Apr 11

“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Reactions to Jeff Trzeciak

This post is really two posts combined into one.  In the first part I give background on a recent controversial talk here at Penn State, and in the second I’m reflecting on responses to that talk. 
The Provocative Talk: That’s What He Said
On Friday, McMaster’s Chief Librarian Jeff Trzeciak paid a visit to Penn State Libraries and gave a talk called “Transforming Traditional Organizations” which you can view online.  He spoke as part of our colloquia series–usually a local affair only.  But we webcast all such talks so that we can include our librarians at all 24 Penn State Campuses, and our colloquia series is open to anyone, though we don’t always promote them heavily outside the library.  
Jeff debuted at #1 with a bullet on this week’s chart.  We asked him to be provocative–not because we wanted to simply shock people and scare them, but because we knew that he was capable of raising issues about libraries and librarianship that we need opportunities to discuss.  And for us at Penn State, this is a good time to talk about such things. We have a new Dean who began last August, and we have a significant retirement at the Associate Dean level, which has resulted in a significant reorganization.  We hope soon to begin work to build a new Knowledge Commons service that will inevitably  change our public services at our University Park campus (and beyond) in ways we don’t yet know.  And then there is that governor of ours threatening to cut the state’s higher education budget in half.  
You might say: aren’t you provoked enough?  No…because we still have to live through all of this change and it’s useful to think about ourselves from the perspective of different people and places in library land.   That’s why we invited Jeff here.  And he did exactly what we wanted him to do.  
Jeff touched a nerve locally and among others in the US and Canada.  On Friday and over the weekend, he got a lot of negative attention from various bloggers, including some of his own librarians (and some of ours). Two things in particular have set people off: 1) he said that he was unlikely to hire anymore librarians at McMaster University Library and would instead look to hire people with a PhD, speaking highly of the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellows in the Humanities program 2) he said that McMaster was revamping its reference and instructional services and moving away from face-to-face services.   
“Be provocative!” we told Jeff at dinner. Now it looks like we set him up for a public flogging.
He is very capable of explaining himself and I don’t think  it is at-all inappropriate for him to push the boundaries in his work or discuss his ideas in a public–and academic–forum.  Unfortunately, Jeff didn’t have a lot of time to explain himself on Friday.  He gave a lengthy but engaging presentation and we didn’t have time for many questions.  But earlier in the day he met with a group of librarians that include heads of our various subject libraries and members of our content stewardship team, and with our colloquia committee.   The discussion was great, and I’m sorry we couldn’t also webcast that.  
In those conversations it was much clearer that when he says he likely won’t hire more librarians he’s indicting contemporary LIS education and questioning whether the curriculum is really focusing on the skills that we need today in libraries.   He may have different ideas about public services, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about librarians or students. It was also clear that while he’s talking about moving away from traditional modes of instruction, he’s also looking for ways to give all members of his staff greater opportunities to do intellectually challenging work.  So librarians are training staff to do reference and they are looking at how to work more directly with faculty out in the field.  (Raise your hand if have seen this at other research libraries, too.) I know that to some readers that looks like replacing librarians with untrained non-professionals, but I don’t see it that way and I’ll have more to say about that issue later.  At the table at Penn State some librarians dissented–one saying that the lack of face-to-face contact would “break her heart.” On the other hand, most of the recent grads and more experienced librarians agreed about the disconnect between LIS training and professional practice.   
Jeff was careful to give the warning that “your mileage may vary.”  A lot of what he outlined wouldn’t work at a library at a smaller college, and a lot of it wouldn’t work at Penn State, which is about four times larger than McMaster.  I do know that Jeff’s talk and outlook  is distressing for some of us in the Penn State Libraries…about that I am not surprised, but I am concerned.  But the way forward here is local talk and discussion about what is the right path for us.  We’ve got a great place, fantastic and stimulating colleagues, and some fascinating challenges ahead of us.
The Reaction:  Who am I? You’re nobody. 

