A Library without Librarians? The Opinion of a PhD-Librarian on the Jeffrey Trzeciak Controversy

20 04 2011

It is only recently that I heard about the controversial speech of Jeffrey Trzeciak, Chief Librarian at McMaster University, at Penn State University.

Jeff seemed to have said incredible offending things about traditional librarians.
Things like “the library of the future gets rid of librarians in favor of people who actually earned their doctorates.” and
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach become academic librarians.
(Sense and Reference)“.

These statements almost resulted in a new gate: McMastergate (Confessions of a Science Librarian) or Trzeciakgate (ACRLog). According to  the Annoyed Librarian  “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, because (as the Annoyed Librarian adds): “PhDs are better than MLSs at being librarians!” .

O.k. Lets look at slide 56:

His words were not sharp. Each statement is softened somewhat with the words “Likely” and “Unlikely”. Furthermore the title says ” New Hires“. More importantly he introduces the slide by saying. “We did a lot of new hiring the last years. We are unlikely in the future to hire new librarians. We probably hit our max” …. (emphasis mine) Etcetera.

Have all those furious librarians bothered to listen to the entire speech or do they rely on one annoyed librarian as their source?

As a matter of fact I find the annoying annoyed librarian far more offensive towards library PhD’s than Jeff is towards traditional librarians. He/she says for instance:

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….”

So PhD-librarians are always  inferior, unmotivated librarians and failed scientists?  Well let me tell you: working for many years as a post-doc, I switched to a library job, for positive reasons. I was looking for a permanent job too, but as stated elsewhere I find the librarian job far more rewarding. I love it and I think I am good at it (just like my non-PhD colleagues by the way).

I have listened to the entire presentation (available here). Not with great attention though, because – in spite of the controversial topic- the monotonous soft voice and the endless lists of bullets didn’t engage me. In fact I really missed a “real conceptual view”. Somewhere (slide 40-42) Jeff says:

“We didn’t spend a great deal of time talking about  vision and mission, we just want to get it done. We didn’t want to over-analyze it. We want to just pick a direction and go for it. We felt that the survival of the academic library was dependent upon our ability to start acting upon something. So we just started saying “Yes, thank you”. If the dean (…) asked if we were willing to do X, Y and Z, our response was just “Yes thank you”, whether or not we actually thought it would fit into the traditional library definition.”
….”We spend a lot of our time and effort in integrating technologies throughout the library, whatever that might be, whether it was for a Facebook-page, we experimented with Second Life a little bit… we did a lot with You Tube, we still are…..” (emphasis mine)

That is not a well underpinned vision. It doesn’t sound convincing either. It just sounds as if fate decided the direction of the McMaster University Library.

What else did Jeff say?

He started: “Do not fear to be eccentric, for every opinion accepted was once eccentric.”  That was a warning.

Next he explained why transformation of the (his) library was necessary: the (McMaster) library was in state of decline, it was disconnected from the campus and there was/is a funding challenge. The major challenge is the perception of the library. (Well, that won’t  be unique).

Innovations were:

  • Add new blood.
  • 1/3 less staff (for budgetary reasons, mostly through retirement)
  • Eliminate cataloging (which in Jeff’s words does NOT mean elimination of librarians but reallocation staffing to public services, with -as a result- at least one librarian blossoming in new function).
  • Eliminate reference and circulation desk
  • Create new media center, meant to engage students with gaming suites
  • Reallocate budget, buying games
  • Less face to face services
  • Emphasis on Special Collections (like 20 years of radio/advertising). Therefore likely to hire more IT and do more research.
  • more likely to have PhD ‘s on staff bc of New Media/Web design. Recently graduated PhD’s are able to develop strong ties, want to do something different.
  • Achieved: (examples) more space allocation to users, less to materials. More diverse skill set. Increase in foot traffic. New media center. Robotic scan machine (gift) for digitization of unique collection.

As far as I can tell, he was not (or didn’t mean to be) offensive. He never said that PhD’s or IT-people were any better than MLS-librarians. He never said that he would replace librarians by academic people. He only aimed to “add new blood”, enthusiastic new graduates “fit” for new specialist tasks to add to his staff. Nothing wrong with that. How his management affects his staff and his library in reality, I can’t tell.

