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Thoroughly Modern Karen: A Response to Jeff Trzeciak

The latest kerfuffle from LibraryLand comes courtesy Jeff Trzeciak, university “librarian” at McMaster’s, whose recent speech has garnered tart responses from other librarians and library directors (spoiler alert: count this as another notch on that post).

I have this theory that an uncomfortably high percentage of research library directors are fundamentally very anxious about their standing among their peers (university as well as library), sometimes to the point of professional myopia, and that this results in occasionally bizarre behavior — in this case,  using budget season in a year of severe cuts all around to prattle on about how the very best libraries don’t need librarians or library instruction (just like my favorite local restaurant can stop serving food or waiting on tables).

Me, I really don’t give a gnat’s behind about my standing among other directors as long as I can get ‘er done. As explained previously, I choose the small teaching-university environment because that’s how I roll.

But I do take notice when a university “librarian” seems quite proud to announce that the (self-inflicted) trend in his library is to significantly reduce the number of professional librarians (replacing some with “PhDs” and IT people) and move out of the information literacy role.

I put “librarian” in quotes quite intentionally. After listening to his speech at Penn [edit: Penn State] and the responses from people I respect, I have concluded that Jeff is posing a question, who is a librarian? My response is that I am a librarian, and he is not.

Let me explain.

A few months after I arrived at MPOW, someone on campus commented on all the “cutting-edge services” I was providing. I pressed this person for examples, just to see what was considered “cutting-edge” in our environment.

My Judy-Jetson improvements included:

* Establishing walk-up (and chat/email) reference services (which we call Research Help, since that’s what it is).*

* A regular docket of literary and arts events in the library

* “Allowing” food in the library (which was true before I arrived, but not well-known)

* Making the library cleaner and brighter, with more seating for students

* A renewed rigor/emphasis on information literacy instruction and implementing assessment thereof

* Implementing online interlibrary loan (hello, 1977!)

By the standards of the Gospel According to Jeff Trzeciak, I must seem like some misguided brontosaurus snuffling in the antedeluvian biblioforest. I should be eliminating walk-up service and replacing practitioners with PhDs who will focus on hifalutin digital projects. I’m… boring. And small. Hardly the stuff of Taiga Forum.

Though–wait–wasn’t one of Taiga’s latest findings, “Within five years, universities will expect libraries to assess their impact on student learning and retention and will fund accordingly”? But I digress.

I made those changes, and prioritized them, based on two things: my twenty years of professional library experience (and more years beyond that); and my environmental scan that concluded the following:

  • Our students — many first-generation  college  — arrived with poor research skills, and often graduated that way;
  • Instructors understand the need for high-quality information literacy instruction and absorb skills themselves through our library-faculty instructional partnership;
  • We, the library, could play a pivotal role in helping our students become lifelong information consumers; and
  • We could share and reinforce the joys of reading and cultural literacy, often within the context of faculty- and student-driven creation.

I will stand by those priorities. Yes, we have many other things in work, some highly technical (have your hugged your NCIP messaging today?), some more entrepreneurial, such as our academic-tech support for faculty, and some edgy in a small, fun way, like our LED “Open” sign. I also would love to have more IT staff. Of course I would!  And I have been saying for my entire career that we are shifting to a more professional/managerial workforce.

It may well be that Jeff’s students arrive completely steeped in research skills — which I doubt — and that McMaster’s faculty also self-update in this knowledge. But on this mortal coil, I would consider it sinful and wrong to eliminate a key service I considered crucial to the mission of our university, and crucial to our fundamental obligation to our students and faculty.

* Note, we didn’t have scheduled reference hours for at least the previous decade, and it would have been hard to do it during that period. But with the addition of .5 FTE temporary halftime reference support shortly before my arrival, as well as a new librarian who is willing to work half his time “on the desk” — a daunting schedule he nevertheless believes in — we eke out a slender but highly-prized reference — er, research help — schedule. We work our fingers to the bone, but we make it happen–because we are librarians.

Now I have the added concern that Jeff’s blatherings will be read and taken seriously, not only as a blueprint for library restructuring, but also as a valid interpretation of what librarianship, at essence, really means to all of us, in and out of LibraryLand.

