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What exactly is a university librarian? Glad you asked

Library association releases statement clarifying this evolving role.


The role of university librarian has changed dramatically in the 21st century and the Canadian Association of Research Libraries wants to make sure that everyone knows it. In a statement released in March, the association highlights the fact that as a dean-level appointment, the university librarian contributes to several key portfolios at an institution, including teaching and learning, research, employee and student retainment, fundraising and community engagement.

Most university librarians in the country also have responsibilities that fall outside the library’s scope. Some manage university presses, archives, museums and galleries, several oversee copyright programs and records management protocol, and still others are responsible for an institution’s entire information management strategy – and often they’re doing this while maintaining research activities and academic appointments.

“With all the developments that we’re doing, a library is much, much more than a collection of print or digital materials,” Guylaine Beaudry, CARL’s past secretary and university librarian at Concordia University, said in an interview. “We’re investing a lot of resources in research-data management, geospatial data, long-term preservation facilities, to make sure we’re keeping for generations the things that our predecessors built with public money. … And we need to multiply the occasions to talk about what we’re doing.”

Donna Bourne-Tyson, CARL’s past president and university librarian at Dalhousie University, said the association drafted the statement with a practical purpose in mind: to provide executive search firms, hiring committees and senior administrators a resource for updating the job description. “Periodically when universities are doing a refresh on a position description as they are about to appoint a university librarian or dean of libraries, they go casting about looking for something and there really wasn’t anything that was in any way definitive that we could find,” she said.

Dr. Beaudry also noted that the statement is a good branding exercise for university librarians. “Librarians, we’re not good at managing our public image,” she said. “We decided to write something so at least it would give us a shared discourse among ourselves, and it will help us to communicate to our provosts, our VPs, and our communities – it really gives us words to express what is the role of university librarian nowadays.”

Concordia University’s Webster Library recently underwent a major transformation that reshaped its physical spaces and learning environment. Photo by Adrien Williams.

There’s also the fact that the university librarian title is hardly standard across institutions. As the role has grown, some universities have opted to change the name of the position. Dr. Bourne-Tyson points out that the title at Queen’s University is vice-provost, digital planning,
and university librarian; at the University of Calgary it’s vice-provost, libraries, and cultural resources; the University of Ottawa recently updated the job title to university librarian and vice-provost, knowledge systems; and at the University of Alberta, the role is vice-provost
and chief librarian.

When Dr. Beaudry was appointed university librarian in 2014, one of her main tasks was to oversee a transformation of Concordia’s Webster Library. New and emerging technologies were at the heart of this renovation, which meant not just bringing in new equipment and tools, but also creating a new open-access publishing arm and fostering a culture that embraces open-data methodologies.

“When the project was coming to an end they [the president and provost] asked me if I would be interested … in looking at the overall digital strategy for Concordia,” Dr. Beaudry said. Her title was updated to vice-provost, digital strategy, and university librarian. “Frankly, though, I don’t feel a difference in how people are talking to me or working with me,” she said. “I’m still Guylaine and we’re all working together for the advancement of education in our society.”

Dr. Beaudry, who was director of the digital publishing centre at the Université de Montréal and executive director of Érudit before moving to Concordia, notes that there’s perhaps less confusion around the university librarian role at francophone institutions. Titles at these universities tend to be standardized across the country, with “university librarian” generally translating to “directeur général” and occasionally “bibliothécaire en chef.” The latter is Dr. Beaudry’s official French title at Concordia.

“I prefer ‘bibliothécaire en chef’ because, yes, I’m a manager, but I’m a librarian first.”

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