By Josh Hadro May 19, 2011
The thorniest issue at Tuesday's "Future of the Academic Library" symposium—and the most personal to the more than 200 librarian attendees—was the role librarians should play in tomorrow's academic library. However, the large yellow pins sported by a sizable minority of the audience, pronouncing that "Academic Librarians ARE the Future," made it clear that some had already answered the question.
The tension was most palpable during a session on hiring postdoctoral candidates into traditional library positions, titled "Supporting New Modes of Research: New Staffing Patterns."
Three participants from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Postdoctoral Fellowship in Academic Libraries program spoke about their current positions and the idea of alternative education and experience paths.
Marta Brunner, Head of Collections, Research and Instructional Services at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), described two newly redesigned library positions she said call for "a new kind of librarian." During questions afterward, she clarified that an MLS is one of the desired qualifications for the positions, but that equivalent qualifications would also be considered. "To tell you the truth," she said, "the top qualification is 'Do you understand the position and why we need it.'"
John McClachlan and Noah Shenker, both postdoctoral fellows at McMaster, spoke of the hybrid nature of their studies and positions. Shenker's research background is in film and media studies as well as Holocaust studies, while McClachlan studied geography and earth sciences while performing pedagogical research.
"I don't think I even knew what metadata was ten years ago," Shenker said, but added that "librarians have been incredibly useful to me" during the course of his Ph.D. and in his position at McMaster.
Queries for postdocs
As one might expect, the audience response to the panel was lively.
One audience member wondered how transferable the training and expertise provided by a Ph.D. program was to a library environment. Does doctoral education provide training so narrow it isn't really relevant? Shenker pointed out that he's taught courses across three different departments, and has worked with a wide variety of archives and research collections.
Likewise, when asked about lacking tenure prospects and diminished guarantees of academic freedom, McClachlan said that working with a number of departments provides increased flexibility, while Shenker noted that the library is about as stable an environment as can be found in academia.
Asked whether the placement of non-MLS candidates into librarian positions created tension, especially in unionized environments, Brunner admitted that certainly could be the case. But she emphasized that the nature of the work should dictate the requirements, not the title, adding "there are better reasons to go to library school" than simply to get a degree, a union card, to qualify for a particular position.
She said that one-third of CLIR program postdocs went on to pursue library degrees, though moderator Elliott Shore, Bryn Mawr CIO and CLIR postdoctoral program dean, clarified that the number has decreased dramatically in recent years. Of the fellows' career trajectories, Shore said that one-third stay in libraries, a third go to related institutions like nonprofits and museums, and the last third go on to tenure-track faculty positions with other departments. "I once thought having postdocs become faculty members was a sign of failure," said Shore. "But I've realized that it increases the number of faculty members outside the library that understand its services and can advocate effectively on its behalf."
For the librarians at McMaster and perhaps others in the Toronto area, the discussion of educational requirements and hiring practices could only be seen through the lens of recent staffing changes. McMaster librarians voted in 2010 to form their own union in response to staffing decisions made by McMaster university librarian and symposium host Jeff Trzeciak, while the two McMaster postdocs on the panel
came aboard just as were hired over a period that has seen library staff reductions and a number of librarians accept early retirement offerings.
Meanwhile, Trzeciak's recently issued provocative statements about his vision to reshape library services and staffing, including comments about hiring staff with backgrounds in areas like IT and media production, have been criticized from many quarters as leading toward the deprofessionalization of library work (Trzeciak has responded to a few of the criticisms directly).
Does it start with LIS education?
In some of the surrounding commentary, many have indicated they believe Trzeciak's statements to be predominantly a comment on LIS education. So it was fitting that one of the final sessions of the day was a brief but lively presentation from Michael Stephens, Assistant Professor, San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science, CA, titled "Transforming Library Science Education: Heretical Thoughts."
"Coasting in library school and in our jobs is not an option," Stephens said, also making reference to a recent LJ column in which he wrote, "library leadership must move beyond the lending/reference model to a broader view of what's possible in a community-based space focused on helping people."
The bulk of the presentation was spent asking the audience for their own heretical thoughts on LIS education.
"Be more selective about who can get into library school" was one response, which prompted murmurs of assent around the room. In some cases, Stephens said, it seems that "if you can sign your name, you're in."
Others lamented the long-standing disconnect between practice and pedagogy. One commenter noted it was rare to see the deans of library schools participate at events geared toward frontline library staff and not just toward instructors. Admit practitioners into the teaching ranks, another person suggested, and get over the Ph.D., which "deepens the wedge between practice and education."