A couple of weeks ago I took a brief look at academic librarians, noting there wasn’t as much to mock about them. I forgot one thing: their insecurity.
A couple of days after that post, Jeff Trzeciak, the chief librarian at some place in Canada called McMaster University, delivered a talk at Penn State University that has revealed that insecurity in a large number of librarians. The only non-shrill response I saw was at ACRLog. You can follow the links from there if you want to see more.
The offending part of the talk can be found at slide 56, where the McMaster librarian says that in the future he will be hiring no more traditional librarians. Instead, he’ll be hiring PhDs and IT people.
And boy did that set the academic librarians to nattering, because nothing touches the academic librarian sore spot more than the claim that PhDs are better than MLSs at being librarians.
Goodness, one doesn’t know where to begin.
First, why all the fuss about this guy? He’s just one library dean, and in Canada of all places! Why any Americans would care is beyond me. It’s not like many American librarians go to work in Canada. Quite the reverse. The brain drain usually goes the other way. Canada has sent numerous bright and hardworking librarians to the United States. In return, we sent them Jeff Trzeciak.
Some non-academic librarians were fussing, probably because they feel insecure about the future of the MLS in general. There’s no reason reacting in such a hostile manner about statements like this unless you feel yourself under attack. If one library dean in Ontario gets you that upset, your problems are a lot bigger than him.
For the academic librarians, it’s the longtime insecurity about having a simplistic professional master’s degree instead of the usually more rigorous PhD. The problem isn’t that PhDs are better librarians than MLSs. Outside of some foreign language specialties in large research libraries, that’s generally not the case anyway, and everybody knows it.
There are a couple of things to note here. Most of the PhDs who can’t get jobs are in the humanities, and most of those are in English, history, and philosophy and don’t have any special knowledge of foreign languages or cultures.
The reduction in the humanities is taking place all over means there will also be less library support for the humanities, which means that universities that don’t need English PhDs aren’t going to absorb all those PhDs into their libraries either, because there won’ t be anything for them to do unless the PhDs retrain themselves to do something useful.
Granted, higher education is a place that values credentials over abilities. You won’t find any college dropouts like Bill Gates running a university or a university library. There’s this myth in university culture that a PhD is somehow a necessary qualification for higher education administration, when common sense tells us that writing a dissertation and managing a large enterprise require different skills.
The same is true of libraries. Earning a PhD takes years of hard work, but that hard work qualifies the earner to be a scholar and possibly a teacher in a relatively narrow field. It doesn’t mean they’re smarter or harder working than anyone.
And the majority of people earning PhDs in English or history these days certainly aren’t smart in any worldly or political sense, or they wouldn’t spend years earning a degree knowing there are almost no good jobs and then whine incessantly when they have to teach freshman comp as adjuncts at several different places to make a pitiful living.
Possibly they can connect better with faculty members, having the same degree and all, but the relationship will always be onesided. Tenured faculty played the game and won. Librarians with PhDs played the game and lost. There’s a difference.
Add to this that most academic libraries aren’t large research libraries. The community colleges and 4-year colleges and regional universities out there employ most academic librarians, and even at the larger universities a lot of the library work is directed at undergraduates, not advanced researchers. While many PhDs might spend their sad professional lives as adjuncts teaching freshman comp, there’s one thing they would consider even lower than that: teaching the library instruction portion of freshman comp.
It’s also not like McMaster is a top research university setting trends for all the lesser universities. McMaster isn’t even the top research university in Canada. That would be the University of Toronto, whose library is also much larger.
Take a look at the Times Higher Education World University Rankings from last year. McMaster makes the list, at #93. That’s respectable, but hardly the #17 ranking of Toronto, or #30 of the University of British Columbia, or #35 of McGill.
The closest ranked American university near McMaster is Wake Forest. Wake Forest is a perfectly respectable university, but if the library director there started making statements like this, would we consider them harbingers of national change? Or would we consider it an attempt to draw attention to an otherwise ordinary library?
Trzeciak is trying to transform the McMaster library into something more digital and less traditional. That could be because as a traditional research library, McMaster is nothing impressive. It has a couple million volumes. That’s chicken feed compared to Harvard, Yale, Toronto, Illinois, Stanford, Columbia, Michigan and any number of other libraries.
Whether a transformed library will better serve the university’s needs is still an open question, and time will tell. But whether that transformed library and the publication of those transformations will draw attention to the university librarian is settled. It has, and there’s no such thing as bad publicity if you’re trying to make a name for yourself and build the profile of both yourself and your library.
Librarians might hate the guy, but he’s the one they’re all talking about. This seems familiar, somehow.
Given that the McMaster Library is hardly an international leader in libraryland, it seems inappropriate to protest so much. It just makes librarians look scared and insecure, and fearful insecurity isn’t something that looks great when it comes time to justify your profession. If traditional MLS librarians are so great and necessary, they’ll be retained, so they should stop getting their knickers in a twist if they really believe in their own value. Librarians should remember the old deodorant commercial from the eighties. Never let them see you sweat.