Power and Status (and Lack Thereof) in Academe: Academic Freedom and Academic Librarians

In Brief

Academic librarians do not experience full academic freedom protections, despite the fact that they are expected to exercise independent judgment, be civically engaged, and practice applied scholarship. Academic freedom for academic librarians is not widely studied or well understood. To learn more, we conducted a survey which received over 600 responses from academic librarians on a variety of academic freedom measures. In this article, we focus specifically on faculty status for librarians and the ways this intersects with academic freedom perceptions and experiences. Even though all librarians who answered our survey share similar experiences when it comes to infringements on their freedom, faculty librarians are more likely to feel they are protected in their free expression. We find it useful to situate librarians within a growing cohort of “third space” academic professionals who perform similar duties to traditional faculty but lack tenure and its associated academic freedom protections. We argue that more attention needs to be paid in the library profession to academic freedom for librarians, and that solidarity with other non-traditional faculty on campus is a potential avenue for allyship and advocacy.

Introductory Note

In November 2016, some colleagues and I made a LibGuide based on a popular hashtag syllabus, Trump Syllabus 2.0. ((N.D.B. Connolly and Keisha N. Blain, “Trump Syllabus 2.0,” Public Books, June 28, 2016, https://www.publicbooks.org/trump-syllabus-2-0/.)) The syllabus, drafted in response to Trump Syllabus, was crowdsourced by Black academics seeking to counter the limited vision of the first syllabus, written by primarily white scholars, in an attempt to historicize how we arrived at a Donald Trump presidency. Where the Trump Syllabus centered political, labor, and populist movements as the lineage of Trump’s ascendence, Trump Syllabus 2.0 highlights the genealogy of white supremacy: anti-blackness, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, ableism, and settler colonialism. The works cited in the syllabus are predominantly scholarly texts, along with popular press articles and key primary sources, and the vast majority of the titles were held by the library I worked in at the time. My colleagues and I set up a guide with tabs for each week of the syllabus and linked to the catalog records for each title we already held, and to various licensed and unlicensed versions of other materials on the syllabus. Some of our library colleagues were not on board with us publishing this guide, fearing backlash, but we were not prohibited from doing so. Fast forward to January 2017: a right-wing student blog, backed by a conservative think tank, wrote a hit piece about our LibGuide, which received so much attention in the right-wing mediasphere that it eventually captured the attention of our campus public relations team. We were initially not asked to take the guide down, but when Fox News called our college president’s office to inquire about the guide the following week, the President told the library to remove the guide immediately. I did push back, cautiously, against the decision, but ultimately realized I was powerless to change the situation without risking my job. I had always assumed I was protected in my work product by academic freedom, but I learned that week that I wasn’t. As an at-will employee at a private liberal arts college, academic freedom very clearly didn’t extend to me or any of my staff colleagues.

–Alexis Logsdon


The LibGuide experience of one of this article’s authors led to conversations between the coauthors, early in 2017, about academic freedom for academic librarians in the United States. Specifically, what protections do we really have and why does academic freedom matter to us? The election of Trump sparked a moment of professional introspection in academic libraries that continues to this day: what were our public engagement obligations? Do academic librarians need freedom of expression, and if so, what are the lived experiences of academic freedom for librarians across social identities? These questions led us to conduct a national survey of academic librarians in the fall of 2018. The resulting data has allowed us to study academic freedom for librarians, and its relationship to other factors like social identity and job status. In previous outputs of our research, we have discussed the history and state of academic freedom for academic librarians more broadly, and also highlighted findings related to race, sexuality, gender, and more. ((Danya Leebaw and Alexis Logsdon, “The Cost of Speaking Out: Do Librarians Truly Experience Academic Freedom?” (Association of College & Research Libraries Annual Conference, Cleveland, OH, April 2019). http://hdl.handle.net/11299/203282))

In this article, we will focus on the relationship between academic freedom and faculty status for librarians and how this surfaced in our survey findings. Faculty status is the factor most associated in the common imagination and the literature with academic freedom protections. Yet many librarians lack faculty status, have partial status, or are unsure of their protections regardless of their official status. Even when classified or considered faculty, academic librarians are rarely treated as peers by other disciplinary faculty or university administrators. For these reasons, academic librarians are members of the academy with a markedly more tenuous hold on academic freedom claims. We hypothesized at the outset of our research that when librarians’ job status is precarious, they will feel less free to express themselves in the workplace and will be highly attuned to penalties for academic expression. Our survey did find interesting distinctions between faculty and non-faculty librarians when it came to a variety of measures around academic freedom. Indeed, faculty status affected respondents’ perceptions of academic freedom more than any other variable we studied.

Before sharing and discussing our survey results around this topic, we seek to contextualize librarians’ academic freedom within the context of the widespread, growing precarity of higher education workers. Academic librarians experience significant insecurity that is related to their membership in an ever-growing class of higher education workers who occupy a liminal space between faculty and clerical staff. Budgetary challenges and neoliberalism in higher education have led institutions to retreat from offering stable, tenure-protected employment and instead increasingly rely on academic professional staff and contingent faculty. ((Jennifer Washburn, University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education (New York: Basic Books, 2005).)) This enables administrators to scale back autonomy, equitable pay, and protections like academic freedom. Academic librarians have long occupied less stable and powerful positions on their campuses than traditional faculty. (( Rachel A. Fleming-May and Kimberly Douglass, “Framing Librarianship in the Academy: An Analysis Using Bolman and Deal’s Model of Organizations,” College & Research Libraries 75, no. 3 (May 2014): 389-415, https://doi.org/10.5860/crl13-432.)) Therefore, we believe academic librarians’ experiences with academic freedom are worth investigating further in their own right. However, librarians are also situated within a larger ecosystem of growing precarity on campus. Understanding our role in this context can help us identify allies and avenues for advocacy.

