Michelle Reale’s The Indispensable Academic Librarian

Michelle Reale
The Indispensable Academic Librarian:
Teaching and Collaborating for Change

(ALA Publishing, 2018)

This slim volume confronts what the author identifies as a fundamental issue in academic librarianship—the perception that librarians are not teachers. While the conversation is generally directed toward working academic librarians, much of the material could be of interest to those working in academia or anyone interested in librarianship. Structuring each chapter around a central topic (reference, collaboration with faculty, critical librarianship), Reale presents current thinking on the topic, case studies, and easy to follow strategies for working librarians.

According to Reale, there is a historical legacy of positioning academic librarians primarily as service staff, ready to provide support in reference and research at the request of faculty and staff but never seen as teaching scholars in their own right. It is a view that removes intellectual and pedagogical agency from both individual librarians and the field as a whole. Reale argues that academic librarians are actively involved in teaching—both students and faculty. Reale believes that it is essential that librarians work to find ways within their own institutions to change perceptions that position librarians as subservient while also moving beyond outdated stereotypes that fail to acknowledge librarians as equal to other members of the faculty. In addition, over time many academic librarians have internalized this view thereby perpetuating the problem. Reale suggests proactive strategies that librarians can use to change their interactions with faculty and students while also working to change the perception of librarians’ role at their institutions. Throughout the book, Reale stresses the importance of “self-advocacy” in order to realize the goals of changing perception, becoming better educators, and making themselves indispensable. As someone who has an MLIS and has spent far too many hours in research libraries I read Reale’s text as both a pep talk for working librarians and a practical guide to various aspects of academic librarianship. There is also a heavy note of overly optimistic wishful thinking—it’s great to suggest that librarians should become co-collaborators with faculty but if faculty, or more broadly, institutions don’t support this work, then ultimately it’s not very useful.

The book is split up into ten short chapters, each addressing a different aspect of Reale’s view of academic librarianship. In “Librarians in Academia,” we are given an overview of the misconceptions surrounding the field of academic librarianship stressing the fallacy that librarians are “mere auxiliaries” to other faculty. At the end of the chapter, Reale presents “Strategies” including exhortations to “be confident in your mission.” In “Teaching at the Reference Desk,” Reale presents her own stereotype of a comforting “reference librarian, with her glasses on a chain and a ready smile,” an image unfamiliar to any researcher doing work at New York’s university research libraries where reference desks are often staffed by students, many of whom are male. Still, Reale’s suggestion that she’d “like to see the word skills struck from our vocabulary” is insightful; in a world where the technical skills of librarianship are often positioned as somehow less intellectual than the higher level critical thinking of other faculty, there is a need to find other ways to describe just what it is academic librarians do.

In “Teaching and Learning as Conversation,” “Promoting the Spirit of Inquiry in the Classroom,” and “Collaboration with Faculty,” Reale introduces her own experience in attempting to co-collaborate with faculty at her college. She interweaves pedagogical theory in her discussion of the importance of “conversation” in the research process; by talking to students and faculty, the research librarian can help them reach their research goals while also building important relationships.

Reale also discusses what she calls “critical librarianship,” linked with critical pedagogy or, a way of empowering students in “deliberate and conscious ways as a bulwark against the many and various forms of oppression.” In librarianship, this effort is focused on “conversation, collaboration, and space” all working to provide students a research environment that is both safe and generative. In her broader discussion around “critical librarianship” and critical pedagogy, Reale does a few Paulo Freire drive-bys using his work against the “banking system” of education presented in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) to support her argument in favor of positioning librarians as co-collaborators, research consultants, and experts-at-large in spaces outside the library.

While much of the information in this book will be of greater interest to working academic librarians, Reale’s discussion of critical pedagogy and critical librarianship should be of interest to many in the academic and outside world.


Yvonne C. Garrett

YVONNE C. GARRETT holds an MLIS (Palmer), an MFA (The New School), two MAs (NYU), and is currently working on a PhD in History & Culture at Drew University where her dissertation focuses on women & gender identity in 1980s American punk rock. She is Senior Fiction Editor at Black Lawrence Press.