Reflecting on the nature of academic librarian and archivist work

Marni Harrington

As Western’s 43 librarians and archivists prepare for collective bargaining in the spring, it’s an ideal time to reflect on the nature and importance of librarian and archivist labour in our academic environment.

Academic libraries do not exist in isolation but function within the governance and administrative structures of higher education, and within the broader realities of public institutions in a time of neoliberalism. In libraries, there are many neoliberal practices that may threaten or be in opposition to the ethical guidelines and values of librarianship, and these practices are now an ongoing concern in information and academic environments1.

In 2018, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL)2 identified several major trends in academic libraries, some of which are in direct conflict with our professional values and ethics. For example, the push for learning analytics and data collection are ubiquitous in many libraries, with mined data used to plan more services for students and predict their future needs. However, collecting student data contravenes our code of ethics about patron privacy and confidentiality3. How patron data is collected, who it is shared with, and how it is shared are all ethical concerns for librarians and archivists even if it is not a concern for our patrons.

Another major trend is the expansive reach of “big publishers and vendors” such as Elsevier, that extend beyond publishing to access, discovery, and dissemination of content. Monopolies such as these also risk the integrity of patron data. Specifically, there is a lack of transparency about the profits gained from searching, publication, and article download data from our students and faculty. A knowledge inequity is also created when researchers in developing countries and the global south cannot afford to access content available only through “big publishers”.

Working in academia, librarians and archivists continually identify and evaluate the ever-changing information needs of our university community. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) states that “… academic librarians are full partners with faculty members in the scholarly and intellectual functions of universities and colleges.”4 University archives and libraries provide a service for faculty and students and the role of librarians and archivists is to develop, support, evaluate, plan for the future, and influence any library and archival services that are offered. Broadly, this means supporting the teaching, research and learning of faculty and students in a critical and educated manner. There are numerous librarian and archivist duties and responsibilities grounded in themes of organizing, managing and facilitating access to library resources and services. Our duties and responsibilities are also grounded in ethical guidelines and values that are fundamental to our practice.

All librarians and archivists hired at Western must have a Master’s degree from a program accredited by the American Library Association (ALA). In most cases, this is a degree in Library and Information Science, Archival Studies, or an equivalent information or archival Master’s degree. Many librarians and archivists have trained in diverse fields and may have other graduate degrees at the Master’s or PhD level. Through our professional programs, we gain substantial theoretical knowledge about the principles that form the foundation of professional work in libraries and archives. Professional values and ethical guidelines provide the framework for our labour, that in theory, influence the policies we create and the services we offer.

Working in the faculty-supported library in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) where our Master of Library and Information Science students learn theoretical and practical aspects of library and information work, I can see that there is often a disconnect between idyllic models of practice and what we enact in our day-to-day work. It can be extremely difficult to uphold fundamental principles at the expense of efficiencies, accountabilities, and ongoing austerity measures of doing more with less. Our collective agreement grants us academic freedom so that we can influence policies and practices in our libraries and archives without fear of administrative retaliation5. It gives us control and autonomy over how our work is carried out, so that we can continue to make critical and educated judgements about our day-to-day labour and recognize and rebuff the impact of neoliberal practices.

Marni Harrington is an associate librarian in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies


1Nicholson, Karen P. “The McDonaldization of Academic Libraries and the Values of Transformational Change.” College & Research Libraries, 76.3 (2015): 328-338.

2Research Planning and Review Committee, ACRL. “2018 top trends in academic libraries: A review of the trends and issues affecting academic libraries in higher education.” College & Research Libraries News, 79.6 (2018): 286.

3NPEREZ. “Privacy and Confidentiality: Library Core Values.” Advocacy, Legislation & Issues, 25 Apr. 2014,

4CAUT (2009), Issues & Campaigns: Librarians & Libraries.

5CAUT Bargaining Advisory (2018). Bargaining Parity for Librarians & Archivists.