“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. 


  1. Honestly, I don’t think I disagree with you. But I would answer your question:

    “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?”

    I used an opposition of us and them because that’s what Trzeciak’s public presentation set us up to do when he said he won’t hire any more librarians, but likely only PhDs and IT staff. He did NOT say that he won’t hire people without the right skills, he specifically said no more librarians. That feels like an us-vs-them setup, and I reacted accordingly.

    But I agree with you. We SHOULD be hiring the best people for a job regardless of the degree. It’s the model I follow in my own library. I also believe that the MLS has value, so it’s one of the degrees we search for, and for which I will step up onto my professional soapbox. I simply wish Trzeciak and others who are condemning LIS education weren’t painting with such a broad brush — and condemning all librarians along with the grad programs — when they do so.

  2. While I think we can all appreciate your desire to give Jeff the benefit of the doubt, there are things you’re missing in your assessment.

    The librarians who you believe are attacking postdocs here are attacking postdocs because they believe Jeff is forcing librarians into early retirement in order to replace them with postdocs, which is not a proper use of postdocs in a library. Postdocs definitely have a role in libraries. Replacing librarians is not that role.

    But what you missed because you were completely taken in by Jeff’s facade of reasonableness is this: Jeff’s game here is revenge. Revenge on his librarians for daring to disagree with his policies, revenge on them for unionizing, revenge on them for protesting the earlier firings. He will not stop until they are gone. The postdoc hires (and consequent librarian diminishment) are just another round. Didn’t you think it was a little odd that he would announce a major reorganization to PSU before he even talked about them with his own staff? I personally know of librarians at McMaster to whom Jeff has not spoken to in years. He has written off his librarian staff as useless and is trying as much as possible to eliminate them.

    Whether or not you feel that they are useless is beside the point. The position of University Librarian, really any position of upper management, should not be engaged in actively destroying the lives of their employees. Full stop.

  3. Sayeed Choudhury

    Full disclosure: Mike and I are classmates from the Frye Leadership Institute class of 2003. We are also good friends.

    I am very pleased to note this response to Jeff Trzeciak’s talk and the subsequent comments. The points raised in Jeff’s talk are critical for our community to discuss in an open, collegial manner.

  4. I’m all for hiring the right people for the job, regardless of the letters that follow their name. What I want to stop is the ghetto-ization of libraries.

    Librarianship already struggles with an identity issue of “You’re a librarian? Oh. Were you an English major in college?” I do not want this image issue further exacerbated to become “You’re a librarian? Oh. Couldn’t land a faculty post with your PhD?”

    What we need are people that are passionate about what libraries actually do on a day-to-day basis. Not people that are just familiar with the materials (books for English majors, research skills for PhDs).

    You wrote: “But I bet that [post-docs] 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.”

    You know what else can do that? User testing. And it’s something more and more people coming out of library school have performed.

    Automatically thinking that PhDs are passionate about the library profession is as delusional and narrow minded as requiring an MLS for a library job.

  5. I understand having to cut a lot of info out due to a short talk, but that wasn’t mentioned. What folks had to react to was the info that was posted, not what was intended.

    As for “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.” – No, indeed, that’s not what I meant to say (nor is it what I said). I was noting that librarians replaced with PhDs doesn’t necessarily solve the issue of imparting research skills, since what PhDs master is not necessarily what we would refer to as information fluency or literacy.

    As for your comment that, “It’s hard for me to see any respect for anyone who ever attended graduate school in that comment” – I found that confusing, and that may mean I should go back and review what I wrote. I’m a multiple-grad-program veteran myself, and proud of myself, my classmates, and anyone who volunteers to continue with an education that, while personally fulfilling, is usually not financially rewarding. If there is any dissatisfaction in my tone, it’s on *behalf* of grad students everywhere who are often expected to have research skills they were never taught, and face increased expectations at the graduate level with little formal guidance on how to conduct research until they get to the dissertation stage, where it becomes extremely daunting. If hiring PhDs addresses this lack of service (which librarians have been guilty of for a very long time), then I approve wholeheartedly of the move.

    My comments were not intended as an attack on docs, post-docs, or non-MLS researchers. It was intended to highlight that replacing one degree (which may well be problematic – I’ve ranted against the lack of rigor of the MLS myself, in complete agreement with Trzeciak in other blog posts) with another doesn’t solve problems, it shifts them to different – likely unforseen – areas.

