I have served as Yale University Library’s Librarian for Literature in English since August of 2001. In this capacity I build library collections for Sterling Memorial Library and Bass Library in all formats (print, electronic, and microform) that support the study of literature in English, Comparative Literature, Linguistics, British and Commonwealth History, Film Studies, and Theater Studies. I also serve as library liaison to the departments of English, Comparative Literature, Linguistics, History, Film and Media Studies, and Theater Studies. That means I spend a considerable amount of time answering research questions from faculty and students, conducting research education (sometimes known as bibliographic instruction or information literacy) sessions both one-on-one and in one of our electronic classrooms, announcing new acquisitions and services, and generally acting as the public face of Yale Library for these departments.
Though I have worked at Yale for nearly fourteen years, which seems like a long time now, I regularly have to remind myself that it earlier took me another fourteen years since finishing college to become a serious contender for this job. First, after graduating from the University of Michigan’s Honors English Program in the late 80s and having no desire to follow the herd to law school, I decided to pursue graduate school in English. I earned a Master’s and PhD in English from the University of Toronto in the mid-90s, hoping, like so many of us have before and since, to land a tenure-track job in an English department. I wasn’t picky and applied to every job, no matter where or how obscure or exploitative, for which I thought I would make a credible candidate.
Yet despite earning several postdoctoral fellowships to continue my research in great libraries (e.g., the Huntington Library, the British Library, and Harvard’s Houghton Library), publishing a respectable array of peer-reviewed articles in standard academic journals, and amassing a good deal of teaching experience along the way, I found myself relegated to the status of adjunct lecturer in English at various colleges and universities (and a private high school) for six years. To make matters worse, the longer I remained off the tenure track the more deeply I sensed I was regarded by hiring departments as damaged goods. Finally, after I had struggled for several years at this in the Boston area, some friends of friends there encouraged me to consider switching careers to become an academic librarian. One even paved the way for me to get my first library job. And so, within two and a half years of starting work as a lowly library technician at Harvard’s Widener Library, I earned my Master’s In Library Science from Simmons College and was hired by Yale. Soon after that, in an effort to show the countless other underemployed PhDs out there that life didn’t have to be so hard, I started writing about my transition from lecturer to academic librarian in a series of articles published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The first one, from 2003, lays out my odyssey in greater detail than I have here.
That article appeared nearly twelve years ago now, so I thought it might be interesting to write for PhDs at Work about what has changed since then, both within academic libraries themselves and in my perspective on the viability of careers in academic librarianship today and in the future. The greatest change is that many academic libraries suffered huge cuts to collections budgets and allocations for personnel and other operating costs during the financial crisis beginning in 2008. Many experienced layoffs, furloughs, hiring freezes, and 20% or more reduction in funds for collection development. In many cases the effects are still with us today. In fact, I would say that academic libraries have almost certainly witnessed a permanent reduction in all areas but especially in funds available for collections and personnel. And as a result, academic librarians are forced to do much more with much less. And the part of “much less” this audience will find alarming is the reduction in full-time, permanent librarian positions. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not as bad as the adjunctification of the college teaching world, with 70% of college teaching being done by part-timers with no benefits. But there are surely a much smaller number of good librarian jobs in academic libraries than there were when I was hired, despite the much-ballyhooed graying of the profession.
A concomitant trend I have noticed is that deep subject expertise — evidenced by graduate and continuing education beyond the Master’s in Library Science and publications – seems to be less valued in academic librarians than it was. Since due to budget cuts many academic libraries can no longer afford to pay incoming librarians with advanced degrees what they should be paid (nor offer the same benefits that their predecessors enjoyed), the result is lack of professional mobility for advanced degree holders, especially for those who find themselves at mid-career. Furthermore, the closing or diminishing of reference desks far and wide in favor of “Information Services” desks staffed by non-professionals can be taken as an indication that even gifted reference generalists are no longer in high demand. There also seems to be a widespread belief that book jobbers – companies that profile and supply books to academic libraries on approval – can do most of the selection work for us, so subject expertise among librarians who specialize in collection development for general collections (as opposed to rare books and manuscripts) is less critical than it was twenty or more years ago. As I see it, the only universally agreed-upon reason that subject specialists continue to be needed is to assist students and faculty with their research. Since high-level public services like this continue to be important (despite the decline of general reference), especially at the better schools, some advanced degree holders will still find good jobs.
Other than that, there is definitely an increasing trend toward hiring and training academic librarians to be better versed in cutting edge technology. Digital Humanities as a field is coming into its own. There is a need for mass digitization of rare and unique materials, data curation, and digital preservation. There is a need to understand current copyright law and to be able to assist faculty with Open Access scholarly publishing initiatives such as Institutional Repositories. In short, everything involving e-resources is hot these days. It’s not that archivists and rare book librarians and other print-resource specialists are becoming extinct, but such jobs are scarce and not typically filled by entry level candidates.
Over the next week I’ll share with you more about the work I do and what it’s like to work as an academic librarian.