Turning Ph.D.'s into Librarians

October 16, 2003

Last spring, the Yale University Library and my office of graduate-career services sponsored a symposium, "How To Do Things With Books: Academic Careers in University Libraries." With modest expectations for attendance, we were all stunned by the overflow crowd that came from Yale as well as from universities and libraries in New York and Boston on a rainy Friday afternoon.

In a field that isn't widely known for excitement, some very exciting developments are under way. Indeed this may be a good moment for you to think about academic librarianship not as a backup but as a first-choice career.

Our speakers, by their very titles, suggested the range of library opportunities: curator of modern books and manuscripts, director of the arts library, librarian for literature in English, general editor of Yale Boswell editions. And with eloquence and enthusiasm they all described their work as scholars, and for scholars. This very academic "nonacademic" job (although in many institutions, academic librarians are members of the faculty) draws on scholarly expertise, demands research, and even includes teaching.

I'll focus here on the emergence of a new kind of scholarly opportunity for Ph.D.'s in libraries and on a new pathway for Ph.D.'s to a career as an academic librarian. Along with programs like the recent one at Yale designed to encourage graduate students to consider careers in academic librarianship, these two developments should increase both the number of opportunities and the number of Ph.D.'s eager to pursue them.

The digital age is forcing change. Deanna Marcum, former president of the Council on Library and Information Resources, says that "new scholarly resources are being created by individual faculty, and those materials do not necessarily find their way to the library. We need scholars involved in determining how important resources are at the time they are created -- since decisions can't be made in retrospect -- and in thinking about the best way to maintain and disseminate those resources."

While libraries will always need experts in information management, technology, and business practices, the council also sees a need "for a new type of librarian" who has training in an academic discipline and an understanding of digital technology.

Responding to those new needs, the council is developing a new program of postdoctoral fellowships for recent Ph.D.'s in the humanities as "an alternate entry path into the profession of librarianship." (Details of how to apply for the fellowships will be available within a few weeks on the council's Web site; in the meantime, you can read about the program by clicking here.)

Fellows will spend 12 to 24 months in an academic research library, receiving training and undertaking a project consistent with the purpose of the fellowship. Fifteen colleges and universities have agreed to develop the program, with the first fellows announced next April.

What is so important about this new program is that it opens up a library career to Ph.D.'s after only a year of training in an academic library. The union card for library positions has always been the master's of library science (M.L.S.), and for Ph.D.'s that has traditionally meant two additional years of study and expense after completion of the Ph.D. Understandably, library professionals have mixed opinions about a shortcut for Ph.D.'s that bypasses a library degree. Some are pleased that this shortcut will bring more needed Ph.D.'s into the library, and others are worried that these Ph.D.'s will lack crucial knowledge about how libraries work.

James Cusick came to his position as curator of Florida history at the University of Florida with a Ph.D. in anthropology and a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for International Library Programs at Duke University (a precursor of the council's new program). I talked to him about what he gained from his postdoc and what, if anything, he felt he missed by not pursuing an M.L.S.

Duke's program, geared to training postdocs in Latin American bibliography, provided Cusick with a broad range of skills, including how to assess and develop collections. "I think it was due to my training at Duke that I was a strong candidate for the curator's job at the University of Florida," he says. "Special-collections departments are traditionally receptive to candidates without an M.L.S., but they expect solid experience in managing archives and rare materials." The only area where he felt he was weak was the technical side of cataloging, which he ended up learning on the job.

Earning an M.L.S. at the same time as you pursue a doctorate in an academic subject offers an interesting option available at a number of universities. To do that costs a little more in time and money than the Ph.D./postdoc approach, but much less than going back to graduate school after earning a Ph.D. to get the master's.

Thea Lindquist, an assistant professor and a librarian of history and Germanic language and literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder, chose to earn her Ph.D. and M.L.S. at the same time at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

In her first year as a graduate student in history, Lindquist was offered a job in the bibliographer's office of the campus library. "Anyone interested in graduate work, especially in the humanities, likes spending time in libraries," she says. In her second year of doctoral studies she started library school with "library and information studies" as her Ph.D. minor, and throughout graduate school she worked in the library part time -- gaining valuable experience as well as financial support.

"Library school helps you see how the library functions as a whole, how your role impacts on other people in the library and on patrons," Lindquist says. She is still happy with her decision to become an academic librarian. She loves working with books, but especially in an academic environment, where she gets to teach people about the research process, assist professors and students with their work, and receive credit for continuing her own research.

Before you run down the career road to academic librarianship, I would add a note of caution. Academic-librarian jobs aren't available to Ph.D.'s just for the asking. Whether there is a shortage of librarians and of qualified applicants depends on the institution, the particular position, the geographic region, and other factors.

And maybe you don't really want to be an academic librarian. I am reminded of the rush to management consulting a few years back. The major firms were making a heady pitch to Ph.D.'s, and graduate students coming into my office all asked how to apply -- without stopping to consider if consulting work was a good match for their interests and skills.

Just because some libraries are seeking Ph.D.'s doesn't mean you should consider becoming a librarian. Make sure it's a career that makes sense for you.


Mary Dillon Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Berkeley, is director of graduate career services at Yale University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.