Archive for April, 2011

Agnes Shumbleford. D. Litt, Oxon. 1972. PhD, Harvard, 1966.
Library Page, P.S. 139, Brooklyn, NY

Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach become academic librarians.

Did I get that right? I’ll have to double-check with the Annoyed Librarian, but I think that’s the story. University librarians are failed PhDs looking for some sort of back-door way of getting tenure or calling themselves “Professor” without all the hard work. Yeah…I think that’s the idea. Of course, the AL is a satirist with a gift for calling shenanigans when shenanigans need to be called. Whatever truth is to be had in the belief that academic librarians are failed scholars is surely more instructive than damning, right? Well, not if you happen to work for Jeff Trzeciak, University Librarian at McMaster University, where the library of the future gets rid of librarians in favor of people who actually earned their doctorates.

For those who don’t know, Mr. Trzeciak has come under fire for recent remarks to the effect that the future at his library does not include librarians. As he puts it, McMaster is “unlikely in the future to be hiring librarians.” Who’s going to run the show? Well, new hires are “likely to come out of IT” and “likely to be PhDs”. Here’s the offending slide:

Jenica Rogers has an excellent summary of Trzeciak’s position, so I won’t rehash his entire argument. Even better is her just-created Agiat Forum which straight-up pisses in the Kool-Aid Trzeciak’s been drinking. Other library voices are speaking out, too. Karen Schneider discusses her own wildly different administrative standpoint. Colleen Harris points out that faculty holding PhDs “don’t know quite as much about research skills as we assume they do.” And Mita Williams discusses the very real possibility that Trzeciak’s approach to libraries could be infectious among library administrators. These are excellent blog posts and I’m sure there will be more to come. But what does this have to do with the stereotypical “failed scholar”?

Here’s the thing: Trzeciak doesn’t hate librarians. Organizing, collecting, reference, instruction, etc., he admits that librarians are great at these things. He just thinks that PhDs and IT people would be better. You see, that snarky observation that academic librarians are just failed PhDs is actually rather important in understanding where Trzeciak is coming from. If you want your library staffed by subject-specialists, why not go all the way and get people with real PhDs, rather than people who couldn’t cut it in grad school and took the easy way out? If librarians are expected to embrace digital projects and new technology, why not go after IT people who are certified experts in new technologies? Trzeciak isn’t saying that librarians are worthless or that they can’t do a decent job. He’s saying that the future of libraries requires more specialized skills than librarians are capable of. He’s portraying librarians as inferior to faculty with PhDs. In other words, he’s taken to heart the unfortunately common belief that librarians are somehow lesser scholars than the rest of the university faculty.

Sure, there are plenty of university librarians out there who really are failed scholars who took to librarianship as a back-up plan. I’m sure you know at least one librarian that would rather be teaching upper-level classes for an academic department. And you know what, I think a properly motivated post-doc can, in fact, replace that kind of librarian. I mean, was library school really that hard? Are the basics so arcane that only we select few can be entrusted with their awesome power? Give me a break. Any reasonably bright person can learn basic library skills. But, that misses the point. In fact, if all we do is reduce academic librarianship to a measure of scholarship or a certain finite skill-set, then we’re part of the problem.

What matters most to the future of academic libraries are not the strings of letters following the names of library employees. PhD, MLIS, JD, MD, MA…these are all just hoops. What really matters are the motivating factors that lead people to want to work in an academic library in the first place. Good academic librarians are there because they are bright, highly-skilled, and, more importantly, they want to be there. They are passionate about organizing and collection information, about providing access, about research and information literacy. They are irreplaceable because they chose to become academic librarians as their first choice, not as their fall-back. I ask Trzeciak, “what kind of PhDs will be clamoring for your library jobs?” If they are passionate about the same things academic librarians are passionate about, if they can pick up the basics and are willing to learn through experience, and if they would actively want to work in a library, then they’re librarians in my book. PhD or no PhD. MLIS or no MLIS.

“If that shit ain’t rocket science, step off my reference desk, son.”

But, I have a funny feeling that these “PhDs and IT people” that Trzeciak will start hiring won’t be the ones who are the most passionate about working in libraries. No, I have a feeling that this administrative decision will actually lend more credence to the cynical “failed scholar” caricature of the academic librarian. Rather than hire trained professionals who have the skills necessary and most importantly want a library job, McMaster will be looking at postdocs who can’t find work in their fields, ex-faculty who couldn’t muster tenure, and tech-geeks who just want a paycheck wherever it comes from. In sum, McMaster University libraries will give credence to the snark. These highly-decorated LIMOs (“librarians-in-name-only”) will either treat librarianship as a compromise or as a stepping stone, and what kind of administrator wants employees who treat their jobs as degenerate positions?

Again, if they can learn the ropes and they are as passionate about collecting, organizing, and providing access to information as I am, then they’ll be great librarians. Librarianship is about a mindset, not an initialism.  (Though, with the increasing competitiveness of academic library positions, I won’t be surprise if the PhD + MLIS combo becomes more prevalent.) So, Jeff Trzeciak, if you can find PhDs who would rather work in a library than as teaching faculty in their subject areas, more power to you. But, I doubt that’s going to be the future of librarianship.

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