When a history Ph.D. casts around the professional universe for one of the many so-called “alternate careers” beyond teaching in a history department a 4-year college or university, “librarian” does not usually appear on the results lists. Librarianship is, however, an option for the holder of history doctorate. Librarianship is also a wide field with a wide range of jobs in it. Admittedly, many library jobs open today are hardly more desirable than the adjunct teaching circuit to which so many new history Ph.D.s find themselves relegated. Yet some library jobs are interesting and pay the bills, and a very few of which are relatively lucrative and intellectually engaging.
There are a lot of ways to put the knowledge one gains from a history doctoral program to good use working in an academic library – especially an academic research library. I doubt many history graduate students look forward to becoming a reference librarian, but on the other hand many literate people find that sort of work interesting and intellectually invigorating. Admittedly, reference work can call upon the skills the research skills that one gets in graduate history work. Some academic libraries have librarians whose primary role is specialized research assistance for the humanities, and historians might find that work interesting. My own interests lay in technical services – specifically cataloging. That is another area of academic librarianship where the critical thinking skills gained from graduate work in the humanities can be quite useful. The design and maintenance of large bibliographic databases, with the complex syndetic structures of catalog headings and the interrelationships between descriptive conventions and encoding schemes can get quite technical yet still require analytical abilities familiar to historians. Perhaps the area of academic research library operations traditionally most attractive to the humanities Ph.D. is special collections and archival work. The decisions that special collections librarians make about preserving and providing access to primary source materials, which we so often tell our students are the raw material of history, are easily enhanced by a historian’s understanding of the significance of those materials. More than a few history graduate students survey the realm of teaching opportunities (or lack thereof) that await them when they finally get their Ph.D. and decide happily that they’d rather be an archivist. There was a time when an advanced degree in a humanities field was indeed recognized as a qualifying credential to work as a manuscript curator, archivist, or perhaps as a rare books curator. That is not the case anymore.
The first thing a history graduate student interested in a library career must accept is that a history Ph.D. by itself is not going to get you a desirable job in an academic library. (I expect some people will throw up their hands in frustration here but I encourage brave souls to read on.) In order to work as an academic librarian you need a Master’s degree from a library science, library and information science, information science graduate program accredited by the American Library Association (ALA). Some history Ph.D.s (or Ph.D.s in other humanities fields for that matter) have no problem with this reality when they decide they want to go into the library field. They proceed to find a Master of Library Science (MLS), Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) or equivalent ALA-accredited program, complete it, and start a career in librarianship. Other holders of a history doctorate cannot accept the reality that they need yet another degree to work in a library and they try to circumvent it. There are several reasons for this. First, some historians just don’t believe they really need another degree to work effectively in a library. The culture of graduate school does not really inculcate historians with a high view of librarianship as a profession. The experience of earning a graduate degree in history almost always does convey the importance of libraries – but not always librarians. At best most scholars see academic librarians as skilled helpers, people with arcane knowledge to assist navigating the maze of a research collection and for which scholars should be grateful. But they’re just that – helpers – not the people doing the work themselves. In other words, they’re not scholars. At worst they see librarians as a sort of clerical servant, not a collaborator, not a professional, and certainly not a colleague. Fortunately, that “worst” is not something one encounters too often. Yet, the fact remains that many professional historians do not see librarians as their equals. They do not articulate or make explicit this view because they don’t have to – it never comes up. It’s just assumed.
So the implication for many new Ph.D.s is that they really don’t need a library degree because a history doctorate so immerses them in the library that they could certainly do anything a “mere” librarian could. In the case of many academic library operations – collection management, cataloging, et. al. that’s not true, but both bright-eyed doctoral student and senior professor are not always likely to realize it. Further compounding the problem of disbelief that one really needs another degree is the low academic quality of many MLS/MLIS programs. Many are not intellectually rigorous. On the other hand, most MLIS programs have at least some classes that are challenging and deal with topics of substantive importance. And in better academic research libraries you will find people who need and put to use the knowledge they gained from classes like that. Further, even classes that aren’t rigorous in the sense of a humanities graduate program teach you things that you need to know. Some of the best examples come from the technical field. Doctoral programs in history nowadays are a lot better about exposing students to technology, such as that used to digitize primary source materials, than history graduate programs were about a decade ago when digitization hit the historical community. Yet most recent history Ph.D.s do not know much about what it takes to make and manage a digital collection. This is the kind of thing you can and must learn in one of the more serious MLIS classes. Other examples come from some of the better cataloging, special collections, and archives courses. (Quality and seriousness of cataloging classes, however, varies highly across MLS/MLIS programs.) Further examples of classes that contain things you need to know but did not learn in history classes come from collection management operations of an academic library. How many history graduate programs teach about dealing with vendors and managing a large budget? Again, many of the weaker MLS/MLIS programs will not do that well either, but a good library school class will while a good history graduate class almost certainly won’t.
