Alt-Ac: Breathing Life into Libraries or Eroding the Profession?


The Alt-Ac movement is a response to the dismal academic job market and the toxicity of graduate school an opportunity for scholars to use skills developed in their studies in new contexts. If you’re unfamiliar with the term Alt-Ac, it’s shorthand for “alternative academics,” and describes people that have left the professoriate to pursue jobs in non-profits, government, libraries, museums, and the private-sector. In this post, we’ll focus on libraries and continue the Alt-Ac conversation.

Innovation vs Protectionism

As was pointed out in the comments of my post, “What Does an Unsuccessful Academic Library Look Like,” libraries need to change and adapt. They need to ask faculty and students what they want from a library and plan accordingly. Does that mean libraries of tomorrow will look different than libraries of today? Does it mean libraries will no longer support core services? Or, does it mean libraries will continue to forge a hybrid role on campuses as an engaged partner in teaching, learning, and research?

A former colleague once told me the MLS was the most expensive union card you could buy. While there are jobs in libraries that require an ALA-accredited degree, a trend recognized by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) stated:

We may see an increasing number of non-MLS professionals in academic libraries with the skills needed to work in this changing environment. Graduate LIS programs and professional organizations will be challenged to provide new and relevant professional development while individual librarians and their institutions will struggle to fund such development. The profession may need to consider whether the terminal degree required for librarians should be changed or broadened.

Does the statement by the ACRL devalue the MLS or ALA-accreditation or does it acknowledge the changing roles of libraries?

Strange Case of Jekyll Ph.D & Hyde MLS

In the post, “Of Hybrarians, Scholar-Librarians, Academic Refugees, & Feral Professionals,” Amanda Watson describes her worry “about avoiding the stereotype of the clueless humanities Ph.D who grudgingly takes a library job after failing to land a faculty job, and then looks down on his or her library colleagues.” But, does the opposite also hold true? Do librarians look down on their colleagues who have a Ph.D?

Lisa Spiro describes being quietly dropped from a group for library professionals at Rice in the post “What is She Doing Here?” and further urges institutional decision makers to “get past obstacles based on status.” Her advice does not apply to just libraries, but to the general academic environment, as alternative academics navigate academia.

In looking at librarians reactions to Ph.Ds entering the profession, a point of interest is the 2011 controversy over a presentation by, then University Librarian of McMaster University, 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 here.

If you don’t like clicking on links, the bullet points from one of Jeff Trzeciak’s slides reads:

New hires

  • Unlikely to be librarians
  • Unlikely to be traditional paraprofessional
  • Likely to come out of IT, including audio/video production
  • Likely to be PhDs
  • Likely to have skills we haven’t even though of
  • Likely to be shared with other units

Jump to Today

It’s 2013, the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship program is still accepting applications, tenure-track positions may be the new Alt-Ac career, and controversy has now shifted to the New York Public Library and Edwin Mellen Press.

Where are we in this conversation regarding Ph.D’s in libraries? If you are a librarian, a paraprofessional, a postdoc, or library professional without an ALA-accredited degree, I’d like to hear from you.

What’s been your experience working in libraries and how do you view Alt-Ac’s in libraries?


9 thoughts on “Alt-Ac: Breathing Life into Libraries or Eroding the Profession?”

  1. I’d don’t look down on anybody, but I’ll admit that I see far more Dual-Degree (MLIS and Masters/PHD) librarian positions that I used to, even in the last 5 years.

  2. Hi, Tim — this is just a quick comment on your opening line. I think most of the community sees alt-ac not as a response to negative things (what you call a dismal market and “toxic” culture — neither of which I experienced! many of us in these sorts of positions sought them out as a first choice), but rather as a positive opportunity: how can people with deep humanities training contribute some hard-won skills and useful perspectives to scholarly communications and cultural heritage work, at a moment of great transformation?

    Keeping on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,

  3. I feel like it’s easy for the conversation to devolve into “us vs. them.”

    On the one side, Librarians preach about how only people with MLSs can do the work of librarian-ing. On the other side, people working in libraries without the MLS talk about how outdated the idea of traditional library services (and the librarians who perform them) are.

    But I don’t think that’s an especially nuanced debate, nor do I think it reflects well on those of us who do have MLSs and aren’t very welcoming to those without them who want to help grow the Library of the Future.

    It is absolutely true that libraries have room to grow and adapt. I think you’re right when you suggest the libraries need to ask their users what *they* need and create services that meet those needs, rather than jamming services and collections down their throats. I suspect that doing that will shake the profession to its core and, in the end, create services we can’t imagine.

    I feel like there is plenty of room in the Library of the Future for Hybrarians or Shambrarians or whatever name we want to give people who come to work in the Library to help impact users. I would argue, though, that there will always be a place in the Library of the Future for traditional library services, and traditional Librarians, even if the shape these services take evolves radically.

    And I think it’s all good.

  4. Pingback: Understanding AltAc | Eduhacker

  5. jeffrey trzeciak

    Good post Tim. I’m sorry you left Wash U before my arrival! Let’s grab a drink at a conference sometime and chat. I’d be interested in hearing what you learn from this post.

  6. Pingback: Event – Webinar: Librarianship as an “Avocational Vocation” – Advice for new professionals METRO | Stephanie L. Gross, MSLIS

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