A binder full of tenure documentation
LibParlor Guest Reflection

Where is all the research about community college libraries?

Zoe Fisher writes about her experience achieving tenure in community college libraries. Read about the process and discover some resources to learn more on community colleges.

LibParlor is happy to introduce our Zoe Fisher as this week’s guest contributor. Zoe Fisher is an adjunct faculty librarian at Green River College in Auburn, Washington. Prior to her current role, she was the Pedagogy & Assessment Librarian at the University of Colorado Denver from 2016-2017, and she was an Associate Professor, Reference & Instruction Librarian at Pierce College from 2012-2016. Zoe is interested in information literacy pedagogy, student learning assessment, community and technical college students, and privacy and ethics in library assessment. You can find her online at www.quickaskzoe.com


When I was in graduate school, I didn’t have a clue how community college libraries were different from other types of academic libraries*.

Like many new LIS grads, I stumbled into the first part-time job I could get, which happened to be as an adjunct faculty librarian at a small community college in Longview, Washington. Longview is a sleepy mill town at the junction of the Columbia and Cowlitz rivers with a population of 35,000, and home to the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. I worked at Lower Columbia College for 14 hours a week, in two seven-hour shifts, commuting 80 miles round trip from Portland, Oregon. During those shifts, I answered an endless stream of reference questions, helped students navigate our catalog and databases, and taught them how to write citations. I occasionally provided one-shot instruction sessions for programs like Chemical Dependency Counseling and, in my rare down time, I worked on collection development projects. After two quarters working at Lower Columbia College, I applied to a full-time position at Pierce College in Puyallup, Washington, where I worked for the next four years.

I had been working in community college libraries for a year and half when I attended the ACRL Immersion program in Seattle in summer 2013, and it was only then that I truly began to see the difference between my job and the roles of librarians at universities.

Teacher-Librarian, or Librarian-Teacher?

For those who are unfamiliar with the program, Immersion provides a week-long learning experience for teaching librarians to get a crash course in pedagogy, learning theories, instructional design, assessment strategies, and reflective teaching practices. I had a great experience and I learned a lot, both from the Immersion faculty and from the librarians in my cohort. After dinner one evening, I asked a librarian who worked at a university, “So, how many instruction sessions did you teach last year?”

“Hmmm,” he said. “About fifteen, I think.”

I’m sure that in my typical tactless way, I sputtered in shock. “Fifteen?” I repeated. “Wow, okay. I did about eighty.”  He nodded, not terribly surprised, because unlike me, he understood that our jobs were very different.

Obviously it’s not a competition to see who teaches more, and there is no award for the Instruction Librarian Who Taught the Most One-Shots. But before Immersion, I really naively believed that all instruction librarians taught all the time, like I did. I also thought that everyone staffed the reference desk for about 15 hours a week, like I did. And I thought it was normal to, you know, teach classes at 7AM and 8PM, to eat my lunch in frantic mouthfuls between long reference questions, to be thirsty all the time because my mouth was so dry from non-stop talking, and to come home drenched in sweat every evening because I’d been on my feet all day.

I thought that every librarian was a teacher first, and a librarian second, because that was the only culture I knew. But what happens when community college librarians are evaluated based on their teaching, and university librarians are evaluated based on their research contributions? We end up with lopsided contributions to the scholarly conversation about academic libraries.

What does the tenure process look like for community college librarians?

As tenure-track faculty at Pierce College, I was evaluated by the same process as tenure-track faculty in other disciplines. All full-time faculty had three major job expectations: (1) teaching, (2) shared governance, and (3) advising. Faculty were expected to be  student-focused teachers, to participate fully in campus committees, and to provide educational planning and degree guidance to students. I was also expected to submit an annual Professional Growth and Development Plan outlining my intentions for training and conference attendance for the year–but, as community college faculty, we were not required to conduct or publish research.

