Why All The Fuss Over PhD Academic Librarians

While no one has called it Trzeciakgate yet, I can’t help but see some similarities between what’s happening now with his presentation at Penn State University and the whole Michael Gorman firestorm (then labeled “Gormangate”) of 2005. Are you too new to the profession to remember Gormangate? You can read all about it here. Suffice to say that he said a few things that were considered controversial (and just plain insulting), and quite a few librarians took it personally – and reacted swiftly and loudly. If you want to quickly catch up on who’s contributed to the Trzecial controversy as well as its origins, this post at Sense and Reference sums things up nicely. An alternate opinion was offered over at On Furlough. I guess we like to have a nice, juicy controversy every now and then – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

What’s brought about the attacks on what Trzeciak had to say? He stated that at McMaster, where he is the Dean, his plan is to limit the hiring of traditional MLS librarians while focusing more on hiring PhD subject specialists and information technology professionals. Claiming that you think PhDs can do library work better than professional librarians is apparently the library profession’s equivalent of grabbing the third rail. The reaction to Trzeciak’s vision is not unlike that of a politician who talks about cutting social security or Medicare. While the level of negativity was mildly disturbing to me, I did appreciate that many positive and encouraging themes and ideas about the value of academic librarians emerged from the conversation.

I guess what I found most surprising about all the hostility towards Trzeciak’s ideas is that a good part of what he said is hardly new, innovative or revolutionary. It appears that some academic librarians are unaware that CLIR has since 2006 offered a program that systematically creates positions in academic libraries – and not just ARLs – for PhD holders who have decided they want a career in a library. I reacted to this program here at ACRLog when it was first announced. It’s called the CLIR PostDoctoral Library Fellows Program, and it basically offer instant access to library positions for the Fellows – and it’s a highly competitive program. If you are a PhD who’s facing a depressed job market in your field, a career in academic libraries may look downright inviting.

So while Trzeciak is perhaps the first Library Dean who has publicly commented on the merits of this program and sees it as a potential blueprint for future staffing in academic libraries, he’s hardly the first one to hire non-MLS PhDs to take positions that MLS holders would have filled in the past. Looking back, some, not all of the CLIR Fellows go on to earn the MLS, and they’ve made good contributions to the library literature.

As Lane Wilkerson wrote in the post mentioned above:

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.

Well guess what? Trzeciak doesn’t have to go very far to find those PhDs. With the support of the CLIR program, they’re lining up for jobs in our libraries – and getting them while MLS graduates sit on the sidelines. I don’t think it’s going to be THE future, but it’s going to be an unavoidable consequence of a future in which library deans will be looking for ways to incorporate new skill sets into their organizations. If you want to better understand why this happening, perhaps you ought to read Jim Neal’s article on “feral librarians” if you happened to miss it when first published in 2006. You can attack Trzeciak’s ideas if it makes you feel better, but he’s hardly the first to promote these them, and he won’t be the last.

14 thoughts on “Why All The Fuss Over PhD Academic Librarians

  1. Thanks for linking to my post, but I should point out that Michael Furlough’s position and my own are essentially the same, not “alternate opinion(s).” I do doubt that the future of academic libraries will be determined by PhDs. But that’s not a knock against PhDs. In fact, the focus on scholarly initialisms is a red herring. Highly-skilled researchers with a passion for library service *are* librarians, regardless of their advanced degrees. And if post-docs want to be librarians, then more power to them: it’s the motivation that counts, not the suffix. I’m all for librarians *with* PhDs. But, I disagree with any statement to the effect that librarians will or should be replaced by PhDs. Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful post!

  2. Very nicely said, Steven. I’ve found the backlash against Jeff’s talk (and the Taiga Forum, and so on) to be quite emotional and based on our traditions that so many studies, systems, and other developments are calling into question, and I agree with other colleagues who think it raises the specter that library schools aren’t preparing future librarians well at this point. Our library has a dean (French), an associate dean (Biology), and some faculty and staff with PhDs, but the majority of those are not in library/information science. I was recently asked what it’s like to have a non-librarian as a dean, and while there’s absolutely a major learning curve for such a person, there are definite advantages to having someone who comes from the same teaching/learning/research background as the faculty we support. They’re unencumbered by how we’ve always done things, and they know what makes academic programs tick.

  3. I’ve been following the “Alt-Ac” discussions for some time now, and I think the program sounds wonderful! I don’t doubt that products of CLIR and similar efforts would and do perform a great service to libraries and academia in general.

    The problem as I see it stems from the fact that things look pretty bleak from the vantage point of the mid-career librarian, and Mr. Trzeciak didn’t make things appear any rosier. The things we were trained to do with our MLS can allegedly be done just as well by paraprofessionals. Exciting new projects are/will be the purview of postdocs, or possibly new graduates who have had the advantage of learning about data curation in their programs. Where do we fit in?

    We don’t hate Alt-Acs — at least I don’t. The notion of an “Alternative Academic,” however, presupposes that there *is* an alternative for those individuals. Where is the “Alt-Librarian” option if we are no longer necessary?

  4. The CLIR program actually began in 2004. I worked with one of the first fellows when she came to Yale that year. The sky did not fall when she arrived, and we were happy to have her in our department.

    Beyond that factual clarification, however, there’s something in the way you present the CLIR program here that typifies a librarianly view of such enterprises. Essentially, by noting that “it basically offer instant access to library positions” and that “a career in academic libraries may look downright inviting,” the CLIR program ends up sounding like a ticket on the express train to Shangri La. You’re buying into the oft-repeated myth that PhDs are doing this solely because they are fleeing something, and that they would be lucky to land in ‘our’ flock. Sure, the PhD job market is one factor, but one can and should see this from other perspectives. People make personal decisions about how their career should look, and, frankly, portraying libraries, with their dwindling budgets and incessant downsizing (that goes back decades), as an appealing alternative understates the innate aversion many academics have to the thought of working in libraries. Their peers will often not be kind with their views on that, either.

