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Librarians and archivists as defenders of academic freedom

Librarians and archivists as defenders of academic freedom

By Leslie Sinclair

In 2009, the former Grant MacEwan Community College transitioned to MacEwan University. The academic staff association seized the opportunity to push for the creation of a library council as part of the institution’s shared governance structure, and secure tenure and promotion for its librarian members.

The experience at Grant MacEwan highlighted the ongoing struggle to secure academic rights, such as shared governance and academic freedom for librarians and archivists. Today, many academic librarians and archivists working in post-secondary institutions in Canada are covered by collective agreements that extend the same right to academic freedom as to faculty.

"It's the ultimate truth seeking," said Eva Revitt, librarian at MacEwan University. “It's important that librarians have academic freedom so that they can conduct scholarly research and because it "allows them to enact their professional practice based on our codes of ethics, rather than any administrative prerogative," Revitt added

The freedom of academic librarians to conduct scholarly activity is usually protected to the same standard as that of other academic staff within their collective agreements. CAUT’s policy statement on Academic Freedom makes it clear that academic freedom extends to all academic staff. Moreover, as academic workers, librarians and archivists should have research, scholarship, and academic and community service as part of their normal workload — requiring access to dedicated research time, sabbatical, leaves and funding.

However, librarians and archivists continue to face challenges unique to their profession when exercising academic freedom. According to Brianne Selman, a scholarly communications and copyright librarian at the University of Winnipeg, one of those challenges, particularly in smaller institutions, is that often there are only a handful of librarians, each overseeing a large functional area such as circulation or cataloging.

"It's incredibly hard to juggle your right to do research with the library's ability to function," she said. "Because no one's really willing to leave their colleagues out to dry."

A "more nefarious erosion of our academic freedom" added Jennifer Dekker, a research librarian at the University of Ottawa, is an often unspoken pressure to take on tasks that support the library's functional goals — launching a new project or service, for instance — during a sabbatical leave in order to improve the odds of getting the leave approved.

Finally, despite academic freedom being defined by collective agreements, research leave is often determined by an external panel, Selman explains. Academic freedom for librarians and archivists should apply to research in library and information science, but also to research in subject areas related to librarians’ and archivists’ areas of professional interest or assigned subject responsibilities. "If [external approval panels] don't understand that professional tension, then they can decline things that they don't see [as valuable]," Selman said.

A defining principle of post-secondary institutions, shared governance has long been a right of academic staff. While Canadian academic librarians and archivists are considered academic staff under many collective agreements, most libraries do not have library councils that are linked to the institution's governing body (usually the Senate) as other faculty departments generally do. The creation of library councils with representation at Senate could help academic librarians and archivists to advocate for their academic freedom more effectively and to act more broadly within their institutions.

"Governance structures are essentially the backdrop for academic freedom," according to Revitt. Without them, "you can have academic freedom, but you've got no place to enact it."

Revitt explains that there are few library councils in Canada that actually function as governance bodies responsible to the Senate, and where all librarians and archivists vote on recommending major decisions and policies. When there is no library council, she said, the de facto spokesperson for the library is often the University Librarian or Dean of Libraries which critically affects librarians' and archivists’ ability to participate in frank, open and transparent discussions at the institutional level.

Given that academic librarians and archivists are experiencing similar wage setbacks and precarity as other post-secondary education staff, how can they use their academic freedom as a voice for the public good?

"Service work is imbued with academic freedom," Dekker said, which could take the form of volunteering with library associations or in association and union work. Recalling her first foray into activism in 2012 during a period of severe cuts to funding and programming at Library and Archives Canada, Dekker said that librarians rallied in downtown Ottawa to hand out pamphlets and ribbons of support.

"That's a really good example of how we can use our professional knowledge and academic freedom in terms of having a voice and not being reprimanded or disciplined," Dekker said.

Lydia Zvygintseva of Digital Scholarship Services at the University of Alberta, agrees that academic freedom goes beyond research and publishing, extending to labour action as well. In early 2022, during academic labour unrest across Canada, University of Alberta librarians were preparing for the possibility of a strike. Zvygintseva was pleased to see her colleagues show up to information pickets, sharing details about union activities and organizing.

"There's always a need for volunteers to help prepare for the possibility of job action," she said, adding that job action also involves being informed on the collective agreement and proactively advocating to improve labour conditions. While these are slow processes, she said, taking part helps strengthen not only the visibility of librarians within the university, but to exercise their academic freedom rights.

Similarly, Dekker suggested that academic librarians advocate for the rights of archivists who are more likely than librarians to be unionized in non-academic staff associations, often with agreements devoid of the protections of academic freedoms enjoyed by academic librarians.

"It's really a shame that [many] archivists don't have the same ability to be critical of their institutions and government or to engage in the same activities that librarians can engage in," she said, adding that if archivists can't speak out on things, it erodes librarians' abilities to speak out as well.

"Canadian academic librarians fought for the labour union benefits and academic freedom as part of the privileges of the job," said Zvygintseva. "I wish that academic librarians used it more through things like publishing, being on committees, speaking, and not being afraid." 

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