Jumping into the fray…

For the past week or so, I’ve been reading posts all over twitter and the blogosphere about Jeffrey Trzeciak’s talk at Penn State. His slide regarding new hires — not likely to hire librarians, likely to hire PhDs and IT folks — sparked a flurry of responses.

I can’t speak to the experiences of people getting PhDs in IT or Communications or hard sciences fields, but I have some experience in the social sciences. I have a MA in Anthropology and started in a PhD program before switching to Library Science; my husband is ABD in Anthropology, and several of my friends have earned or are close to earning their PhDs in Anthropology.

So I sat down to watch his presentation, gearing up to write a post about how much I’ve learned about available resources since entering the Library Science program — resources and search tricks that many of my PhD friends don’t know well enough to teach. That’s not to set it up as a us vs. them dichotomy, but to acknowledge the different skills each type of program emphasizes.

At first, I was disappointed. Despite all of the hubbub about the new hires slide, his words there were not excessively provocative. He said that they likely won’t be hiring more librarians because they have reached capacity. OK, taken at face value, that may mean that they have a respectable number of librarians on staff and need to fill other gaps in staffing. Maybe that triggered reactions because people knew more about his management style before sitting down to watch the presentation, but I’m just getting started in keeping up on these issues.

On commenting about hiring PhDs, he noted that this was in large part due to experiences with employing CLIR post-doc fellows. I can dig that. In reading up on CLIR Fellowships, it looks like a really neat program — worst case scenario, you get a PhD that is looking for something to pay the bills until a tenure track gig comes alone, and s/he learns more about the challenges libraries face and the value they add to academia. Best case scenario, they become “converts” — Michael Furlough mentions knowing a couple of former CLIR fellows who went on to library school and have chosen to continue working in libraries.

The part that I find problematic came a couple of slides later. On slide 60, he started talking about retirements. The Head of Special Collections and Head of Maps/Data/GIS positions will be going to PhDs. So, it’s not that they have a critical mass of librarians who will be keeping their jobs, and they are expanding to hire PhDs to fill gaps. They’re reducing the number of librarians. At this point, I feel somewhat misled, but that’s beside the main critique…

When we’re talking about staffing for Heads of departments, why is he considering only PhDs? Wouldn’t it make more sense to consider a wide range of people with experience in those sorts of positions, evaluating them on the work they have done instead of the letters behind their names? I doubt most institutions of McMaster’s size would consider a freshly-minted MLIS for such a position – they may have fresh new skills relevant to tech advances in those areas, but they often don’t have the experience in library administration needed to successfully run such a department. Many experienced library folks won’t have the experience he’s looking for — it’s a competitive job market and that’s why we’re encouraged to keep up on professional development. But that doesn’t mean that 1) all experienced librarians have fallen behind the tech curve or 2) that those with the tech experience will have the leadership skills and administrative experience needed. How will he evaluate PhDs for those positions?

Then he suggests that a couple of liaison positions are likely to open up soon, as well. Those will likely be replaced with post-docs, which he explains with a nod to budget issues. The post-doc positions will be short term (2 year appointments), so they entail no long term commitment of resources, and could be shared with other departments. What?

First, when I started the Library Science program, I walked in thinking that I was getting the piece of paper I needed to go be a subject specialist for anthropology or other social sciences. I knew the tricks & resources that got me through a good bit of research, I was familiar with the current literature in the field, etc. I’m sure there are plenty of PhDs out there with a similar mindset and confidence in their skills. And library school taught me a thing or two or two hundred.

However, without even getting into the different skills PhDs & librarians bring to the table, he wants to staff liaison positions with temps? What? Am I being silly to find this shocking?

Aren’t liaisons there to build relationships with the faculty members in their assigned departments? It takes time to gain respect and show that you know what you’re talking about, can be an effective aid in their research, add value to their graduate students’ educations, and add value to undergraduate classes, either through one-shot info lit sessions or as an embedded librarian. It takes time for the liaison to get a solid handle on each faculty member’s research interests and current projects, to be able to forward information on resources that might be of interest to that faculty member and actually be on target a respectable amount of the time. By the time that two-year post-doc gets into the groove of that institution, it’s time to start looking to get a job lined up for after the post-doc position ends!

I am happy to see that most people are not jumping on the bandwagon with Trzeciak. I’m all for open discussion and considering different ways of doing things. And sometimes we could stand to be more flexible in considering a person’s experience instead of just the letters behind their name. But picking a different set of letters to favor doesn’t fix the problem. And turning liaison positions into temp jobs doesn’t seem to serve the library or the academic departments’ interests in the long term.

Further reading (in no particular order)
Whither, librarianship?
This is NOT the future of librarianship
Valuing Librarian Work: McMaster is Not The Only Model
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Reactions to Jeff Trzeciak
Shut up, Jeff
Thoroughly Modern Karen: A Response to Jeff Trzeciak
LIS Education, Advocacy, and the Future of Librarianship

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Angela Pashia

I am an instruction & outreach librarian in Georgia.

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