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Academic Librarians Seeking Equity Through Unionization
Posted On September 28, 2021
“In 2020,” AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees reports, “there were approximately 163,810 librarians, 30,810 library technicians, and 69,650 library assistants employed in public libraries, primary and secondary schools, institutions of higher education, museums and archives, as well as in libraries operated by private corporations, government agencies, religious groups and other organizations.”

It goes on to note that “librarian employment in 2020 was split between public libraries (33.2 percent), elementary and secondary schools (29.4 percent), colleges, universities and professional schools (14.9 percent), federal, state and local government agencies (2.55 percent), and other libraries and archives, including those at businesses, law firms, nonprofit organizations and scientific organizations (20 percent). … In 2020, 25.7 percent of librarians were union members.”

The ALA Allied Professional Association (ALA-APA) shares, “Joining with your colleagues in a union at your workplace offers many benefits. On the job, your union brings together the collective strength of you and your co-workers to insure meaningful negotiations with management for an equitable contract. Negotiations are not limited to only wages and salaries, but can also include staffing and overtime, safety and health, cost of living raises, provisions for continuing education and professional development, adequate pensions, vacations, equitable promotion systems and transfer policies, and a workable grievance system. Through your union, you and your co-workers oversee carrying out the provisions of the contract.”

In 2018, American Libraries published an article titled “Unions 101: What Library Unions Do—and Don’t Do—for Workers.” In the past few years, we have seen a major shift in how library workers, especially academic librarians, see themselves and how they are being treated by their institutions. This article notes that “in 2017 union librarians and library assistants earned on average 31% more per week than their nonunion equivalents. Union library workers are also more likely to have health coverage, retirement plans, and sick leave. …” Clearly, unionization is an important option for librarians who are seeking to improve their own status and benefits.


In 2018, librarians at the University of California (UC) learned that their contracts did not grant them any intellectual freedom protections. American Libraries noted at the time that their union, “the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT) Unit 17, filed grievances against the UC administration regarding disciplinary actions for such things as managers reprimanding librarians over product assessments and conference presentation titles. Their grievances were rejected.” For professionals who stressed the value and importance of intellectual freedom, finding out they didn’t have this same protection led to various grassroots efforts leveraging the media, petitions, and the support of librarians across North America.

UC–Davis subject librarian Axel Borg, now retired, was at the time UC-AFT Unit 17’s lead negotiator. He describes the UC librarians’ status to NewsBreak readers as follows: “At UC, librarians are academic employees, but not faculty (i.e., members of the Academic Senate or non-Senate faculty). We may be the only all-librarian bargaining unit in higher education. At most, other institutions’ librarians are considered faculty (e.g., California State University system) or are part of a much larger bargaining unit (e.g., SUNY system). At UC, the non-Senate faculty (lecturers, supervisors of various field work categories like teaching or social work) have their own bargaining unit. Both of these bargaining units are in one union, UC-AFT, although we have separate contracts.”

A 2020 study in The Journal of Academic Librarianship notes, “ACRL recommends that librarians with faculty status have the same privileges and responsibilities as other faculty on campus.” All of this is occurring as librarians are currently taking on new roles (publishing services, managing makerspaces, teaching methods classes, etc.). How has our professional association, ALA, supported academic librarians and unions?

Borg explains that “ALA has advocated for ‘faculty status’ for librarians, and several decades ago when this was discussed, did not seem to understand or want to acknowledge the ‘academic status’ that UC librarians have held since 1962, when we were transferred from the staff personnel office to the academic personnel office. There is no way that librarians would be allowed/welcomed into the Academic Senate, so we developed our own parallel governance/peer review structure that has served us well. Many of those provisions are now part of our Memorandum of Understanding.”

A recent article from In the Library With the Lead Pipe notes that “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.

Borg agrees that “the issue of academic freedom for librarians was a significant part of the negotiations for our last contract. While we did not get the language we wanted in the final contract, we did get a policy enhancement in the Academic Personnel Manual.” (See the UC-AFT Librarians Blog.) In March 2019, UC librarians, represented by UC-AFT, were able to reach a tentative agreement on a new multiyear contract, which runs through March 2024. This is thanks to the Professional Librarians Unit, which is described as “a systemwide bargaining unit of non-supervisory professional librarians who provide vital services to maintain the highest quality academic, scientific and medical library facilities at all UC campuses and medical centers and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). The unit is represented by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Currently, the unit includes approximately 364 employees.”


