Contributing Editor

Listen In: Discussions from the Field

In this Listen-In post, Symphony shares recent research about academic librarians' opinions on union membership.

The role of the “Listen in: Discussions from/in the field” column is to highlight interesting, exceptional, or provocative research published in LIS literature. This year we hope to emphasize a variety of research methods and the experiences of those often ignored in LIS literature.

Faculty Status, Union Membership, and Academic Librarians

In their study “Academic Librarians and Labor Unions: Attitudes and Experiences,” researchers Chloe Mills and Ian McCullough work to better understand the views of librarians in higher education settings on union membership. Ultimately, Mills and McCullough hope that readers will see that unionization and collective bargaining may be more beneficial in creating better work environments than the quest for faculty status.


The introduction to this article brings up an interesting point: academic librarians have long fought for faculty status as a means of job security and transparent promotion process, ignoring collective bargaining as a way of doing the same. Interestingly, the authors note that most unionized academic librarians are also faculty members – although the meaning behind faculty status varies greatly from institution to institution. It would seem that librarians with faculty status join faculty unions already established at the institution, rather than pursuing a union representing the library profession. This certainly speaks to the hard work required to create, recruit, and be recognized as a union. 

While the scholarship on librarians and union membership is generally lacking, there are several studies that suggest a strong correlation between union membership and salary – sometimes as high as a 50% difference for unionized library workers (Mills & McCullough, 2018, p. 807). These past studies show the leverage of collective bargaining when it comes to pay, but doesn’t necessarily speak to workplace culture or promotion. Research specifically about academic librarians and unionization is even more thin; thus, this article fills a large hole in the literature.

Research Methods

This study used a Qualtrics survey as the main method to collect information on librarian opinion, institutional status, and union membership. The survey was circulated through listervs and personal connections and the authors recognize that participation in the survey could show self-selecting bias.


Of the 359 respondents, 39% were union members, which the authors note is higher than the national average for both higher education institutions and the profession as a whole. Of those who were union members, 73.3% were also tenure-track faculty, corroborating earlier studies. 

Of the other 59% who were not union members, only 9 individuals chose specifically not to be part of a collective bargaining group when the option existed. These individuals provide an interesting glimpse into why some would not want to be in a union. Some of these reasons were:

  • I do not believe the union truly represents my interests 4
  • I do not believe unions are appropriate for librarians 3
  • I do not wish to pay dues 2
  • I disagree with the political activities of my union 2
  • I believe unions are generally not a good idea 2
  • I am concerned that union membership might hurt my career 2

Of the many provided options, only one person each chose “I cannot afford to pay dues” and “I do not believe unions help libraries” (Mills & McCullough, 2018, p. 813). 

Although few of the non-union members chose not to join a union based on these criteria, most of the others were not part of a union because it was not offered at their institutions. Overwhelmingly, respondents of this survey who were not in unions expressed that they wished they could be. This points to many of the perceived benefits of unions as can be seen in the chart below (Mills & McCullough, 2018, p. 815). A large majority of respondents who are not in unions but want to be, believed that union membership would help to provide job security, protection from administrators, and good salary and benefits. Interestingly, these are some of the reasons librarians pursue faculty status.

Picture of a graph from the article, showing respondents' ratings on the perceived benefits of a union.
Figure 3: Participants’ ratings of the possible advantages of union membership.

Alternately there are many reasons why librarians have decided to be dues-paying union members, as seen below (Mills & McCullough, 2018, p. 813):

  • I believe unions are generally a good idea 95
  • The legal protections afforded by union membership 85
  • I believe I should pay for the benefits of the collective bargaining process 81
  • Unions bring higher pay/salaries 79
  • I want to vote in contract ratification 69
  • Solidarity with my other union colleagues 68
  • Solidarity with my library colleagues 62
  • I want to financially support the union’s political activity 45
  • I want to vote in union officer elections 42

Other questions on the survey worked to measure how much librarians felt that their values or needs aligned with faculty, especially in relation to shared governance. These questions reflect the idea that much of the literature and efforts of academic librarians to gain job security and higher pay have been through the quest towards faculty status. The reality is that faculty status for academic librarians is not uniform and is often in a similar but different vein than the status of teaching faculty. Thus, Mills and McCullough found that “We librarians are, to our own minds, betwixt and between” (pg. 819) the needs of staff and teaching faculty. But, while our needs do not always align with teaching faculty, the results of this study shows strongly that tenure-track library faculty are more likely to have the option of union membership, a reality that may not reflect those who could benefit from collective bargaining the most.

My Takeaway

“As our workplaces become more capitalist and revenue-oriented and gains are made by devaluing library workers, the value of collective bargaining can not be understated. This article demonstrates that when considering salary alone, academic librarians benefit from union membership – and we deserve to be paid fairly for our labor. “

Although written a year ago, this article is still one of the most recent pieces of writing on librarians and labor unions. As stated in the literature review, the scholarship on library labor unions, especially for academic librarians, is severely lacking and has been for two decades. As our workplaces become more capitalist and revenue-oriented and gains are made by devaluing library workers, the value of collective bargaining can not be understated. This article demonstrates that when considering salary alone, academic librarians benefit from union membership – and we deserve to be paid fairly for our labor. 

The other large idea in this piece is the way academics have pushed for faculty status as a source of job security rather than focusing on union membership and collective bargaining. Unfortunately, recent news has proven to us that faculty status will not save us or our jobs. Four tenured librarians at St. Cloud State University were recently laid off as administrators cited lower circulation stats to indicate that their positions were no longer necessary. While anti-union sentiment resounds by administrators across industries, had these four librarians had the backing of a union, they would at least have had the legal council to slow or even halt these decisions.

Keep the Conversation Going 

  • The authors of this study note that union membership in higher education has increased while union membership overall has decreased. Have you been part of the process of founding a union on campus? What should others know?

Featured Article

Mills, C., & McCullough, I. (2018). Academic librarians and labor unions: Attitudes and experiences. portal: Libraries and the Academy 18(4), 805-829. doi:10.1353/pla.2018.0046.

Additional Reading

Union Library Workers Blog :

About the Author

Symphony Bruce is a Resident Librarian at American University in Washington, D.C. After six years as a high school English teacher, she switched to librarianship to be a champion for information literacy and access, with a specific interest in intersectionality and critical pedagogy. She enjoys cooking with vegetables, hanging out with her cats, and drinking her coffee black. Find her on twitter: @curlsinthelib

Featured image by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

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

The expressions of the writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

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