Posted by: Steven Harris | March 4, 2011

What I do for my community

[The events we see unfolding in Wisconsin and some discussions (arguments?) I’ve had online recently have me thinking about the value public employees bring to their communities. Obviously, public workers like teachers, librarians, police officers, and firefighters are employed because of the public good they provide. We are not entitled to those positions. We need to demonstrate the value of our services. At the same time, we are not simply a bunch of vampires preying on the taxpayers. Most public employees are hard-working, dedicated, and civic-minded individuals. OK, there are exceptions, just like with any cross-section of society. I wrote this statement as something of an apologia for public workers. It is also a description of what a particular stripe of academic librarian does. Other types of librarians’ jobs are very different.]

About my job: I’m an associate professor at the University of New Mexico. I have academic or faculty status, but actually I’m a librarian rather than a classroom professor. Furthermore, you’d really just say I’m a business manager‑‑middle management. I am in charge of collections & acquisitions for the library, which means I manage the acquisition of material that sits on the shelf (although more & more it’s an online and virtual shelf). Books, magazines, newspapers, scholarly journals, videos, music CDs, microfilm, databases and other formats are bought, licensed, received, and accounted for by the 15 people I supervise. We spend about $5 million annually on these collections (a bit more if you count our endowment funds). It takes quite a few people to manage all those processes. Nonetheless, I have pared our staff by 4 positions in less than 2 years (all through attrition). That is over 20% in cuts. Some were fairly advanced jobs so the $ savings is more than 20%.

The $5million collections budget we spend is not especially large as academic libraries go, particularly for research universities. We are middling to small among research libraries. We don’t spend our budget frivolously. In fact, we’re looking every year at what we can cut and still serve the research and learning needs of our students and faculty. There is a demand for what we provide. In fact, many students and faculty find our collections inadequate for their research, teaching, or learning programs. We don’t have enough of what they need. And they tell us about it all the time. Nonetheless, our materials are used a lot. Last year, over 220,000 physical items are checked out of the libraries. There are over 2.4 million visits annually to our library website, which is how our online collections are accessed. Users did over 3 million searches in library databases. They accessed over 1.9 million full‑text articles. We can’t even count the number of searches done on campus through Google & Google Scholar. A lot of folks think the publications they find that way are free, but actually we work with Google to allow discovery and linking to collections that my department has purchased or licensed for UNM.

All of those numbers are pretty impressive, but they don’t really mean a thing if we don’t consistently help students and faculty succeed. The goal of my department is to have exactly the information resources UNM students find necessary to learn what they need to learn, and to provide the material faculty need to do research and make new contributions to human knowledge. We are proud of our roll in the academic success and scholarly achievement at UNM.

What is my roll in all this? Obviously, I supervise the 15 people in my department, try to see that they have all the tools and skills to do their job. I also want to make sure we do our work in the most efficient manner possible. We use several automated systems to manage and track our work. I also negotiate contracts and licenses with the hundreds of publishers and vendors we buy from. The work we’ve done converting many of our collections from print to electronic means more and more of our content is governed by a license rather than owned outright. I review all these licenses for terms that are acceptable to UNM. (Someone in the university purchasing office actually signs the licenses on UNM’s behalf.) I also try to give a vision to our collection goals in the library. Where do we want to be, what do we want the collections to look like: next month, next year, 5 years from now? What innovations do we need to make in order to provide the most important information to the university community in the most cost‑effective manner? I don’t do that alone, but my leadership should help to get the entire library staff working towards the same goal.

There are, in fact, about 25 librarians who are given particular subject assignments. They make decisions about which books and journals to buy that will best serve the needs of academic departments in that subject. They also teach library orientation to students and generally serve as the main point of contact for faculty in those departments. I am one of those subject librarians. In addition to my Director of Collections duties, I also serve as the subject librarian for the English Department at UNM.

Aside from all that, because I have faculty status, I am expected to contribute research or creative works to the scholarly community and to participate in professional service activities. I must write and publish articles in professional journals or publish scholarly books. I must take part in professional societies, preferably in a way that illustrates the high regard of my colleagues. (Getting elected to office or appointed to an important committee in a professional organization is always good.) All of these professional activities are reviewed on a regular basis by my peers in the UNM library. As an untenured faculty member, I can be denied tenure, if my work and professional contributions are not up to snuff. A timeline of tenure review gives me several years to meet expectations. Then I am either given tenure or terminated. Tenure means I have been deemed worthy of long‑term appointment, but by no means does it entitle me to employment for life. I can still be terminated for cause or reviewed for my ongoing productivity.

I find my job very rewarding. Knowing that I contribute to the success of students and faculty at UNM gives me great satisfaction. It is demanding and hectic at times and not at all the quiet and cushy life you would expect of a librarian. But I’m glad of that. I know that what I do will never be fully understood by the entire UNM community, much less by the general public, but I will continue to perform my duties with a sense of pride, knowing that I’m doing something good for the community I live in. I can only hope that my service is appreciated in some small way.



  1. “I can only hope that my service is appreciated in some small way.”

    Speaking only for myself (and I’m no where near New Mexico nor do I have any connection with UNM), the answer is: VERY MUCH! I’m halfway through “This Book is Overdue” by Marilyn Johnson and I had no idea before reading it ALL of what librarians do. I’ve always been a huge fan of librarians — don’t get me wrong — but now I seriously think I should’ve BEEN a librarian! So, one very small voice in Maine appreciates you and all librarians in a BIG way! Thank you for a great blog, too!

  2. Excellent article. (I hope you don’t mind I Shared it on Facebook.) A sensible and sober look at the problem.

  3. Very thoughtfully done. Make me wonder what I do for a living – which sounds much less stressful than your job with the tenure thingie hanging over your head. No wonder you’re always out at those conferences; you have to show your involvement. I hope you are appreciated by your customers!

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