This takes me back to one of the points above. The necessity of the MLS/MLIS is especially pronounced if the new history Ph.D. is interested in going into the field of special collections librarianship. Many new historians look at the market for teaching jobs and make a (usually uninformed) decision that life as an archivist would be more appealing and a great way to use their historical knowledge outside of teaching. It can be. Yet things have changed considerably in the past 20 years or so. Twenty years ago, it was not unreasonable to maintain that a humanities doctorate – especially a history doctorate – was an appropriate qualifying credential to be an archivist. This is no longer true. The special collections field today – especially the archives and manuscripts part of it – demands a very technical education. Unless your history graduate program gave you a good practical introduction to the use of open-source archival management systems, standard XML encoding schemes like TEI, MEP, and MODS and the basics of MARC21 it did not give you enough to be an archivist today.
The importance of the MLS/MLIS and its relationship to a history Ph.D. brings up the issue of how holders of each degree relate to holders of the other in library organizations. If you read blogs, journal articles, etc. on the subject of humanities Ph.D.s in academic libraries inevitably you will come across discussions of how and whether the librarians without the Ph.D.s are resentful of, disparaging of, or antagonistic to the occasional Ph.D. who is working as an academic librarian. This is an interpersonal dynamic you may encounter and you should be aware of it. It does not, however, have to stop you from finding a good job in a library and making great colleagues and friends in the field.
First, you should accept openly that while other degrees (like your doctorate) are useful, at the end of the day the MLIS/MLIS is the terminal degree in the library field. Neither a Ph.D. in history nor anything else (no matter how great your dissertation was or who your adviser was) nor a Master’s degree in anything else is the qualifying credential to become a professional librarian. I have worked for several librarians who do not have a Ph.D. but they have years of experience as a catalogers, have the well-developed, comprehensive knowledge and experience to manage a department, do it well and deserve their positions.
Second, much of the resentment against Ph.D.s in academic libraries comes not from the degree itself but from librarians’ encounters with the arrogance of a few bad apples. In other words, act collegially and often you will have no problem. Respect the knowledge of others and often you will have no problem. Sometimes, of course, no matter what you do someone else will have a problem with you. When you interview for an academic library job, try to keep an eye out for librarians and library staff who might have the “resent-the-doctorate” attitude. In most cases, however, you will not even get that far. So, if you find yourself having difficulty finding a library job, before you get discouraged and angry at not even getting an interview for a job for which you were clearly qualified, recall one thing: you might not want to work there anyway. There is always a chance that if you did get that particular job, you would have all kind of difficulties with people resentful of the doctorate. There is a bright side. Not all academic libraries are like that. There are a large number of academic research libraries where people are secure and professional enough that they’re just interested in building a collegial productive environment. They will see a doctoral degree as an advantage and an asset that they can build upon. There are great libraries out there and if you develop your skills well, write strong cover letters, build a good set of references and interview well, you’ll likely find one.
The library blogsphere has seen a lot of hand-wringing about the professional overpopulation of librarians and how library schools produce far too many MLS graduates than there are new jobs. Sound familiar? Well, there is some truth to that claim that the American Library Association trumps up the supposed “need” for new librarians to replace expected upcoming retirements. It is also true that many new graduates from library science Master’s program have a difficult time finding jobs. But most do not have the MLS/Ph.D. combination. It’s not as if that will guarantee you a job. You will have an easier time than most new MLS/MLIS graduates and most new history Ph.D. graduates. Blogs and list-servs (yes there are still some list-servs out there) abound with new librarians complaining that academic library jobs are out of their reach, and for many of them it’s true. Many of the choicest academic library jobs are going to find attractive someone with the critical thinking and research skills that one gets from completing a Ph.D. program. You will also have an advantage in that you will be set apart from a much more common type found among the hopefuls for an open position in a good library –the ABD who never finished his or her doctorate and then migrated over to librarianship. While people leave history doctoral programs for multiple reasons, and while some of those reasons are good ones, the fact remains that someone who actually finished the doctorate and then earned a library degree will attract more and better job offers. Be wary, however, of a library’s motives for hiring you. Some academic librarians will want humanities Ph.D.s for the right reasons (e.g. someone who has a doctorate understands the research process better and therefore can help researchers better, etc.) Some academic libraries will want them for the wrong reasons – they think, for example, that having more Ph.D.s among the library faculty ranks will increase the librarians’ credibility with the teaching faculty. In some cases that can work, but in other cases it won’t.
I also recommend that when looking for jobs, consider carefully not just the library in which you will be working, but the overall university environment and especially the history department. Regarding the overall university environment, one thing to consider is whether librarians have faculty appointments or are considered staff. Working at a university where librarians are faculty and working at one where they are staff each has advantages and disadvantages of course. When you are staff it means you have a regular job. It’s less likely that you will be pulled into extensive (and time-consuming) university-level committee work) and it means you have both the freedom and the constraints of a 9-5 Monday through Friday work week (although if you work in reference, for example, you may be working a lot of evenings and weekends. Technical services, including cataloging jobs like the one I have, tend to be regular business hours though.) It also means you will have both the freedom and the constraints of a regular holiday schedule, and if your library is well managed you’ll have an unambiguous chain of command. The disadvantages are applicable if you want to remain active in your history research. If your vision for putting your doctorate to use in a library is simply to apply the knowledge to professional library work, then a staff position may be just fine. Staff may have less access to university resources to support research, for example, although this is something to ask about at the interview stage. But if you are research-inclined and you find a job you like that is a staff appointment, don’t just assume that your research will end. Some universities for example do indeed provide professional travel and development support for staff, including librarians.