In the absence of tenure, academic librarians and other academic staff experience insecurity in their jobs that impedes their academic freedom. Our research is interested in more than just policies but also how freedom of expression plays out (or not) in a variety of lived workplace experiences. We will share findings that suggest that faculty status truly matters for librarians to feel protected in their work activities. Yet we will also describe a higher education landscape in which faculty status is available only to some librarians and certainly not the majority of library workers. The trajectory is toward fewer faculty-classified library positions, not more. Our article offers a question as well as an argument: if faculty status is critical to academic freedom, but is only available to some of us, how can we advocate for better freedoms apart from that?

Methods and Scope

We conducted a survey in Fall 2018 to study librarians’ perceptions of how protected they were by their institution’s academic freedom policies. We asked about a wide spectrum of “silencing” actions for academic librarians, from being skipped over for a promotion to being demoted to being fired outright, and inquired about how these formal and informal punishments impacted librarians’ lives. We also asked our respondents to share their demographic information, which enabled us to correlate their experiences with their social identities.

Our research project overall is a mixed method study, with an initial survey that we plan to follow up with interviews and textual analysis later this year. The survey was designed to gather information about academic librarians’ job status, experiences of academic freedom, and socioeconomic positionality. We asked approximately 30 questions that were a mix of closed, multiple choice, and open-ended questions. The questions about academic freedom were primarily matrix table questions for which respondents could rank their experiences on a scale. Many of the social identity questions allowed for “other” and filled-in textual responses if respondents felt that none of the offered categories applied to them. We also provided space for open-ended comments at the end of the survey and for respondents to provide their contact information if they were willing to be interviewed at a later date.

We issued the survey via national listservs and social media in the Fall of 2018. We intentionally promoted the survey on a wide variety of professional listservs and using hashtags on social media to reach librarians of color. ((We are white women employed at a large research university library in management, reference, and instruction positions. We tried to share our survey with as wide and diverse a pool of respondents as possible, well beyond our own limited networks, in order to best understand how socioeconomic positionality correlates with academic freedom for library workers.)) We had over 700 people start and just over 600 people complete the survey. We filtered out respondents who did not agree to our IRB-approved consent form and those who stated that they did not currently work in an academic library. Our survey questions were based on our hypotheses and also modeled after similar surveys. ((Becky Marie Barger, “Faculty Experiences and Satisfaction with Academic Freedom,” Doctor of Philosophy, Higher Education, University of Toledo, 2010. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=toledo1279123430; “Inclusive and Functional Demographic Questions,” University of Arizona Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning (LGBTQ) Affairs, accessed 1/23/2019, https://lgbtq.arizona.edu/sites/lgbtq.arizona.edu/files/Inclusive%20and%20Functional%20Demographic%20Questions.pdf; Meghan Dowell, “Academic Freedom & the Liberal Arts Librarian,” CAPAL18 Conference, University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, 2018. https://capalibrarians.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/6C_Dowell_slides-notes.pdf.)) Our previously published ACRL 2019 conference paper provides a summary of responses to our survey as well as deeper dives into how responses corresponded to race and financial insecurity. ((Leebaw and Logsdon, “Cost of Speaking Out,” ACRL 2019.)) In this article, we will focus primarily on librarian faculty status and how this corresponds to lived experiences of academic freedom.

Defining Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is a contested concept, so it is important for the purposes of our article to state that we align with those who believe scholarship and civic engagement—especially in librarianship—are inextricably linked. Generally, the core principles of academic freedom referenced in most U.S. institutional policies adhere to the 1940 statement on academic freedom and tenure from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). ((American Association of University Professors, “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” 1940, https://www.aaup.org/report/1940-statement-principles-academic-freedom-and-tenure.)) This statement proposes three primary protections: the right to freely teach without interference, the right to research without interference, and the right to express oneself in the community without interference. ((Hank Reichman, The Future of Academic Freedom (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), xiv.)) While scholars and administrators generally agree on these basic precepts, they diverge when it comes to who, how, and how much these protections apply. One school of thought asserts that scholarship should be “pure” and remain disengaged from the civic sphere. In this formulation, academic freedom applies only to teaching and scholarship that is allegedly devoid of politics and “neutral.” ((Stanley Fish, “Academic Freedom and the Boycott of Israeli Universities,” in Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom?, ed. Akeel Bilgrami and Jonathan R. Cole (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 275–92.)) Another faction, with whom we are aligned, points to the origins of modern academic freedom as an important project intended to protect faculty (particularly those from the social sciences) whose scholarship engages directly with society.  Historian Joan W. Scott, in her essay exploring this claim, argues that distinguishing between politics and scholarship is “easier in theory than in practice” and “the tension between professorial commitments and academic responsibility is an ongoing one that the principle of academic freedom is meant to adjudicate.” ((Joan W Scott, “Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom,” in Bilgrami and Cole, Who’s Afraid, 78.)) As an applied profession, librarianship presumes a link between scholarship and civic engagement. Academic freedom is thus a deeply relevant issue for our field.

Academic Freedom and Librarians

The concept of academic freedom in libraries is complicated by the library profession’s focus on the parent concept of intellectual freedom and the heterogeneous nature of library employment. The Association for College & Research Libraries (ACRL) has issued a number of statements in defense of academic freedom for academic librarians. ((For instance: Association for College & Research Libraries (ACRL), “ACRL Statement on Academic Freedom,” 2015, http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/academicfreedom; Joint Committee on College Library Programs, “ACRL Joint Statement on Faculty Status of College and University Librarians,” 2012, http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/jointstatementfaculty)) However, the devotion to intellectual freedom for our users gets conflated with and obscures advocacy for our own academic freedom. ((Gemma DeVinney, “Academic Librarians and Academic Freedom in the United States: A History and Analysis,” Libri 36, no. 1 (1986): 24-39; Noriko Asato, “Librarians’ Free Speech: The Challenge of Librarians’ Own Intellectual Freedom to the American Library Association, 1946-2007” Library Trends 63, no. 1 (Summer 2014): 75-105. http://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2014.0025; Richard A. Danner and Barbara Bintliff, “Academic Freedom Issues for Academic Librarians,” Legal Reference Services Quarterly 25, no. 4 (2007): 13-35. https://doi.org/10.1300/J113v25n04_03.)) Academic librarians have one foot in academia and another in librarianship, with academic freedom a norm in the former but not the latter. Indeed, supporters of library neutrality—the focus of a battle that mostly plays out in public libraries—often uphold intellectual freedom at the expense of other rights and freedoms. Similar to the purity arguments put forth for academic work, some librarians claim neutrality as a core library value rooted in the American Library Association’s guiding values, the Enlightenment, and political liberalism. ((See documents cited here: American Library Association, “Intellectual Freedom: Issues and Resources,” accessed February 3, 2020, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom; John Wenzler, “Neutrality and Its Discontents: An Essay on the Ethics of Librarianship” portal: Libraries and the Academy 19, no. 1 (2019): 55–78. https://doi.org/10.1353/pla.2019.0004.)) Others, including us, argue that library neutrality is conceptually impossible and also puts workers and the public at risk. ((Amelia N. Gibson, Renate L. Chancellor, Nicole A. Cooke, Sarah Park Dahlen, Shari A. Lee, and Yasmeen L. Shorish, “Libraries on the Frontlines: Neutrality and Social Justice,” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal 36, no. 8 (2017): 751-766. https://doi.org/10.1108/EDI-11-2016-0100. See also remarks from many of the panelists at the American Library Association 2018 Midwinter Meeting’s President’s Program as highlighted in “Are Libraries Neutral?” American Libraries, June 1, 2018, https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2018/06/01/are-libraries-neutral/.))