According to Michael Furlough, who gives a thoughtful inside look into the situation, there have been previous controversies about his management style and specific staffing decisions at McMaster.

The UTlibrarians go further by revealing that:

“Last time that Jeff Trzeciak openly turned on his staff, we saw they (McMaster-library staff) were forced to separate from their association with McMaster University Faculty Association and form a separate union to represent their interests. Furthermore they explain: “here, at the University of Toronto we have a 30-year old MoA and a Librarian’s Policy that offers faculty and librarians less protection that the USW collective agreement offers its employees at the University of Toronto.”.

As a  PhD librarian, do I agree with Jeff? Well only in so far that PhD- and IT- and perhaps a bunch of other people could be a very welcome addition to the library. It is not always necessary to add them to your staff. Sometimes cooperation with an other department will do. I love to work with a freshly graduated problem-solving (medical) IT person full of new ideas, who can fulfill dreams I can’t realize because I miss the skills.

I also think that PhD’s might have some special skills and qualities that may be an advantage for some tasks. But so have “traditional” librarians.

At ACRLog they stress that “a good part of what Jeff said was hardly new, innovative or revolutionary”. He is also not the first to hire PhD’s. As  a matter of fact, the special CLIR PostDoctoral Library Fellows Program encourages just this.

Indeed, Our Dutch Academic Libraries are also hiring more researchers and/or PhD’s with or without a special post-doc library education. Our medical library now has two former scientists, and it is not excluded that more might be hired in the future.

What surprised me the most in Jeff’s talk was that he was so outspoken, without good arguments. It also surprised me that his approach seemed to be applied to each and every faculty library.
Our libraries are all very different. At one faculty books and cataloging are very important, in another electronic databases, yet another’s main task is heritage digitization (they would love the robotic scan machine). Some libraries have mainly students as clients, other scientist, others clinicians, yet others a mix of those.

I cannot imagine that engaging students with gaming suites and playing around a little with web 2.0 tools  should be the ultimate goal of all libraries. I don’t agree that the library should be like a museum, a conference center or a lab, like Jeff proposes.

As a matter of fact, at our hospital are already abandoning the idea that all teaching material for medical students should be *fun*, in the form of games. Students don’t want to game, unless it is functional. They want to pass their exams in the first place, and become doctors in the second.

Our medical library goes through many phases the McMaster university has gone through. Our emphasis is on facilitating access to relevant information, on education and on searching. We have noticed a shift towards more complex, extensive searches for systematic reviews and guidelines. Thus, our librarians are now becoming the “added value”, not the techniques. We think we meet the needs of our customers the best that way.

I wonder whether the medical library of McMasters, famous for its critical appraisals and search filters (PubMed clinical queries) would now concentrate on gaming or museum function only. As a matter of fact, it is hard to imagine.

Thus I mainly disagree with Jeff in that he just picks a direction and goes for it (and think PhD’s do the job wherever he goes). He might enter a road with one end blocked off . PhD’s wont save you once you go wrong….


If you like to read more on the topic, John Dupuis at Confessions of a Science Librarian -like a true librarian- compiled  a list of blog reactions in chronological order

I would like to especially recommend the following blog posts:

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8 responses

21 04 2011

A very well-written take on things. I think your mention that different libraries do – and need – very different things is an important takeaway (as is highlighting the interesting take on planning/vision, or lack thereof, in the way McMaster went about its transformation). As a lifelong grad-schooler and research-lover, I think you’re right when you say “I also think that PhD’s might have some special skills and qualities that may be an advantage for some tasks”, and I think libraries would benefit from PhDs who are passionate about the work libraries do (or *could* be doing).

21 04 2011
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21 04 2011

Great post! If found myself reading it on my mobile phone and totally agreeing. Next i wondered, who wrote this? *scrollscroll* ah.. you (not surprised)

I like that my colleagues are so different, with different skills (sometimes due to different education) I think that is what makes us a good team. And in the end, passion and commitment make the difference, not the degree.

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