Researcher’s Corner: Power, positionality, and privilege: a study of academic librarian job postings 

I’m pleased to be able to share this post by Joanna Theilen and Amy Neeser which not only describes their research into Data professionals’ job postings, but highlights concrete steps that libraries can take to create hiring practices that support increased diversity in our profession. Thielen and Neeser are frank and persuasive in their writing. The piece draws from their 2020 article focused on Data professionals, and an additional  2022 article by Thielen (co-authored by Wanda Marsolek) focusing on Engineering librarians’ job postings. 

I think you will find this post very interesting. If you’d like to read more, you can find the original articles at:

Thielen, J., & Neeser, A. (2020). Making Job Postings More Equitable: Evidence Based Recommendations from an Analysis of Data Professionals Job Postings Between 2013-2018. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 15(3), 103–156. https://doi.org/10.18438/eblip29674

Thielen, J. & Marsolek, W. (2022). Taking a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Accessibility Lens to Engineering Librarian Job Postings: Recommendations from an Analysis of Postings from 2018 and 2019. Journal of eScience Librarianship, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.7191/jeslib.2022.1212


Background

Librarianship as a profession is homogeneous. And has been for a very, very long time. We, one current and one former academic librarian, want to do our part to help contribute to the diversification of librarianship. Why? Because everyone MUST speak up and act; otherwise the status quo will remain which disproportionately excludes people from underrepresented groups and perpetuates inequities in our society. 

One area we’d observed that is quite stagnant is academic library hiring practices; this is also where we have the most experience. How can the profession as a whole expect to diversify if hiring practices remain the same? Simply put, it’s not going to happen. As Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” 

To contribute to the conversation around ways to diversify our profession, we have done two research projects in this area. The first project looked at data librarian job postings and the second looked at engineering librarian job postings. Huge shout out to our collaborator Wanda Marsolek for their contributions to the latter project! 

Our positionality affects how we approach research in general, including identifying a research project, interpreting results, and making recommendations based on these results. Joanna is a white, heterosexual, female, cisgender, able-bodied person who works at the University of Michigan. She started studying academic library hiring practices while she worked at Oakland University, a mid-sized public university. Amy is gender non-conforming, white, able bodied person who works at the University of California, Berkeley. We acknowledge the immense privilege and power we hold in the world through our positionality and our jobs at large, prestigious, and wealthy doctoral granting institutions in the United States and hope to use this to enact change. 

Our initial focus for the first project seemed straightforward: as data librarianship is an emerging area of academic librarianship, what are the qualifications and responsibilities for these roles? We also wanted to look at salary. We gathered as many job postings as we could in this area that were posted in a five year time frame. After concluding the data librarian job posting project, Wanda and Joanna embarked on a research project that studied engineering librarian job postings using the same methodology. 

After developing a codebook and coding a small sample of the job postings, we realized that some had ridiculously specific requirements (they’re looking for a unicorn) or we, data librarians with over five years combined experience in this area, had no idea what some of these postings were asking for. A data librarian at a university Chicago who 1) does reference, consultation, collection management, and instructional services to support social sciences data discovery, analysis, visualization, and management; 2) is the liaison to the Sociology department; and 3) is also fluent in Spanish or Portuguese. But no salary listed – of course not, why would you need to know salary before potentially moving to one of the most expensive cities in the US!? We also saw an engineering librarian job posting that had 16 required qualifications! How is a single person supposed to meet ALL of those qualifications, nonetheless write a succinct cover letter about them? These two examples are pulled from actual job postings and are incredibly problematic from a diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) perspective. 

This lack of DEIA in the job postings was (and is) maddening. Academic librarianship talks a big game about valuing DEIA but their job postings clearly didn’t reflect it. So we knew we wanted to go beyond merely listing the results in order to interrogate how these results weren’t centering DEIA in the hiring process. Our new goal was to persuade people, using our data and observations, to center DEIA principles & practices when writing job postings. We were so shocked by the lack of DEIA in these job postings that we wrote an editorial piece, prior to publishing our journal article on our data librarian project, in order to share observations and recommendations as quickly as possible. 

