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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