This is NOT the future of librarianship

“McMaster’s Chief Librarian” is another example of a peer who is not of my tribe. Last month I called out his symposium on the future of libraries which seems to marginalize librarians, and which distinctly marginalizes women. I continue to advise that you not attend. Here’s why.

Jeff Trzeciak gave a talk at Penn State University Libraries today.  You can watch it here.

He asserts in his opening that academic libraries are in a window of opportunity right now, but that if we fail to act, we could be marginalized. I agree. I also think he’s part of the problem.

He’s had a $5 million increase in his operating budgets. What has he done with it? First, reduced staff by 1/3, largely through retirements. Part of the initial reorganizations were to move “librarians out of supervisory roles”, to “allow librarians to interact with faculty” instead of being involved in operational tasks. He removed librarians from all service desks, including the blended ones which are providing the services previously offered at traditional reference desks. Paraprofessionals now do all drop-in reference, with librarians helping only faculty and “graduate and upper-level” students.  He did some really interesting things in terms of shaking up staff in entrenched roles, re-inventing technical services, and rearranging and updating student space.  He has forged a new path for McMaster’s libraries, and some of it is very intriguing.

And then there was this slide.

“We are unlikely in the future to be hiring librarians. We have likely hit our max.”


I see.

So, in addition to a Screw You, Undergrads approach to research assistance, he’s just not going to hire any more librarians. I would note that McMaster is, as he says, “one of the top 100 universities in the world” and “Canada’s top research University”, and by the time Trzeciak is done, they will have no more than 13 librarians in the University Library with 4 AULs, and 7 librarians in the Health Sciences Library (which doesn’t report to Trzeciak), to serve a rapidly growing student body — 28,000 student FTE. That’s 13 non-management librarians out of his cited figure of 120 staff.  (William Denton puts this abysmal number into context, here, and Denton’s analysis is based on numbers higher than what will be true after the early retirements recently announced take effect.)

Onward.  He says instruction numbers are declining, so instead they’re going to build online tutorials on the notion that they’ll be “more engaging” to students, and which can be marketed to other libraries.  I can’t help but wonder if that decline could have anything to do with the fact that there are too few librarians on staff to effectively do instruction to 25,000 students? And I take issue with the idea that screencasts are more engaging than a vibrant instructor who can do hands-on teaching about their area of expertise.

They also have a $2.5 million gift in the wings to establish a digital scholarship center. What a great opportunity, and so perfectly positioned at a university with strong special collections and a vibrant library.  But… any guesses how many librarians will be involved in that project? One. And not the project head. **

So. Yes. Libraries are in danger of being marginalized.  But leadership like this is what I see as the problem.  I think it’s a betrayal of our professional culture. It’s a disservice to students and faculty who deserve experts who’ve been educated and trained in information and research theory and practice.  It’s a devaluing of librarians who are committed to service, to information, and to learning. We are not PhDs. The PhDs are also not us.

But this isn’t just about clashing views of librarianship; I also think he’s a bad manager, a bad leader, and a terrible role model.  Harsh words for someone I’ve never met, but here’s why:  He announced in this talk some sweeping staff changes — retiring librarians being replaced by PhDs — and he announced them publicly before telling his staff.  Add to that the fact that 5 librarians are taking early retirement, and that (given recent history and his expressed perspectives on the value of librarians) others may be laid off, and the observer can paint a picture of a library administrator who doesn’t care about staff morale, and a library leader making changes actively hostile to librarians.  Full disclosure:  I’ve met many of his remaining librarians, enjoyed their company at conferences, corresponded with a few, and built professional relationships with several.  They are all smart, dedicated, and very, very frustrated right now.

I’m an administrator, yes, but I’m a librarian first. No “visionary” who is rewriting the story of libraries by removing librarians from the narrative is going to be one of my role models.  And no “visionary” who has alienated so many fits into my tribe of leaders for our profession.  I am a librarian, and I ascribe to the values of my profession, and I am proud of what we do.  No one can take that away from me. Or you. Don’t let him. Fight back. Go out and define librarianship by being active, advocating for what we believe in — what we have always believed in — and by having confidence that libraries are important. Librarians are important. The things we believe in are important.

Don’t let people like Jeff Trzeciak make you invisible.

[On this post, in particular, I would like to emphasize that my opinions are my own and do not represent the perspectives of my libraries or my employer.]

