more on federated search

librarian.net and The Chronicle both covered the Thomas Mann piece I wrote about yesterday today. The Chronicle coverage is interesting primarily because of its comments.

Here’s the one I mean:

“My experience with librarians, at least in scientific university libraries (I’m a scientist) is that they are basically incapable of anything beyond using the keywords in their database.

The reason is that they have absolutely no idea about what they are cataloguing.

If I walk to a librarian and I say “I’d like a book discussing the various definitions of computable reals”, I’m sure she’ll pull a face and input “computable reals” in her database. If the books were not tagged in this precise way, she’ll find nothing.

I’m unsure how humanities libraries are staffed, but the current situation of science libraries is that librarians offer no additional knowledge over the database that they use.”

The comment following pretty much puts this commenter in his/her place (go read that one, too), but it is kind of an interesting concept in light of:

  • The biological sciences background some people think is required for medical librarians (I obviously don’t see it as remotely necessary)
  • The recent trend of hiring PhD’s as subject librarians–PhD’s with no library experience or library coursework (seems kind of, I don’t know, pointless to me)

Maybe I’ll expound on that later. Or maybe you all should help me out and comment on it. 🙂

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4 responses to “more on federated search

  1. I wrote a response to that comment yesterday, but I kept myself together and refrained from publishing it. Grrrrr…

    Anyway, I had a discussion this weekend with a librarian (who has a subject Ph.D. ) on exactly this topic. The two main points he made were that a) those three letters after his name lend him credibility with faculty he otherwise may not have, and b) he can truthfully say to grad students “I know what you’re going through, this will help you.” He doesn’t argue that those three letters make him a better librarian, but he has a tool he can use that can occasionally help him.

    Also, I have been on search committees for Arts/Humanities librarians, and the topic of advanced degrees in a subject came up. I asked “why is it necessary” (I’m also a medical librarian, I have an undergraduate English degree, and I’m damn good at my job), and the response was similar, although a bit more nuance was added. In programs that are highly ranked, faculty members want to see attention paid to their departments. They want to have confidence in the instruction/direction/resources given to their students. Because many librarians come into the profession with a background in Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences, many people are competing for the same jobs. So, if you have two people who are exactly the same in terms of ability, enthusiasm, etc., but one has that extra tool (a Ph.D. or MFA or whatever the advanced degree is), doesn’t it make sense to hire that person?

    In my mind, I imagine the extra degree as something similar to the “Peer Review” stamp of approval. It doesn’t guarantee quality, but it increases the odds of quality.

    That being said, I don’t believe it is necessary to have an advanced degree in a subject to provide excellent service to patrons.

  2. Frankly, I don’t think I agree. I think it is really more familiarity with the research process and interest in the research process (natural curiosity, inquisitiveness, logic and analytical skills, etc) that really matter, no matter what type of librarian you are. If I was on a search committee, maybe I would feel differently…

    I think maybe it does lend a sense of credibility (and may certainly prevent comments like the one in The Chronicle), but does it really lend additional skill?

    This opinion could just be because I have no second masters or PhD. And I must say that I don’t doubt that someone with a PhD in molecular biology and an MLS would have an easier time figuring out how to provide services to molecular biologists, as we have had proof. This is definitely one of those issues I am conflicted about.

  3. I don’t think I was very clear, because I’m pretty sure we agree on this! My English is, as you say, inelegant (gotta love a Simpsons reference, right?).

    I don’t think a second masters or a PhD is a deciding factor on whether or not you are a good librarian (nor do I think a MLS is a requirement to be a good librarian, and certainly we both have proof of that). It is an extra resource that can be used in certain instances (as your molecular biologist example illustrates), but is not required to become an awesome librarian. However, can you think of any occasions in which having those three letters behind your name might have helped you? If we think hard enough, we each might be able to think of at least one.

    But like you say, does it lend librarian skills? Probably not. Does it make you better at customer service? Probably not.

    Regardless of our opinions on the matter, it is a reality our friends in the arts and humanities have been facing for some time. When I was thinking about becoming a music librarian, I was met with a straight up “no” from that association’s local representative because I didn’t have any degrees in music. To which I said, “But I CAN be a medical librarian?” 🙂

  4. Been meaning to respond to your comment for days, Bob–my apologies for being a TOTAL slacker recently. (We did get Order of the Phoenix for PS2 on Friday, so there went our weekend…)

    Anyway, I was going to tell you that I applied for an LAIII position at the music library when I was job searching way back in 2001, and I didn’t get it because of my lack of music background and because I didn’t know enough foreign languages (I only know the 4–Greek, Latin, German, and a minuscule amount of Spanish–but no Italian, you see.) Of course it was really because they already had someone planned to hire, but I was still amused that even to be an LAIII, you were expected to have specialized music knowledge at the music library.

    (As an aside, the music librarian was the first person other than the great reference librarian to tell me that I should become a librarian. I cannot tell you how frustrating it was to hear that my interview was so great, and that I should be a librarian, and then to be turned down for a job by the same person (happened 3 times that year).)

    Anyway, it is weird, isn’t it? And law librarians are always expected to have a law degree, I think. Any law librarians out there who can verify/contradict? I still don’t think that medical librarians *need* subject background, but maybe you are right about it giving a further level of respect to the profession.

    At MLA, I went to the GEA meeting for the various GEA library sigs, and I remember someone saying how when medical librarians attended the GEA meetings, it put them on more equal footing with faculty, just because they were attending the same meeting, hanging out in a more relaxed atmosphere, and acting as colleagues. Maybe what we need to do instead of worrying about specialized backgrounds is to try to get medical librarians out beyond the doors of our own field more–after hiring. (And, I know there are lots of librarians who do this already, but frankly, I know I could do a better job at this–I only ever skim NEJM and JAMA, for example.)

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