Call me Sourdust
May 6, 2005 7:28 AM   Subscribe

Another librarian wannabe rears their head.

I've recently read Four Against the Arctic: Shipwrecked for Six Years at the Top of the World by David Roberts, which covered not just the story of four sailors surviving in the Arctic on their own for six years in the 18th century, but also described in great detail the process the author went through to uncover more details of the sailors' story. I found the process fascinating. It involved hunting down what few primary sources could be found as well as getting opinions from experts with relevant experience, such as those familiar with Arctic over-wintering in the region and a historical reenactor who built and navigated the kinds of boats that would have been used by 18th century Russian sailors. Ultimately the author mounted his own expedition to an island that was his best guess to be where the sailors spent their six years in the Arctic.

I've always had an interest in both archaology and history. My bachelors is in history and I very nearly double majored in that and anthropology. Reading about a research project that straddled the two disciplines piqued my interest and got me considering the possibility of becoming a research librarian. I think I'd thoroughly enjoy helping researchers find relevant material from a collection of old primary texts. From what I've read on the subject, I'd be able to do not only that, but also pursue research of my own simultaneously.

The tricky part is figuring out what sort of training I'd need to qualify for such a position. It seems that this kind of career is a great opportunity for recent PhDs, who can then either find a program designed bring them up to speed on librarianship (without requiring them to complete a full MLS or MLIS degree) or they can learn on the job.

As alluring as all this sounds to me, committing to the six or seven years for a history or archaeology PhD as well as possibly a different masters program on top of that seems awfully daunting. Does anyone have any direct experience with this subset of library work? And if so, are there other ways to approach this besides the PhD route?

Currently, I'm a systems administrator. I know that I'd need to commit to furthering my education and training significantly. I'm just hoping that I could find a way to make the transition without having to go through a PhD and a separate masters program before I could start work.

I have read up on the current AskMe offerings on this topic as well as delved into web offerings from same as well as other avenues.
posted by ursus_comiter to Education (14 answers total)
A Ph.D would help, but there are plenty of archivists and special collections librarians without one. Why do you think you need one?

For what it's worth, archives job listings I've seen are much more likely to list a master's in history as an acceptable alternative to the MLS than 'straight' library jobs are. Whether or not the holders of MAs in history actually get these jobs I've got no idea. There are a bunch of master's in public history programs which include some archives coursework which might also help.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:08 AM on May 6, 2005

Unless you think you can shoehorn yourself right into a special collections gig or a researcher's-researcher gig, an MLS plus another Masters is pretty much standard for acaemic librarianship where you're going to find the bulk of the jobs in this area. Having skills in preservation and restoration as well as museology will be relevant to any sort of archival work you wound up doing. The people in the profession that I know who are doing the most esoteric work like this generally work at the Library of Congress or in rare books and archives at Yale or other major research libraries. They tend to have double Masters as I've described and often lots of experience in the field, either through coursework/fieldwork from their masters or a series of jobs working with gradually increasing responsibility.

There are many libraries where the librarians have faculty status. However, that said, them being faculty does not mean that they do research in history or archaeology, usually it means that they do research in the materials and information involved in the study of history or archaeology. So, you are not a historian when you are a research librarian, you are a historical archivist. You know a lot about history, but it's more of a meta approach to the field. It's still fascinating, but I can't tell from what you are describing if this is really what you want.

...who can then either find a program designed bring them up to speed on librarianship (without requiring them to complete a full MLS or MLIS degree) or they can learn on the job.

No offense but the "program" you describe here IS an MLIS. While you can certainly learn on the job in many library jobs, there remains the question of whether you can get your foot in the door when you are competing against other people with the degree that you do not have. Library school is not super hard, usually only a year or two, and you can probably do it while doing PhD work, but you're not going to make a lot of friends in academia if you try to end run the degree that most of your colleagues already have. Academia and academic librarianship is notoriously rigid as you climb higher up the ladder. You may want to look into professional organizations like the ACRL to see what other research librarians are doing and see if this is the sort of work you think you would like.
posted by jessamyn at 9:29 AM on May 6, 2005

My school (Wayne State University) offers an archival certificate, which is less coursework than a full MLIS, so you might look if programs in your area offer something like that.
posted by dagnyscott at 9:30 AM on May 6, 2005

Well, I'd hoped I wouldn't need a PhD, but much of what I was finding online involved recent PhDs taking up the research librarian mantle as an alternative to chasing after a tenured faculty position.
posted by ursus_comiter at 9:31 AM on May 6, 2005

It sounds like you want to be an archivist. Archival work is the subset of librarianship that deals with the arrangement, description and preservation of primary source documents. Becoming an archivist appealed to me for the same reasons it appealed to you, and I am now employed as an archivist for a large organization.