** Corrected information from Dale Askey, AUL at McMaster, from the comments below: “The digital scholarship centre will not have only one librarian when launched, but rather three, including myself. That gets to the other point. While there is a faculty member involved in the direction, there are two directors, one academic and one administrative, the latter role being mine. As I noted at the outset of this comment, I am a librarian first and foremost, so one can make of that what one will.”


  1. He also boasts of a 50% reduction in reference questions. And this is a good thing how? I’m guessing that this is because they removed the reference desks. So, where have those questions gone? Has there been a corresponding uptick in research consultations?


  2. I find this fascinating for many reasons. PhDs- Do you know that one of the favorite complaints about PhDs is that they’re never really taught how to teach, merely thrown into lower level classes and expected to survive?

    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 leabing 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.

    In terms of research service, I find it hard to believe that they are better equipped than librarians who not only have the information theory & practice training, but many of whom also possess graduate degrees in another discipline, whcih makes them doubly useful – as research and as subject experts. This boggles my mind. I am boggled.

    In any case, he may be planning to not-hire librarians because none are interested in working with him, given how poorly he thinks of us. The PhD market may be even more oversaturated than the MLS market, though, and maybe he’s banking on them demanding even lower salaries than what librarians make.


  3. @Jonathan – and a follow-up question – or does that mean people are just making do with “best i could get” instead of “good” because they cant get high level research help?


  4. I attended an ACRL something or other online conference about four years ago and Trzeciak was the main presenter. The conference was focusing on the future of academic libraries, but Trzeciak seemed much more focused on talking about the hours he spent each day playing WOW and Second Life (remember that?). His contention seemed to be at that the end times were near for anything resembling a physical space where people would get together to learn and share ideas. I found it quite a terrifying idea at the time, and I was shocked that he seemed so intent and excited about the end of the library. I guess I was correct in my conclusion at that time that he was more eager to break apart the library rather than build it up.


  5. What he’s doing is exactly contrary to so many of the things the best libraries are doing. Research instruction is the key to library importance and relevance in this age of online resources, and by hacking away at his corelibrarian staff, he’s completely eliminating that functionality.

    Pretty mind-boggling.


  6. in reading other reactions to this issue around the web, I find it really fascinating that there have been several questions asked about, essentially, “what’s wrong with the McMaster librarians that they need to be fired and not replaced?” Given how often I see Bad Manager backlash — and the strong affirmative “OMG y’all suck” response to my post on the Ithaka results, I find that fascinating. We truly are a community of practice that represents a broad spectrum of belief, from pro-librarian to pro-management and back again. But you know what I think in this case? I think blaming the librarians at McMaster for their Director’s professional belief system is blaming the victim. Don’t do that. It kind of sucks.


  7. Wow. I find this so incredibly disheartening. In a time when most librarians are arguing for their relevance, here’s someone who’s standing there as a representative of the profession saying “Nope, librarians unnecessary.” Nice.


  8. And I suppose we’re to imagine that IT staff and postdocs will have the same commitment to libraries that librarians have? That they’ll be there for the long haul, not just as a stopover on their way to other IT and academic jobs? Sure hope that these postdocs and IT folk are equipped to defend our most important cultural institutions. While we’re at it why don’t we hand over the museums, galleries, presses, and theatres? Is there anything that programmers and junior academics couldn’t do if they were just given the chance?

    I’m reminded of “First they came…”. Well, who’s going to speak up for Jeff Treziak when they finally come for the arrogant, Machiavellian administrators? Don’t bother looking at the postdocs, they’re all in their labs trying to publish results that will allow them to get jobs in their “real” disciplines.


  9. One of the fascinating (as in, watching a train wreck fascinating) aspects of this is that the same thing is happening in public libraries as well. There are directors on that side of the library house who are telling boards and city and county councils the same message, that we don’t need librarians to run or staff libraries, that it’s all IT and accounting.

    Who teaches children to love reading if not librarians? Who helps people with government forms and bureaucracy if not librarians? (Local, state and federal government have outsourced (unfunded) all of that to local public libraries) Who helps school kids with homework when media centers in schools are cut, or even when they are just plain closed for the evening? Users are pouring into public libraries in ever increasing numbers, using every service available. They need us to be there to help them.

    We are all librarians, and this is happening to all of us. I’ve written more about this at


  10. You know, there are alot of librarians I know and love who work at MacMaster and I think Trzeciak is broadly right about the future of libraries here.

    It is not his fault that he does not want to hire librarians. The fault lies with library schools that have not prepared librarians for the future of information access.

    In all areas of librarianship, we will need people who know how to create high quality digital content, design usable interfaces, code, manage people, and design community-led initiatives. I know individual librarians who can do these things, but the reality is that the library degree is not a reliable source for these skills. Trzeciak’s leadership or personality aside, people need to be paying attention to this move. It’s going to matter less whether one is or is not a librarian, and it’s going to matter more what skills we can offer our employers.


  11. I disagree with Trzeciak’s vision for what the library should be, but think about it a little. Given his vision of the future of the library, it makes sense to allocate his hiring the way he’s doing. As Ryan mentions, library schools are not the best at preparing students to do what he wants to do.

    It’s the vision that’s wrong, not the implementation. The reduced need for “professional librarians” is a symptom of the flawed vision, not the problem with the vision

    And be careful with the tribal rhetoric, some of us who support different visions for libraries are not librarians.


  12. I’m a new AUL at McMaster, having arrived two months ago. Cue the eyerolling from most readers, I’m sure, but allow me to say that I’m both a librarian and an administrator. It’s not an either/or thing with me, as you said in your post as well. I also think for myself.

    I did want to correct a factual error in your post (an honest mistake; based on the talk I can see how one could draw this conclusion), since accurate information allows people to focus on the right issues and not get themselves upset where it’s unnecessary. Specifically, the digital scholarship centre will not have only one librarian when launched, but rather three, including myself. That gets to the other point. While there is a faculty member involved in the direction, there are two directors, one academic and one administrative, the latter role being mine. As I noted at the outset of this comment, I am a librarian first and foremost, so one can make of that what one will.


  13. I agree with Ryan and Eric. I don’t know anything about the specific situation at McMaster, and Trzeciak may be headed in the wrong direction (PhDs?), but come on – we’ve all been to library school, and surely we can all agree, as Ryan says, that “the library degree is not a reliable source” for the skills needed in a 21st-century library.

    The MLS degree (or whatever you call it these days) has become a pointless screening tool that narrows the pool of potential library staff to those who are willing to sit through two years of coursework on outdated methods and topics. Library schools have failed to keep up, and seem unlikely to make meaningful changes unless libraries stop hiring their graduates.


  14. I don’t disagree that the MLS curriculum isn’t keeping up with our needs as a profession – but I don’t think that means that we should stop hiring librarians. There are a lot of people in our librarian ranks, both fresh out of grad school and seasoned professionals, who DO have the skills we need.

    Eating our young by refusing to hire them seems like a counterproductive way to advance our professional goals. There must be a better way.


  15. What do you mean precisely when you write:

    “We are not PhDs. The PhDs are also not us.”

    What about the thousands of PhD holders currently working in libraries around the world? There has always been friction on this point; it’s not a new topic, so while what Jeff is doing may seem new, it’s really not in many ways.

    I can recommend Todd Gilman and Thea Lindquist’s research on PhD-holding librarians that they published in portal. In the context of their research, a statement such as the one you made here can only be seen as counterproductive and misguided.


  16. I mean precisely what I said: PhDs from disciplines outside librarianship are not, by definition, librarians, just as librarians are not disciplinary PhDs. I believe that there’s a culture to libraries and our profession that’s valuable, and the MLS is one of the tools we use to get there. I did not say, and have not said, that a PhD-holding library employee can’t be part of that culture, but to simply assume that they will be, can be, and want to be is shortsighted. You CAN assume those things about MLS graduates.

    I don’t think there’s anything counterproductive or misguided about those statements.

    And, thank you for your factual corrections in your earlier comment — we do need to focus on true things so that we can find a path through the debate that’s productive instead of hysterical. I will update the post.

    Dale, you clearly have something to say on this, and I see that you have your own blog. I’d love to see you use it — we need more voices in this discussion, from all perspectives.


  17. I think Jeff covers himself when he writes that the new hires are “unlikely to be librarians.” He’s not saying he won’t hire librarians, just that they are unlikely to, likely because he does not believe that librarians are going to have the kinds of skills he needs to bring his vision forward.

    I think I’m offering a defense of Jeff because of some of the things that happened during the “professionalism” discussion. Lots of ad hominem; lots of accusations, particularly of sexism; lots of “you can’t SAY that”; lots of sacred cows and appeals to emotion. Among those who complained, there was very little in terms of alternative views or vision.