Librarians have long sought to be acknowledged for participating in the broader mission and governance of their universities. In a 2004 article in The Journal of Academic Librarianship, authors reviewed “social science and library studies literatures on librarian-faculty relations,” finding “an asymmetrical disconnection between both groups: Librarians and faculty identify a disconnection that keeps the two separated, but only librarians view this disconnection as problematic.” Can separate ever be equal?

The University of Michigan, like many land-grant public universities, has coordinate campuses in addition to a central research campus at Ann Arbor. The Lecturers’ Employee Organization (LEO), which represents non-tenured faculty members (lecturers) across the university’s three campuses, asserts, “In 2004, lecturers at the University of Michigan voted to unionize in order to secure collective bargaining rights with university administration. [They] did this in response to the incredibly poor job security, inconsistent health benefits coverage, and exploitative salaries that were the norm for non-tenure track faculty.” The Michigan Daily reports that on July 18, 2021, “librarians, archivists and curators (LACs) on all three University of Michigan campuses were formally recognized as a bargaining unit” within LEO called LEO-GLAM.


Why are we seeing this growing need for new types of protection and representation for librarians? Does this effort for equity stem from the use of nontraditional (civil service or faculty-status) employment categories? Or does it represent a breakdown in the collegial systems that have existed within academic libraries? Will this result in more collegiality? Equity? Does it create schisms within professional classes? Is traditional tenure, as a system, being challenged as a way to keep costs down and limit an institution’s responsibilities to staff? Given all of the cuts resulting from the pandemic, this movement comes at an interesting time.

Sian Brannon, associate dean for collection management at the University of North Texas Libraries, is the current chairperson of the ALA-APA Standing Committee on the Salaries and Status of Library Workers. Sharing her perspective with NewsBreak readers, she notes that “though we fight to justify our roles as faculty to faculty, the field also debates this amongst ourselves. How do we esteem our own work? It may boil down to the ‘value of the MLS’ discussion that has waged for decades.” Brannon cites the Library Education Reform Discussion Group, which has been exploring the issue, and scholarly research, including The MLS Project by Boyd Keith Swigger.

“The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board issued a report to the Texas Legislature in March 2021 regarding whether universities were eligible to receive monies from the National Research University Fund,” Brannon says. “One of the (optional) eligibility criteria is membership in the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). Faculty librarians play a large part in achieving membership in ARL.” In fact, “Most faculty librarians have scholarship and service requirements. This is beneficial to the institution. We are conducting empirical research, collaborating with faculty on projects, and bringing exposure to the university.”

Brannon continues, “Regarding inequity in pay compared to other faculty, I feel that academic institutions who do classify their professional librarians as faculty should provide the same minimum salary floors as they do for instructional faculty. Tenure-track faculty librarians should receive at least the minimum entry salary for tenure-track instructional faculty (pro-rated if 9-month versus 12-month appointments). Non-tenure track faculty librarians should match non-tenure track (clinical, not lecturer) faculty salaries.” And “non-salary faculty ‘benefits’ should also be considered,” along with “faculty development leave, being permitted to be Principal Investigators on grants (yes, this is denied in some places and has to be fought for), eligibility for faculty awards, rights to serve on faculty senate and related committees, and more.”


On June 3, 2021, at the first meeting of LEO-GLAM, University of Michigan–Flint archivist Colleen Marquis said, “Let’s not be modest. What is a university without a library, an archive, an art or artifact space? We are the wranglers of information, the interpreters of data, the professionals who hold down history, science, art, music, and every other subject a student couldn’t think of to allow for closer examination. It is past time we were treated as such and it is past time for members of our staff to have the same recognition.” Recognition—but also the freedom to try and the opportunity to succeed.

Giving library workers the opportunities they deserve to fulfill their commitments is clearly a strong, and public, good. “The University of North Texas Libraries has pulled in more national grant funding and advancement donations than some of the colleges on our campus,” Brannon notes. “That’s reputation.”

“[T]he labor movement is people,” President John F. Kennedy once said. “Our unions have brought millions of men and women together, made them members one of another, and given them common tools for common goals. Their goals are goals for all America—and their enemies are the enemies of all progress. The two cannot be separated.”

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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