A Matter of Degrees

26 Jul

By Todd Gilman

If you’re a Ph.D. in the humanities, do you need a master’s degree in library and information science to pursue a career as an academic librarian or as a curator of special collections?

That question has lately generated impassioned arguments among Ph.D.’s who seek to enter the field of librarianship, as well as among librarians and curators concerned over the integrity of their profession.

My qualified answer is yes, the library-science credential is essential — unless the Ph.D. really, truly, and demonstrably has the equivalent experience. Before I elaborate, let me review my own background: I’m a Ph.D. in English who switched gears in the face of an abysmal faculty-job market, earned a master’s in library science, and landed on my feet as an academic librarian at Yale University.

Admittedly, Ph.D.’s who attend library school may or may not acquire such earth-shaking skills and wide-ranging theoretical knowledge as will justify the seemingly unreasonable outlay of time, effort, and expense required of one who has already endured the tribulations of a doctoral program. That is, at least in part, the motivation and justification for a new fellowship program and other recent initiatives that promise to set humanities Ph.D.’s on the fast (and free or low-cost) track to academic librarianship while bypassing most if not all library-school requirements.

Still, the M.L.I.S., short for master’s in library and information science (it’s also known in some quarters as the M.L.S., for master’s of library science), continues to serve as both a practical and an intellectual entreé into professional librarianship. What’s more, the M.L.I.S. protects the library profession from becoming degraded in the way that teaching has been in academe.

As a rule, Ph.D.’s do fine if they land a tenure-track job in their discipline. They get respect, decent pay, benefits, research leave, and promotions based on merit. But that’s a big if. A frightening percentage of Ph.D.’s who seek to teach these days wind up slogging away as adjuncts. According to John W. Curtis of the American Association of University Professors, “The most recent comprehensive figures from the Department of Education show that in fall 2001, 44.5 percent of all faculty were in part-time positions — nearly all without tenure — and an additional 19.2 percent of faculty were in full-time, non-tenure-track positions.”

Why has that happened? Because the supply greatly outweighs the demand. Even more insulting, Ph.D. adjuncts are so hungry that academic departments can further cheat them by offering the same low pay (or close to it), ineligibility for benefits and promotion, and so on, which are offered to those with no more than an M.A.

Those Ph.D.’s are denied a living wage because in the eyes of academic departments — to echo Gertrude Stein — an adjunct is an adjunct is an adjunct. That despite significant differences between a Ph.D. and an M.A. in the extent and cost of their education, teaching experience, and (more often than not) publishing records. Earning the lofty Ph.D., therefore, fulfills its promise for only a lucky few — the tenured and tenure-track — while the vast majority drift away on the ice floe.

The value of the Ph.D. has been degraded indeed. For the library profession to admit Ph.D.’s to our profession without the M.L.I.S. would result in a flooded market and would condemn librarians to experience the same miserable, exploitative conditions so many Ph.D.’s now suffer.

Equally damaging, hiring too many Ph.D.’s who skipped the M.L.I.S. training could create a glass ceiling for librarians who have that degree but no Ph.D. They would become (in status terms) the nurses to these doctors — even though this particular breed of doctors is not qualified to give orders to such nurses. In fact, the nurses would wind up teaching the doctors their jobs while still being held in lower esteem, a bitter irony that would force library morale down the tubes. And of course the library would then be run by those with the least experience in the profession.

Irrespective of such potential dire consequences, we must consider the question of professional standards. What exactly have M.L.I.S.-trained librarians learned that those with Ph.D.’s haven’t? Analytical, descriptive, physical, and textual bibliography. The history of books and printing. Issues in cataloging library materials. The book trade — current, rare, out of print, or all of those, including how best to manage vendors, approval plans, and standing orders. How to identify appropriate collecting levels for different subjects in different kinds and sizes of libraries. How to analyze a given library collection for purposes of, say, transfer to remote storage, filling in gaps, or preservation. How to analyze the pros and cons of a given electronic database or reference resource. How to manage acquisitions and other budgets. Digital library inititatives. The composition and scope of the essential bibliographic utilities like WorldCat, Eureka, and ESTC. How best to search any of the myriad electronic databases licensed by the modern library. What archivists do, how they do it, and why. You get the idea.

Don’t get me wrong: As I have said in my previous columns, I believe that academic librarianship is a great career alternative for many humanities Ph.D.’s who choose not to teach. I also believe that many library-school courses, as currently taught, leave much to be desired, and that library schools could never even hope to provide the deep subject expertise that scholars acquire in doctoral programs and that is so vital to much academic library work.

Some Ph.D.’s who wish to be librarians doubtless have some of the training and experience necessary (particularly those who possess the aptitude to be librarians and are well-versed in bibliography), but they most certainly do not have enough of either to be taken seriously as library professionals. To argue that because you have spent years in libraries you are qualified to run one strikes me as claiming that because you have been visiting the dentist and brushing and flossing your teeth all your life you can perform a root canal.

The creation of the profession of librarianship was an innovation of the late 19th century, by which point libraries had become too complicated to be run by dilettantes from academic departments. Hiring such people now to run our libraries — which are vastly more complicated than those that gave rise to our profession — sets us back over a hundred years. Indeed, the notion that we need professional librarians to run a modern library is even more valid today than it was in Melville Dewey’s age.

Although I have taken the position that the M.L.I.S. remains and should remain the necessary minimum credential, I must acknowledge that Ph.D.’s without the master’s and with no background in librarianship still occasionally are hired by academic libraries, especially as curators of special collections at Ivy League and a few other major universities.

That happens because, unfortunately, some senior administrators overvalue the prestige of the Ph.D. degree and undervalue the M.L.I.S. Librarianswho know that the master’s and the training and experience it represents are what qualify a candidate to perform the jobreact to such hiring practices the way that senior faculty members would to learning that an M.A. in English with no teaching experience had been made head of their English department. Who can blame us?

So while you might luck out and land one of those quirky plum jobs, if you hope to stay mobile in the library profession over the long term, you simply must earn the M.L.I.S.

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

source : http://chronicle.com/jobs/2005/05/2005051801c.htm

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