What the Humanities PhD Crisis Means for Academic Librarians | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

Academic librarians ought to think like Groucho Marx

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Over the past two years the job market for academic librarians offered nothing much to cheer. It’s been tough on new-to-the-profession colleagues seeking to enter the workforce. The country’s and higher education’s economic crisis severely curtailed the hiring flow at most colleges and universities, while those on the cusp of retirement stayed a while longer.

The hiring freeze is starting to thaw. At my own institution we have several open positions, and more will be coming over the next few months. True, many of the open jobs here and elsewhere require some unique skills, but the opportunities are blossoming just the same. Despite the tough times, academic librarianship looks like a bonanza of golden opportunities compared to what’s happening in graduate education in the humanities. The April 9, 2010, Chronicle Review on the crisis for humanities PhDs contained many compelling articles well worth reading.

LIS students could have it worse
The gist of the special issue is this: the employment outlook for PhD students in the humanities is as bad as it’s ever been, and likely to worsen. Supply far exceeds the demand, and the chances for getting that dream tenure-track position is becoming more remote. At least graduate LIS students have eventual prospects for a career in their chosen profession.

There are nearly 20 ARL directorship positions open; many are retirements. As they get filled, the trickle down will open slots on the front line. Perhaps that’s not the news LIS graduate want to hear, but the trends point to more employment opportunity in academic librarianship. PhDs in the humanities only wish for such prospects—and some of them will give up on a faculty position for a career in academic librarianship.

The blame game
What happened? It depends on whom you ask—just take a look at the set of interviews with administrators, faculty, and students. Gordon Gee and Mark Bousquet hardly see eye to eye on this one. It comes down to a handful of problems. Start with academic institutions that depend on graduate students as part of their labor force. As much as department chairs might want to limit enrollment in humanities graduate studies, teaching assistants are needed to teach all of those freshman reading/writing courses.

The professoriate itself has undergone radical change. Twenty years ago full-time faculty were the majority, but now it’s part-timers and that means fewer tenure track jobs for PhDs. Retirements have an impact too. But as one “I refuse to go” faculty member pointed out, even if he did retire his institution would likely replace him with two part-time positions.

The rapid rise of for-profit universities is another factor. The University of Phoenix is the largest (by enrollment) American university and while it has loads of humanities PhDs working for it, it’s typically part-time, no-benefits work.

Multiple forces are working in combination to create a dismal job market. As Peter Conn says in his opening essay—the one you need to read if you have time for only one piece from this issue—“just about all of the key drivers are simultaneously pointed in the wrong direction.”

Anyone talking about solutions?
For those working on a humanities doctorate, this Chronicle Review was hardly a revelation. So what about solutions? Will the market for full-time, tenure track positions for humanities faculty recover? Conn and others do offer suggestions. The most obvious one is for higher education institutions to admit fewer PhDs into their doctoral programs, but Conn points to a number of challenging cascading consequences. For at least one, the teaching assistant problem, he says, “I have no remedy.” In other words, just cutting PhD candidates offers little hope.

How about eliminating the faculty “star” system where a few at the top get outstanding compensation? That could create funds for more tenure track slots, but will faculty holding tenure and power allow that sort of change?

It would help if the graduate programs and their advisors were more open with applicants about the declining number of tenure track opportunities, but some say that may hardly dissuade candidates with a dream of the professorial lifestyle. The bitter reality may be that, for all the reasons stated above, those jobs are gone and they won’t be back. Though it’s unpopular, many humanities PhDs are being encouraged to explore non-academic careers.

Impact on academic librarians
In the humanities, the academic librarian has a friend. Faculty and graduate students in these disciplines are among the best, most loyal community members we have. Just consider where most of our information literacy programs have their start—typically an English course.

According to the most recent Faculty Survey from the Ithaka Group, even though their use of the library has declined some, humanities faculty are still big library users compared to STM or B-school faculty. The logical conclusion is that a decline in full-time humanities faculty and a reduced flow of new colleagues bodes poorly for academic librarians.

The new generation of contingent faculty has far less time and inclination for collaboration. When they do, it’s often forced on them as a departmental requirement, and that hardly makes for a strong relationship. The librarian liaison traditionally uses subject expertise to assist faculty in using research databases and introducing the next generation of scholars to these resources. Looking ahead five years we have to wonder, what audience will  we have for liaison services? An aging professoriate resisting retirement and a host of adjuncts; the prospects for those groups doing much research in the humanities and requiring the services of librarians is questionable at best.

Think like Groucho Marx
Seth Godin wrote an insightful blog post about Groucho Marx and how he adapted to changing external environments over which he had no control. When movies killed vaudeville, Marx adapted the act for film. When television limited his prospects for movie roles, Groucho became one of the most successful hosts of early television with pioneering ideas.

Academic librarians need to think like Groucho. We have no control over what’s happening to humanities PhDs, but we can rethink ways to serve the rest of the humanities faculty. Adjuncts have little use for research support, but there are ways we can save them time on task and time is their most valued commodity. Instead of spending time on research support and building extensive collections that might go unused, perhaps we need to carve out a larger role in course design  or learning support for students.

If there’s more opportunity for research support in the sciences and business, we need to shift our support to those disciplines and make converts where we can, especially in providing copyright, author rights and publishing support to graduate students in those fields. If we’re losing loyal community members in one area, let’s build new relationships in less developed territory.

None of this is to suggest we should abandon support to the humanities. But when a host of humanities faculty, administrators, and students sees no easy way out of this mess, academic librarians better be ready to think differently. The days of just opening up our welcoming arms to humanities PhDs who come knocking on our doors for help may be over. Time to start exploring new strategies where the humanities-librarian relationship is concerned.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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