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Leveraging the Library as a Strategic Academic Partner

Institutional Culture

Leveraging the Library as a Strategic Academic Partner

Two women conversing in a library
Academic libraries play an important role in supporting teaching, learning, and scholarship. But at many colleges and universities, library and academic staff tend to operate in silos. How can academic departments and libraries work together more effectively—and how can campus leaders encourage this collaboration?

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Academic libraries play an important role in supporting teaching, learning, and scholarship. But at many colleges and universities, library and academic staff tend to operate in silos. How can academic departments and libraries work together more effectively—and how can campus leaders encourage this collaboration?

At colleges and universities where libraries are strong academic partners, leaders invite senior library staff to serve on governance committees alongside academic deans. Deans and librarians also meet regularly to discuss how they can work together to support the institution’s mission.

Advancing digital scholarship

Bucknell University is currently engaged in its latest round of strategic planning. “As we started this process, our president formed four different working groups,” says Param Bedi, vice president of library and information technology (L&IT) at Bucknell. “I serve on the Academic Excellence Working Group along with the provost and the deans of our three colleges.” Together, they are working to create a shared academic vision that will move the university forward.

Bedi also talks frequently with the deans of the three colleges outside of formal governance structures. In chatting with the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences several years ago, he learned that nearly every faculty member the college was recruiting at the time asked about Bucknell’s plans for digital scholarship.

This conversation inspired Bedi to explore how L&IT could help make Bucknell a leader in digital scholarship, which would support faculty recruitment while also benefiting students. Bedi shared his idea with the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and they convened a team of faculty and administrators to plan the initiative. Team members visited peer institutions to see what others were doing, and they secured a $700,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the program.

“With the help of this grant, we have been working with faculty from all disciplines to help them redesign their courses and their pedagogy to take advantage of sophisticated technology tools,” Bedi says. “At the same time, we are involving students in our research more than we ever have before.”

As an example of the kind of work that Bucknell has done, geographic information system (GIS) specialists from L&IT have worked with faculty to show them how GIS technology can help them visually represent research data in powerful new ways. For instance, economics professor Janet Knoedler has her students use GIS technology to map and analyze income inequality in various regions of the country, and the technology has enhanced her research—which she completed with the help of an undergraduate student—into the pre– and post–Civil War regionalization of the US economy.

Teaching information literacy

When A. Nicole Pfannenstiel was hired to teach in the English department at Millersville University in 2016, learning design librarian Michele Santamaria reached out to her via Twitter. Santamaria wanted Pfannenstiel to know that she was available to teach personalized sessions to Pfannenstiel’s students to help them conduct research more effectively.

“She asked: How can I help you?” recalls Pfannenstiel, an assistant professor of digital media. “We have been collaborating ever since. It’s amazing.”

Santamaria is one of eleven librarians at Millersville who serve as subject-area liaisons with faculty. Along with their other responsibilities, they work with faculty to teach students important information literacy skills, such as how to find and evaluate the credibility of sources.

Pfannenstiel typically invites Santamaria to visit her classes for a few minutes at the beginning of each semester to talk about the services that librarians provide. Later in the semester, when students are preparing to write a research paper, she brings them to the library, and Santamaria shows them how to write probing research questions and craft effective keyword searches to find high-quality sources.

“Students then continue to follow up with her through Twitter and ask questions until the semester ends—and in some cases, until they graduate,” Pfannenstiel observes.

Teaching research skills can be done independently of a subject area, but “it has a lot more impact when it’s done in a disciplinary context,” says learning technologies librarian Greg Szczyrbak, who collaborates with faculty in emergency management, psychology, and multidisciplinary studies. Faculty-librarian collaboration “brings a lot more meaning to the work that students are doing.”

He adds: “Some faculty might think, ‘This is how I learned to do research, and so this is how I’m going to teach my students.’ But the information landscape has changed quite a bit in just the last few years. Having a librarian as a partner adds a lot of value to the research process.”

Keys to success

Successful collaboration “is about forming relationships,” Bedi says. “There are multiple ways that we engage with our deans and associate deans on a regular basis, so they know what we’re doing in the library and vice versa. They take our message back to the faculty, so it’s not just coming from us as library staff.”

Academic leaders can also strengthen collaboration with library staff by creating and supporting a culture of risk-taking, he says, noting that “some people questioned our digital scholarship initiative at first, but now it’s part of the fabric of our institution.”

Szczyrbak says academic leaders should consider librarians as coequal partners in ushering in a new era of teaching and research.

“One-word brands don’t change easily,” he says. “For libraries, our one-word brand for centuries has been ‘books.’ But it’s time to change that perception. We’re about so much more than that. Whether they’re faculty or not, librarians are educators too, and we have quite a bit of experience with academic change. In fact, libraries have been on the front lines of the digital shift for years and have a lot to share.”

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer who has been reporting on education for more than two decades.