    I would like to hear more about how Jeff’s plan will improve service to students – because in the end, I support librarianship up to the point that it continues to bring value to the communities it serves. If I ever see conclusive evidence in the reverse (I don’t right now), I will be right behind Jeff-ish sort of decisions. I do not think it’s sexist or marginalizing to think so. There are plenty of male-oriented professions (blacksmithing, cobbling, coopering, wood shipbuilding and so on) that have been marginalized in history. I would argue that this happened because of changes in technology and labor needs, not merely because managers had some kind of hate on for them (although that’s exactly how many of them felt about it).


  18. There are librarians I think should not be hired, and often they come from graduate programs where all of their coursework was online. They have minimal practical experience and sit through classes while watching TV, catching up on email, or surfing Facebook. If you want to defend our professional, lobby for changes in library/information graduate programs. Some of them are great, some of them are a joke. ALA-accreditation falls short. Why hire librarians if employers have to train them all over again? What skills do libraries need? Furthermore, what skills do librarians need to fulfill an institution’s mission?


  19. While I disagree with Jeff on many points, I want to address another theme in these comments. Everyone keeps writing that Library Schools do not prepare their students for 21 century librarianship. Where are you all going to school?? This was not my understanding at all! Have you recently checked into current Library School programs? I went to Simmons and we learned advanced coding, mastered digital content, created usable interfaces (I created a search engine from scratch, and it was very good!), went through my management courses, and worked with many communities in and out of the Boston area. One of my professors worked at MIT and taught us to disassembled and reassembled a computer. I’m pretty sure I can tackle just about any software and hardware under the sun at this point. We learned classification standards from the professors who wrote the books on classification. While at Simmons I got a year long internship at Harvard and a competitive internship at Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

    I don’t know what schools YOU were talking about, but do be more specific next time, folks. Not ALL Library Schools are falling behind.


  20. Andrew just presented the point I was hoping someone would present. LIS students (the good ones) are taking initiative to focus their interests and therefore their studies in innovative areas. You can read about a lot of what’s being talked about in LibrarySchool at the Hack Library School blog – – and I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised that even if the curriculum is changing slowly, many students are aware and grabbing hold of other opportunities to become the future’s librarians through self-starters, internships, independent studies, research, etc.


  21. As Andrew and Heidi have pointed out- there is so much here that should be addressed throughout the MLIS program. If there are programs that are not fitting the evolving needs of the profession, what does that say about ALA and its accreditation of these programs? Is that a process that should be looked at more closely? As someone that is about to graduate with my MLIS, from the same fine institution as Andrew, I find it truly disheartening to see not only the profession being attacked from within but to see the degree being attacked with little discussion of what can be done to change it all. I am so thankful for the many discussions out there, like Hack Library School, that are developing in regards to the degree and what about it may need to evolve.


  22. John, not to totally derail, but the room for improvement in MLIS programs is not at all limited to online programs, not all online programs are in the “watch a lecture remotely” format, and one can come out of either type – online or in-person – with absolutely no practical experience. I did my MLIS via a distance program *while working full time in a library,* did a practicum for credit at another library, and you’d be lucky to have me (IMNSHO). And I know plenty of other distance students I’d hire any day. If we’re going to kick down erroneous assumptions about librarians, let’s not set up new ones about other aspects of our education and profession in the process.


  23. I’d like to follow-up on Jonathan’s questions about where the reference questions have gone, with one small example from my own department (Maps, Data and GIS). McMaster’s Map Collection has provided map skills instruction to the large first year social and economic Geography classes for years, in the form of an in-library tutorial and an assignment which was too lengthy to be completed during the two hour lab sessions. So students had to return to finish their assignments independently. Questions asked during the tutorial were not counted as part of our “reference stats”, but questions asked by students returning to finish their assignments were counted. In the fall of 2009, we introduced a new assignment which can be accomplished completely and handed in during the two hour lab session. In the past four terms (Sept. 2009-Apr. 2011), we have delivered this new format instruction in 130 sessions to 3,928 students. The only questions that now appear in our “reference stats” following these assignments are those wonderfully welcome questions from students who were intrigued enough to follow-up on something they learned. The new active, hands-on learning format is an enormous success. We have developed deep and trusting collaborations with our faculty teaching partners and their instructional assistants, who are delighted with the improved assignments. We are delivering strongly focused skills, fully relevant to the overall departmental curriculum and sequencing directly into the capstone assignments in these two courses. We have used our time wisely, on the development of innovative learning exercises rather than on repetitive questions. Okay, the music we are using to pace the exercise is pretty cheesey. But the students are highly engaged, collaborating as they participate and having fun. This exercise is a model for successful library-faculty collaboration. But… our “reference stats” have declined by 60 percent in the same time period. I am enormously proud of the accomplishment of my hard-working employees, which cannot be measured by an easy statistic. This is of course not an explanation for all declining reference numbers in all academic libraries and even in my own department there have been many other factors in play during this same time period. But it is a cautionary tale that numbers out of context can be misleading.


