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The future of academic library leadership

October 7, 2011

Dinosaurs roaming the halls? (flickr - uBookworm)

I’m a librarian. I’m also fortunate enough to have a library leadership position as an AUL at McMaster University. Where I work is not irrelevant for any discussion of the future of academic library leadership, as anyone who follows libraryland news well knows.

For a number of years it’s been clear to me that we’re not going to be able to master the tasks that arise from the evolution of libraries if we continue to insist on having too many influential positions in the library saddled with the “ALA-accredited MLS or equivalent” requirement. That’s not a revolutionary thought at this stage, but even jobs where that requirement has been softened to allow those with other educational pedigrees to apply tend to include required or clearly preferred qualifications that only a librarian would possess, making them de facto open only to librarians.

Parallel to the discussion of whether to open our positions to non-librarians is a neverending discussion around the lack of qualified applicants for library leadership positions. There seems to be general agreement that libraries do a poor job of creating qualified and eager successors.

Put these two factors together, and what emerges from all of this is that we (MLS-holding library administrators who are open to hiring non-librarians into key roles) could essentially be closing the door behind us for those in our own profession. The logical next evolutionary step would be that library leaders are no longer former line librarians, and that we are essentially the dinosaurs roaming the halls. There are, of course, library leaders already who did not come from the ranks, but doesn’t it follow that in 15-20 years, library directors with an MLS will be a very rare breed? Does that matter? I seem to think it does, but that leaves me with a bit of a paradox: how to get today’s work done and help create the next generation of library leaders. It’s not a simple task.

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4 Comments
  1. October 11, 2011 13:04

    Here’s a question – since many academic libraries seem less interested in hiring those with advanced subject backgrounds nowadays, are you alluding to higher-up positions with a technical bent that also require an MLS? I ask because it seems the ire towards those without MLSs is aimed in large part at PhDs without MLSs. Thanks.

    • October 11, 2011 13:27

      To clarify your question, I suspect you mean when I allude to influential positions that get saddled with the MLS requirement, that I am speaking first and foremost of job with technical aspects? Yes, that is what I mean. Sadly, I think subject expertise has gone from undervalued to nonexistent in the space of a handful of years. That’s a bit overstated, but I think there’d be general agreement on that point in most circles.

      I agree that the ire directed toward non-MLSs with PhDs is unsettling. What seems to get lost in current discussions is that there have been librarians with PhDs but no MLS for decades in libraries, so what is happening currently is really nothing terribly new. What matters to me far more than the degree is that one commit to the culture and ethics of libraries.

  2. Huifang permalink
    February 26, 2012 17:14

    Oh, In fact, most sucject librarians of my library, of course, perhaps subject librarian is not influential positions are saddled with master or doctor’s degree, but whithout library background. me too.
    My opinion here is: if future library should embed more in user’s research lifecycle, those one who do experienced with research exactly know how to implement it. Is it right?

    • March 1, 2012 09:37

      It makes sense that to support high-level research, one needs staff who engage (or engaged) in the same sort of research. That said, it’s a false assumption that everyone engaged in research has the skills to find and use all of the information relevant to their research. I would posit, for example, that I am an expert researcher in my humanities field (had a year-long research grant in the 1990s for an agonizingly obscure project and can claim expertise in the area), so when I speak to others in the field, I can assess how well they can conduct their research. I know many in the field who are substantively far more knowledgeable than I because they work daily in the field, teach, publish, etc., but when it comes to research methodology, I have met very few whom I cannot assist by helping them with esoteric research needs and processes. So to claim that a new postdoc, by virtue of simply having attained the PhD, is de facto the expert for research support is a bit specious. It can be the case, but it’s not an a priori certainty.

      Beyond that, there’s the point that libraries–whether we like to accept it or not–still offer a lot of very basic and fundamental services as we always have: building physical collections, running service points, checking out materials (whether books or projectors), borrowing items from other libraries, etc. Those are areas where higher level expertise (i.e.- domain knowledge of an academic field) really doesn’t add much value.

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