    In any case, I look forward to seeing how McMaster, Penn State, and everyone else handles the upcoming changes. I don’t know if you’ve seen Lane Wilkinson’s post on the issue yet, available here: http://senseandref.blogspot.com/2011/04/shut-up-jeff.html – despite the snarky title, he comes to a conclusion I agree with. “Again, if they can learn the ropes and they are as passionate about collecting, organizing, and providing access to information as I am, then they’ll be great librarians. Librarianship is about a mindset, not an initialism.”

  6. Many thanks for a different take and tone on Friday’s talk. As one of Jeff’s AULs, I read your bit about “if I were Jeff’s AUL” with interest. I came here because I agree with his broad vision–something you say here too–but not because I agree in all details. In some ways, I disagree strongly, but don’t assume that just because it’s my view that it’s not subject to review or challenge. That’s normal and represents a healthy productive friction. Were we all (as a leadership team) marching in happy lockstep, we’d likely be doing so on the path to irrelevance and/or oblivion.

    Thanks as well for rightly singling out Jenica Rogers for making a fairly absurd statement (“We are not PhDs. The PhDs are also not us.”). That’s a slap in the face to the thousands of librarians who hold PhDs and struggle with the negative attitudes of non-PhD librarians toward them and their “fancy” degrees. Anyone who fails to grasp that point would do well to read Gilman and Lindquist’s research on the topic in portal. She’s also failed to recognize that librarianship goes beyond the borders of the United States, and that in many nations (e.g.- Germany and most of Europe) librarians with PhDs are not only common, but singled out for leadership positions by virtue of a tiered profession. There is no monolithic “librarian” in those traditions (since there are librarians, as in multiple classes), hence more openness toward what defines the profession.

  7. @Michael: “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 tried to say the same thing over on my crappy blog, but I think you’ve said it a bit clearer. For the record, I think Trzeciak actually is a librarian, and a passionate one at that. But, he admits in his presentation to having no experience in reference, collections, instruction, or circulation, so he really needs to make a strong case for filling these positions with particular scholarly initialisms. I don’t think he does.

    @Colleen: Yes, he’s read my post. Hence the “Taiga Kool-Aid” reference.

    @Dale: You’re right that Jenica’s statement may be absurd. However, the Gilman and Lindquist articles are a rather poor counter. FWIW, the qualitative article came to mind as I wrote my post, but I wasn’t comfortable drawing inferences from a self-report study of “respondents’ perceptions of library co-workers’ views”. Hearsay doesn’t fly in my court.

  8. Pleased to hear the perspective from PSU (what took so long?). I didn’t doubt that there was another side and more information not disclosed in the recorded presentation. It is unfortunate when we create these firestorms based on a single statement or slide, without thinking critically about what was said, why it was said or how it fits into the bigger picture. That said, emotional responses can be worthwhile to read.

    What I would like to know is why PSU Libraries chose to make this recorded lecture public (what happened to the even more infamous Bell/Shank colloquium? 🙂 ). Was there an end game in mind? Perhaps to put it out there to see what the reaction would be and perhaps invite controversy? Perhaps not. Just wondering.

    I hope you’ll share your thoughts more often here.

  9. Thanks as well for rightly singling out Jenica Rogers for making a fairly absurd statement (“We are not PhDs. The PhDs are also not us.”). That’s a slap in the face to the thousands of librarians who hold PhDs and struggle with the negative attitudes of non-PhD librarians toward them and their “fancy” degrees.

    You’re inferring an awful lot from two short sentences. I never said, nor implied, that PhDs who are also librarians are not librarians, nor did I make any allusion to “fancy” degrees. I am focused on the notion of “Not likely to [hire] librarians”, which Trzeciak did not qualify in any way. He did not say “unless they have the skills I need’ or “Unless they carry secondary degrees” or, indeed, any other nuance. He simply said he was unlikely to hire librarians. I assumed, fairly, I believe, given that evidence, that a PhD with an MLS would also be off the table as a hire. Which would be equally unfair to that individual.

    There’s a lot of accusation flying toward me that’s not actually related to what I wrote, and I think the issues are becoming obscured as a result. Trzeciak, in his talk, indicated that he does not value the formal education of librarians. I assert that’s alarming for our profession. Full stop.

  10. What about the “suspicion and (worse) condescension with which” librarians are met with by PhDs and faculty? While I agree that we should respect the academic credentials of the post-docs, faculty and graduate students we work with and take care not to insult them, academic librarians get treated to a lot of this themselves. We are tenure-track faculty at my university (Western Michigan University) and yet my own dean once made a comment how he didn’t think we really were “like the other faculty.” Well maybe not, but we are researching professionals who do a great deal of work educating students (and faculty for that matter) on how to do research.