  24. Thank you, Heidi and Nicole for the backup. It’s wonderful to approach this from an evolved perspective–librarianship as a whole is not falling behind. We need to squash the limiting, historical image of a librarian planted firmly at a reference desk. Though that is an essential task, it is not all that we do! I’ll gladly join any groups that are discussing this further.

    Apologies to all for the horrendous spelling and grammar on my earlier post. I was writing that comment furiously on my way out the door.


  25. I think we need to reach a middle ground here. Many libraries have a mix of PhDs and MLIS folks (some staff holding both degrees) in numerous roles (most often as subject specialists due to their deep knowledge of a specific discipline area). PhDs offer interesting perspectives into patron needs, since they have been involved in scholarship for quite a long period; they should not be dismissed out of hand.

    This statement: “I did not say, and have not said, that a PhD-holding library employee can’t be part of that culture, but to simply assume that they will be, can be, and want to be is shortsighted.” Certainly true–nothing inherently wrong with this statement–but this statement also presupposes that PhDs can not inform the library and its future from within. Not all PhDs will want to engage with the library–those who do will self-select for the library profession. The most important role of any graduate education (in my mind) is the ability to continually learn, adapt and be flexible; a good PhD program accomplishes this.

    As a PhD without an MLIS, who has worked in a library for over six years, I would argue that I have become rather proficient in library management, organization, etc. Many of my MLIS colleagues argue that the real learning they accomplished was in the field, not in school.

    This is a bit of rambling . . .so it’s a bit of stream of consciousness 🙂

    All this comes down is to the continual existential pessimism that belies the librarian community . . .
    we need to stop being so reactionary and “offended” and take steps to better the profession. In particular, we need to look beyond the profession and its status, and focus upon and anticipate what users need and desire from their libraries/research providers.


  26. This statement: “I did not say, and have not said, that a PhD-holding library employee can’t be part of that culture, but to simply assume that they will be, can be, and want to be is shortsighted.” Certainly true–nothing inherently wrong with this statement–but this statement also presupposes that PhDs can not inform the library and its future from within.

    Chris, it presupposes no such thing. I meant, and wrote, that to assume that any group of people NOT self-selected for training and education about libraries and our professional work (like MLS students) will be, can be, or want to be involved in the culture of libraries is short-sighted. Is it possible that many of them will be, can be, or want to be involved in the culture of libraries? Of course. Once an interested soul is in a library, will they, can they, or will they want to be involved in informing the future of the library? Of course that’s possible, even probable. But to ASSUME that about a whole group is foolhardy without external indicators like “chose to earn an MLS” to guide our assumptions.


  27. Hey, Dale, being able to sign your name, “Dale Askey, Ph.D.” sure would help keep you in the ranks at McMaster. Just food for thought.


  28. He doesn’t seem to grasp that librarianship is about a system of professional values, more than just subject expertise or mastery of ICTs. I’ve worked for people like Mr. Unpronounceable who believe that a part-time Starbucks barista with a Phd in Literature is superior to an MLS with years of experience. His experiment will fall prey to simple economics: Nobody is going to stick with a job that pays an annual salary that is *significantly less* than their total amount of student loan debt. Just because Phds are expendable doesn’t make them indispensible to academic libraries. For those of you who may want assurance of my position, please see this recent article from The Economist: Here’s a thought: Maybe Mr. Treez-whatever is exploiting the Phd job market. Hmmm…I wonder what the starting salaries of his Phd-bearing minions will be…(less than the IT specialists, I assure you!)


  29. […] to fill future librarian positions. Some librarian bloggers are cool-headed about the whole thing. Others hone the debate to a sharp point, which they then jab at the instigator’s […]


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