Director of Information Services
Defence College of Management & Technology
Defence Academy of the United Kingdom
& Deputy University Librarian
Book Review: The Successful Academic Librarian
The Successful Academic Librarian: Winning Strategies from Library Leaders. By Gwen Meyer Gregory, SOS Free Stock 2005, ISBN 978-1573872324, 231 pages.
Never judge a book by its cover? In this case the cover contains some apt symbolism for what one might expect from this US multi-author text. Presumably the picture on the front is supposed to be the eponymous 'successful academic librarian', well-groomed and smartly suited, climbing the rungs of the career ladder. The aluminium ladder itself looks more suitable for DIY, but perhaps this is also accurate, as this work is very much a positive view of how to take your career in hand and develop it. However the mischievous might question whether this is a case of being all dressed up but with nowhere to go after the top rung.
Gwen Meyer Gregory leads a team of eighteen other contributors. Ms Gregory's biography indicates previous publications and a broad career in academic and special librarianship culminating in Head of Bibliographic Services at Colorado College. In keeping with the homely style of the book, we also know she has a dog. The other contributors are mainly middle-ranking library staff from a broad range of institutions. I would question the implied contention in the title that these are leading thinkers in US academic librarianship, but perhaps that is not necessary in what is intended to be a practical career manual.
Part One starts with 'The basics - getting off to a good start'. This encompasses five chapters: the first covers 'job responsibilities' by Rebecca Miller and Nancy Bohm; the second 'collaborative relationships with faculty' by Elizabeth Hutchins; 'research' and 'publication' by Joan Beam and Cathy Cranston; 'service' by Michelle Mach; and 'faculty status, promotion and tenure' by Gwen Gregory and Mary Beth Chambers. Part 2 is entitled 'Things to think about - getting and keeping a great job'. Six chapters here: the first on 'interviews' by Karl Bridges; the second on 'mentors' by Verla Peterson; 'continuing education' by Kris Swank contains some bullet point 'sidebars' , an approach which would have benefited the work if adopted throughout; 'unions' by Tina Hovekamp; 'career documentation' by McKinley Sielaff; and a final 'Up North' chapter on US and Canadian contrasts. The Canadian experience seems more akin to our own. Part Three on 'Tales from the trenches - academic librarians share their stories' appears inviting, but I found the promise of a share of useful experience here mainly unfulfilled. The four chapters here include: 'notes from a cataloguer' by Wendy Baia; 'tenure in the library' by Molly Molloy; 'moving to the academy in mid-careeer' by Anna Gold; and 'a view from the top' by Benjamin Wakashige and Emily Asch. There is a brief preface and introduction, an afterword and an annotated bibliography containing one British item among the twenty-three citations.
There are some useful and interesting ideas presented. The framework assumption that academic librarians will be required to involve themselves in not only the task, but also 'service', 'research' and 'teaching', and that these will be supported and encouraged by the Library Director are the positive benefits of the 'faculty status' and tenure environment in the US. It does seem here in the UK that these activities are being increasingly squeezed out because they are viewed as extras rather than fundamental to the position. 'Service' here means not only professional activities, but also campus and what we would call extramural involvements. The explicit assumption that academic librarians will be teaching at a minimum on information literacy programmes, and potentially also on academic programmes, is laudable, but may still be an optimistic aspiration in some UK contexts.
The book is mainly consistent in style. This may not please all UK readers. The unremittingly positive and intimate writing approach taken by most contributors might be described as 'folksy', but this also results in most contributions being less organised than this reviewer at least would have found valuable. It also occasionally results in bizarre advice being offered, which while humorous, distracts from, rather than enhances, the message. While most of the points made in most of the content might be viewed as sound, the deployment of a progressive argument or a clear development of points towards a conclusion often appears to be lacking. Some of the clearer chapters are unfortunately the ones of least relevance to the UK context.
I would question whether this book contains 'strategies'. While there may be an implicit strategy underpinning the work, most of the content is more a list of tactics and advice. The book requires more shaping and organisation both within and across chapters to make it a coherent and accessible template for the successful academic librarian. Because of its US basis and its overall style of approach, I would not recommend this book either to a UK or international audience or to my own staff or students.
My opinion is that there is a gap in the market for a UK version of this type of text. It would be valuable to have a work to recommend to staff starting and progressing through the ranks of the academic library. To be useful such a work would need in my view to clarify from a specific and practical (as opposed to a career progression) perspective what the tasks of being an information or subject specialist are, and what knowledge, skills and aptitudes are required for these; what other career paths and roles are currently open in both academic libraries and related services (particularly in converged or broader knowledge-based services) and how the requirements for these may differ; and most crucially what the differences in requirements are as one progresses up the ladder. Thus the work might spell out the additional attributes needed to move from an individual role to leading a team; the implications of the next step to broader responsibility where the compromise between being a librarian and being a manager begins to bite; and the subsequent development required to attain and fulfil leadership positions where special pleading must be tempered by corporate responsibility, helpful responsiveness by political robustness, and detailed knowledge by a broader visionary perspective.
Date published:30 April 2006