There’s a Reason There’s a Specialized Degree

I think it can be easy to look around a library — especially a smooth-running one — and forget that the work that gets done there ranges from the merely difficult to the incredibly complex. This isn’t the sort of stuff just anyone can do, no matter how well-meaning and interested they might be, which is why there are specialized degree programs designed to turn out inventive and effective experts.

I’m talking, of course, about the accountants. And computer programmers. And instructional designers. And usability experts.

And, oh, yeah, the librarians.

A double standard?

There’s a temptation among librarians (and programmers too, of course, and an awful lot of professors) to think that the world consists of two types of work:

  1. Stuff only we can do, and
  2. Everything else

If I were to head off to a library school for a semester and take a single course on cataloging, my colleagues would be understandably worried about dropping me next to the ILS with a stack of new books. A single group project looking broadly at research methodologies doesn’t qualify me for … well, for anything, inside the library or not.

But I often see librarians with only half a semester of programming, or a survey course on usability testing (never mind actual UX), or experience in a group project where they got stuck with the title Project Manager take on (or, often, be thrust into) actual professional roles to do those things.

The unspoken, de facto standard seems to be, “We can teach a librarian to do anything, but we can’t or won’t teach anyone else to do Real Librarian work.”

Subject-matter expertise is not overall expertise

I’m lucky enough to work in a ginormous academic library, where we’re not afraid to hire specialists when warranted. And yet, even here, there persists the curious belief that librarians can and often should do just about everything.

This leads me to what I believe is a Truth That Must Be Spoken:

A committee of four interested and well-meaning librarians is not equivalent to a trained expert with actual education and experience.

There’s a reason most disciplines separate out the “subject-matter expert” (SME) from the other work. Instructional Designers are trained to do analysis, study users and measure outcomes, and work with a SME to incorporate their knowledge into a useful instructional product. The world at large differentiates between web design, content management, and quality assurance. And the first time you work with a real project manager, you’ll come to the stark realization that you’ve never before worked with a real project manager, because the experience is transformative.

Knowing the content and culture makes you a necessary part of a complete intervention. It doesn’t make you the only necessary part.

A question of value

“But Bill,” you’re saying after doing a quick check to see what my name is, “we don’t have the money to hire experts in everything, and besides, we’re dedicated to growing those sorts of expertise within the library profession.”

I’m not against that — who could be against that? But I do worry that it exemplifies an attitude that the value the library really offers is essentially embodied in the sorts of things librarians have been doing for a century or more — things that only librarians can do — and everything else that happens in a library adds notable but ultimately marginal value to the patrons.

That’s not true. The website, the instructional and outreach activities, increasingly complicated management, and (the big one these days) contract negotiation with vendors are all hugely important to the library, and arguably have a much bigger impact on the patrons as a group than, say, face-to-face reference work, or original cataloging. I know our digital environment is used orders of magnitude more than our physical plant, up to and including the actual librarians. Not all users are (or should be) valued equally, but when the zeros start stacking up like that, you should at least take a hard look at where your resources are being spent compared to where your patrons are deriving most of the value.

It’s great if you can get a librarian with the skills needed to excel at these “other” things. But when you put a near-novice in charge of something, you’re implicitly saying two things:

  1. This isn’t all that important to do well or quickly, which you can tell because we put you, a novice, in charge of it, and
  2. The work you were doing before isn’t that important, because we’re willing to pay you to try to learn all this stuff on-the-job instead of whatever you were doing before.

If there’s an eyes-wide-open assessment of the needs of the institution and they decide in favor of internal training, then that’s great. What I’m railing against is starting a project/program/whatever with the implicit attitude that the “library part” is specialized and hard, and that we don’t really care if everything else is done well, agilely, and quickly, because it’s essentially window dressing.

What to do?

Unfortunately, librarianship is, as a discipline, constantly under attack by people looking for a simple way to cut costs. I worry this has the unfortunate side effect of causing librarians as a culture to close ranks. One way this manifests itself is by many institutions requiring an MLS for just about any job in the library. I don’t think that’s in anyone’s interest.

Are you better off hiring another librarian, or a programmer? Should you move someone off their duties to do system administration (almost certainly badly), or should you cut something else and outsource it? Do you have any idea at all if your instructional interventions have lasting impact? If not, maybe it’s time to hire someone to help you find out.

The days when the quality of a library’s services depended almost exclusively on the librarians and the collection are behind us. It takes a complex, heterogenous set of knowledge and expertise to provide the best service you can for as many patrons as you can. And maybe, just maybe, the best way to gather those skills is to hire some non-librarians and take advantage of what they know.

Librarians deserve to be valued for their expertise, education, and experience. So does everyone else.

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