I don’t want to put you off, but really check out some archives before you get too excited. The work is not glamorous, and the beautiful Research Moments are few and far between. There are definite pros – you’re doing “good” work, in a relatively low stress environment. But the pay sucks and the work can be tedious.

As for being employed in the field, I did an MLS with an archives concentration. I lucked into my position because of experience I had with the organization’s records as a student assistant in our university archive. I’d say 90% of archives jobs require at least the MLS or MLIS, many require a subject Masters as well. The more prestigious the collection – i.e. the older or more obscure the material is – the more credentials they will require. Look for yourself at the employment listings. It’s a tight job market.

Archives always need volunteers. My suggestion is to call up a local historical society, university special collection, state library, museum or other local archive and put in some hours. Email me if want to talk about this some more.
posted by modavis at 9:31 AM on May 6, 2005

You'd likely be just as well off (probably better off, really) with an MA in History or Archaeology and an MLS as with a PhD. You'll find that even with a PhD, most of the time you'll need an MLS for a real librarian job.
I occasionally hear from colleagues with PhDs who feel that the PhD is actually a hindrance in the library job search; they feel that many libraries suspect them of only wanting to be a librarian until they can find a professor/research position somewhere or that they want to be librarians because they 'failed' at being academics (and who wants to hire a failure?). None of these people I hear from (usually in internet fora; librarians have a lot of mailing lists) are especially close colleagues, and I must admit I usually suspect them of choosing to believe they're being discriminated against instead of facing their serious and visible inadequacies (not the least of which is frequent and public woe-is-me bitching about how nobody gives you a chance and there's no good reason for it in public, archived internet fora, but I digress).
It sounds to me like you'd be very well suited to the position of Subject Bibliographer at a major academic library. That's usually an MLS+MA kind of job.
posted by willpie at 9:37 AM on May 6, 2005

I don't know where you are, but if you're in the Northwest at all, the history department at Western Washington University has an archival certificiation program -- or, really, you get an archival certification if you go for one year, or a Masters in history (+ the certification if you want it, I think) if you go for two. That might prepare you quite well.

On preview, Jessamyn is, of course, right -- an MLIS is what you describe. But I agree with IshmaelGraves as well; I'm not sure why you think you need a PhD. If you want one, then do it, but MLIS + subject specialty (usually a Masters) is the qualification I'v seen mentioned most often. You could check just to read job descriptions and qualifications for the things you're interested in.

On preview again - everynone else already said it but I'm posting anyway, dammit!
posted by librarina at 9:37 AM on May 6, 2005

Incidentally, if you want to study archives or preservation and conservation, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better place to do it than the University of Texas.
posted by willpie at 9:42 AM on May 6, 2005

What everybody up there said. I'm a research librarian with "only" a bachelors in History (and Lit and Philosophy, but History was the operative major for my career) and an MLIS. Most of the research I do is of the "meta" variety Jessamyn describes above. I assist some of the top scholars in the field--Holocaust studies, in this case--in navigating our collection and in finding bits and pieces of information for their research, but I don't do all that much substantive research beyond some general e-mail and telephone reference questions. And I absolutely love everything about I job.

A PhD is usually not required to do this type of work, but a second Masters definitely would help, and an MLIS is a must. I think most libraries of this type would rather have someone with solid librarianship skills and an ability to learn the generalities of a subject than have someone who knows the subject inside and out but is a lousy librarian.

One key point: if you want to deal mostly with primary sources, go the archival route. If you have particular questions, or if you're in the DC area and want to see a Lirbary/Archives in action, drop me a line.
posted by arco at 9:48 AM on May 6, 2005

You sound just like me circa 1998. Allow me to relate my sad story.

My former boss at the Ransom Center at UT (he's still there, I was an intern and am not) has a PhD in English. When I asked him if I should keep plugging away at my dissertation, even though I had, at that time, every intention at the time of sticking with a special collections career, his opinion was it wasn't worth the time and energy. definitely get the Masters - that's a big help on the job hunt, and I know some programs let you work towards a joint subject/library degree.

Just a warning though. I see why he said don't waste your time. My life was never as interesting as a librarian as it was as an intern. My life as an intern was a lot like the experience you described. My life as a librarian was a repetitive string of administrative dreck, fruitless meetings, and paperwork - none of which I am temperamentally suited towards - and so I went back to teaching.

