Collaborating with Faculty Part 1: A Five-Step Program

This is the first in a two-part series on librarian collaboration with faculty. Part 1 presents a five-step program for building collaborative relationships, while Part 2, published on July 13, 2011, addresses specific examples and strategies for collaboration.



Collaboration has become something of a buzzword of late, which puts us in danger of forgetting what it’s really about. At the very foundations of the concept, beyond the conference presentations, published articles, and tenure portfolios, is the critical, learnable skill of connecting with others on both a personal and professional level. Collaboration is based on building relationships with others and finding mutual interests or goals that we can help each other accomplish. It requires shifting the ways we typically think about our jobs and being willing to embrace another’s vision of our work. It demands an open mind, a willingness to listen as well as discuss, and the ability to compromise and adjust our expectations based on feedback. It is not an easy task, but it is an extremely rewarding one.

Like many academic librarians, I spend a lot of time reaching out to and trying to build connections with faculty members in my liaison departments. I love this part of my work, but it can be extremely challenging. I bring a somewhat unusual perspective to this challenge as I happen to be married to a faculty member, which gives me the ability to see things from the faculty side as well as from my own perspective. Interestingly, the book Compatibility Breeds Success by Marvin Snider compares collaborative partnerships to marriages, so there’s a double point of relevance here.1 According to Snider, these partnerships involve a long-term commitment, accountability for one another’s behavior, a commitment to resolving differences, a strong emotional commitment, and “are likely to have a major impact on each other even after the partnership ends.” Instead of love and family, academic participants share a goal of improved teaching, expanded publishing opportunities, or the like.

Recently I’ve broken down my approach to relationship-building with faculty into identifiable steps in order to be more deliberate about my efforts in the future. Those steps are the subject of this post. This program is a proposed set of goals I’ve built for myself, and which I share with the Lead Pipe readership in the hope that you’ll find it useful. For the record, this “program” is still in beta (so to speak), and I welcome your feedback and thoughts in the comments below. I presented a skeleton of this at ACRL’s Ideapower Unconference in Philadelphia last week.

One dictionary2 defines collaboration as “Traitorous cooperation with an enemy,” which is a humorous yet apt starting point for the conversation. It seems to me that many librarians have an uneasy relationship with our faculty for a whole variety of reasons, not least of which are the different letters that follow our names. Fortunately, the anxiety that comes from our different backgrounds and job descriptions is based more in misunderstanding than substance, so we can learn to shed those feelings on the way to a new partnership. Instead, let’s redefine collaboration and set our goal as an equal partnership between one or more non-librarian faculty members and ourselves. Personally, I’m interested in the relationships that push the boundaries of the day-to-day working relationships that many of us already have with other faculty on campus.

I recently attended a presentation at the ACRL National Conference in Philadelphia entitled, Engaging Faculty, Creating Allies. I expected the presentation to inform this post and expand my ideas of what collaboration with faculty could look like. While the presentation was good, I was a little disappointed that the “engagement” of faculty described was largely through workshops or colloquia organized by librarians and to which faculty were invited (and, in some cases, paid to attend). While collaboration can happen at such events, I just don’t see that as putting us on the equal footing that is necessary for deep collaboration.  As Jean S. Caspers describes, we can look at librarian-faculty relationships as occurring along a continuum of  three stages: parallel work is the most basic sort of relationship in which we’re working alongside each other for similar goals; cooperative work involves basic coordination of efforts; and collaborative work is the deepest type of partnership (21).3 Sometimes having parallel goals is enough, but collaborative work is more likely to yield the greatest benefits for student learning or research.

That said, it’s time to discuss the five-step program. It begins with a little self-reflection.


Step 1: Be confident

The major challenge to librarians when contemplating a collaborative relationship with faculty is finding equal footing upon which to build it. We need to start by addressing, head-on, the librarian insecurity complex. Yes, we have an MLS instead of a PhD, as do many other academic professionals and faculty; we’re different. As Peggy A. Pritchard writes, “To be taken seriously by faculty members as potential partners…librarians need to view themselves as professional colleagues with important knowledge and expertise to contribute” (387).4 While this sounds easy, it can be a substantial hurdle for some librarians. The first and most critical step to becoming a collaborator with faculty is shaking off at least a century’s worth of history that makes us think, for no good reason, that we can’t function as equal colleagues. We don’t have the same scholarly training, nor the same number of years of study under our belts, but we have plenty to offer. We have different skills and talents than other faculty, and that’s what makes the potential for collaboration even more exciting.