Below we present three major themes and additional recommendations from our research that are applicable to all librarian job postings, including those not in academia. 

Job titles: create inclusive job titles 

We found a lot of job titles in both studies: much more variation in the data librarian job postings than the engineering librarian ones. We speculate this occurred because the data postings are for an emerging area and seemed to be recruiting applicants from more diverse educational backgrounds. The word ‘Librarian’ was used for most of the engineering positions and many of the data positions. Many people with relevant experience might not have the library science degree or consider themselves librarians, so this language could automatically deter them from applying. 

Degrees: avoid ambiguous language and do not require multiple graduate degrees

Many of these positions, especially the engineering postings, required a library science degree. This severely limits an applicant pool to those already inside the profession. We recommend thinking carefully about whether applicants really need this degree to perform their job and which job responsibilities will the library degree help them fulfill. Or is this degree in the job posting because “we’ve always done it this way”? We also found many instances of language such as “equivalent education and experience” which feels inclusive but is actually very ambiguous. Many positions required multiple graduate degrees which is extremely problematic as people from underprivileged groups have more difficulty attaining multiple graduate degrees. We suggest accepting undergraduate degrees or academic experience such as coursework and to focus on applicants who demonstrate that they are willing to learn and grow professionally. 

Salary: be transparent about salary and list quantitative salary ranges to encourage negotiation 

Nearly half of the job descriptions did not include any salary information, and those that did usually only used vague words like “competitive”. This is very troubling as this practice favors those who are already working in the profession. The postings that did list a quantitative salary often listed a single number, whereas listing a salary range would have indicated that candidates can negotiate. Underrepresented groups are less likely to negotiate so this is a way that we can be more equitable. 

Additional recommendations: 

Even though we tried to center DEIA in our own research projects, there were several topics that we didn’t initially think of and therefore didn’t collect data on. Based on our observations during the research project and our own expanding awareness of DEIA issues in the hiring process, we have four additional recommendations: 

  • Limit number of required and preferred qualifications; remind candidates that they don’t need to meet all the preferred qualifications in order to apply
  • Integrate anti-racism into your job postings
  • Write every sentence within a job posting using the lens of DEIA
  • Ask a range of people to be on your hiring committee and to provide feedback on the job posting

Looking at job postings through the lens of DEIA is an opportunity to use our power, positionality, and privilege to help reduce disparities in these positions, our profession, and institutions. This is a complex and evolving landscape; we are continually learning and several years later have thought about other variables we would have liked to include in our study. An example of this is anti-racism; our first paper was published only a few weeks after the murder of George Floyd. This tragic event transformed our world and although we did not originally look at anti-racism in our study, we have since recommended it be included either as a requirement or as a statement from the institution about their demonstrated commitment to it and how the position furthers that work. This is just one example of the future directions this work could take, and we encourage others to continue building upon our studies. Our data is openly available in the Dryad Repository (data librarian job postings project) and the Data Repository of the University of Minnesota (engineering librarian job posting project). We strongly encourage other researchers to further analyze and use this data.


Headshot of Joanna Thielen, who is smiling, blonde and wears a black blazer

Joanna Thielen (she/hers) Data Curation Specialist for Science and Engineering, University of Michigan Library

As Data Curation Specialist for Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan Library, Joanna helps science and engineering researchers make their works openly available to anyone with an internet connection. Previously she was an Engineering Librarian at University of Michigan Library and the Research Data and Science Librarian at Oakland University. Her research interests include DEIA in the academic hiring process and data librarianship. 

Headshot of Amy Neeser, who is in profile. She is smiling, but not broadly, and has a pierced septum and a teal bob.

Amy Neeser (she/they) Consulting + Outreach Lead for Research IT, University of California, Berkeley

As the Consulting + Outreach Lead in Research IT at the University of California Berkeley, Amy coordinates the consulting efforts across the Data Management and Research Computing programs to offer a holistic approach to data and computation. They also facilitate Research IT’s community, partnership, and outreach programs. Amy previously worked at the University of Michigan as the Research Data Curation Librarian and at the University of Minnesota in the Biological and Physical Sciences Libraries.

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