The Future of Academic Librarianship?

When I heard that Jeff Trzeciak would be coming to Penn State to talk about transforming libraries, I was excited to attend his presentation. Mr. Trzeciak is the University Librarian at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and  has over 20 years experience in academic libraries. Being a newer leader in academic libraries, having roughly the same experience in the profession as I have, a fellow “GenXer”, and a former Library Journal Mover and Shaker, I was interested to hear what he had to say about academic librarianship.

Mr. Trzeciak’s presentation “Transforming Traditional Organizations” provided many good talking points. He suggested that libraries must take risks and be creative and innovative, suggesting that we should take the role of “enthusiastic prospectors”. The presentation went on to highlight some great things going on at McMaster, and many of the ideas that he has tried there (consolidating reference desks, training staff to answer reference triage, getting librarians more “face time” with faculty) are all things that I have tried with great success both at Penn State and elsewhere. I even liked the idea of the library hiring postdoctoral fellows to work on research and collection development projects, especially in the digital humanities and special collections.

When Mr. Trzeciak turned his attention to future happenings in his library is where he lost me. He believes that librarians should not be in supervisory positions, and he doubted that any new librarians will be hired at McMaster in the near future. Instead he made the case for hiring non-MLS PhD-holding candidates to fill positions previously held by librarians. It is these points that I most vehemently disagree with, and I feel that Mr. Trzeciak is doing a disservice to the profession in advocating for this type of change.

MLS-educated librarians are the keepers of the profession. Librarians hold the training, vision, and vocation for this type of work. I do believe that the MLS curriculum can be “bulked up” and improved, and am making this a professional priority of mine in the upcoming years. Making the MLS degree program a full 2 years (48 credit hours) and requiring more courses in management, statistics, assessment, and leadership would be a great way to start. PhDs in fields other than library and information studies are not the right people to entrust with the keys of librarianship. Librarians, educated in an enhanced MLS curriculum are the right choice.

Mr. Trzeciak’s presentation not only touched a nerve with me but with others in the biblioblogosphere. Jenica Rogers and Amy Buckland have posted similarly on their blogs. And I concur. Not only are libraries important, but so are librarians. Ms. Rogers put it more eloquently than me:

Don’t let people like Jeff Trzeciak make you invisible.


9 thoughts on “The Future of Academic Librarianship?

  1. My emotional reaction is:
    Well now “librarians should not be in supervisory positions” is just as stupid as a blanket policy that objects to non-MLS-holders fulfilling librarian positions. There are other methods, better methods than certification to identify appropriate qualities for a position.
    But of course I’m not an employer: the only times I’ve had to try to find an appropriate person for a position was in a voluntary organisation where you take the closest you can get and train and mentor them to suit.

    As unpleasant as Trzeciak’s position (as you document it, I wasn’t there), it at least challenges librarians to provide much more than their MLS for suitability for supervisory positions.

    Could it actually be a challenge? Is it possible for such a high level director to have such a blindspot? Is it a blind spot? Makes me curious what kind of librarians Trzeciak has worked with to develop such an opinion.

    • I know several of the librarians Trzeciak has in his employ, professionally and personally, and can attest that they are not the reason he’s built this set of beliefs. They are talented, dedicated, and, given Trzeciak’s public positions, completely undervalued by their employer. It’s sad.

      But I agree, there are far better metrics for suitability for supervisory responsibilities than “has/does not have MLS”. I think Trzeciak’s decision to move librarians out of operational roles is disingenuously described as being related to supervision, and instead is part of his (baffling, confusing, strange) anti-librarian stance.

  2. I can see how this could be a challenge, and this is what I argue in part in my post. I think that the MLS is the right degree for academic libraries, but definitely see the need to improve the MLS curriculum.

    Please click on the title to link to the presentation with audio and video. The Penn State University Libraries are making this publicly available, and judge for yourself. I got a distinct “anti-MLS” position from the presentation.

  3. Actually – I think academic librarians should have both an MLIS and a PhD! The PhD, in whatever discipline, provides a depth of critical research understanding that many librarians do not have. The MLIS provides, among other things, a way of thinking about and viewing resources and organization that can otherwise only be gained through extensive experience. For example, what does a PhD in any of the humanities know about the professional ethics of the library profession? Or the way to supervise workers in cataloging so that the work is done correctly, according to standards?

    • I can’t say that I disagree, in part, with requiring academic librarians to have advanced degrees, apart from the MLS, especially if they are subject librarians. There are many librarian jobs in academic libraries, especially large research libraries, for those with an MLS and no other advanced training. My current position (and every other position I have held in an academic library) requires someone proficient in the management of a small library, who is capable of doing general reference and instruction as well. Positions like these (and those in access services, general reference, learning and instruction, technical services, management, etc.) are well suited for a librarian holding a MLS and no other advanced degree. In fact, I would argue that positions like this are exactly what someone holding a MLS was trained to do.

  4. It sounds like his argument is the same one floating around academic libraries for a long time: “Anybody can do research – it’s more valuable to have knowledge of the subject matter than the mechanics.” I disagree with this the same as I disagreed with the similar philosophy in Education circles – that if you have an mastery of a subject matter, of course you can teach it. This simply isn’t true. There is more to being a good librarian or teacher than knowing the material. I know many teachers that are not the best of whatever in their subject field (i.e. the best musicians don’t always make the best music teachers) and feel the same to be true in librarianship. In fact, I’d argue that an excellent reference librarian is more likely to be a jack of all trades, and master of none, than to be confined to a specific subject the way you must be to earn a PhD.

  5. Following up on the PhD thread in the responses…

    I have a PhD in Information Studies and an MLIS. The PhD has given me the ability to write at an advanced level on academic subject matter, but to be honest it hasn’t made me a better librarian. The training I got in my MLIS program made me a better librarian, and frankly it made me a better researcher (which is handy for a PhD student!). So I am not so sure about this expectation that librarians should also have a PhD. A second Masters or PhD in the subject area for collections or reference could certainly come in handy, or an advanced degree or certification relevant to one’s technical duties might make sense, but I am a bit worried about requiring this level of education for all positions – to a large degree, because I simply don’t think it is necessary for most library work.

    I also don’t think that non-librarians with advanced degrees can easily substitute / replace librarians. I think that if someone has a Masters or PhD in their particular area that they would likely be able to do a pretty good job in handling questions in their area at the reference desk, but it’s all the other stuff that missing from their background. Think back to your MLIS – you get training in all aspects of librarianship, from cataloguing to reference to collections to systems, and the list goes on. It is that training that allows you to see the big picture. I have never worked as a cataloguer, but I have a basic understanding of and great respect for what they do. Someone without the MLIS on the other hand might be the first to say, outsource – we don’t need those people – they’re not front line! And it isn’t really their fault because they simply don’t have the background to understand that it is those people with those skills and knowledge who make the kind of research work they do possible.

    Librarians have a professional qualification that enables them to do the work they do so well. I think that we often diminish our own qualification by thinking that we have to have additional qualifications for our MLIS to mean something – and I really think this is wrong. It might sound strange coming from someone who spent the last 6 1/2 years getting an additional qualification to say this, but I didn’t do my PhD to get my job, nor did I do it for a promotion. I did it because I just wanted to do it, not because I couldn’t get a job without it.

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