Now, allow me to be less optimistic. 
This exchange hasn’t come out of nowhere.  For the record, I know that this reaction to Jeff’s talk has been informed by previous controversies about his management style and specific staffing decisions at McMaster.  Jeff freely admitted that not everyone at McMaster has been thrilled with the program, but we didn’t go into particulars of that and I’m not going to presume to know the climate there.
Before I go any further, I should give full disclosure here: I’m an assistant dean in the libraries at Penn State.   Also, by the way, I don’t have an MLS (nor a PhD), but I do consider myself a librarian via 14 years of experience.  My comments here are inevitably grounded in my  work in academic libraries.  Based on what I have read online this past weekend, some of you have stopped reading already. 
I’ve been really surprised by the tone of some of the public reactions to Jeff’s talk.  Some of it is thoughtful, but some of it is really ugly about Jeff and about a large class of people who are “not librarians.”  I am surprised that many of the critics (so far) of his comments have not bothered to ask “Why in the world would he say that? What’s going on in our profession that would make a director say that?”  Instead they have not truly analyzed the situation and have pre-judged that he said it because he doesn’t value the librarians who work with him, because he’s a bad administrator, or because he’s drunk the “Taiga Kool-Aid.”
Here’s a sample by Karen Schneider at The Free Range Librarian:  “After listening to his speech at Penn State and the responses from people I respect, I have concluded that Jeff is posing a question, who is a librarian? My response is that I am a librarian, and he is not.”   Evidence?  Because the Free Range Librarian has done a number of really great things at her library (I mean that), and Jeff has said that they are re-thinking how they deliver instruction at his library. 
Over at Attempting Elegance, Jenica Rogers offers this:  “We are not PhDs. The PhDs are also not us.”  Who is this “us?”  Why is “us”defining ourselves in opposition to people who are not us?  
Over on Twitter, it gets more personal.  @MrDys (Sean Hannan) offers this: “PhDs are drawn to libs because Trzeciak will pay them to do non-library research when they can’t get a job elsewhere.”  
At Attempting Elegance, Colleen Harris, who has also reacted on her own blog, offers this in response to Jenica Roger’s post:
Did you know that most ABDs are that way because there are *no advanced research skills taught at the doctoral level*? And that successful PhDs have merely won at the game of attrition, but are not really leading with enhanced research skills? (See my forthcoming article in Library Review for cites) Essentially, these are folks who know how to game the research system to get what they need out of it without understanding the design of research systems (databases, catalogs, finding aids, etc). While that may be the failure of libraries to involve themselves in graduate education at anything but the collection development level, it is *NOT* a reason to hand over the keys to the store.
I respect PhDs. I do. I want a doctorate, and it is damned hard work to get one. But the work we do is not the same.
Wow. W-o-w. It’s hard for me to see any respect for anyone who ever attended graduate school in that comment.  I can’t believe that this is what Colleen meant to say:  “People without a PhD couldn’t get one because they aren’t librarians. And if you did get a PhD and aren’t a librarian, you didn’t really do it right.”  
Y’all, librarians really don’t know everything. I know we want to, but we don’t. These kinds of comments  are untrue, insulting, and not worthy of librarians. 
Colleagues have reminded me that debates about the future of our profession often challenge assumptions that some of us hold to be absolute.  And those assumptions ground strong professional identities that are personally lived and felt.  For some of you reading, it may be difficult to talk about professional change without seeming to call into question an entire value system. 
I’ve been fascinated by the professional anxiety evidenced in this exchange.  I’ve seen it in various forms at ALA and other conferences since 1998, and it was easy to recognize because it was the same anxiety felt by me and my colleagues in humanities graduate programs.  What, exactly, is it that we do?  What is the academy leading us towards?  Is my work valued by my advisors? By my colleagues?  By anyone?  Is the academic life merely the existential life?   Should we all smoke clove cigarettes and read Camus?
Several of the blogs commenting on Jeff’s talk have boosted and defended the librarians at McMaster who are so unfortunate to have such a boss.   I may have missed it, but I haven’t seen anyone bothering to support the postdocs working at McMaster and some of the comments I’ve cited above are explicit attacks upon them.  I don’t know those individuals, but I have worked with four former CLIR Postdoctoral Fellows.   All four are absolutely brilliant and their colleagues will tell you the same. Two went on to library school.  Three are still working in libraries–one for me here at Penn State–and one, who I went to grad school with, is working at a digital humanities research outpost.  Those are just the few that I know of that crowd. Not all of the CLIR postdocs have ended up in libraries and that’s OK, really.  These postdocs may not know all the ins and outs of what our collections and instruction librarians do, but really, that’s OK too.  It’s even okay if they can’t catalog according to our standards. But I bet that they can tell you something about how researchers use original sources, how libraries can better serve their users, and about research practices that go beyond database searching. 
My colleague Bethany Nowviskie, who with a PhD manages to run the Scholars Lab at the University of Virginia Library, pays close attention to the reception of academics who follow non-traditional paths, writing: “Class divisions among faculty and staff in the academy are profound, and the suspicion and (worse) condescension with which ‘failed academics’ are sometimes met can be disheartening.”  If this resonates, you may be a librarian! And you may also be interested in the project she is editing titled #alt-ac: Alternate Academic Careers for Humanities Scholars.  Suffice to say, the stuff I’m calling out here today, others have lived it already. 
I didn’t agree with everything Jeff Trecziak said here last Friday.  I do agree that we’ll see more non-traditional librarians  (I don’t say “feral librarians,” an insulting metaphor).  Personally, if I were coming library school I’d not want to apply to a library that required the MLS with no other equivalents accepted.  Why not?  Because such a job ad would be evidence of narrow thinking about that libraries’ role in the academy.  But If I were Jeff’s AUL, I’d be dissenting with his staffing assertion because I want us to hire the best people for the jobs we need regardless of what degree they hold.  
I’d like to conclude with a more positive note. I want to quote Karen Schneider in that same post I took issue with earlier.  Here, I’m on board: 
In the end, what matters, and what we are about, are the ancient truths of librarianship: organizing, managing, making available, preserving, and celebrating the word in all of its manifestations; helping our users build skill sets the fundamentals of which (if not the ephemeral details) will last a lifetime; and celebrating and defending the right to read, however that word is interpreted. This is what we do. This is who we are. This makes us librarians.
I think that this is great.  And it’s why I call myself a librarian.