CLIR’s Program: A Real Or Imagined Shortage Of Academic Librarians

The latest edition of CLIR Issues (Council on Library and Information Resources) for September/October 2006 provides an update on their CLIR Postdoctoral Fellows in Scholarly Information Resources program. If you are unfamiliar with the program here is a description:

The CLIR Fellowship Program is designed to give the best recent Ph.D. recipients in the humanities a unique opportunity to develop as information professionals and scholars. Fellows are placed at different institutions, each with specific goals and projects for the participants. Fellows are afforded the opportunity to participate in the intellectual life of their institutions by working within the areas of academic librarianship; archives and archive management; special collections; curricular development; teaching and learning support (techno-pedagogy); and digital resource production and use. In addition, Fellows contribute to the development of the CLIR Program by participating in an intensive summer seminar; sharing work-in-progress through electronic portfolios; meeting regularly in virtual seminars with leading figures in the fields of librarianship, the humanities, and other related areas.

When I first learned of this program I reacted cynically as did a number of academic library colleagues. On the surface the program appears to offer fast-track entrance to coveted positions in academic libraries without the need for the traditional LIS education and resulting degree from an accredited program. It suggests one can go through the CLIR library boot camp, get some on the job experience, and then be deemed qualified to serve as an academic library professional. Here were some initial reactions of mine:
- don’t we already have enough qualified librarians with LIS degrees that can fill the available positions
- doesn’t granting those jobs to PhD holders without LIS degrees undermine the value of the degree
- aren’t the research institutions who churn out all those unemployable humanities PhDs the same ones who invented this program (i.e., um, let’s see…our English PhDs can’t find jobs in the professoriate….so…why not have them work in our libraries…great idea!!!)

In time I grew less skeptical, and even came to accept the idea that non-MLS professionals can strengthen academic libraries with their unique skill sets and expertise. And I was encouraged to read that some of the Fellowship recipients do go on to earn the LIS degree – and that should be further promoted within the program. So why write about this program update now? It was a statement I came across in the piece that I considered questionable and somewhat controversial. I refer to a statement from one of the program’s supporters who says she is so:

“because she believes it is one way of meeting an imminent, serious shortage in the library workforce.”

I’m certainly no expert on the library workforce, but I do encounter many LIS graduates who share their frustration over repeated failed attempts to find a professional position. Do the majority of ACRLog readers believe any such shortages exist in the library workforce? Not likely. The number of librarians, both new and experienced, who are challenged to find a desirable position will likely have a hard time taking that statement seriously. Now it may be there is an imminent shortage of doctoral-level digital scholars at elite research universities. Perhaps LIS programs are failing to produce the caliber of graduate needed to excel at these specialized positions – and the only way these institutions can find qualified individuals is to take PhDs and develop them in the CLIR program. Seems like my cynicism level is creeping upward again because I doubt this is the case. But even if such a shortage exists, we may still question why this CLIR program is needed when there is an abundance of graduates of MLS programs, new and experienced, some with PhDs themselves, readily available to alleviate the shortage. Is the program about eliminating imminent, serious shortages – or giving unemployable PhDs a bypass around the traditional LIS education route to a library job? Perhaps putting more traditionally educated PhDs in academic library positions will create better bridges with faculty. Or is it about something else all together? What do you think?

5 thoughts on “CLIR’s Program: A Real Or Imagined Shortage Of Academic Librarians

  1. While I don’t acknowledge any quantitative research to back up my claim, I have witnessed a remarkable amount of turnover in academic librarianship, particularly at universities. This seems to me to be more true at land-grant and state schools, where class sizes are getting larger, but librarian salaries are not necessarily commensurate with the increased contact hours and workload.

    Perhaps when many young librarians rapidly move from one position to the next, this creates the illusion of a demograhic shift (i.e. increased retirements=need for more librarians), when, in actuality, it may represent a workforce that is simply less stable than in past years.

    As for the CLIR initiative, I agree that greater emphasis should be put on completing the accredited LIS degree at some point. Such a requirement can only strengthen the qualifications of CLIR participants, and also attract those who are truly committed to the field of librarianship.

  2. The new-librarian listservs frequently bemoan the conflict between reports of imminent shortage and the reality of finding a good first job. At the same time, I read and hear of many failed searches for complex library positions. A few thoughts on this seeming paradox.

    First, it is difficult to relate broad demographic data about the average age of librarians with the experience of individual librarians and hiring committees. They are different orders of analysis, and both provide a particular slice of reality. I fear that discussions of this issue based on hunches and anecdotes do not help us understand much.

    The broad social and economic forces at work on libraries are beyond our individual control — there may be lots retiring people who don’t get replaced, there may be increasing challenges to library funding, there will undoubtedly be rapid and dramatic changes in our techonology environment and our users’ expectations. What we can do individually and collectively is (1) educate ourselves as best we can for the library positions we want; (2) learn how to advocate for ourselves and our libraries; and (3) locate allies in this endeavor.

    Which brings us to the CLIR Fellowship program: the CLIR initiative is a way of acculturating motivated and highly-educated colleagues into the library world — and has so far accepted only about 15 people in two years, some of whom have gone on to tenure-track teaching. I don’t see it as an end-run around the LIS degree, but as the development of a small cadre of professionals who will understand the challenges that libraries face while bringing their own professional experience and education to bear. These people should be our allies, not seen as threats. Check the CLIR website above to learn more. I’d be glad to know if others interpret the program as I have.

  3. Like Daphnee Rentfrow, the author of the article to which StevenB refers, I was among the first cohort of CLIR fellows. For obvious reasons, past and present fellows have been watching this post with interest. When we “joined up,” almost none of us was in a position to anticipate or even understand the controversy our program could generate. At the same time, it’s good to see that it has given the library community an opportunity to raise important questions about hiring and educating the librarians of the future.

    A couple of observations: first, to date there have been 23 1- to 3-year fellowships over the 2 1/2 years of the program. Most of these have been awarded by large research universities (but my own fellowship was at a small liberal arts institution, Bryn Mawr College). Perhaps in the future other types of academic institutions may wish to participate.

    Second, as I understand it the idea behind the fellowship positions was not to replace permanent jobs at the participating institutions’ libraries, but instead to use the fellows’ subject area expertise to move forward initiatives and projects that permanent staff did not have the time or expertise to do.

    As recent PhDs in the humanities the fellows tend to be experienced (and passionate) library users. Of course, a strong sense of the importance of libraries by itself doesn’t equip us to work in them, but our backgrounds *are* useful in engaging in conversations about how to build stronger working relationships between libraries, teaching faculty and IT departments. I think the library directors who have hired us have seen that our being interested and motivated “outsiders” with techical and/or teaching skills could be helpful for facilitating these alliances.

    Where the fellowship will take the fellows’ careers remains to be seen–early indicatons are that we’ll go in a variety of directions. Some of us have missed interacting with students in the classroom and have gone back to teaching; others (like me) want to stay in the library. I’ve decided to pursue an MLIS–for others, this option isn’t really viable. I can say, however, that my experience in the CLIR program was vital to helping me figure out what kind of work I’d like to pursue, and why. If I had gone to library school without having the experience the fellowship gave me, I would have learned far less than I am learning now.

    If anyone reading this would like to know more about the fellowship, I’m sure CLIR would be happy to hear from you. I’m currently working in Magill Library at Haverford College while I finish my degree through the distance program at the University of Washington. If anyone would like to know more about my own experiences as a fellow, please feel free to look me up.

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