Before I begin, I want to make a comment about olives. Olives crave gin, because it’s only in a solution of gin, vermouth, and a bit of cold water from shaken ice that olives really come into their own. The secret to success in librarianship is a good martini, and perhaps some Billie Holiday. Now, back "on task."
Someone forwarded me parts of a listserv conversation last week about academic libraries beginning to require PhDs for all librarian jobs and not just directorships. Some already do for directorships, especially some of the smaller libraries, because if you’re going to run a library it’s absolutely crucial that you’ve spent a few years writing a tedious dissertation on Hitler’s haberdasher or the novels of Wordsworth.
Now, by PhDs, I think we’re talking about PhDs in real subjects. Unless one is the subject specialist for LIS in one’s library, a PhD in LIS is not the thing. This of course makes perfect sense for subject specialists. As someone in the discussion mentioned, if you’re hiring a specialist in Tibetan studies, then having someone with a PhD in Tibetan studies would make sense.
There are already some libraries that require PhDs for all the librarians. As with a lot of oddities in academia, the lower you go on the academic food chain, the more useless credentials the librarians have to have. If you’re at a major university with faculty status, you’ll be judged on the quality of your publications. If you’re at a minor university with faculty status, you’ll be judged on whether you have another master’s degree – any subject or school is fine, which is why these librarians can even get master’s degrees in education or something similar from their own small university and get tenure. If you’re near the bottom, you need to have a PhD. Doesn’t matter which subject. The point is having the letters after your name. It’s a crazy world, I know, but I didn’t make it, so don’t blame me.
Could this become the norm in all libraries, though? Someone else mentioned a recent New York Times article about jobless PhDs. As usual, the Times is on the cutting edge of higher education news, because there’s only been a trend of too many PhDs (at least in the humanities) since about 1980. Finally, the news is made official in the paper of record. We can all breathe easy. Will academic libraries start to hire these otherwise unhireable people instead of those with the prestigious ALA-accredited MLS?
My feeling is, eh, maybe, but I doubt it. It’s not that the people aren’t at least as bright and educated as the average librarian, which I realize isn’t saying much. It’s just that, well, they don’t know much about libraries. If they could break into that first job, they might be okay, but we all know how bad most entry level jobs are. People straight out of library school take these bottom feeder jobs because they’ve been trained to do them and they’ve already abandoned all hope of more challenging and lucrative work before ever entering library school. But people with PhDs who won’t deign to go back to library school are different. If they’re too proud to spend another year cranking through the easiest degree this side of the M.S.W. then that’s a big signal to hiring committees that these people are probably too snooty and arrogant to deal with the tedium of library work, not to mention the fact they know diddly about libraries.
Fortunately for those academic librarians out there without a PhD, these poor souls are so arrogant they’d rather would rather adjunct at three different universities teaching ten classes a year for $20,000 than work in a library. In adjunct hell, they get to be "professors." In the library, they’re mere "librarians." I discuss this topic with a friend of mine on occasion, and it cracks us both up. My friend – with another master’s degree but sans PhD – sometimes points out he makes more money, has more job security, and in general does more interesting work than some of his old friends with PhDs and multiple part-time adjunct positions. It’s probably the case. I see the same thing in some of the friends I finished school with. They teach 5-and-5 at WesternDungheap State University for a pittance. I have this beautiful corner office overlooking the park and my own bartender (Hi, Chip!). Nuff said.
So I doubt PhD-less academic librarians have much to fear from the academic losers out there who finish their degrees in English or history or whatever and can’t get jobs. They might be intelligent and well educated, but they obviously lack street smarts, or they wouldn’t finish PhDs in climates where they probably won’t get tenure track jobs. And if they are more lacking in street smarts than librarians, then God help them is all I can say.
It’s hard to come up with a defense against this. One person quoted ACRL about the MLS being the appropriate terminal professional degree for librarians, but then pointed out that doesn’t mean much. Too many qualifiers.
As usual, I’d like to know what you all think? Do you work in one of those libraries that require a PhD? Is anything useful gained by that? Do hiring committees at your library salivate over people with PhDs, no matter what the subject? If so, why? Personally, I just don’t get it, and I may or may not have a PhD.