Like Jenica, I don’t speak for my university. But I do feel I can and should speak on behalf of librarianship. And if Jeff has done me one small favor, it is that in studying his words, I feel more than ever the rightness of my leadership and decisions.

In the end, what matters, and what we are about, are the ancient truths of librarianship: organizing, managing, making available, preserving, and celebrating the word in all of its manifestations; helping our users build skill sets the fundamentals of which (if not the ephemeral details) will last a lifetime; and celebrating and defending the right to read, however that word is interpreted. This is what we do. This is who we are. This makes us librarians.

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26 Comments

  1. **wild applause**

    Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  2. Julie wrote:

    I agree with Colleen Harris – wild, standing on the chairs applause. Also throwing of bouquets.

    Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  3. Lisa wrote:

    And then you go and say things that (almost) make me regret dropping out of library school. No, I’m not going back for another degree, but that sure makes me want to work with/for/around you and I hope everyone else knows how lucky they are!

    Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink
  4. I read the last paragraph out loud to my wife and started to choke up.

    Thank you.

    Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Permalink
  5. Alice Yucht wrote:

    That last paragraph is OUR Hippocratic oath, and should be recited annually by everyone in Library-Land.

    Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Permalink
  6. Jenica wrote:

    Yes. Just yes.

    Also, I love how you write. I read what you wrote when our jobs didn’t have much in common because I loved your voice. Now that our jobs do have so much in common, I feel lucky that there’s a voice in the dark worth listening to. Thank you for that.

    Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Permalink
  7. kgs++

    Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink
  8. Andrea Thorpe wrote:

    That last paragraph is tremendous!

    Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  9. Roy Tennant wrote:

    I feel redundant, as I will only echo the kudos that previous writers have heaped upon you, and rightly so. There are few in libraryland who can both be so right and say it so well. For what it’s worth, I count mostly all women in that number. Certainly not myself, who is a hack compared to writers like you and Meredith Farkas and many others. I feel proud to count you friend.

    Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Permalink
  10. stevenb wrote:

    Having experience as the director of a small college similar to your own – and now as an AUL – where I have regular opportunity to observe the work of an ARL director, I think it’s not quite reasonable to compare your director job to that of an ARL director and then come away concluding you are a librarian and they are not. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. ARL directors are not there to decide if there should be food in the library or not – that’s what the AULs and librarians do – and then implement those decisions (and sure, the Dean knows what’s happening but depends on their team to get these things done). Why not compare what you do to what Paul Courant of Michigan does or Brian Schotlander at UC San Diego. Brian’s not dealing with food in the library or who’s at the reference desk – he’s leading an initiative to create a last copy held project for west coast libraries. You compare yourself to Trezciak based on what you do, not looking at all at anything he’s done at McMaster to bring in endowment donations, research dollars, significant collections, etc. Karen, I don’t agree with some of what Jeff said in his talk either – in which he says he was asked by his hosts at PSU (not Penn which is the U of Penn) to be intentionally provocative – which is what he gave them. But I think it’s not entirely fair to Jeff to say he’s not a librarian and that you are – when in fact almost any ARL director is not a librarian in the sense of what most of us would think of when we think of a librarian. Just trying to provide a different perspective, though in some ways I agree with others that your post is good inspiration.

    Monday, April 11, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink
  11. Steven, the gist of your comment is that the body of my work is focused on low-level policy decisions, and you seem preoccupied with the food policy, when the point was that I was quoting a university member how this person defined “cutting-edge” — with most examples about reestablishing classic services, which as a pecuniary matter is very much the UL’s call.

    I agree that there are huge deltas between my daily work and Jeff’s, some of it driven by size of institution and of course staffing, but you are simply wrong to suggest he and I are a different species.

    You also conclude that I have been doing nothing in the way of development work — a puzzling assumption on your part. What I have been doing (and I do not mean marketing the food policy, but “doing” on a high-level strategic plane) is very much related to development, and I have already seen success in that area. Money follows mission; mission follows vision. Many things small and large make — and break — a vision. Furthermore, no matter what the director does in terms of development, research dollars, etc., he or she is still the MFWIC (My Friend, What’s In Charge).

    As for being intentionally provocative, there are so many ways to do that without diminishing who we are as a profession. Also, Jeff wasn’t speculating about his library’s staffing and service model; he was describing what it would look like — again, in his role as the MFWIC.

    The typo re Penn has been corrected (by someone else, earlier).

    Monday, April 11, 2011 at 8:49 am | Permalink
  12. Eric Hellman wrote:

    As someone who’s not a librarian, I found the tone of this post reactionary and uncollegial, even as I agreed with much of its substance. Did you *really* need to put Trzeciak’s title in quotes, explicitly denigrating his dedication to your profession?

    Monday, April 11, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink
  13. Cathy wrote:

    Rock On!

    Monday, April 11, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  14. That daunting desk schedule felt totally justified when a student I didn’t even know before the beginning of the semester — who had quite possibly never looked for reference help in her prior 3.5 years here as a student — asked me to attend her senior paper presentation because of the help she feels she’s received from us while writing it.

    Of all the resources the academic library provides, the direct instruction, assistance and support represented by the librarians themselves is the most valuable (in my apparently not-so-humble opinion).

    Monday, April 11, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink
  15. I’m totally with you. Though the facility and other services are important, they wouldn’t be as meaningful without our direct support for research help. I think our motto should be Bread & Roses.

    Monday, April 11, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  16. Eric Hellman wrote:

    I’m back from finding out more about this “kerfuffle”. I’m still uncomfortable with the “librarians good, Trzeciak bad” arguments, but I’ve confirmed for myself that I really disagree with his vision for libraries and agree with yours.

    It’s important to note that IF you subscribe to his vision of what the library should be, then it’s inescapable that you have to hire differently, and that library-school trained folk are not the best people to implement that vision.

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink
  17. CLD wrote:

    The number of professional librarians at McMaster has been significantly reduced since Jeff’s tenure. Both through layoffs and people getting fed up and finding better jobs.

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Permalink
  18. This post is the seventh result for “Jeff Trzeciak” on Google.

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011 at 10:42 pm | Permalink
  19. Wow, and I thought I had a personal best for Orson Scott Card (and in this case I’m not even trying!). I notice a lot of link-outs. Does Twitter factor in?

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink
  20. Also, folks, I appreciate all the nice comments. I posted, then fell into the higher-ed undertow (except to respond to Steven Bell). But on catching up, I feel very close to a lot of you. Walt… figs. Jenica… we need a roundtable for directors like us’n.

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Permalink
  21. Lea wrote:

    You get a standing ovation for this article, I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to hear something (finally!) in defense of our traditional roles in the library profession– I get that we need to be moving in a more technology-focused direction if we want to stay relevant, but honestly, I am pretty tired of hearing about these directors sitting on their thrones and thinking that their one job is to make themselves look good– it’s not only in the big universities either, and I find it to be pretty scary that those in charge are leading academic libraries in really bizarre directions. Digital projects are great, yes they can help put your library/college on the map– but having this supplant reference and info lit instruction? Are they crazy??

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. I am definitely bookmarking this one!

    Saturday, April 16, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink
  22. Stephen Brindza wrote:

    Maybe Jeff was astonished by the fact that when he arrived at McMaster, “there were five librarians that had worked there longer than I’d been alive.” I know he was just trying to add context to his perspective, but like so much of his speech, it just comes out sounding wrong.

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  23. Carolyn Wood wrote:

    Brighter libraries are totally underrated in my opinion.

    Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  24. Stephen, it sounds ageist, too. Sheesh.

    Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  25. Charlie Hobbs wrote:

    Your post is just a tad hyperbolic. A bit defensive, are we?

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  26. S wil wrote:

    Seriously? The man writes about about finding, in his calculation, a starter use of his limited funds than often over-paid and under-productive professional librarians. As someone who spent many years observing the pathetically slow workpace that passes for productivity with some librarians I applaud his actions.

    Saturday, October 22, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

16 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] read Karen Schneider’s post at Free Range Librarian about a speech made by Jeff Trzeciak, the University Librarian at [...]