  11. Randy Reichardt

    @Michael: “I do agree that we’ll see more non-traditional librarians…” This is and has been happening for some years. It is no surprise, as librarian positions are being created with job titles that I and many of my colleagues have difficulty actually understanding!

    @Dale: I would not expect you to disagree with him publicly, since you are one of his AULs. It is difficult to gauge the level of credibility Jeff Trzeciak still has outside of his own administrative staff in the McMaster library system. Like many others, I am aware of his dismissals of Barb McDonald and Donna Millard in 2009, and was one of hundreds of Canadian librarians who publicly supported them on Facebook. Now I am reading on William Denton’s blog that he “is now getting rid of five more through “voluntary separations” (early retirements, I think). “Involuntary separations” (firings) might follow.”

    I cannot imagine the morale among your line staff at this point, but the evidence is that it is low when I read a statement from one of your librarians that opens with, “I may work at an institution with arguably the worst morale among librarians in Canada…”

    I do not know Mr Trzeciak, but cannot imagine working in such a toxic environment.

    While I wish all success for the forthcoming conference on the future of academic libraries, given what I have read about its content and lineup, the lack of women on the panels (despite the assertion that “The May 17 symposium at McMaster will bring together some of the leading thinkers in our profession”), it strikes me as one I would not wish to attend. Perhaps the word “some” needs to be highlighted here.

    Mr Trzeciak seems hell-bent on devaluing our profession rather than offering constructive ways it might be improved. Replacing us with non-MLIS PhDs and IT professionals just doesn’t cut it.


    It’s been a hectic work week and I’ve had no time to follow up on individual comments. But now that the weekend is here, I wanted to add a couple of things.

    Since I originally posted this, Lisa German and I have talked to many others who here at Penn State were excited by Jeff’s talk and his vision for change in libraries. (I think a few of them left the room impatient with me and others in the administration.) If there is anything positive out of this flareup, it’s that it has given many of us–including people new to the profession–a chance to articulate what we think is important and positive for ourselves, our students, faculty, and profession.

    I should have cited Lane Wilkinson’s reference to Taiga Kool-Aid, which Colleen links to above. I knew I had read that phrase somewhere, but I couldn’t find the link to his post when I needed to publish mine. He and I are on the same page, and Colleen, Jenica, and I also agree on many points in spite of my criticisms.

    As I originally pointed out, this touchstone for future angst is solidly grounded in a ugly public debate over what has happened at McMaster in the past few years. So far, in the spirit of being open and transparent about my involvement in this episode, I’ve approved and posted every comment that has been submitted in response to my post, even when it is more vicious than the ones I originally criticized.

    I won’t be posting comments like that anymore–my blog, my rules. I encourage others to comment upon and debate the issues raised by Trzeciak, me, or the others who have engaged on this thread. But if you want a forum to continue to beat up on Jeff Trzeciak personally, go elsewhere.

  13. Randy Reichardt

    @Michael: I don’t know if your comment about posts being “vicious” was directed at Nan, or me, or both, or others. Being in Canada, it is extremely difficult to separate the “ugly public debate” from subsequent musings by Mr Trzeciak. My initial comment was not intended to be vicious at all, but does reflect a view shared by many of my Canadian colleagues in my library system and elsewhere in the country.

    You mention evidence of professional anxiety in these exchanges. Fair enough, but personally I feel no such emotion. I think librarians need to be confident in their abilities and skills, and not fret that one university librarian may be devaluing what they bring to the table in 2011.

    If Mr Trzeciak’s goal is to stir things up and get us talking, more power to him. For many of us who work in the trenches, in large libraries that are understaffed and in which we run just to try to keep up, there is little time for such academic debate. I struggle to get my work done each day and try to avoid the piles of printed matter strewn about my office. My colleagues and I try to meet every few weeks to discuss professional issues; it’s all we can do to make that one hour available for such discourse at that level.

    Forgive me if you thought I was attacking Mr Trzeciak, but please understand that for many of us up here, it’s difficult to take him at face value without wondering what the hidden agenda might be in the background.

    If you feel this comment is inappropriate to post, I will understand.

    Thank you.


      Just to clarify, I was not calling Randy’s comment vicious. I do think it extends the JT Pro-and-Con debate and I don’t wish to continue it here. However, I do think Randy’s comment is important for pointing out that Americans and Canadian are sometimes looking at this discussion through different lenses. I was just reminded of that elsewhere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *