Subject Experts Need Not Apply

July 01, 2008


Job candidates with M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s in the humanities have become increasingly drawn to the idea of earning a master's in library and information science (MLIS) and pursuing careers as academic librarians.

That is, in part, because of encouragement from librarians like me who believe that subject expertise, research skills, and linguistic abilities are desperately needed in cataloging, special collections, archives, reference and research education, collection development, and other areas of library work. Many M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s are considering a career change just in time to take advantage of the graying library profession, since tens of thousands of Baby Boomer librarians will soon reach retirement age.

It's a great time to become an academic librarian if you have an advanced degree in a humanities subject, right? Moreover, for the advanced-degree holder with, say, 5 to 10 years of experience as a librarian, it's an even better time for mobility within the profession because you are an ever-appreciating asset, right?

Not so fast.

As a librarian at Yale University who has watched the job market in recent years, I've noticed a rather disturbing turn of events — one that is gaining steam and undermining the likelihood that M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s in the humanities will be able to choose librarianship as a career.

Many recent job postings for humanities librarians, reference librarians, or those specializing in research education do not list subject expertise as a requirement. In place of subject expertise, those job postings require relevant library experience (variously defined) and, more often than not, technology skills, neither of which, to my mind, makes up for a lack of advanced education in a particular discipline.

Consider a recent posting for a humanities librarian at a state college. "Required: MLIS; professional academic library experience; humanities background either by academic preparation or through prior library collection-management experience; working knowledge of major humanities resources and selection tools; excellent spoken and written communication skills; ability to work collaboratively in a team environment; strong commitment to scholarship, service, and leadership roles."

Keep in mind, this is a position on the tenure track. The key wording: "prior library collection-management experience" can take the place of actual academic preparation in the humanities. So if your short-staffed library asked you to select some core titles for the British literature collection, even though you never studied the field, that would give you enough collection-management experience in British literature? Boy, the academic hiring game just got a whole lot easier.

In that job posting and many others, the most attention paid to subject expertise (in the form of a master's or Ph.D.) is a brief mention in the list of "preferred" qualifications. That is a strong indication that the hiring institution will settle for less — much less. In fact, I'm told that in a number of recent hires, Ph.D.'s and M.A.'s — some with years of professional experience working in top academic libraries in addition to having an MLIS — have been passed over in favor of candidates straight out of library school whose only previous degree was a bachelor's.

A "preferred" qualification apparently means one "easily ignored at our discretion."

The devaluing of subject expertise is happening even in cases in which the job postings require it. I know of a case in which the job listing specifically stated that a master's in a humanities field would be needed for tenure, but the library hired an underqualified candidate without that degree. The same thing happened in another case: The job posting required several years of relevant library experience (a phrase that usually means professional experience after you have earned the MLIS), and the library hired a candidate without it.

How could that have happened? Easy: No professors from the relevant academic departments were invited to participate in the interviews, so no objections were raised that could not be ignored. (Now you know why professors should always be included in library searches.) And the reservations of scrupulous librarians who defended the need for hiring people with subject expertise were summarily dismissed by administrators.

The chosen candidates are young and inexperienced, and therefore inexpensive and malleable — qualities that make them an easier sell (and let's face it, less threatening) than those candidates who are more seasoned, costly, and self-possessed.

In the master's-required-for-tenure case, everyone but the candidate herself knows she will leave as soon as the reality sinks in that she will have to pay to attend night school to earn that M.A. while working full time. But no matter: The beauty of such a hire is that she is easily replaced by another junior librarian with similar qualifications.

The consequence of such hires is to keep M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s in the humanities — those who went back to library school and completed an MLIS but who don't yet have experience working as a professional librarian — out of the running. That is not only petty, inflexible, and anti-intellectual, it is actually bad for libraries and librarians in at least two ways.

First, it wreaks havoc on library collections. As Dan Hazen and James Henry Spohrer write in the introduction to Building Area Studies Collections, "Effective collection development is … a reflective undertaking whose practitioners require a thorough knowledge of scholars' disciplinary needs and emerging trends in scholarly communication. These specialists must meet the expectations of current researchers, while also anticipating those of the generations to come."

Hazen and Spohrer even hint at the concerns I'm raising here in stating that "successful recruitments require much more than mechanical applications of generic job descriptions."

Second, if librarians hope to be seen as true partners in the educational mission of colleges and universities, we have to be players in the same intellectual ballpark as professors. Academic librarians "are rarely considered by students, parents, faculty, and even university administrators to be 'real' faculty or even intellectual peers," said Daphnée Rentfrow, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Council on Library and Information Resources, in an essay she presented at a council conference in February on the "Core Functions of the Research Library." "This problem of image is, in fact, one of the biggest challenges facing the profession," she said.

Replacing badly needed subject experts with applicants who have only a bachelor's, an MLIS, and a bit of on-the-job training makes matters worse.

Rentfrow suggests a crucial way in which we can ensure the survival of the research library while also beginning to solve the academic librarian's image problem:

"What is needed for the research library of the future are librarian-scholars prepared and trained by degree programs that require rigorous scholarship and publication and teaching as part of the training. … We will need scholars with Ph.D.'s and experience in library-related issues as much as we will need degree-holding librarians with additional research experience. Either degree alone — a Ph.D. or the MLIS — will not suffice to meet the needs of faculty, scholars, and students in the next decades."

I know of one job seeker who has a Ph.D. in English, publications including a scholarly monograph, many years of college teaching experience, a recent MLIS, and substantial preprofessional library experience. She sent out nearly 200 applications over an 18-month period before being offered a professional job as a reference and instruction librarian.

While some people may assume that the fault lies mainly with the applicant — that she was selling herself too much as a scholar, not enough as a librarian, and finally succeeded because she figured that out — other culprits are not hard to find, in light of the recent job postings we are seeing.

Todd Gilman is the librarian for literature in English at Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library.