  2. [...] Thoroughly Modern Karen: A Response to Jeff Trzeciak [...]

  3. QOTD: Transforming Traditional Organizations « betaUB on Monday, April 11, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    [...] Jeff Trzeciak var en av våre kandidater til å snakke på emtacl10 i fjor, men av en eller annen grunn ble det ikke noe av det. Nå har han nettopp gjort furore i biblioteksverdenen med foredraget “Transforming Traditional Organizations”, som han holdt ved Penn State University sist fredag. Trzeciak er University Librarian ved McMaster University i Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Altså sjef. Han har skaffet seg et renomme som en som får ting til å skje. Hans beskrivelse av hva han har gjort og ikke minst tenker å gjøre ved McMaster har fått en stor flokk bibliotekarer både her og der til å tenne på alle pluggene. En av dem som har stått i bresjen for motbøren er K.G. Schneider i blogginnlegget Thoroughly Modern Karen: A Response to Jeff Trzeciak. [...]

  4. A few words from Amy · More library kerfluffles on Tuesday, April 12, 2011 at 11:48 am

    [...] but someone from IT or academia, or a para-professional with minimal education. Ah yes, the administrators who aim for the tedium of the middle ground: to be only “good enough.” How asinine! How [...]

  5. Re:Generations » Blog Archive » Professional future tense. on Tuesday, April 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    [...] focus their attention on faculty research consultations.  This has ruffled some feathers in lots of [...]

  6. [...] focus their attention on faculty research consultations.  This has ruffled some feathers in lots of [...]

  7. Moment in time at my place at Attempting Elegance on Tuesday, April 12, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    [...] Yes. I care deeply about the future of librarianship.  But like Karen Schneider, I care just as much about the future of the library entrusted to me as Director, and doing right [...]

  8. From Twitter 04-12-2011 | Search Tools Consulting Blog on Wednesday, April 13, 2011 at 6:12 am

    [...] 16:46:56: RT @kgs fabulous reply to Trzeciak, all about *real librarianship* http://freerangelibrarian.com/2011/04/10/thoroughly-modern-karen/ [...]

  9. [...] http://freerangelibrarian.com/2011/04/10/thoroughly-modern-karen/ [...]

  10. Whither, librarianship? « SAU Curriculum Library's Blog on Thursday, April 14, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    [...] the Chief Librarian at Canada’s McMaster University has garnered many responses from librarians. It has brought up issues about the profession, library and information schools,* and the future of [...]

  11. Jumping into the fray… | Angela Pashia on Sunday, April 17, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    [...] Only Model “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Reactions to Jeff Trzeciak Shut up, Jeff Thoroughly Modern Karen: A Response to Jeff Trzeciak LIS Education, Advocacy, and the Future of Librarianship This entry was posted in Uncategorized. [...]

  12. Bessere Tools statt IK-Veranstaltungen? « A growing organism on Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 5:42 am

    [...] ihm, Jeff Trzeciak,  wird derzeit in den US-amerikanischen Blogs mit einer ähnlichen Intensität angefeindet wie einst Gorman, und zwar weil auch Trzeciak die IK-Veranstaltungen zugunsten von E-Learning [...]

  13. [...] the right service, you will become irrelevant.  There are some libraries, as Karen Schneider has posted, that are increasing relevance by providing, among other services, more research (in other words, [...]

  14. [...] http://tinyurl.com/3vexugk http://jambina.com/blog/this-is-not-the-future-of-libraries/ http://freerangelibrarian.com/2011/04/10/thoroughly-modern-karen/ http://tinyurl.com/3u28pnn http://senseandref.blogspot.com/2011/04/shut-up-jeff.html [...]

  15. the future of academic librarianship on Monday, May 16, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    [...] post from Free Range Librarian: Thoroughly Modern Karen: A Response to Jeff Trzeciak [...]

  16. [...] Jeffrey Trzeciak. Some outspoken posts in support of librarians and the MLS were written by K. G. Schneider and Jenica Rogers. A counterpoint to these posts from librarian, Michael Furlough can be read [...]

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