Tenure dividers that say committee letters, student evaluations, tenure committee meeting minutes, and analysis and pedagogy
Pierce Community College tenure binder

Although I did not have to write any research articles, I did have to do a lot of writing for my tenure documents. Each January I submitted a lengthy self-evaluation highlighting all the different facets of my role, and I also wrote a separate required document reflecting on my pedagogical choices in reaching the learning outcomes for my program (in this case, information literacy). The bulk of my tenure documentation included student evaluations and documented classroom observations. My tenure committee was composed of five members, including my Dean, a tenured librarian, two tenured faculty from other disciplines, and a student affairs staff person, and all of them were expected to observe me every quarter, for seven consecutive quarters–meaning that, by the time the Board of Trustees voted to determine whether or not to grant my tenure, I had been formally observed teaching at least thirty-five times.

In contrast, tenure-track university librarians have a very different mix of job duties and expectations. Depending on their role, they may have very limited interaction with the public, and their research may be based on the technical aspects of their jobs, like electronic resources management, cataloging, or preservation work.  University librarians who hope to achieve tenure are pressured to begin creating a research agenda as soon as possible (as Hailley eloquently described in an earlier LibParlor post), and many are expected to publish a monograph if they hope to be promoted to the rank of Associate Professor.

A binder full of tenure documentationThis disparity in job roles and priorities leads to an inevitable result: much of the LIS research about academic libraries focuses on university libraries writing about their own job-related projects, and many community college librarians, expected to focus on teaching, are left out of the scholarly conversation about academic libraries.

Who does research about community college libraries?

There are lots of folks who do research about community colleges and their libraries–the point I’m making here is just that the people doing the research are often not full-time community college librarians (and that can be fine, but it can also cause problems). A timely example of research about community college libraries being conducted in partnership with larger organization is this IMLS-funded study conducted by Ithaka S+R; they’re working with seven community college libraries to ask how to define student success, and how academic libraries can support student success.

In many community colleges, administrators (like Deans and Presidents) are expected to have Doctorate degrees. Community college librarians who want to seek roles in higher education administration usually take the path of completing a Doctorate in a program like Higher Education Leadership, Educational Policy, and so on. Folks in these degree programs may decide to conduct their dissertation research about their libraries. One example is the Vice President of Learning & Student Success at Pierce College, Dr. Deb Gilchrist, who completed her Ph.D. in Education with a dissertation about teaching in the library.

Where can you join the conversation about community college libraries?

If you want to connect with community college libraries, here are some helpful places to start.

  1. Join the CJC-listserv. I know, I know, another listserv. The Community and Junior Colleges section of ACRL has its own listserv, and the conversation there is very representative of challenges being faced by community college libraries. Recent topics include guided degree pathways, calendar systems for library instruction, privacy issues, study spaces, and lots more. This is also a great place to look for job openings in community college libraries.
  2. Read research about community colleges. There are a few journals dedicated to research about community colleges, including Community College Review, Community College Journal of Research & Practice, and New Directions for Community Colleges. Search inside these journals for articles about librarians and libraries.
  3. Attend local/regional education conferences. Community college librarians have very limited travel funds (if any at all), so they’re most likely to attend local and regional gatherings over more expensive national conferences. Given their focus on teaching, community college librarians may also be more likely to attend general educational events than library-specific ones, so look for events in your area that may be of interest to community college educators. In Washington State, for example, some librarians attend the Assessment, Teaching & Learning conference and the state-wide Canvas (learning management system) conference.
  4. Follow community college librarians online. Some of the more visible community college librarians include Meredith Farkas (Portland Community College, Oregon) and Troy Swanson (Moraine Valley Community College, Illinois). Meredith has a regular column in American Libraries and recently gave a fantastic webinar about the Framework. Her blog is Information Wants to be Free. Troy was on the Task Force that helped to revise the Standards and write the Framework, and he is a guest contributor to Tame the Web.
  5. Get to know the community colleges in your area. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are over 1,100 community colleges in the United States! For current LIS students, I encourage you to reach out to, meet, and shadow the community college librarians in your region. Don’t be offended if they turn you down for an internship, or if they take a little while to respond to you–I promise you, they’re not trying to be rude, they’re just busy. If you want to partner with a community college library in your area for a research project, be sure to get in touch as far in advance as possible.

*For the purpose of this post, I will use “community college library” to mean any community, technical, or vocational college library, where the main focus of the academic institution is providing career training and academic transfer degrees.


Featured image and image in post taken by and provided by the author.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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