One of the first lessons I learned - librarianship is or is not coded in your genes. I loved the research part of the job; I hated the details of running a library (scheduling the ref desk, training the pages, 3-plus hour arguments about signage, photocopy request forms). My librarian husband, who loves his job, does not revel in these aspects of his work, but they don't overwhelm him with despair like they did me.

That doesn't mean that you can't get your dream job. But since I'm burning all my library bridges (I had a horrible, horrible first professional job experience, which soured me for life. That position's open again, btw - I think for the 3rd time since I left. Quelle surprise) allow me to offer some of my observations on the profession, albeit limited and bitter as they are:

--The best special collections libraries are in expensive places to live (Chicago, DC, Berkeley, Austin, New York). Most of them pay crap wages. There are plenty of smaller special collections, but they stand empty much of the time, and often the researchers don't need any help.

--People who make good directors of rare books and manuscripts collections are skilled at getting rich people to hand over money. They are not necessarily good administrators or delegators (my higher-ups at Austin exempted - they're wonderful people). I'm not just basing this observation on my own experience; part of what finalized my decision to leave the profession was the general aura of misery that other librarians, at top libraries, projected.

-- At good libraries, people tend to hold onto these positions until they are close to death.

Obviously, I offer a brief and bitter glimpse into this world. But I was motivated, like you were, to be a librarian-scholar, and I quickly found out that the two were not expected to go together in most jobs. As a matter of fact, a large number of people I encountered felt there was a vertical, hierarchical relationship between the two, with the scholar above, obviously. It was a harsh realization to find that I had better cred with the professors as a grad student than I did as a "mere" librarian.

That's not to say that these jobs you want don't exist. Some people I know with fascinating jobs get their Ph.D.'s first, then move into research (not librarian) positions that involve working with primary sources. And I have some friends who are quite happy with archivist jobs in specialized subject collections. But if what you want is the glamour and excitement of archival/ primary source research (sounds weird to all but a few, I know), a library degree is not the surest route.

Now, a final note: If you are not thoroughly invested in primary research, you might be happy as a subject librarian (again, MA is good here). My husband also wanted to be a special collections librarian, and we went through the same program/internship together. Seeing my professional experience, he changed his mind, and he's now the humanities librarian at a small, elite, and well-funded college. He loves it - he gets to purchase books, teach classes, help students and faculty with their research questions, and work a reference desk that gets more queries besides "Can you fix the printer?" - and most of his duties are in his areas of interest (lit, art, philosophy, theatre).

Email me if you have any further questions. I'm sure someone with a healthier perspective will give you a more positive view here soon.
posted by bibliowench at 9:50 AM on May 6, 2005

One area that might be interesting to you if you like working with primary sources and technology is digital libraries -- archives in some libraries are combined with digitization projects, and you'd be able to make primary sources more available to everyone by putting them on the web.

I'm working in an academic library with only a MS in library science, I do think you really need the library science degree and a subject masters, but not so much the phd.

One thing to keep in mind, the job market is tight, and you should be willing to relocate to find a job in an academic library. The vast majority of people in my class at library school had a background in English or History (either undergrad or undergrad and MA). You'd likely face more competition applying for jobs as a subject specialist librarian in the humanities than you would, say, if you had a masters degree in one of the hard sciences.
posted by gnat at 10:11 AM on May 6, 2005

My alum, UBC, has a joint MLIS and MAS program. You come out with 2 masters degrees. I thought of doing it, but realized I wanted to get the damn schooling done with as soon as possible.
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 10:35 AM on May 6, 2005

Thank you all for the very comprehensive response! I'm actually very glad to hear that a double masters is a better route than the pursuit of a PhD.

There's a lot for me to chew on here, but now I know the terminology well enough to do a lot more digging on my own. I really like modavis' suggestion to look into volunteering too. I'll be in New Mexico a little over a week from now doing just that for an archaeological project, since I'm also considering that as a possible career direction.

Currently, I live in New York City, although once I'm ready to move on from my current job and think about going back to school, I'll be open to moving.
posted by ursus_comiter at 11:53 AM on May 6, 2005

Ursus - There are quite a few non-Canadian students in my program. The ones from the US say that even paying the "international" rate, their tuition is cheaper than down south. Of course depending on where you are coming from, Vancouver itself can be pricey.
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 12:11 PM on May 6, 2005

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