In a 1977 article, H. William Axford commented on the librarian movement for faculty status, and the nervousness of some librarians about the shift. “Part of the problem,” he wrote then, “can be attributed to the nature of library education which simply does not engender in students the attitudes necessary to feel at home within the traditional values of the academy, particularly its canons of scholarship.”5 Not to pin the whole problem on library school, but the truth is that librarians are not initiated into our field in the same way that faculty are: by reading scholarship, identifying our own specific area(s) of specialization, presenting at conferences, and building a network of colleagues whose interests overlap our own. This is in part because library school students may go on to work at a whole variety of different organizations. And some of this happens in library school for more motivated students, but the vast majority probably do not have this set of experiences. The result is graduates who have been schooled as professionals but not as scholars. It’s a different way of looking at the world, and a different way of looking at a career. So our challenge is to adopt the scholar’s worldview once we’re actively in the field. It’s ours for the taking.

In fact, a recent study of faculty attitudes found that faculty have a very favorable view of various aspects of collaboration with librarians (rated overall as a 3.98 out of 5).6 An earlier study fleshed out some of the differences in how librarians and faculty see each other, pointing to an awareness problem that has led to faculty being ignorant of the scope of librarians’ work.7 Considering both of these studies together, it is clear that faculty are not deliberately disregarding librarian expertise, nor are they averse to collaborative opportunities. The door is open.


Step 2: Make the connection

The first phase of any collaborative relationship—before we can even think about the idea of collaborating—is simply making a connection with another human being. The best collaborative relationships often include an element of friendship, or at least friendly collegiality, in addition to a solid professional working relationship. If we think of collaborative relationships as just that, relationships, we can more readily accept the fact that they take patience, cultivation, and work, like any relationship. For those of us who love our library jobs, it’s easy to see how the professional and personal can bleed together. It happens on a daily basis, particularly for those who live in smaller communities or work on smaller campuses.

How do we make these connections with faculty? It starts just by reaching out. We can make connections at the reference desk or on a committee, but they’re more likely to happen when we get out of our comfort zones. Getting involved in new faculty candidate interviews. Coffee dates. Going to after-hours socials, plays, exhibits, speakers, and more. Attending campus events and breaking away from the same, comfortable group to meet new people. One librarian at The University of Saskatchewan decided to methodically arrange in-person meetings with a subset of her liaison department and later surveyed them to see whether her personal attention had an effect. It did, with 92% of faculty reporting that their use of the library had increased after the meeting.8

As an example, I started my current position and was assigned as a liaison to several departments. For one of those departments I lacked any notable background in the field and wasn’t sure what to expect. Still, with my new librarian enthusiasm, I contacted the department chair and got myself invited to a faculty meeting. They gave me five minutes, and while they were cordial, my reception was less than enthusiastic. I left that meeting feeling that I had failed in making the connection I’d hoped for. Still I regrouped, and decided to focus my energy and time on the department’s faculty liaison to the library (let’s call her Jane). I proposed that Jane and I meet for coffee, and the two of us spent an hour awkwardly sipping hot drinks and trying to find common ground to discuss. It was a challenging conversation, but it was a start.

From the very beginning, building collaborative relationships requires boldness. There’s no hiding behind a mask of introvertedness. The hard part, typically, is making conversation with strangers. Fortunately for us, this is a learnable skill, not an inborn characteristic. Since I was a child, I’ve watched my mother conduct long, effortless conversations with just about anybody who comes near her. Over the years, I’ve discovered that what comes naturally to her—making connections with people—is not just a personality trait, but an attainable skill. The key is: ask them about themselves. Sounds obvious, right? It is, sort of.

And just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you meet someone and then launch into twenty questions and interrogate them. The best conversations are a give-and-take between two people sharing information about themselves or their viewpoints. But of all the great things I’ve learned from my mother over the course of my lifetime, possibly the most valuable and useful on a daily basis is: people love to talk about themselves. Not in an egotistical way, but in a very straightforward and human way. We all have our unique passions, and we all love to share them. If you can steer the conversation to some of a person’s interests, hobbies, family life, or other passions, you can usually have an effortless conversation for hours. This simple strategy is something we can all adopt in our everyday lives to make friends, network with colleagues, and yes, build collaborative relationships with faculty.

Be bold, be friendly, and be inquisitive: that’s all it really takes. Don’t forget to be yourself, too, and share your own responses to questions they ask. Be a whole person, just as they are. Not everyone on campus will embrace spontaneous conversation with a librarian, but most of them will. And even if someone clearly doesn’t want to connect with you, don’t take it personally. It’s their loss.


Step 3: Reinforce the connection

Once you’ve made that desirable connection with a faculty member, don’t blow it! The next step is to follow up, make sure they have your contact information, and remind them that you’re out there. This could be as simple as an email message saying, “it was great to meet you!” with a couple of notes about something library-related that you had spoken about, and an open-ended invitation to meet again. This was my approach with Jane. Or the followup could be as elaborate as a tailored newsletter or flier with more details about various services you can offer.

At this point, the most important thing is to connect with them on their level, not yours. Don’t immediately set up a blog or LibGuide or start bundling RSS feeds unless you know they’re tech-savvy enough to appreciate it. One of the biggest downfalls I see when librarians connect with faculty is an expectation that those faculty will be as technophoric as we are. Don’t count on it. Choose a platform that they’ll use and find comfortable, regardless of how much you love Twitter. If you’re just dying to put your love of technology to work, you can harness RSS feeds or email alerts to track the topics the faculty you know have mentioned as interests. Newly released books or articles make great conversation topics, and you can drop a line when you see their work get published.

It’s also important to be multi-dimensional and not sound like a library salesperson trying to make the sale. If you went from friendly and personal in the initial meeting and now bury them in library paraphernalia, you’re going to lose the personal nature of the connection that is so critical to relationship-building. I’m not suggesting sending them photos of your kids unless they’ve asked for them, but in whatever communication you send, mention something you discussed during that first meeting. Even if it’s work-related, it reinforces the sense that you were listening (which you were, right?). Be personal and professional. Remind them that you are, indeed, a whole person.


Step 4: Build the relationship

Once you’ve reinforced that connection, it’s time to begin building the relationship. This requires regular, consistent effort and possibly even putting reminders on your calendar or to-do list. This process is sometimes described in business literature as “bonding.”9 Make it a goal to connect with the faculty member biannually or yearly. Ideally, those connections should be in person, by dropping by their office, setting up a coffee date, or attending a faculty meeting and chatting with them afterwards. If those in-person options aren’t possible, an email or blog/newsletter can probably do the job. The more tailored and personal, the better. And again, choose the platform based on their comfort level with technology, not yours.

Jane and I started meeting for lunch every semester, and I made a point of sending an invitation by email every time unless I heard from her first. As we got to know each other better our conversations got easier and we learned about each other’s jobs and families. We spent most of our time talking about the research classes she taught, and the ways that I might help, but we also talked about a whole array of other topics. Our exchanges became friendlier, more comfortable, and much more fun for both of us.

At this stage, you’re getting to know them as a person as well as a professional, too. Continue to ask questions: how are they doing? How are classes? How is their research? How is whatever they might have mentioned from their personal life? Even more importantly, listen to the answers and learn as much as you can. Take notes afterwards, for future reference, especially if you have a less-than-stellar memory. It may sound mercenary, but taking the time to remember details about someone means you care, and that’s a good thing. Hyun-Duck Chung from North Carolina State University is a great example of a librarian who embraced a business librarianship role fully by putting herself in a position to learn about her liaison department from the inside out.10 Chung notes, “Genuine excitement about a common goal can help ignite the relationship-building process, but cultivating it requires sustained engagement with individuals over time, and being open to learning from each other” (165).


Step 5: Go Collaborate

Here’s where all that effort pays off, if you’ve played your cards right. After all this relationship-building you know what your faculty member is working on, what classes they teach, what sort of research assignments they assign, and other aspects of their professional activities. Now’s the time to identify areas of mutual interest where a collaboration might be fruitful to both of you. Look at their class research projects and think about ways you might build more library involvement into it, to benefit the students. Pay attention to calls for papers that are open to an interdisciplinary approach to a topic (many are). Wrap your brain around what a collaborative project with this individual might look like, before proposing anything.

Once you can see the potential for collaboration, go ahead and talk to the individual. Be sure to describe the project you have in mind as well as the benefits to both of you. Ruth McCorkle concisely describes “four main components of research kinship: a willingness to share ideas and the ability to critique and respond to others’ ideas; the recognition of one another’s talents; the joint sharing of an idea and crafting of a hypothesis; and, the commitment of time and resources in a shared venture” (539).11 Be willing to give and take, consider other directions, or change the project completely in response to their feedback and ideas. A professional collaboration is a negotiation, and you’ll have to be flexible to make it a success.