    From the library’s vantage point, moreover, we are gaining more by inviting them into our organizations than we are losing by taking up a job slot with a non-MLS-holding PhD (and this is nothing new as you note). The impetus behind the CLIR program, after all, wasn’t to create a secondary job market for academics, but to recruit new and specific skill sets into organizations that desperately need them. Many jobs in libraries go unfilled or are filled with less than ideal candidates because our talent pool is long on certain skills that are no longer as critical as they once were. Most librarians still think of PhD holders strictly as potential subject librarians (as in your second paragraph), which ignores the fact that most libraries are reducing their subject librarian pool. The work where we need skilled people now includes data analysis/curation, IT management, digital scholarship support, etc., and as has been oft-repeated, library programs have not responded to the needs of the market. Even though some have (the iSchools, e.g.), they are not producing sufficient numbers of new graduates for such work. It’s easy, so easy, to fill an instruction or reference position, but nearly impossible to address needs related to institutional repositories, IT direction, digitization programs, etc. Anyone posting jobs these days has a war story to tell there.

  5. Thanks for the context. I hadn’t heard of the CLIR program yet; when you put it that way, it’s reminiscent of the controversy in the teaching world about credentials and Teach for America.

  6. “You can attack Trzeciak’s ideas if it makes you feel better, but he’s hardly the first to promote these them, and he won’t be the last.”

    No, refuting Trzeciak’s position doesn’t “make me feel better”, nor is that why I debate the issue. Your observation that he’s not the first and won’t be the last doesn’t “make me feel better” either. Just like any other viewpoints that I consider to be contrary to my own position, the fact that an ideological position exists, has existed, and will exist in my professional sphere does not mean I cannot, should not, or will not debate it, or make it more or less palatable to me.

    An odd closing sentiment. I wish I understood better what you intended by it.

  7. I continue to think people are missing the point here – this isn’t an us vs them debate about initials. I welcome people with Phd’s into our ranks and I hasten to point out that a number of librarians have Phds or are in the process of getting them. To me the issue here is casualization of labour. When you replace permanent (in some cases tenured) positions with contract jobs – your staff does not enjoy academic freedom and is in fact in a very precarious labour situation, highly dependent on the goodwill of the library director or “CEO” as I gather some directors like to consider themselves. I fail to see how libraries can move intelligently into the future when the professional staff are reduced to contract employees with no job security or the academic freedom to suggest creative alternate visions of the 21st century library to administration.

  8. Thanks for the comments, especially Lisa for pointing out the dangers of an “us vs. them” confrontation that gets us nowhere fast. As Lane pointed out it shouldn’t be about “them” (phds) replacing “us” (librarians), but how we staff our libraries with the best individuals who keep them strong and relevant to the community.

    Thanks Scott for providing your personal experience and again raising the question of whether LIS programs are adequately preparing the people we need for today and in the future (and how exactly do they do that?). I think Dale A also touched on that issue pretty nicely, and thanks for correcting me on when the CLIR program started. I get what you mean about the CLIR progam and its goal, but I can’t help but have this little part of me – somewhere in the gut – that stills sees the possibility that this all started with a “what can we do with our unemployable humanities PhDs?” concept. I may very well be wrong about that, but it’s still there.

    Jenica – you picked up on that closing statement – and I have to say that I really wasn’t sure I wanted to use it – I debated, but decided to go with it and perhaps that was a bad move. In retrospect it does come off sounding somewhat dismissive of others perspective – and that’s not what I intended. I was referring more to what Scott picked up on in his comment – the emotional nature of the backlash (though those who blogged about this issue may see it otherwise). But I also detected posts that had a tone of anger, perhaps rightfully so. My statement was directed to whether the reaction was the result of that anger (so that responding would “make you feel better”) or a critical analysis of the issues – considering why things were said, what was intended, and most importantly – how, as a profession, do we use the conversation to figure out ways to improve what we do – rather than just rail against what offends us. And yes, I do like to provide the historical perspective when appropriate – but you make a good point that it shouldn’t mean new perspectives should be any less welcome – so thanks for pointing that out.

  9. I think a big part of the problem I have with Trzeciak’s rhetoric is that I don’t hear him do a good enough job of explaining *why* it is so crucial to replace Librarians with post-docs. He seems to start with the preposition that MLS=bad (or union=bad), and work backwards from there.

    Hard to imagine *any* professional taking kindly to that….

  10. The problem as I see it stems from the fact that things look pretty bleak from the vantage point of the mid-career librarian, and Mr. Trzeciak didn’t make things appear any rosier. The things we were trained to do with our MLS can allegedly be done just as well by paraprofessionals.

  11. He doesn’t seem to grasp that librarianship is about a system of professional values, more than just subject expertise or mastery of ICTs. I’ve worked for people like Mr. Unpronounceable who believe that a part-time Starbucks barista with a Phd in Literature is superior to an MLS with years of experience. His experiment will fall prey to simple economics: Nobody is going to stick with a job that pays an annual salary that is *significantly less* than their total amount of student loan debt. Just because Phds are expendable doesn’t make them indispensible to academic libraries.

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  13. Following the conversation. Want to confirm that in my 2006 piece on academic library professional staffing, I did not use the term “feral librarian”, but “feral professional” recognizing four trends: hiring of PhDs into librarian assignments, expanding array of other professional skills needed, the changing role of paraprofessional staffs, and expanding online only MLS programs. I absolutely did not advocate for these changes, but observed them and raised questions about the political and social implications. Jim.

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