For vs. With: Approaches to Librarianship

Between data, all of the flavors of informatics, systematic reviews, visualization stuff, spinning up new services, the ACRL RDM Road Show, etc etc — I’ve run into a division of approaches to librarianship, liaison work, and tackling new projects.  While it simplistically comes down to two prepositions, it means an enormous difference in what one undertakes and how.

For vs. With

The For Approach: This approach to librarianship says that I will do things for my patrons. This may include mediated searches, identifying R libraries or building them on their behalf, doing data management. My default image for this is a corporate library or a research firm, presenting the packaged answer to a question.

The With Approach: This approach to librarianship says that I will do things with my patrons. This will again include searching, identifying R libraries, doing data management. But with implies a collaboration, requires more interaction, and integrates the librarian as a team member and as an educator. It is what I see as a more appropriate fit for academic librarians.

Why does this matter? Part of it is scale. Many times when I’m teaching the Road Show or talking to librarians about research data management I’m met with fear and hostility: we’re going to have to do ALL THESE NEW THINGS. The unspoken clause at the end of that is “for our patrons.” And I agree, that doesn’t scale at most of our institutions, this idea that each librarian will now serve as the data manager, analyst, reproducibility-checker, visualizer, and chief nitpicker for all of the research products created by each of their faculty. It also has potential to limit the campus understanding of the role of the library into repetitive — and oftentimes administrative — tasks.

Additionally it crops up in library staffing where X Hot New Expertise is hired so that the library can offer Shiny Service. This appears to be done mostly at larger institutions and it’s not clear the long-term stability of those positions when the institution has moved onto the next Hot New Expertise. It also doesn’t address if those institutions are simultaneously investing in developing the skillset of the library workforce that they already have. I’ve seen conversations go thusly:

“We’re going to hire an X!”
“Okay, and what is that person going to do?”
“But what exactly will they be doing? Can you define X? Where does this fit in our goals?”
“They will X!!”
“And then campus will see us as being the experts in X!!”

I understand: the lure of shine is there. So is the drive of being in a service profession and seeing a desperately under-filled need our patrons have. But rarely does this shine-chasing seem to come with full consideration of these short-term plans. Consider the challenges of coordinator syndrome, new hires without any other support, X experts who are minimally interested in any other function of the library, and issues with having only one person who can do Shiny Service when they leave for another position.


A specific example that comes up frequently is Data Management Plans. New-to-data librarians have an often fearful perception that they will be assigned to write a DMP for a million dollar grant fifteen minutes before the grant is due. After all, says the PI, it’s only NSF-needs-some-boilerplate, right? The DMP is perceived as a repetitive administrative task best shunted to someone whose time is less valuable. Gee, thanks for thinking of your librarian. Perhaps not surprisingly, I won’t write DMPs for research teams where I’m not a major partner. However, I will work with anyone who asks about a DMP. I will bring my data management expertise, my editing skills, my red pens and my whiteboards. Expect a lot of questions and a couple of drafts.  Next time, it’ll be a lot easier, because we’re been through this before. And your team will already know some of the questions to consider. And your data management might already be more planned because of what we discuss and implement this time.

With argues for a different mindset. I cannot do this alone; we cannot do this alone. We partner; we collaborate; we investigate together and combine our expertise. With requires patrons of all levels to bring something other than demands to the table, they must also bring effort. With is more scalable because it asks time not only of the librarian but also that of the patron asking. There are many patrons who will cheerfully ask a librarian to spend 20 hours doing something for them but are oddly reluctant to commit 2 hours to doing something with the librarian.

There are times when for is necessary, useful, or required. From a strictly political standpoint, I’m much more likely to do something for someone with Dean/Chief/Provost in their title. I also do mediated searches periodically for faculty peers in other disciplines, as do many of my medical librarian colleagues. I have expertise that I invite my colleagues to draw upon and for may be appropriate depending on the task or issue at hand.

I strongly prefer, however, to change the nature of the request. If it’s a request for a mediated search from someone I don’t know as well, I may instead set up a consult where the patron and I are able to work through things together. I do a little pre-searching and then we get together to refine. A for request becomes a with — and an opportunity to strengthen a relationship, do a little teaching, refresh understanding, etc.

Both approaches and prepositions have roles in my work, but where I spend my highest energies and my emphases impacts the future work that I will have the opportunity to do with my patrons and at my institution. My default is with. Let’s work together.



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