Dr. Librarian: Value of advanced subject degree for academic librarians

Can of worms

“Can of worms” would be a great blog name (Photo from Flickr user owlhere)

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I think an advanced subject degree is important for academic librarians. Take a close look at my CV, or decipher my blog title, and you will quickly realize that I am enormously biased. I also happen to think I am right, especially for subject librarians and other librarians who provide direct support to faculty research (e.g. digital humanities librarians, data librarians, etc.). Note that this does not mean I think librarians ought to have faculty status. Note also that I am in no way implying that currently employed librarians without advanced subject degrees are less valuable than PhD librarians.* I hope we can all agree that current employees ought to be evaluated on the basis of their work rather than past degrees. What I am talking about here is what I look for when hiring a new librarian, and what I think might be the future for academic libraries.

For me an advanced subject degree (preferably a PhD) is important for the simple reason that I think the knowledge and skills needed for the kinds of work we want subject librarians to do are best gained through graduate-level study (including conducting original research) within a discipline.

These are the qualities I think are important for librarians in academic libraries like mine:

  1. Understanding of the major theoretical and methodological paradigms of the discipline they support.
  2. Ability to identify resources, methods, and tools appropriate to research questions in their discipline.
  3. Understanding of the current and anticipated future state of scholarly publishing in their discipline, including foreign publishing as relevant.
  4. Understanding of how scholarly information is organized in their discipline and related disciplines.
  5. Ability to exercise expert judgement in selecting primary and secondary resources in support of current and future research in their discipline (not just books and journals, but also archives, manuscripts, data, etc.).
  6. A decent grasp of copyright, intellectual property, and open access issues and debates.
  7. A service orientation — a commitment and passion for supporting research and teaching.

The best way to gain qualities 1 and 2 is through advanced study in a discipline. It is also my experience that any decent PhD program in humanities or social sciences will provide graduates a very good start on qualities 3-6. Number 7 is, IMHO, sometimes an inherent personality trait, sometimes learned and demonstrated by experience, and sometimes (maybe) learned through an MLS/MLIS program or something similar. I personally found my passion for supporting the research and teaching efforts of others through a combination of teaching, TA’ing, and working as a statistical software consultant at Stanford Libraries during graduate school.

Perhaps arguing that a PhD in a subject area is a good thing for academic librarians is not particularly controversial in and of itself. I can’t imagine anyone making the argument that having a PhD in a subject area is a bad thing for librarians; although many argue that it is not sufficient preparation. And there remains considerable resistance to the idea that a subject PhD might be better preparation for a job in an academic library than an MLS/MLIS. This topic was widely argued back in 2011 in what has been dubbed Trzeciakgate, and I hesitate to rehash those arguments; except to note that I agree with just about everything Mike Furlough had to say about it.

What frustrates me is the fact that the objections I hear to the idea of hiring PhDs instead of MLS/MLIS holders are rarely about which path provides people with the skills, knowledge and experiences suited to the job. Instead, the arguments tend to center on two kinds of assumptions, both of which I find problematic:

  1. “A doctoral education in a subject area does not provide the kind of values inculcation that an MLS/MLIS program provides.” Are library values really that different from the basic values of higher education? I’m not buying it. And even if there are some differences, is an MLS really the only way for them to be transmitted? Again, not buying it. If your organization is not transmitting and reinforcing its values to all employees, then you are doing it wrong.
  2. “PhD’s are less committed to the profession, so you can’t count on them to stick around.” I actually had someone tell me “I’m OK with hiring PhD’s as long as they prove their commitment by getting an MLS.” Not only do I have a major objection to making broad assumptions about an individual’s potential commitment based on stereotypes, but I also fail to see how getting an MLS (especially when so many programs are now online only) proves commitment to anything other than jumping through a creditialing hoop.

Rather than talking about who has the right values, or who is more commited, I would much rather we had a conversation about what mix of skills, knowledge, experience and education are needed by librarians in higher education today; and what preparation best provides that. The list above represents my current thinking on the topic. Note that my list is based on my experience at a very large academic library, at an elite research intensive university. As I’ve said before not all libraries are the same, and maybe even not all research libraries are the same; so your mileage may vary. What else belongs on the list? Anything I’ve overemphasized?

In a comment on an earlier post about faculty status for librarians, someone asked what evidence I had that librarians with advanced degrees are more effective than those without. It is a great question, but I know of no data measuring actual librarian effectiveness at all, much less broken down by what kind of degrees we have. I do however, offer the following bits of unsolicited praise from faculty at MPOW about some of our librarians:

I love that Danny Zuko (not his real name) has a PhD. He comes to all our brown-bags and seminars, and can really interact as a full colleague. How did you find him?

She has a PhD in history, so she really understands our needs. She asked me about my research agenda when I first arrived, and it was really clear that she got it. Having a librarian with an academic background in our field is invaluable to us.

These quotes make me super happy, because they indicate to me that our PhD librarians are functioning as faculty colleagues, albeit colleagues with a primary focus on supporting the research and teaching efforts of others. And that seems to me to be the right role for academic librarians.

*I refuse to get into an argument about who gets to be called a librarian. I think there are already enough worms in this can I’m opening here.

**This, of course, raises the question of appropriate professional development for current librarians. It would be impossible to replicate the PhD experience in on-the-job training or professional development, but I do have some ideas. I think librarians should be encouraged to attend the professional conferences for their disciplines — instead of library conferences, where funding both is not feasible. Social science librarians could attend ICPSR’s Summer Program in Quantitative Methods for Social Scientists. Where possible, librarians should be supported in any efforts to obtain an advanced subject degree while on the job, and/or in auditing graduate level classes where possible.

9 Responses to “Dr. Librarian: Value of advanced subject degree for academic librarians”

  1. 1 cmacwhirter May 9, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    This distinction between PhD and MLS/MLIS qualifications for librarians is reminiscent of an earlier distinction between a degree in education and a discipline degree for teachers. The conventional argument hinged on an education degree providing a philosophy of education vs. the depth on knowledge provided by a discipline degree. Surely if one intends on becoming a teacher one ought to have some sort of philosophy of education, regardless of one’s background and conversely, one ought to have some depth of knowledge as well. For me, the ideal is to have both, and furthermore, as either a teacher or a librarian, to have achieved the status of profound generalist – something always to strive for.


  2. 2 Jeremy D February 28, 2013 at 10:55 am

    Nice post. I agree with your breakdown of relevant skills/qualities and that we should be less concerned with degress per se and more with what an individual candidate brings to the table. Of course, that can be quite hard to suss out for any job candidate, which is why we end up relying on degrees as a convenient shorthand…and this is as true of a PhD as it is for an MLS/MLIS.

    I will take exception to this point, though:

    “I also fail to see how getting an MLS (especially when so many programs are now online only) proves commitment to anything other than jumping through a creditialing hoop.”

    The assumption here seems to be that getting a degree online is somehow less rigorous or useful than a traditional on-campus degree. My experience was quite different, and I found that, when well done, an online program can lead to more student engagement and interaction both with course materials and with other students and faculty. I won’t dispute that there is an element of hoop jumping in getting an MLIS to work in a library, but I don’t see how that’s any different than the kind of gate-keeping most professions engage in by requiring credentials, whether in medicine, law, or academia.

    For my part, one of the real values of getting an MLIS was exposure to areas of information science and classification theory and practice (cataloging, the information lifecycle, metadata, the semantic web, etc.) that I think are vital to understanding the work of libraries in the past and what they can offer for the future. Also, my PhD program gave me almost no background in quality #6, while my MLIS program gave me a lot. (Judging by my discussions with other social scientists, I don’t think that was an anomaly of my program, although perhaps that’s now changing.)


    • 3 Chris Bourg February 28, 2013 at 11:35 am

      thanks for your comment and your perspective.
      And you are absolutely right that my comment about online MLS degrees was a gross generalization; based mainly on my own experience of having colleagues and bosses literally tell me that I might want to just “punch my ticket” by signing up for one of the online MLS programs. I should have known better than to paint all online degree programs with that kind of broad brush. My bad.

      You are also absolutely right that we use the degrees as signals of what we hope are underlying skills and qualities a candidate brings to the job — and that plenty of degree programs serve gate-keeping functions; especialy in the professions.

      And it is certainly true that my own experiences color my perspective. It is simply easier for me to see how graduate level training in a subject provides the qualities/skills I think are important than it is for me to see how an MLS might do so. Others with different experiences will see things differently — so we better make sure we have diverse hiring committees.

      At any rate, I do think it is important that we focus on what qualities we think we need for the job first, and if certain degrees are likely to confer those qualities then we use those as proxies; rather than the other way around. Hope that makes sense.



  3. 4 Chris Bourg January 22, 2013 at 11:18 am

    thanks for the comment. The “committment” thing comes up in so many contexts, and just drives me batty.
    I do think values are important — I just don’t think library schools have a monopoly on teaching them.


  4. 5 Shawn January 22, 2013 at 11:09 am

    “Rather than talking about who has the right values, or who is more commited, I would much rather we had a conversation about what mix of skills, knowledge, experience and education are needed by librarians in higher education today; and what preparation best provides that.”

    Thanks Chris for reminding me that while values are important they cannot replace skills/experience. The “committed” observation is one I’ll leave alone as it has no merit IMHO – no matter how many times its echoed by folks in the profession.


  1. 1 Eric Gonchar Trackback on February 26, 2015 at 10:33 pm
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