The library science doctorate and the professional librarian

(A tender caveat: these opinions are only partly uninformed.)

I subscribe to a listserv for library managers, directors, and administrators, aptly called  LibAdmin.  I’m hardly a library manager, director or administrator, but I plan on being one soon, and the mailing list has afforded me the chance to be the fly on the wall and listen in conversations I’ll may get to take part in in the future.

I’ve noticed that every couple of months some one asks the LibAdmin crowd if it’s advisable to take a PhD in library and information science in order to advance their career in academic librarianship.  The question is premised on the fact that university librarians are on the whole considered deans, and deans have PhDs; therefore it’s reasonable that (1) the peer group demands new members to be as qualified as they are, and (2), there will surely be candidates for any university librarian position who already have the PhD, so enrolling in one well ahead-of-time is just a wise career move for a potential applicant to make.

The discussion that ensues after this question is asked is interesting at the beginning, but not substantive in its follow-through.  Although this is partly to do with the nature of e-mail listservs, it is most mostly owing to the diverse nature of the academic librarianship.  Most respondents to the question answer by saying they have X, Y, or Z degree over and above the MLIS and that this degree either helped them or did not in their career.  Developing anything close to a consensus in this argument is a bit of a fool’s game, not because the question or its answers are foolish, but because everyone’s got a story to tell and so many times these stories are struck from personal experience.

But is there anything that can be distilled from discussions about whether or a doctorate in LIS is necessary to secure a position as a university librarian in North America?  It might be fair to say that many institutions expect their applications to have a PhD in hand even if the time spent attaining it might have been better served in the field or by doing graduate work in public or educational administration.  It might also be fair to say that in spite of all the arguments which suggest that getting a PhD makes good business sense, many recent University Librarians do not have the degree and cannot be called “doctor” and yet maintain their budgets, explore avenues for institutional growth, and have the respect of their dean-level peer group.  In the end, the situations are always going to be particular to the applicant and to the institution itself.

As for me (this is where the “partly uninformed” part comes in), if I had to come down with an opinion in this argument, I’d argue that it might be more important for an academic library director to be an expert in organizational management than to have spent 5-7 years researching X topic in LIS.  The day-to-day affairs of a university librarian deal more with planning, projecting, and organizing than it does with breaking new ground in his or her particular field of research, be that field indigenous peoples and intellectual property or the digital divide as it exists in North America.  That’s not to say that I have no care for the PhD in LIS.  On the contrary, I constantly wrestle with the idea of conducting further research in the field (particularly in digital technologies and (inter-)national copyright reform or in civil rights, ethics, and LIS), but before doing so I’d like to first spend some time considering the organizational structure of libraries, archives, and museums.  I think if I were to enroll in an MPA or an MBA, I might have a better opportunity to engage in critical and interdisciplinary work in library management, which might do me and my own little part in the profession a little bit of good.

What are you thoughts on the subject?  How does the PhD in Library and Information Science fit within the profession of (academic) librarianship?

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10 thoughts on “The library science doctorate and the professional librarian”

  1. I'll tell you something, the cumulative completion rates–by year TEN–for doctoral students hover around 50%. Seriously. Do not go into the PhD blindly. A friend of mine (and fellow English PhD) said last night that even a horrible job is better than being a PhD student because with a job you get paid to have people berate you, be constantly stressed and feel like you've accomplished nothing. With a PhD you pay someone else for the privilege.

    1. To Nancy Drew:

      THIS IS 18 MONTHS TOO LATE, BUT….
      Fortunately, many LIS doctoral students normally do not spend anywhere near the 7-9 years its takes on aveage for humanities doctoral students to complete their degrees. Many LIS doctoral students do manage to complete the journey in 4-5 years.

      And if you are smart and lucky, someone else pays for your degree. You may have to work as a research assistant or teach a few classes, but you certainly do not have to pay for the privilege of feeling “like you’ve accomplished nothing”.

  2. Excellent post! Thanks so much for putting this question out to the community. This is one that I've been playing with for the last few years and despite asking many peers and a few mentors, still can't seem to come to a solid stand on. Especially when I consider cost, literally and figuratively. You've inspired a post out of me, I think.

  3. I am starting a PhD in Library and Information Science next month. I am going to focus my research on academic library issues and believe the PhD (along with my continued growth as an academic librarian) will open doors for me both in becoming a professor or in becoming a director/dean of libraries. However, I am doing it more for my own personal reasons which will be important as the stress and hardships of getting the degree will be with me for at least a few years.

  4. Michael, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the comment that knowledge of organizational management is more relevant for a library director than extensive research experience. I don’t think there’s a particular connection between doctoral degrees and library directorship. Although the two sometimes co-occur, it’s definitely not a causal relationship!

    Like Sarah, I’m not sure where I stand on the question of the role of the PhD in LIS. I think that PhD research should certainly inform the practice of librarianship, but the separation between researchers and practitioners that is so often observed is problematic for LIS education.

  5. Perhaps if there's something that can be taken away from all these comments, it can be that a PhD should be completed for the love of research as much (if not more than) for financial gain or job security.

    Are the sacrifices required to take on a PhD worth the rewards to follow? That's a value judgment, and therefore the answer is highly personal. Although I may question the value of doing a PhD in LIS, in my heart I'll likely applaud some one like Marc who seems willing to reach for the brass ring for his right, personal, reasons. This is especially so since he's looking beyond Library Admin and into the professorate.

    Thanks for your comments, all.

  6. Thanks for the nice post Michael. I'm currently in a PhD program while working full-time and raising a young family. Yes one could say that I'm certifiably nuts. I constantly toss and turn on this question over and over in my mind and I've come to realize that I'm going through this process for myself. that is, I'm under no illusions that my research interests will have to do with anything but my own quirky interests. If perhaps in some strange way the PhD advances my professional development then so be it, if not, well what better way to take advantage of working at a university.

    I do think within every academic librarian there should be some love of research or a passion for knowing something. In a small way that is one reason why we are in the academic setting as apposed to corporate or public libraries. And as or this notion that research should inform practice I have to say that this has been a long standing debate. For me our field is best described as a techne not a science and not an art. Rather we are holders of a craft that predates 5th century Greece. In other words, practice informs research as much as research informs practice.

  7. I think one important point has been missed: doing a PhD requires a more intensive use of research collections than almost any other endeavor. It is difficult to see how a university librarian with that kind of research experience would not be in better position to make informed decisions about library management, collections, and services as they impact student and faculty research than a professional colleague who had not undertaken that kind of work in the trenches of academe.

  8. I think one important point has been missed: doing a PhD requires a more intensive use of research collections than almost any other endeavor. It is difficult to see how a university librarian with that kind of research experience would not be in better position to make informed decisions about library management, collections, and services as they impact student and faculty research than a professional colleague who had not undertaken that kind of work in the trenches of academe.

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