College managers fail to exploit the talents of their librarians or promote them to senior posts, according to a Library Association survey.
It found only one out of 25 heads of college library services were on senior management teams. More than one third of the 25,000 information workers in colleges were graded on local government clerical grade 6 or below - maximum salary Pounds 15,732.
While colleges insist librarians are crucial for developing computerised information systems and resource-based learning, the survey showed that few have such a role.
Staffing was well below the association's recommended level of one for 330 full-time equivalent students in a large college and one for 200 in smaller institutions. Almost six out of 10 colleges surveyed had a ratio of one to 400, while about a quarter had one to 600 or worse.
College principals agreed there were problems but said that librarians were partly to blame. At a recent Library Association conference for colleges they accused them of being "inflexible and resistant to change".
Librarians' frequent insistence on tomb-like silence in the library - even for students doing group work - was cited as one example of inflexibility.
John Muskett, principal of Wakefield College, said librarians were too reticent. "In colleges where perhaps the principal does not see the value of libraries, it's very much up to the librarians to show what they can offer and how the library can help the college."
But Carl Clayton, a Library Association adviser, said librarians felt excluded from decision-making and their often lowly status made it difficult for them to influence senior college managers.
"The way people behave in any organisation depends on what is expected of them," he said. "If the college principal and senior management do not empower their librarians and give them a clear view of their role, then inevitably the librarians will do what is expected - they will keep their heads down and will not promote themselves or a vision of the library."
Serious staff shortages stopped them taking part in strategic planning or training, he added. The association wants the Further Education Development Agency to help develop courses which bring librarians and college managers together in reviewing the use of learning resources in colleges.
FEDA has agreed to help. Ursula Howard, director of research and information, said a lot of new open-learning developments were shifting study from the classroom to new-style learning centres and libraries: "There are real issues to be addressed in terms of training library staff to support learning and training lecturers in the uses of the new technology."
But even if training needs are met, questions will remain about the roles of teachers and librarians in a world where computer networks, videos and other resources are becoming as much a part of students' learning experiences as chalk and talk.
Kathy Ennis, chair of the Library Association's further and higher education group and librarian of Waltham Forest College in east London, said that while library functions are managed by qualified librarians, those in overall charge of learning resources need not come from the same background.
She added: "The skills most librarians acquire over the years make them particularly suited to running open-access learning centres."
Research on how well libraries support teaching and learning is being funded by FEDA and the British Library. David Streatfield, the consultant leading the research, said that if the shift towards more flexible, student-centred learning continued, lecturers' and librarians' roles must change.
"To be effective, librarians will need to concentrate on working with teachers, but that in turn would entail the teachers taking on a learning support rather than a teaching role," he said. "That won't happen overnight. "