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Academic Insecurity

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.

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Comments

  1. Glorbac says:

    Jeff Trzeciak is coming to steal your babies!

  2. John says:

    “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.”

    Yup.

    Really, there’s no point to arguing for the utility of librarians and the value of our profession. What other profession gives so much time to puffing itself up like librarianship does?

    At the practical level, if you have to constantly advocate for the importance of your profession, you’ve already lost the argument. Instead of spending time and energy trying to persuade people, get your resume ready for the radical alteration or elimination of librarianship.

  3. canlib says:

    I must admit that my first response was similar: “who cares what that guy thinks?” and “where exactly is McMaster anyway?”

    Then I started to think that maybe the issue isn’t really who Trzeciak is or where he works, but that his views are the sort that resonate with deans and presidents and accountants who are looking for easy money to cut from budgets. If no one in the profession responds – if we allow his to be the only/the loudest voice on this issue – then we can’t be surprised when the bean counters make decisions based on Trzeciak’s views. I fear that his attitudes will be remembered and repeated even if Trzeciak is in fact a nobody from a provincial backwater.

  4. Melissa says:

    I’ve never understood this arguing over the value of degree levels. You get a degree, and you try to apply where you’re wanted. If this guy in Canada wants PhDs, ok. I just won’t apply at that institution when I’m job hunting.

    One of the main reasons I’m not going after a PhD level is because I’ve already got two graduate degrees anyway. And I’m much more interested in library instruction and other work. Sure, I dig the scholarship scene, but I want the trench work in a college/university library that PhD librarians don’t get.

  5. rpglibrarian says:

    This move to hire PhDs rather than MLS’s does not surprise me, given that Mr. Trzeciak had the reference desk removed last year.

    http://ulatmac.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca/2010/07/15/reference-desk-gone/

    And before that, in 2007, McMaster went to a “tier” system, and removed librarians from doing reference so they could work more with the faculty.

    http://ulatmac.wordpress.com/2007/05/04/no-reference-desk/

    I guess not hiring librarians is the next logical step.

  6. Sarah Clark says:

    Many academic librarians at one time attempted or at least contemplated a Humanities Ph.D, and I suspect this sort of “gadfly” speaks to their personal insecurities. They buy the books, attend his workshops, he and his library become more prestigious, and more insecure librarians wonder if he has a point. Shampoo, rinse, repeat. And I agree with John, to a certain extent. “constantly advocating” for the importance of librarians is not a good sign. However, Higher Ed in general is being asked to do more with less, and more units are fighting over smaller pieces of the pie.

    More so than in the good old days when our role was taken for granted, Libraries and librarians do need to be able to clearly state why they are an integral part of the university and deserve its continued support. I think we still have a strong case, stronger than much of the worried navel-gazing would suggest. However, we as librarians must be prepared to learn more about how the rest of the university works outside our walls, and make the changes needed to respond to the current and future needs of our students, faculty, and administrators. I suspect those responses will not involve tearing out the reference desks and hiring software developers as often as they will retooling our services from curators of a finite collection of materials to that of guides leading researchers through the complexities of searching, evaluating, and synthesizing an effectively infinite information landscape.

  7. Heather says:

    The irony of this story for me is that McMaster IS a world-leading university in one particular area: evidence-based medicine. They’ve worked with MEDLINE and BMJ to create EBM resources that are used around the world. And their EBM department has had librarians as respected team members for years, particularly Ann McKibbon, a librarian who is an internationally known expert in this area. So if your well-respected medical school respects the contributions of librarians, why don’t the other faculties?

  8. Geoffrey says:

    The Annoyed Librarian should bear in mind that McMaster is one of Canada’s largest universities, so it’s more like the head of the library at Northwestern or Emory or UC San Diego (rather Wake Forest) announcing that he or she will no longer hire ‘traditional’ librarians. The University is also a member of the Association of Research Libraries, in which case the announcement is significant within the field of academic librarianship and the idea of the research library.

  9. Gord Ripley says:

    After the dust has settled and the Canada put-downs (‘puerile’ is the word, I think) have lost their zip, one nugget of fact remains: Jeff Trzeciak is absolutely right, in detail and in general. The world is changing, and on the evidence, librarians are not. It’s hubris, in a way. After decades of privilege, you just don’t get it (and possibly never will). Collective insecurity indeed.

  10. elphie says:

    As a former academic librarian who finally made the jump to a more IT focused information management position (for more pay, of course) the assessment I made that the politics in academic libraries are consistently an overblown joke seems to be holding up.

    Working in libraries was an exercise in having my mind boggled on a daily basis. How can a group of ppl who call themselves “professionals” be so resistant to updating obsolete skills, and then whining that nobody likes them, or being offended that someone would dare point out that the gig is up!? Who seriously expects to get paid for behaving like adolescents in the working world?

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so. AL and Gord Ripley nailed it. Step 1. Get over yourselves Step 2. pull yourselves out of the antiquated little world that you live in and either BE relevant or admit that you’re not anymore.

  11. Taliba says:

    The other thing about McMaster University that you wouldn’t know unless you read McLean’s ranking of Canadian Universities is that while McMaster is a mid-sized school that rarely ranks no. 1 in Canada overall for its category, what it is know for (and was ranked no. 1 for) was “innovation”.

    This would be why McMaster would be interested in a guy like Jeff Trzeciak. The fact that the “innovation” identity was built upon by McMaster’s pioneering efforts in its medical school, which includes Evidence Based Medicine (and supported by librarian Anne McKibbon, as someone pointed out) is either a) sadly/hilariously ironic or b) just a sign of what innovation brings: change.

  12. newlymintedandlooking says:

    Librarians aren’t resistant to updating their obsolete skills. Librarians have many high tech skills, and info architecture skills and user design skills. They just don’t have jobs! ;-) Still waiting for the that WAVE of retirements… Today’s market is beyond saturated.

  13. In response to a number of postings on this site that link the innovation of Mac academics like Ann McKibbon, there is one fact folks must understand. The innovative accomplishments at Mac referred to herein reside in the Health Sciences library at McMaster. The Health Sciences Library reports through to the Dean of Health Sciences and has few ties to the main library system headed by Jeff Trzeciak on the services side of the equation.

    As to Jeff’s case, and the support shown to it by some posters here, I believe many of his arguments are not all that new in at least two respects. First, most academic libraries were initially staffed by faculty who took an interest in the collection building and curation of books and other research materials. These were academics who wanted to take on this role, among others, in a kind of higher education teacher-librarian parallel. I don’t see this kind of thinking in what Mr. Trzeciak presents. Second, much of the impetus for “re-invisioning” the library and the roles of librarians has a much to do with the recent union certification of McMaster Librarians as it does with any genuine desire to innovate.

    Hmmm… can you say labour relations strategy? Management 101 people – if workers unionize, eliminate them out through attrition.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] I’m not a fan of LJ’s anonymous Annoyed Librarian blog but her/his post yesterday is worth a read and makes some points about our collective insecurities; and, how poorly McMaster’s UL framed his points and how well bloggers decontextualized his points http://lj.libraryjournal.com/blogs/annoyedlibrarian/2011/04/18/academic-insecurity/ [...]