Ph.D.s in libraries: Yet once more

Catching up on several weeks’ worth of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, I spotted Todd Gilman’s ominously titled “Subject Experts Need Not Apply,” which reports that librarians with subject Ph.D.s aren’t getting jobs at the rate one would expect. Writes Gilman:

Many recent job postings for humanities librarians, reference
librarians, or those specializing in research education do not list
subject expertise as a requirement. In place of subject expertise,
those job postings require relevant library experience (variously
defined) and, more often than not, technology skills, neither of which,
to my mind, makes up for a lack of advanced education in a particular

Having just come out of a job search, I’ve also noticed that there aren’t a whole lot of library jobs that specifically require graduate study in a subject field. I applied for a range of jobs, some of which didn’t require a Ph.D. or master’s in any field outside library science, some of which did. Lots of the postings I responded to were in the format Gilman describes.

I’m not sure I’m as worried about it as Gilman is, though. Maybe it’s the number of nibbles I got from places that were definitely interested in my subject knowledge (although there were several jobs I applied for that did call for a Ph.D., but all I got was a skinny envelope; I suppose I’ll never know why). My Ph.D. turned out to be an asset for the job I’ll be starting at the end of the month; even though the initial job description didn’t specify English literature expertise, it turned out to have a subject specialist component. I suspect, also, that people with both a Ph.D. and an MLS aren’t terribly thick on the ground, and that search committees don’t always put “advanced graduate study in X field” into job descriptions because they want to make sure they get more than a handful of candidates to choose from.

On the one hand, I do agree with my fellow CLIR fellow Daphnée Rentfrow (whose essay is quoted in Gilman’s article) that someone needs to bridge the librarian/faculty gap, and that people with expertise in both worlds are in an excellent position to do just that; it’s one of the things I most want to do. But part of me wants to qualify Gilman’s point. The Ph.D. put me in a splendid position to talk to faculty, understand their research processes, and anticipate what they might need from libraries. But it also encouraged me to zero in on a smaller and smaller area of specialization, and to think about other areas of specialization as outside the scope of my knowledge. (I still have all sorts of lacunae in my awareness of literature from periods and regions I didn’t specialize in. I can tell you a lot about early modern English poetry, but don’t quiz me in any great detail on the 19th-century novel.)

By contrast, the subject specialist librarian’s knowledge of a field is necessarily broad and wide-ranging. I’m not saying that the Ph.D. precludes any kind of generalist approach to a field, but it does tend to steer people away from thinking that way, and certain habits of thought can be hard to break.

In the end, I think it’s the Ph.D. in the humanities (and also the way we train academic librarians who plan to be subject specialists) that really needs to change. But that’s something I’ve already said many times before.

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