Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Academic Libraries: Shooting the Messenger of Professional Change

Recently, Jeff Trzeciak, University Librarian at McMaster University, gave a talk entitled "Transforming Traditional Organizations: McMaster 2006-present" at Pennsylvania State University as part of a series of invited lectures by the Penn State University Libraries.   To say that his talk set off a firestorm amongst many in academic libraries would be putting it mildly.  The blogosphere erupted into denunciations, refutations, attacks on Trzeciak's management style, and not a few ad hominem attacks.

For a flavor of many of the responses, see the Attempting Elegance blog entry in response to Trzeciak's talk.  In particular, skimming the responses by the readers of that blog is illuminating.  See also the McMaster University Academic Librarians' Association blog.

Luckily, there were some much more nuanced and thoughtful responses to Trzeciak's talk, not least of which was Michael Furlough's post on his "On Furlough" blog and Laika's MedLibLog entry on Trzeciak's talk.  However, on the whole, the tenor of much of the public response to Trzeciak's talk was angry, hostile, and full of intense loathing of the ideas and actions that Trzeciak has espoused.

Yet, watching Trzeciak's presentation, I was struck not by how revolutionary his stance is as much as how much he is putting into practice exactly what dozens of reports from ARL, OCLC Research, and other think tanks have been predicting for more than 10 years.  A closer hearing/reading of his talk shows a very thoughtful approach to grappling with the realities of 21st Century librarianship.

So what did he actually say that set off a firestorm?  Let's look at the most "damning" slides to find out.  Number 56 is the one that seems to have elicited the harshest response.  In this section of the talk, he is focusing on what types of new hires McMaster is likely to make to move the library in the direction it needs to take to meet the challenges facing the library.

Let's break this down a bit. Trzeciak said that McMaster has "likely" reached its maximum number of librarians and that many of the new hires are "unlikely" to be (traditional) librarians.  He did not say that McMaster would no longer hire librarians, but simply that McMaster is not likely to increase the net number of librarian-status staff in the future.  Many other academic libraries reached this same stance years if not decades ago.  A number of top-tier academic libraries have reduced the number of professional librarian positions over the past two decades in favor of creating positions based on the need that must be met, not the status of the person in that position. 

At the last two universities that I have worked at - Stanford University and North Carolina State University, increasingly the job descriptions are written so the most qualified person for the job can be hired - with or without the MLS.  The same holds true for my current institution.  Sometimes the right person with the right skills has an MLS, MLIS, or MIS, sometimes not. 

Trzeciak then goes on to say that McMaster is "unlikely" to hire traditional paraprofessionals.  Having spent much of my academic librarian career at Stanford, where many if not most of the paraprofessionals have Masters or Ph.D. degrees and where para-professionals engage in much higher-level discussions, this stance appears perfectly appropriate to me.  As our user needs change, we need to change the types of positions we create to meet those needs.  A for-profit business cannot last long if it does not track the changing demands of its customers; the same holds true for a non-profit enterprise.  And don't fool yourselves: academic librarianship is a business.  It's just not a for-profit business.

After making these first two points, Trzeciak then goes on to say that new hires are "likely" to come out of the IT and audio-visual communities.  This is so blindingly obvious as an appropriate response to the dramatically different needs of this generation of scholars that it seems self-evident.  We must keep in mind what the core mission of libraries is: to provide value-added access to content.  As that content moved to a digital format and as the value proposition for users shifted to include assistance creating audio-visually rich presentations, academic products, etc., libraries needed to change to support that shift.  The fact that we are only now really talking about it and trying to accommodate this change in academic output has left many libraries playing a desperate game of "catch-up".  In light of that, Trzeciak's comments seem - once again - spot on.

He then goes on to say that new hires are "likely" to be PhDs.  Of all of his comments, this is the one that seems to have produced the most concentrated fire (and ire).  Yet again, my experience at Stanford University - where many of the non-librarian staff have upper-level degrees - has lead me to exactly the same conclusion.  I find myself constantly have to fight to increase the level of academic accomplishment required of successful applicants in the job descriptions I write precisely because I see the need for top-tier scholars to be engaged in selection, description, interpretation of the advanced scholarly content being acquired or sought.  Do I believe all new hires in the profession should be PhDs? No.  But do I understand the need to raise the bar and to attract people with unique intellectual skillsets not taught in the traditional MLS, MLIS, MIS programs, absolutely.

Trzeciak also posits that future hires are "likely" to have skillsets that we haven't even anticipated yet.  In this era where the pace of change is ever-increasing, this too seems to be nearly a self-evident statement.  As a technologically aggressive librarian who came of age when personal computers were everywhere, I am very confident in my technological skills.  Yet, in this age of "ubiquitous computing" (as predicted years ago by Mark Weiser), new technologies evolve and are adopted faster than I or many of my colleagues can keep up with.  As a professor once said to me, she loves working with graduate students because they keep her "on her toes academically" and force her to stay current.  Only by hiring staff with insights and skills in emerging technologies can we stay relevant.

Finally, Trzeciak states that some if not most of these new hires are "likely" to be shared with other units of the university.  In my own institution, we are toying with sharing library staff with PhDs with the academic departments most closely aligned with their academic background: this offers the possibility of expanding the use of our research collections while bringing these staff members' expertise to the classroom. And in the digital arena, there is increasing overlap and cross-fertilization between what we are doing in the library technologically and what the university IT division is doing.  We have already had situations where our staff worked on projects with central IT and vice versa.  In light of these real world examples, moving from collaborating on academic and technological projects to jointly sharing the responsibilities of funding these types of positions and sharing them in a more formal way is not a big leap at all.

All in all, I believe Trzeciak has demonstrated the will to take decisive action - action which appears perfectly appropriate and necessary - to position his university library so that it can be a key partner in the research success of McMaster University.  And because he has dared to speak up about the need to adapt and change to remain relevant and to continue meeting our core mission as librarians of providing value-added access to information resources, he has been pilloried.  While each academic institution is different and the particulars of those institutions will require different local implementations, I believe we all can learn a great deal by watching what is going on at McMaster and other forward-thinking institutions.

If leaders in the academic library profession do not dare to take risks, academic libraries - and the traditionalist librarians who defend the status quo - are doomed to obsolescence in the very short term. The "ostrich" syndrome is not going to keep academic libraries relevant and viable; ultimately, only risk-taking and out-of-the-box thinking will.

No comments: