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Librarians leading libraries

September 13, 2010

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Consider this: if we librarians have a profession, then we are professionals. As such, if libraries are to be operated professionally, they need librarians and should be run by those most qualified, i.e.- librarians. Why then do so many elite institutions hire unqualified scholars to lead their libraries?

The latest example is Yale University, one of my former employers. Yale was a good employer when I was there, offering me a chance to work in an environment where resources are (or were) not quite so tight as they often are in the rest of the world. What I did not like there and never made my peace with was the arrogance found at such schools. Most of the stereotypes one hears about the Ivy League were at one time or another substantiated, albeit not by all members of the Yale community (least of all by my library colleagues, who were nearly without fail refreshingly un-Yale). Degrees from “lesser” schools are denigrated, work experience at other institutions viewed with disdain, and so forth. Nevermind that the school finds itself in the midst of some of the worst urban squalor found in the United States, which one would think would temper this arrogance, but only seems to enhance it since it forces the community into literally and figuratively tighter spaces where the healthy cross-pollination that often occurs between universities and their settings is all but impossible.

In this vein, the recent letter from Yale President Richard Levin announcing the elevation of Frank Turner to University Librarian can only be seen as yet another act of inbreeding trumping the need to have a professionally run library. Granted, Turner is an accomplished scholar, but if one wants to make the argument that that qualifies an individual to run one of the world’s largest library systems, I beg to differ. Read the letter here for yourself. Warning: have an anti-emetic on hand.

Seriously, “a complete Yale citizen” and “he cherishes the Library’s collections” as qualifications?!? As per usual, the Yale Dictionary of the English Language lacks entries for ‘hyperbole’ and ‘nepotism,’ otherwise Levin would not be so quick to write that the committee knew from the start that “a superior candidate for this position was in our own back yard.” Gack. So much for the best and brightest, or, in this case, the most capable of managing the complexities of a large library system.

I feel for my former colleagues there, who now have a “complete Yale citizen” running the show, mowing down positions (popular with administrators, hence Levin falling all over himself to praise Turner). Their sheer budget will help them maintain their place among the world’s elite libraries, but as libraries evolve to keep pace in the digital age, libraries such as Yale are going to find their dominance challenged, and those “cherished collections” will reveal themselves to be an unbearable millstone.

Bringing this topic back to librarians, if this does not strike librarians as a slap in the face, I am not sure we deserve to call ourselves a profession.

  1. September 13, 2010 21:32

    “Nevermind that the school finds itself in the midst of some of the worst urban squalor found in the United States”:

    How long ago did you work at Yale? New Haven has its share of poverty, to be sure, but it’s quite a lovely city these days, and is leagues away from some of the worst urban squalor. (A half-hour’s jaunt to Bridgeport is all that’s necessary for a comparative reality check, and I’m sure there’s much worse than that further afield.)

  2. Dale permalink*
    September 13, 2010 21:41

    Left in 2005, and often heard the refrain “things are so much better than they were,” which was somewhat unsettling. Putting down Bridgeport is easy. How can one say that many stretches of New Haven are any different? Sure, East Rock and Westville can be lovely, but as someone who lived in the city but in neither of those areas, I can personally attest to the poor conditions: needles on playgrounds, prostitution, drug dealing, etc. Saw it all on a regular basis with my own eyes.

    I agree that it has some lovely parts, and we dearly miss our neighbors there, but the numbers don’t lie: a large portion of people living in New Haven are living under the poverty line.

  3. September 14, 2010 10:34

    It is a slap in the face, but i’m hardly surprised. What a wasted opportunity by Yale.

    • Dale permalink*
      September 14, 2010 18:39

      Well put; it is a wasted opportunity. There are visionary librarians out there who could do mind-boggling things with the resources Yale puts at the disposal of its libraries, and now they have what is basically a steward, not a visionary.

  4. September 14, 2010 15:32

    Excellent post. I wonder if next Yale will appoint John Doe as full professor of history because he’s an avid watcher of The History Channel.

    • Dale permalink*
      September 14, 2010 18:40

      Thanks. I was trying to come up with a parallel, and I think the History Channel comparison just about does it. Dilletantism is always a bit painful to watch.

  5. Jenny Reiswig permalink
    September 14, 2010 20:11

    Berkeley appointed a faculty member as their University Librarian several years ago and I don’t get the sense from my UC colleagues that it’s been a failure although I confess I haven’t grilled them too hard. One of the things a professor does at that level is give the library that key scholarly credibility that is, for better or worse, not accorded to people who come up as librarians. Having someone at “their” level scholastically is useful right now as we move more into working with scholars and researchers on stewardship/curation/repository work. We need to be seen to be legitimate players. I know we have a legitimate scholarship of our own, but again, without the magic word “professor” it doesn’t hold much sway. I would posit it’s not a bad idea to cycle back and forth.

  6. September 14, 2010 21:39

    In response to Jenny. Has are profession not got a lot of people in the USA (i’m uk based) who are also professors/dr. ( who are good enough for the Job? Is there not some great librarians who understand how to utilised the opac for THERE USERS (John Blyberg, Jenny Levine & Karen Schneider to name a few). I feel its not only are profession that is losing, but also the user. Is that not the biggest loss here?

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