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A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

In Praise of Librarians and Archivists: Appreciating the Colleagues Who Make Professors' Jobs Easier

Mark Cheathem

Associate Professor of History, Cumberland University

Since I was a child begging my mother to take me to the library on a daily basis, I have appreciated the designated keepers of books. Conducting research as an undergraduate student made me aware of the specialized jobs that academic librarians did every day to make life easier for the clueless young people like me who wandered into the building with no idea about how to find academic journal articles or primary sources. As a graduate student, my appreciation for academic librarians only grew. I also became acquainted with archivists, primarily at the Tennessee State Library and Archives and the Library of Congress, who explained the mysteries of microfilm readers and emerged out of “the stacks” with the material necessary for me not only to complete my graduate degrees but also to satisfy my intellectual curiosity. Becoming a faculty member has allowed me to work with academic librarians as colleagues. Over the past few years, I have appreciated not only their willingness to assist my students with searching for and acquiring sources but also for the different perspective that they bring to the inner workings of a university.

Working with academic librarians and archivists has opened my eyes to some of the challenges that they face. At the risk of being accused of finger wagging, one of the major challenges, unfortunately, is the professoriate itself. While many of us value our library and archival colleagues, we may not realize that we may be our own worst enemy when it comes to helping them help us. A good example is the recent blog post by Meredith Farkas, who serves as head of Instructional Services at Portland State University. She identified a disconnect between academic librarians and professors, noting that the latter are often oblivious to the costs of electronic databases. Her observation that “we need to go back to a model where scholarly publishing is about providing access to scholarship” was not only an indictment of the high cost of electronic databases, but it also spoke to a larger issue.

Professors often do not realize the financial limitations of academic libraries. Not only do libraries at small liberal arts universities and colleges, such as my own, have limited funds, but even libraries at large research universities feel the financial pinch when state budgets are reduced. Journal subscriptions may be cut, fewer books may be ordered, and even staff positions may disappear. Yet, professors sometimes fail to understand that they cannot expect the same services or funding to continue to exist in perpetuity. I have never met an academic librarian who was unwilling to order a book or provide a service if the money or time were available. Faced with professors’ (willing or unwilling) ignorance of process, proprietary business models that govern access to scholarship, and limited funds, academic librarians are presented a difficult task, one that could be made easier if we professors understood that the funds may not always be there. Working with librarians on creative solutions not only helps us achieve our goals, but it also strengthens our relationship with colleagues who are committed to our success.

The challenges that archivists face are not unlike those facing academic librarians. During tight financial times, public archives offer an easy sacrificial lamb, as the Tennessee State Library and Archives discovered this past year when Governor Bill Haslam and the state legislature threatened to, and subsequently did, cut employees and hours at the state archives. Even private archives are affected by an economic downturn, when donors and memberships may dry up.

Like academic librarians, archival staff interact with professors, and we can make their job easier. Professors sometimes believe that they possess a proprietary right to sources that they want to use, which puts archivists in the awkward position of adjudicating turf wars. I have witnessed a professor who demanded that a genealogist allow him to use census records because his research was more important than hers, and I have seen a historian argue (loudly, I might add) to an archivist that he had the right to photocopy records, even though restrictions were in place against that practice. This type of boorish behavior only poisons what should be a friendly and collaborative relationship between academics and archivists.

I think these two examples are the exception and not the rule when it comes to professors’ interaction with librarians and archivists, but it pays to be reminded that they are partners in scholarship instead of people simply there to do our bidding. Library and archival staff play many critical roles, including identifying sources that might be useful, providing access to those sources, finding extra funding for books needed for upcoming courses, and ordering obscure interlibrary loan requests. Without them, our work, and the work of our students, would come to a standstill.

So, for all of you librarians and archivists who have helped me and others over the years, thank you. You do not get enough credit (or pay) for what you do.

Mark R. Cheathem is an associate professor of history at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee. His Andrew Jackson, Southerner was recently published by LSU Press. He blogs about his research and teaching at Jacksonian America.

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