Media reports, anecdotes on social media, and the library literature all confirm ongoing barriers to librarians’ academic freedom. Attempts by community members to censor or ban materials in libraries are so commonplace that the American Library Association promotes an annual “Banned Books Week” and collects statistics from libraries on the issue. ((See https://bannedbooksweek.org/ from the American Library Association.)) However, librarians experience other forms of infringement on their academic freedom that receive less attention from the profession. Library science scholar Noriko Asato provides a long history of infringements on librarians’ academic freedom, not just in collection development decisions, but also when they question library policy, engage politically, or even about choices in their personal lives, and these same infringements were reported in our survey. ((Asato, “Librarians’ Free Speech.”)) These are not simply problems of the past. Librarians in the University of California system learned during their union contract negotiations in 2018 that their institution believed academic freedom did not apply to them; this became the primary issue during their ultimately successful negotiations. ((Armando Carrillo, “UC Librarians Conclude Negotiations of Salary Increases and Academic Freedom Protections” Daily Bruin, April 9, 2019. https://dailybruin.com/2019/04/09/uc-librarians-conclude-negotiations-of-salary-increases-and-academic-freedom-protections/.)) According to a recent survey of Canadian librarians, they face restrictions on what they research, and struggle to pursue scholarship in light of their other responsibilities. ((Mary Kandiuk and Harriet M. Sonne de Torrens, “Academic Freedom and Librarians’ Research and Scholarship in Canadian Universities,” College & Research Libraries 79, no. 7 (November 2018): 931-947, https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.79.7.931)) Even when librarians are not directly restricted in their research or personal expression, they face structural inequities in terms of funding and time to do research compared to disciplinary faculty, leading indirectly to infringements on their autonomy. ((Fleming-May and Douglass, “Framing Librarianship,” 395)) Only half of all liberal arts college librarians report feeling “protected in their work as a librarian,” according to a survey conducted by librarian Meghan Dowell in 2018. ((Meghan Dowell, “Academic Freedom & the Liberal Arts Librarian,” CAPAL18, University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, 2018. https://capalibrarians.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/6C_Dowell_slides-notes.pdf.)) Dowell’s findings echo what non-faculty librarians reported in our survey, which is not surprising given how many liberal arts college librarians are classified as staff/non-faculty. Librarians who stage exhibits are also regularly confronted with pushback and are forced to take them down. ((Stephanie Beene and Cindy Pierard, “RESIST: A Controversial Display and Reflections on the Academic Library’s Role in Promoting Discourse and Engagement,” Urban Library Journal 24, no. 1 (January 1, 2018). https://academicworks.cuny.edu/ulj/vol24/iss1/6.)) Perhaps most alarmingly, librarians—especially librarians of color—have also been subject to harassment and abuse from the public for their workplace choices or public positions. ((Laura Ewen, “Target: Librarians: What Happens When Our Work Leads to Harassment—Or Worse,” American Libraries Magazine, June 3, 2019. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2019/06/03/target-librarians-harassment-doxxing/.)) These experiences are reflected in our survey findings as well, discussed in more detail below: more than 20% of respondents reported fear that their identity put them at personal risk.

Third Space Professionals

Academic librarians are situated within a broader context of academic professionals, beyond traditional faculty, on campus. Generally, however, there is little in the academic freedom literature that specifically studies non-faculty higher education workers. Despite our absence from the scholarship, research and anecdotal evidence from the media indicate that academic freedom issues surface regularly for academic professional staff on campus. Sometimes, professional staff are performing duties similar to faculty but are unprotected when our pedagogy is questioned or we protest institutional policy. Other times, since these are problems for staff rather than faculty, these issues are often not considered to have anything to do with academic freedom in the first place.

As some of the longest-serving quasi-academic professionals on campus—not traditional faculty, but also not clerical or facilities staff—the experiences of academic librarians serve as a bellwether and a proxy for issues that undoubtedly resonate for our academic support professional peers. ((While outside the scope of this article, we encourage readers to review the literature on “critical university studies,” which explores how campus educators outside of the ever-shrinking category of tenure track faculty operate within university structure. See Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (London: Minor Compositions, 2013) and la paperson, A Third University Is Possible (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Both Moten and Harney and paperson, among others, locate the spaces of radical transformation of the university outside of tenure track faculty positions. The work that these scholars see as central to injecting needed critiques of power and white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal structures of the university resides almost wholly in the work done by educators (in the broadest sense) with the most precarious positions. https://manifold.umn.edu/projects/a-third-university-is-possible.)) The number of academic support professionals grew rapidly in the late 1990s and we continue to comprise a significant portion of higher education workforces. ((See Judith E. Berman and Tim Pitman, “Occupying a ‘Third Space’: Research Trained Professional Staff in Australian Universities,” Higher Education 60, no. 2 (2010): 157–69. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-009-9292-z. )) There is cross-disciplinary literature on the complicated roles and identities of academic support staff, who occupy what educational studies scholar Celia Whitchurch calls a “third space” on their campuses. ((Celia Whitchurch, “Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: The Emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education,” Higher Education Quarterly 62, no. 4 (October 2008): 377–96. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2273.2008.00387.x. The notion of a “third space” has been introduced and sometimes deeply studied in a number of disciplines with quite variable meanings and implications (i.e., place-based versus cultural versus professional). In libraries, see James Elborg for a place-based understanding of third space theory: “Libraries As the Spaces Between Us: Recognizing and Valuing the Third Space,” Reference & User Services Quarterly 50, no. 4 (2011): 338-350.)) Despite the growth of this group of higher education workers, the persistent and predominant characterization of the academic workforce is a simple binary of either professors or clerical staff. However, academic support professionals, perhaps most notably librarians and academic technologists, increasingly assume duties that were once reserved solely for traditional professors: teaching, research, and service. ((Bruce Macfarlane, “The Morphing of Academic Practice: Unbundling and the Rise of the Para-Academic: The Morphing of Academic Practice,” Higher Education Quarterly 65, no. 1 (January 2011): 59–73. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2273.2010.00467.x ; Fiona Salisbury and Tai Peseta, “The ‘Idea of the University’: Positioning Academic Librarians in the Future University,” New Review of Academic Librarianship 24, no. 3/4 (July 2018): 244–64. https://doi.org/10.1080/13614533.2018.1472113; also see Reichman, The Future of Academic Freedom, 5.)) Even though these staff are often doing faculty-like work such as teaching, service, and research, traditional faculty protections—including academic freedom—do not apply. ((Related to these points is the literature on the academic identity that “third space” professionals bring to their roles, with disciplinary norms and an expectation of academic freedom baked into their ways of being an academic. See Celia Whitchurch, “The Rise of the Blended Professional in Higher Education: A Comparison between the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States,” Higher Education 58, no. 3 (September 1, 2009): 407–18. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-009-9202-4; Glen A. Jones, “The Horizontal and Vertical Fragmentation of Academic Work and the Challenge for Academic Governance and Leadership,” Asia Pacific Education Review 14, no. 1 (March 1, 2013): 75–83. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12564-013-9251-3; Berman and Pittman, “Occupying a Third Space;” and Macfarlane, “Morphing of Academic Practice,” 65.))

Without the protections of tenure and its associated governance, academic freedom as a right and protection is arguably toothless. With the erosion of tenure protections, in part through the dispersal of traditional faculty work to contingent faculty and professional academic support staff, “academic freedom today may be as endangered as it has been at almost any moment since the AAUP’s inception.” ((Reichman, Future of Academic Freedom, 4.)) Tenure was never just about protecting research, according to academic freedom expert Hank Reichman, but instead must be championed for all involved in teaching and research on campus. ((Reichman, Future of Academic Freedom, 7.)) Yet we now have a class of workers on higher education campuses who are expected to be educators and lead students in traditional paths of learning, but could easily lose their jobs and livelihood if there is blowback to their speech or other professional choices. Even when institutional policies around academic freedom are broad and inclusive of staff, in the absence of tenure, staff do not have the same meaningful freedom as faculty with tenure protections. If one can be fired at will, then one will almost certainly be guarded. Further, even if workers are covered by academic freedom policies in principle, it is usually unclear if all their activities are protected. This is why many advocates believe the core of the academic freedom fight goes beyond having the right policy in place and is actually about extending tenure protections on campuses. ((Reichman, Future of Academic Freedom, 8.)) In the following sections, we aim to bring a librarian-centered lens to this conversation, to make the case that in addition to contingent faculty, librarians and other academic professional staff must be brought into protection as well, given the nature of their work on campus.

Librarians as Third Space Professionals

Academic freedom as it manifests for traditional faculty does not map neatly onto librarians’ jobs and experiences. Like some faculty, academic librarians often engage in applied scholarship and are enacting professional expertise on a day-to-day basis in the academic sphere. However, academic librarians typically work within rigidly hierarchical library workplaces. Unlike traditional faculty—who operate with significant autonomy and whose spheres (teaching, research, and service) are fairly well-defined—academic librarians also engage in a wide variety of professional activities well beyond just research and teaching and are usually directly supervised in this work. They are usually reviewed against a different set of performance metrics than traditional faculty. Because librarians are more closely supervised and tend to have less power in their workplaces, many duties of academic librarians might be subject to penalties and pushback to a greater degree than those of disciplinary faculty. ((Fleming-May and Douglass, “Framing Librarianship.”)) As we will discuss more in our article, academic librarians also occupy a wide range of job classifications and only some are in traditional, tenure-protected positions. Many librarians are at-will employees or have some faculty-like rights but not all. Unpacking academic freedom for librarians, therefore, requires a different and broader picture than looking only at institutional policies and rigidly defined cases.

Librarians occupy myriad job classifications on their campuses, complicating research and understanding around this topic. For instance, when ACRL collects data from libraries on librarians’ faculty status, they ask an additional eight questions to establish clarity on the nature of that status. Additionally, ACRL then asks respondents to further detail whether or not librarians are “fully, partially, or not at all” included in policies such as “eligible for leaves of absence or sabbaticals on the same basis as other faculty” or “have access to funding on the same basis as faculty.” ACRL’s data from 2017 indicates that out of 1,645 responding academic libraries, FTE librarians at half of these (838, or 51%) had faculty status. However, 38% of libraries reported that their librarians have faculty status but not tenure. Interestingly, more libraries reported that their librarians fully have “the same protections of academic freedom as other faculty” than reported that their librarians have faculty status (70% compared to 51%). ((Mary Petrowski, Academic Library Trends and Statistics (Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries, 2017) 5, 136, 246, & 400.)) This can likely be explained by the fact that some institutions do apply academic freedom policies to staff and students, but also could be because respondents made assumptions about their protections when they might actually not be present in policy or in practice.