Jane and I talked about an idea I had to tier instruction for a series of courses she taught that required research papers. The same cohort of students moved through all these classes together, so I thought it would be worthwhile to introduce research skills to them gradually, building each semester on what they had learned last time. She liked the idea, so I reviewed all her syllabi and put together a proposal. She liked the proposal, made a few suggestions that I incorporated, and then we put it into action. I was happy to move from typical one-shots to a deeper way of working with her students, and Jane was delighted to see the improvements in her students’ work at the end of the series.

So the collaboration is on! After that, you just have to maintain your end of the deal: meet your deadlines, do your share of the work, and most crucial of all, keep in touch. Communicate regularly to maintain the relationship. And if something changes in your relationship and you find that you have to work with someone new, don’t be discouraged. Just start the process over again and give yourself time to get back to the same level.


Sound easy?

It’s not. But it’s an endlessly rewarding adventure that takes us in new directions as librarians, teachers, and scholars. Cross-disciplinary collaboration empowers us to re-envision our work, gain new perspectives, and reach goals we wouldn’t have attained alone. At the same time, it reasserts our value as librarians on our campuses and among our faculty colleagues. It benefits us, it benefits them, and it benefits our campus community. What could be better than that?


Further Reading

In addition to the more specific sources found in the notes, I suggest these broader works for an overview of the collaboration topic.
Mounce, M. (2010). Working Together: Academic Librarians and Faculty Collaborating to Improve Students’ Information Literacy Skills: A Literature Review 2000-2009. Reference Librarian, 51(4), 300-320. doi:10.1080/02763877.2010.501420
Raspa, R., & Ward, D. (2000). The Collaborative imperative: Librarians and faculty working together in the information universe. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.



1 Snider, M. (2003). Compatibility breeds success: How to manage your relationship with your business partner. Westport, Conn: Praeger.
2 Knowles, E. (2000). The Oxford dictionary of phrase and fable. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3 Caspers, Jean S. (2006). Building strong relationships with faculty-librarian collaboration. In P. Ragains, (Ed.), Information literacy instruction that works: A guide to teaching by discipline and student population (pp. 19-32). New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.
4 Pritchard, P. A. (2010). The Embedded Science Librarian: Partner in Curriculum Design and Delivery.Journal of Library Administration, 50(4), 373-396. doi:10.1080/01930821003667054
5 Axford, H. (1977). The Three Faces of Eve: or The Identity of Academic Librarianship A Symposium.Journal of Academic Librarianship, 2(6), 276-278.
6 Yousef, A. (2010). Faculty Attitudes Toward Collaboration with Librarians. Library Philosophy & Practice, 12(2), 1-15.
7 Christiansen, L., M. Stombler, and L. Thaxton. (2004). A report on librarian-faculty relations from a sociological perspective. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 30, 116–21.
8 Watson, E. M. (2010). Taking the Mountain to Mohammed: The Effect of Librarian Visits to Faculty Members on Their use of the Library. New Review of Academic Librarianship, 16(2), 145-159.
9Cynthia W. Cann.  (1998). Eight steps to building a business-to-business relationship. The Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing, 13(4/5), 393-405.
10 Chung, H. (2010). Relationship Building in Entrepreneurship Liaison Work: One Business Librarian’s Experience at North Carolina State University. Journal of Business & Finance Librarianship, 15(3/4), 161-170. doi:10.1080/08963568.2010.487432
11 McCorkle, R. (2011). Interdisciplinary collaboration in the pursuit of science to improve psychosocial cancer care. Psycho-Oncology, 20(5), 538-543. doi:10.1002/pon.1766



Many thanks to Kristine Alpi, Ellie Collier, Hilary Davis, and Eric Frierson for their feedback and help in shaping this unruly post.

9 Responses

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  8. Ellen Cothran

    Thank you for yet another beautifully written, thoughful, and practically useful essay. The beautifully written part is so important to me as a librarian and as a reader. I’m a librarian working on the last sections of my MLIS and I am saddened by the lack of fluidity and elegance in so much of the librarian-generated writing I am assigned to read. So thank you for over and over again producing pieces that are a pleasure to read on so many levels.

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