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.”


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