When it comes to librarians’ professional identity, institutional context therefore plays a key role. Approximately 60% of our survey respondents claim to be “faculty or faculty-like” in their status. ((We did not ask respondents who claimed faculty status whether or not they were tenured or pre-tenure. In retrospect, it would have been useful to further disaggregate the faculty librarians to learn if tenured status also affected their responses. However, it is also worth noting that even with pre-tenure librarians included, faculty librarians overall feel more secure in their academic freedom protections than non-faculty librarians.)) Our findings do not tell us what that means to our respondents and this label is open to interpretation, especially for librarians who often have some kind of quasi-faculty status that is understood or experienced differently for individual librarians on the same campus. In their article on the role of academic librarians in their institutions, Rachel Fleming-May and Kimberly Douglass write, “The lack of consensus on the meaning and value of librarianship to academic institutions is also a likely contributor to the disparate treatment of librarians with faculty status from institution to institution.” ((Fleming-May and Douglass, “Framing Librarianship,” 394.)) In studying the professional identity of librarians as related to their job classification, Shin Freedman found, and our respondents reported the same, that librarians’ self-identity is closely correlated to institutional context, rather than broader professional norms and understandings. In other words, whether or not you identify as faculty-like has a lot to do with how your institution and library administration categorizes and treats you. ((Shin Freedman, “Faculty Status, Tenure, and Professional Identity: A Pilot Study of Academic Librarians in New England,” portal: Libraries and the Academy 14, no. 4 (October 2014): 533–65. https://doi.org/10.1353/pla.2014.0023.)) This may seem like an obvious point, but it is worth calling out the distinction between traditional faculty identity and norms, which tend to be national in scope and much simpler to define—either tenure-track or contingent with clear rights understood to align or not with these two categories—and librarians’ roles and identities, which are much more locally bounded. While our survey relied on self-identification, we conjecture that self perception as being “faculty-like” is the strongest indicator of how librarians feel their autonomous work life is respected on their campuses. This has implications for librarians’ ability to advocate for their rights or even imagine alternatives to their current situations, likely compounded by how competitive the job market is for librarians. ((Eamon Tewell, “Employment Opportunities for New Academic Librarians: Assessing the Availability of Entry Level Jobs,” portal: Libraries and the Academy 12, no. 4 (October 2012): 407-423.)) Many librarians accept the classifications as they are wherever they can get a job, which is unsurprising given the challenging job market and also how much murkiness surrounds this issue in the literature and in practice.

While the pros and cons of tenure for librarians are widely debated in the academic library literature, there is consensus that tenure is valuable when it comes to defending librarians’ academic freedom. Indeed, academic freedom is regularly cited as a primary reason for academic librarians to maintain or seek faculty status and tenure. ((Catherine Coker, Wyoma vanDuinkerken, and Stephen Bales, “Seeking Full Citizenship: A Defense of Tenure Faculty Status for Librarians,” College & Research Libraries 71, no. 5 (September 2010): 406-420. https://doi.org/10.5860/crl-54r1;  Elise Silva, Quinn Galbraith, and Michael Groesbeck. “Academic Librarians’ Changing Perceptions of Faculty Status and Tenure,” College & Research Libraries 78, no. 4 (May 2017): 428-441. https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.78.4.428.)) Librarians publish on controversial topics to advance the field of librarianship and must regularly make potentially unpopular decisions in library operations. According to librarians Catherine Coker et. al., “If a librarian’s academic freedom is not protected, then, like teaching faculty, he or she might give a guarded and abridged version of the thoughts and ideas in his or her research. In addition, librarians may also guard against purchasing and disseminating controversial informational resources to help answer users’ questions, if they feel under threat that their job could be on the line.” ((Coker, vanDuinkerken, and Bales. “Seeking Full Citizenship.”)) Joshua Kim, an academic technologist who writes a regular column for Inside Higher Ed, asserts that he would accept a lower salary in exchange for tenure because of the freedom he would have to do critical, applied research in learning innovation. ((Joshua Kim, “What Percent of Your (Academic) Salary Would You Trade for Tenure?” Inside Higher Ed (May 12, 2009), https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/technology-and-learning/what-percent-your-academic-salary-would-you-trade-tenure)) Librarians with tenure and with clarity around their status report higher job satisfaction, including when it comes to academic freedom protections. ((Melissa Belcher, “Understanding the experience of full-time nontenure-track library faculty: Numbers, treatment, and job satisfaction,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 45, no. 3 (May 2019): 213-219, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2019.02.015.))

Our Findings

Survey Responses

Academic librarians with faculty status, according to our survey respondents, differ greatly in their perceptions of academic freedom protections from librarians who do not identify as faculty. In every category of job duty we asked about, librarians who identified as faculty-like reported feeling protected in their work at higher rates (Figure 1). Perhaps predictably, some of the biggest disparities were in areas that are most faculty-like in function: research and publishing (72% of faculty-identified librarians vs. 58% of non-faculty librarians), instruction (67% vs. 56%), and interactions with faculty (69% vs. 55%). But there was also a stark contrast in responses about non-library campus activities (63% vs. 49%) and library programming work (68% vs 54%), both arguably central functions of librarianship and crucial sites of outreach and relationship building for academic librarians.

Even with the higher numbers for faculty librarians, our findings offer confirmation of what we saw in the literature in terms of the heterogeneity of librarian faculty status and relative power on campus. Indeed, the figures are remarkable: a quarter of our faculty respondents did not feel well protected in their research and publishing activities, with similar responses for instruction and programming. These are the very “third space” areas where librarian innovation and creativity are seemingly most encouraged, and yet many of us do not feel like we can freely choose how we go about these tasks. According to the literature, faculty status for librarians varies widely from institution to institution in terms of what protections it affords. Our findings appear to confirm that faculty status for librarians does not in and of itself equate to feeling fully protected.

While there was a wide gap in the sense of safety for librarians of differing status, they report feeling silenced to the same general degree and by many of the same things (Figure 3). By far the largest number of respondents, 50% of faculty librarians and 45% of non-faculty librarians, reported feeling silenced by “fear that speaking up will hurt my career.” More than 20% in both categories felt silenced by “fear that my identity will put me at personal risk,” suggesting that certain social identities put people at a greater risk for targeted harassment, regardless of faculty status. In addition, 18% of our respondents (both faculty and non-faculty) also reported feeling afraid for their personal safety if they were to speak out about their beliefs. These two findings resonate with Lara Ewen’s article on librarians and targeted harassment. Citing an ALA panel from 2018 called “Bullying, Trolling, and Doxxing, Oh My! Protecting Our Advocacy and Public Discourse around Diversity and Social Justice,” Ewen describes the divergent experiences of two librarians:

Sweeney, who is white, said she was challenged mainly for the presumed content of the research, while Cooke, who is African American, was harassed in a way that made it clear that her race was a factor. Cooke was bombarded with hate mail and threatening voicemails. Both researchers feared that Cooke’s photograph, email address, and phone number had been copied from UIUC’s website and distributed throughout racist communities online. ((Lara Ewen, “Target: Librarians: What Happens When Our Work Leads to Harassment—Or Worse,” American Libraries Magazine, June 3, 2019. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2019/06/03/target-librarians-harassment-doxxing/))

While librarians of various social identities are targeted for their research, the magnitude of the threats is often much higher for librarians from marginalized communities.

Why does fear of punishment seem to outweigh actual experiences of reprimands? The literature we reviewed earlier in this article points to a number of possible answers, all likely contributing to this disparity. Academic librarians have any number of legitimate reasons to feel insecure, even in the absence of experiencing or witnessing direct penalties. Faculty status for librarians often comes with explicitly fewer protections than what is written into policy for disciplinary faculty. Even with faculty status, librarians typically have less security and power in their institutions than other faculty. Many librarians who are classified as staff are keenly aware that their positions are ultimately precarious, even though, like other “third space” academic professionals, they perform work that—were it being done by disciplinary faculty—would be protected by academic freedom policies. As discussed in the literature review, many librarians work within a rigid hierarchy under direct supervision with far less autonomy than traditional disciplinary faculty. It is understandable that librarians would have a sense of caution and insecurity in these settings. Finally, the dramatic transformation of the academic workforce in recent decades, referenced earlier in this article, itself presents an existential threat for academic librarians and our administrators. Already more precarious on our campuses, we can see from these trendlines (and many others) that academic libraries are in defense mode when it comes to our budgets and workforce. All of these factors likely contribute to academic librarians perceiving a wide variety of potential threats to their work even in the absence of direct punishment, while simultaneously recognizing that their managers and library leadership are feeling their own set of pressures to avoid institutional conflict and protect their budgets and staff.

The final set of questions we asked in our survey was about the impacts of punishment (Figure 4). Of those who had experienced punishments, a substantial number said it had affected their engagement and motivation at work, impacted their mental well-being, their relationships with co-workers, and their sense of belonging in their position. About 80% of non-faculty librarians reported that the punishments they had experienced had impacted their mental health, and a nearly identical number said the punishment had a negative effect on their motivation and engagement at work. The numbers were only slightly lower for librarians in faculty positions: around 70% reported these same impacts. Around 60% of respondents in both groups said their experience with punishments had influenced their relationships with colleagues and students, and more than half reported that the experiences had made them question whether they belonged in their positions. Other impacts that were reported by more than 40% of both faculty and non-faculty librarians included feeling that they could not adequately do their jobs, and, disturbingly, considering whether they belonged in the profession at all. These responses resonate with what librarian Kaetrena Davis Kendrick terms “the low morale experience.” ((Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, “The Low Morale Experience of Academic Librarians,” Journal of Library Administration, November 17, 2017.)) In Kendrick’s study, “participants reported emotional, physiological, or cognitive responses to low morale” after a trigger event, which in turn lead to “a negative effect on [their] daily practice of librarianship.” ((Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, “The Low Morale Experience of Academic Librarians”.)) While Kendrick studied abuse in the workplace as the trigger for low morale experience and our survey asked about the impacts of academic freedom infringements, there is significant overlap in both experiences and impacts.

Figure 1. Librarians’ Perceptions of Free Expression by Faculty Status

bar graph with accessible equivalent linked below
Figure 1. A bar chart visualizing librarians’ perceptions of their protections for free expression, according to faculty status.
Accessible equivalent of this chart as a table.

Figure 2. Librarians’ Experiences of Academic Freedom Infringements by Faculty Status

bar graph with accessible equivalent linked below
Figure 2. A bar chart visualizing librarians’ experiences of infringements of academic freedom, according to faculty status.
Accessible equivalent of this chart as a table.

Figure 3. Experiences of Feeling Silenced by Faculty Status

line graph full text equivalent linked below
Figure 3. A bar chart visualizing librarians’ experiences of being silenced, shown according to faculty status.
Full text equivalent of this chart as a list.

Figure 4. Respondents who reported being “somewhat” or “significantly” impacted by punishments, by faculty status.

line graph full text equivalent linked below
Figure 4. A bar chart visualizing respondents who reported being “somewhat” or “significantly” impacted by punishments, shown according to faculty status.
Full text equivalent of this chart as a list.

Open-Ended Comments

In the survey’s open-ended comments field, many librarians offered insights into how their work environment failed to protect them. Their reasons were complex and varied, but overall they describe workplaces where managers and library directors make unpopular decisions and librarians feel afraid to question these decisions. When they did question them, many librarians told stories of being informally punished by being given fewer opportunities or getting subpar reviews, and they feared “there will be subtle punishments for expressing beliefs that are odds with the administration.” Several respondents talked about how research was treated in their faculty librarian positions: they had their research agenda questioned or outright denied, they had library leadership who sought to abolish research as a core job function, and they experienced informal punishments because of their research topics. Some commented that academic freedom seemed to apply most in their institutions when it was tied to research and publishing. Even with faculty status, many librarians feel they are treated differently from their peers in academic departments. More than one person reported that their research agenda was questioned by supervisors, that they had little control over their own schedules, and that they were “routinely” tone policed during performance reviews. The hierarchical workplaces in which librarians typically work, as described in our literature review, seem to complicate and sometimes seriously interfere with librarians’ freedom to freely pursue their research agendas.

In keeping with the rest of our survey results, non-faculty librarians felt less certain that their speech and actions in the workplace were protected, even while experiencing similar academic freedom infringements as faculty librarians. In open-ended responses, a striking number of non-faculty librarians discussed the lack of clarity around academic freedom protections and, worse, library leadership (both managers and deans) who claim to support free expression but then respond negatively to it in practice. Reading non-faculty librarians’ comments as a group reveals a consistent narrative of uncertainty, insecurity, and mixed messages:

[I]t feels like our library leadership wants it both ways: librarians that will be active in high-profile research, publishing, professional and community orgs, etc., but also never say anything leadership doesn’t like. And what gets considered “controversial” at my library often seems pretty unpredictable.

My university displays a wild mismatch between its stated policies and their application—academic freedom is not supported in general, especially at the library level.

My institution claims to uphold academic freedom, but there is a silent understanding that said freedom really only means “Freedom to uphold the ‘party’ line.”

I think in theory they defend academic freedom, but in practice they are scared of anything that they perceive will damage their image.

This is but a small sample of comments about mixed signals; this was one the most common complaints in our responses. These librarians point to a pattern of denied agency, of contradictory messages about their academic freedom, and managers unwilling or unable to defend their employees when the latter’s work product is questioned. The implication for many librarians is that outspokenness is something to avoid and to discourage in others. As one respondent eloquently described it,

[I]t feels as if librarians, whether faculty or not, are taught to be nice and congenial. Thus, the culture of the profession does not lend itself to speaking up without being labeled.

The culture of “niceness” in libraries goes well beyond the scope of the current research, but is worth exploring as a root cause of much confusion and conflict arising from academic freedom expectations. ((See Fobazi Ettarh, “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves,” In the Library with the Lead Pipe, January 18, 2018; and Gina Schlesselman-Tarango, “The Legacy of Lady Bountiful: White Women in the Library,” Library Trends 64, no. 4 (2016), both of which offer an intersectional critique of how libraries enforce a performative librarian identity that purports to be neutral, nurturing, and inoffensive.)) Niceness and neutrality work in tandem to create conditions that shut certain people out of the professional conversation, and even out of working in the library profession themselves. ((Gibson et al, “Libraries on the Frontlines: Neutrality and Social Justice.”))

Faculty librarians reported some of the same experiences with unspoken restrictions and less-than-encouraging messages from supervisors, albeit in smaller numbers. Some of the comments echo what non-faculty librarians experience, but some point to specific inconsistencies between the rights they purportedly enjoy as faculty and how their libraries interpret those rights:

Most of the unfreedoms I experience are internal to the library. It is very conservative in comparison to the university. I don’t mean politically, I mean in risk taking and allowing a wide range of debate and speech. I have faced repercussions for things that are exceedingly trivial.

My institution embraces social justice, but the library does not. I have been here for [length of time redacted] and in that time I have contributed a great deal to the community, but it is lost in the micromanaging by the dean.

Another librarian reported having to change research topics in order to be granted a sabbatical, and their comments reveal a keen awareness of how this violated their academic freedom: “requiring me to research something [my dean] really likes is a violation of my academic freedom, but I’m tired of fighting him and just need a break.” These remarks point to a schism between institutional values about academic freedom and libraries’ more measured, cautious approach. This kind of fractured experience can happen in the other direction as well: in the University of California librarians’ recent contract negotiations, one of the sticking points for faculty librarians was to have academic freedom protections written into their contract. While UC librarians have faculty status, the pushback they experienced made it clear that the university saw librarians as excluded from essential protections that come with that status. ((Snowden Becker, Twitter thread, https://twitter.com/snowdenbecker/status/1044297787066671104; Martin Brennan, “UC Administration: “Academic Freedom is not a good fit for your unit””, UC-AFT Librarians Blog, August 13, 2018, https://ucaftlibrarians.org/2018/08/13/uc-administration-academic-freedom-is-not-a-good-fit-for-your-unit/.))


Many librarians are living in a culture of fear on their campuses. Despite working in academic settings where academic freedom is held up as a value and is presumed by many to apply to librarians, our survey respondents reported significant limits to their free expression. Librarians are expected to enact independent, expert judgment frequently throughout their workdays. We are purchasing materials for our libraries, planning programs, teaching students, and have unique curricular insights. Yet, we learned in our survey, many librarians are in workplaces where free expression is discouraged and even punished. Indeed, as evidenced in Figures 2 and 3 above, more than a third of librarians surveyed said they’d been informally punished, and 45% said they worried that speaking up would hurt their career. Further, a culture of silencing and fear leads to a foreclosing of underrepresented voices, upholds the status quo, and hinders growth in our institutions.

Our research confirms some of our hypotheses about the role of faculty status in librarians’ academic freedom protections.  We were surprised, however, to discover that where faculty and non-faculty differ most is in their perceptions about their protections; we found a strong connection between faculty status and perceiving free expression to be protected. Respondents without faculty status reported feeling protected in their job functions at lower rates than faculty librarians in every category we asked about, often with differences of ten percentage points or more. When it came to infringement of academic freedom, however, faculty and non-faculty librarians reported similar experiences. This raises interesting questions: why do faculty librarians feel more protected, even as they report being punished for their actions and speech? Is there something about faculty status that empowers librarians to speak more freely, in spite of potential punishments? Or is there more security in these positions, so that the punishments are easier to bear? Whatever the reasons, it seems clear that faculty librarians are better positioned to speak out in their campus communities, take a critical approach to the core responsibilities of their positions, and generally be confident that they can approach their work without fear their views will get them fired.

While it is beyond our powers and the scope of this research to resolve the disparity in academic freedom of faculty and non-faculty librarians, we can offer a way to begin examining what leads some librarians to feel protected and others not to. In the third space continuum, faculty librarians reside closer to traditional faculty and feel less precarious. Conversely, non-faculty librarians, as evidenced in their survey responses and open-ended comments, are often forced to navigate complex, sometimes contradictory messages about their academic freedom from their managers. Other times, the message is quite clear: they are considered staff, and staff are explicitly not covered by academic freedom in their institutions.

How then do we advocate for more and clearer academic freedom protections for librarians of all job classes? As with any endemic problem, the solution needs both local and systemic dimensions. We offer some suggestions here, but we also encourage our colleagues to think about how these strategies would play out in their local context and if there are others that might work better for you. When it comes to solutions, we believe the answer lies in raising awareness about this issue, understanding one’s role in the academic ecosystem locally and beyond, and identifying allies beyond our own ranks. On a systemic and national level, the path will involve calling upon national networks and following successful models of progressive change. Librarian professional organizations should attend to academic freedom as a distinct issue apart from book censorship and freedom for our users. We know from the ACRL statistics cited above that more than two-thirds of academic libraries believe their librarians to have the same academic freedom protections as faculty. Starting a conversation about these stated norms that are in conflict with our respondents’ reported experiences could lead to clearer protections. We should also participate in broader organizations like the AAUP and other groups agitating for academics, and push the issue of librarians within those bodies.

The local level has the most potential for meaningful change. It is imperative that librarians know exactly what or whether their employee handbooks, bylaws, union contracts, or other governing documents have to say about academic freedom for librarians. It may be that your handbook says nothing about academic freedom, but that is good information to have. If you have venues for discussing shared values around academic freedom within your library, try starting a conversation there. If there are explicit policies about academic freedom for faculty and students, but not for staff, are there official governance structures (such as faculty meetings or a university senate) through which this issue could be raised? Who on your campus outside the library are likely allies, such as contingent faculty or academic technologists?

By situating librarians within the framework of “third space professionals,” we can shift and clarify the conversations around academic freedom happening in our profession and on our campuses. When news stories tell us that even traditional faculty are at risk of losing their jobs from free expression, it follows that uncertainty and precarity are amplified the farther one is from the centers of power. Adjunct instructors, at-will staff, and others in more insecure positions on their campuses are particularly vulnerable. Organizing and agitating alongside other third space colleagues—academic technologists, staff researchers, lecturers—might be a more effective way to capture the attention and support of protected faculty and senior administrators. Third space academic professionals may be suffering the same self-censorship instinct because of their own employment precarity, but through allyship and solidarity, we all might secure greater freedoms. Building solidarity with local allies is an avenue toward greater power, such as organizing together into a union. ((We did ask about union status in our survey, but there was little difference in any area between union and non-union respondents (See Appendix). )) While librarians often enjoy a stature on campus that other third space professionals do not (whether because of pay, additional benefits, or permanent employment status), the existential threat to higher education employment will be felt by us all. ((For more on librarian attitudes toward unionization, see Rachel Applegate, “Who Benefits? Unionization and Academic Libraries and Librarians,” Library Quarterly 79, no. 4 (October 2009): 443-463; Stephanie Braunstein and Michael F. Russo, “The Mouse That Didn’t Roar: The Difficulty of Unionizing Academic Librarians at a Public American University,” in In Solidarity: Academic Librarian Labour Activism and Union Participation in Canada, Mary Kandiuk and Jennifer Dekker, eds. (Sacramento: Litwin Books, 2013).and Chloe Mills and Ian McCollough, “Academic Librarians and Labor Unions: Attitudes and Experiences,” portal 18, no.4 (October 2018): 805-829.)) Relying on tenure alone limits access to academic freedom protections to a select few and seems to be a losing path forward. If we collaborate together through unionizing or otherwise, we have the best chance of highlighting the need for academic freedom protections that extend beyond the tenure framework.


Perception of Protections, By Union Affiliation
  Union Non-union
Social Media 40% 47%
Interactions with other staff 73% 75%
Workplace policies 58% 59%
Off-campus activities 67% 66%
Programming 52% 51%
Interactions with students 69% 67%
Research and publishing 64% 62%
Instruction 65% 61%
Cataloging 36% 32%
Interactions with faculty 71% 64%
Non-library campus activities 62% 55%
Collection Development 69% 58%


Yupei Liu, a computer science and statistics major at the University of Minnesota, helped immensely with statistical analysis and creating charts from our data. We are grateful to Aaron Albertson for his help testing our survey design. We also wish to thank early readers of our draft, Heather Tompkins and Rachel Mattson. Finally, we also wish to thank the publishing editor of the submitted article, Ryan Randall, and peer reviewers, Meghan Dowell and Ian Beilin.

Accessible Equivalents

Figure 1 as a Table

Types of Expression
Faculty Non-faculty
Collection development 79% 67%
Cataloging 75% 66%
Research and publishing 72% 58%
Interactions with other staff 70% 62%
Interactions with faculty 69% 55%
Off-campus activities 68% 62%
Programming 68% 54%
Instruction 67% 56%
Interactions with students 66% 59%
Non-library on-campus activities 63% 49%
Questioning workplace policies 59% 52%
Social media 51% 47%

Return to Figure 1 caption.

Figure 2 as a Table

Types of Infringement
Faculty Non-faculty
Informally penalized for question workplace 31% 35%
Told not to participate in org. activity 18% 20%
Directed to change work 14% 16%
Formally penalized for question workplace 5% 5%

Return to Figure 2 caption.

Figure 3 as a Table

Types of Effects
Faculty Non-faculty
Fear that speaking up will hurt my career 49% 45%
Fear that my identity will put me at personal risk 21% 22%
Fear that speaking up could jeopardize my personal safety 17% 17%
Complaints from colleagues students or staff about my academic activities 11% 8%
Complaints from colleagues students or staff about my non-academic activities 5% 11%
Threats and harassment from coworkers students or faculty 5% 10%
Threats and harassment from the public 3% 3%
Complaints from the public about my non-academic activities 2% 3%
Complaints from the public about my academic activities 1% 4%

Return to Figure 3 caption.

Figure 4 as a Table

Effects of punishment: Responses of “somewhat” or “significantly”
Faculty Non-faculty
Motivation and engagement at work 71% 80%
Mental Well-being 70% 80%
Relationships with coworkers and students 60% 64%
Sense that I belong in this position 56% 64%
Ability to adequately do my job 46% 51%
Sense that I belong in this profession 37% 42%
Physical Well-being 30% 34%

Return to Figure 4 caption.