure (Rutledge, Casucci & Kelly, 2023).” This conflicting standard is present at our own institution; tenure documentation doesn’t necessarily differentiate between the amount of time that should be devoted to service and scholarship, but there is an “unspoken” guideline that service should be prioritized after scholarship, regardless of what that service might be.

Structural Challenges: Librarianship is Unique 

As previously mentioned, there are decades of extensive literature on the subject of pros and cons of tenure for academic librarians and their varying professional status (Aby, 2011; Silva, Galbraith & Groesbeck, 2017; Freedman, 2014) , but similar to the lack of literature on the topic of hidden versus written rules, less attention is paid to the topic of what makes the tenure track process for academic faculty librarians uniquely challenging and complicated. One of the most significant differences are the contracts for librarians versus teaching faculty (Aby, 2011; Vix & Buckman, 2011). Within academic librarianship, our job duties, or scope of day-to-day work, can differ greatly from one another and from traditional teaching faculty on campus. “Whether they are faculty members or academic professionals, academic librarians are often twelve-month employees. This has a profound impact on their ability to dedicate free time to research and scholarship and related endeavors (Aby, 2011).” Conversely, full time teaching faculty are generally on nine-month contracts, with summers off to focus on research and scholarship.

Furthermore, while many of us have scholarship and service requirements in addition to our day-to-day job responsibilities, not all academic librarian roles include traditional instruction or other direct interactions with students. For example, the authors of this article, all tenure track academic faculty librarians, have very different roles: liaison librarian, special collections catalog librarian, and scholarly communications librarian. Amongst the three authors, one of us frequently works directly with students, one primarily supports student work and research from behind-the-scenes, and one works in a hybrid role, which has a mix of behind-the-scenes and student-facing work, respectively. This is notable because academic librarians at many institutions are evaluated based on their fulfillment of “librarianship” as a functional job role to accommodate the wide variety of position responsibilities faculty librarians have. This differs from teaching faculty, which are evaluated based on their instruction and interactions with students.

In addition to the challenge of the practical work of a librarian is the assumption that librarianship is a service profession, resulting in the “blurring of librarianship and service” (Hartnett et al., 2019). While academic faculty librarians are required to conduct research and publish scholarly works, there still seems to be the anecdotal sense on many campuses that a librarian's scholarship is less important or impactful than that of teaching faculty, which certainly impacts morale. For example, much of librarian scholarship focuses on research and projects that are related to our job responsibilities, which can create hidden positive impacts towards making collections more accessible or inclusive, improving the student experience, creating a welcoming environment, or even finding ways to better work with faculty researchers. Because much of this work is behind the scenes, our expertise as scholars goes unrecognized beyond the profession of librarianship, and teaching faculty colleagues focus instead on our ability to locate research sources for their own research.

Positionality, Intersectionality, & Lived Experience 

The literature offers many examples of lived experiences in librarianship, and how identity plays a role. “Lived experience encompasses the perceptions, feelings, and context of an experience. Two people sitting at a reference desk, sharing the same moment, sharing the same space, are not sharing the same lived experience (Swanson et al., 2018).” Positionality, which refers to how one’s identities culminate to influence their experiences in the world (gender, race, ethnicity, class, ability, location, socioeconomic status, etc.) and intersectionality, an oft misconstrued term, refers to the ways in which intersecting identities equal a unique relationship with discrimination, disadvantage, and systemic oppressions, in this case, within the academy. These differences of identity compound the challenges of the tenure track experience, and cannot be overstated. The tenure process, already a blurry experience, can present unique challenges to librarians with different backgrounds and experiences.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are additional lenses through which to view this conversation for many reasons. Librarianship is a profession in which the majority of its employees are female identifying (Data USA, 2017), however leadership opportunities tend to be held by those who are male identifying at its highest administrative levels, not unlike the makeup of leaders at the campus level. This is further exacerbated by the fact that librarianship is inherently seen as a service profession, which is typically feminized (Eva et al., 2021; Palmer & Jones, 2019).

In addition to the challenges of working in a feminized profession, librarians have other intersectional identities that come into play. For example, it is important to note that not all LGBTQ+ faculty are ‘out’ at their place of work and feel comfortable being so. According to Burns, et al. (2022) “‘Out’ faculty may face “…loss of opportunities, exclusion from social networks and mentoring” as well as “heightened visibility and scrutiny, …tokenism, fetishization” and “career implications [that] can include lost jobs and promotions [along with] attempts to block tenure.” Likewise, Swanson, et al. (2018) discovered upon interviewing librarians of color about their lived experiences that, “Academic librarians of color may include encounters of microaggressions, discrimination, prejudicial treatment in one-on-one interactions with colleagues or at the institutional level through systemic discrimination and oppression.” Lastly, Betz (2022) explains, those with disabilities have cited hesitance or fear, stating, “plenty of reasons to not disclose a disability: stigma, a perception of incompetence, infantilization, and the perceived illegitimacy of the disability itself.”


Libraries are simply swaths of society like any other workplace and employ a mix of people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, gender identities, and levels of ability. The writers of this manuscript have intersecting identities that color their treatment, the ways that they experience employment and advancement, also the institution types that led to our shared experience today at an R1 university. Due to our often unique experiences and skill sets, where we can be the only one or one of a few at our institution, tenure track librarians can end up in precarious positions within their library or institution.

One of the more pressing areas of future research facing tenure track librarians at academic institutions, is the troubling and very real threat of their faculty and tenure status being called into question with little or no warning (Holderman, 2021; Shropshire et al., 2015; Paschke-Wood & Gallaspy, 2022; Hanna et al., 2008), resulting in the potential denial of tenure “at the eleventh hour (Holderman, 2021).” 


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