The advantages and disadvantages of the faculty position follow from some of the comments above about the image of academic librarians among history professors and graduate students. To be blunt, the main disadvantage of having a library faculty appointment is that most other faculty will not take your own faculty status seriously. Regardless of what a few grumpy naysayers at your university might think, you will still have a faculty ID, and be able to check the “faculty” box on various forms. This will open up doors to both internal and external funding to your research and do things like get you faculty reciprocal borrowing privileges that many research libraries offer to each other.
Suppose you do get the MLS/MLIS or equivalent Master’s, find a great library job and get started. I also recommend that anyone who earns a history Ph.D. and then becomes a librarian stay active in your historical research. You will find that having a foot in both the history camp and library camp, so to speak, serves you well. At history conferences you will be often the only librarian, and at smaller library conferences you will often be the only history Ph.D. (you will not be the only one with a history Ph.D. at the American Library Association Conference, though, which I consider a good thing.) I have been amazed sometimes to hear professional historians say things about libraries that simply cannot be substantiated, and yet will all the great minds around there is hardly anyone to contest the claim. (And I hardly consider myself a “great mind”.) Likewise, I have seen academic research librarians attempt to make major decisions about the allocation of resources or the building of a collection say things that no actual researcher ever would. So there is a real need for professionals with a foot in both the library camp and the historian camp. Be one of them and you can make a real contribution. But you don’t necessarily have to keep up with your historical scholarship if you’re less inclined. That would never be my choice, but it is the choice of some. There are people out there who write a good dissertation and graduate but for whatever reason just don’t want to continue historical scholarship. Maybe the dissertation was enough research and writing for one lifetime. Maybe they enjoy the reading and thinking but the research and writing less so. Maybe they just don’t want the pressure. Sometimes a library career can be good for a history Ph.D.s of that inclination. The doctorate plus the library science master’s will have given them skills to apply and a meaningful career applying them can follow, whether or not they continue with their historical scholarship.
If you have a history Ph.D. and work in an academic library, it’s nice to have a good relationship with the history department at that university. You’ll have colleagues to talk with about your history research (if you keep up with it) and hear about theirs. You might also find some adjuncting opportunities if you get the teaching itch. Sometimes your relationship with the history department can get tricky. You might find, for example, that you get job offers for academic library jobs at universities whose history departments wouldn’t give your cv a second look if you applied for one of their openings. Suppose you take such a library job – depending on the personalities involved you might find at best polite brush-offs and at worst outright disdain from the history department. I suspect that situation is rare, however, unless one of the proverbial bad apples is involved. One thing that weighs in your favor is that at a larger university you may not be the only history Ph.D. outside the history department. Take a look at the American Historical Association's Directory of History Departments and check out the “non-departmental historians” section under each university’s listing and you will see what I mean. You may be fortunate enough to get hired for a library job at a university whose history department is interested in your historical work. In that case, they will view you as a kind of “freebie” – they get an extra historian with a specialty that complements their department but the salary isn’t on their budget line. If that happens, you’ll have to manage your time carefully to exploit your opportunities, as the job the library hired you to do will obviously take most of your time and by rights should be your priority. Good communication with your history colleagues and your library administration, however, can lead to some mutually rewarding collaboration.
Libraries are older than universities themselves, and professional librarianship dates from roughly the same time that historian became a recognizable profession. Despite the doom and gloom some of my comments may seem to cast upon the aspiring historian-librarian’s prospects there are indeed great career opportunities to bring together what you learned from your Ph.D. program with the challenges of contemporary academic library work. I hope that you’ll consider the good as well as the challenges. Get the library science Master’s, choose your job carefully, cultivate good relationships with all your colleagues, and a world of intellectually invigorating and sometimes lucrative career opportunities await.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Blog XXXI (31): The History Ph.D. as a Librarian
In this posting, Dr. Mark H. Danley discusses the career options open to historians in libraries. Danley currently serves as Catalog Librarian at the University of Memphis Libraries. He has previously worked at the University of Southern Mississippi, the Jackson Barracks Military Library in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the U.S. Cavalry Association Library at Fort Riley, Kansas. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Kansas State University. His dissertation was "The Theory and Practice of Strategy in the Eighteenth-Century British Army." He also holds an M.L.I.S. degree from Louisiana State University, an M.A. in history from Virginia Tech and a B.A. in history from the University of Richmond. A specialist on the British Army, he is currently editing with Patrick J. Speelman a collection of essays on the Seven Years’ War, tentatively titled The Seven Years' War: Global Perspectives. He has also written on the technical aspects of cataloging eighteenth-century military works, and on issues in the naval history of the Korean War. Here is his guest blog: