Re-evaluating knowing “too much about too little”

Are the most desirable reference and research librarians ones who are subject-experts, or those who have excellent broad knowledge in many areas (i.e. generalists)? Lately I’ve heard a number of opinions on the debatable impediments of subject specialization (see Pereyaslavska’s article in The Courier, re: “being overqualified”), along with the advantages of being a generalist reference librarian.  Both of these positions disagree with my longstanding view of the benefits of a second Masters degree.

I am quite interested in this “debate”, for I have often thought that being a “subject expert” is what made excellent librarians (among other qualities, of course). The abilities to discover, interpret, evaluate, acquire, and recommend relevant information resources are what reference and research librarians are trained to do, and fundamentally, it is what sets us apart from other research professionals. I respect any librarian with a subject-specific affiliation (i.e. a second Masters degree), because they are familiar with appropriate thesaurus terms for specific databases, have seasoned knowledge of research trends, and overall, have a uniquely sophisticated understanding of a subject area. Having experience and background in a particular field can increase the quality of reference and research by being value-added, intellectual, rigorous, and more thorough. In the previous issue of The Courier, Pereyaslavska expressed her uncertainties about being too specialized, revealing that perhaps some academic reference departments prefer a generalist librarian.  She wrote that “I have been repeatedly advised by a number of academic librarians that my graduate background is too specialized to provide proper breadth for reference services, which may be expected at a general academic reference desk. Have I shot myself in the foot by acquiring my M.A., and do I really know too much about too little?”

In response to Pereyaslavska’s doubts, I respectfully and encouragingly disagree. At many large academic institutions, librarians work together to staff a general reference desk, responding to a broad range of reference inquiries. While a librarian assists an undergraduate student with research for their paper on a Feminist critique of The Watchmen, the graduate student next in line might require in-depth reference assistance in locating rare British Parliamentary Papers. Having an advanced-subject expertise in one field should not limit your approach and response to reference questions outside your specialization. Obtaining graduate-level education on top of the practical education of an MISt/MLIS can position someone far better for academic librarianship. In practice, specialists have more experience executing varying levels of academic research, and have had greater exposure to academic processes. In addition, there is more to academic librarianship than assisting at an information desk. Collection development and information literacy are two tasks that, when performed by a librarian with related subject-specialization, are inherently and exponentially improved.

Moreover, attitudes toward generalists and subject specialists can differ from one academic library to the next. Some will value that their librarians hold a second Masters degree in the subject for which they have liaison responsibilities, while others might appreciate a general and holistic approach to academic research subjects and processes. It comes down to workplace culture (Mayer & Terrill, 2005): the librarians at University X may value professional development opportunities, workshops, courses, learning from each other, and long-term exposure to providing reference to obtain a level of “expert generalism”. University Z might require that their librarians hold a second masters degree. I do not think that Pereyaslavska has shot herself in the foot. There is a great interest (and need) for librarians with higher and specialized education. They can often be found in management roles, and at well established academic institutions.

Qualities that make a formidable generalist librarian include being adaptive, resourceful, a quick learner and creative problem-solver. So far, my honours Bachelor of Arts in history and sociology, in combination with formal library training have made me a skilled reference and research librarian. Although not a specialist (yet?) and therefore a generalist, I am one who recognizes the need for both, and a mixture of each. As a librarian, I plan to pursue professional development initiatives, and to continuously expand my knowledge and abilities. With increasing experience and training, it is my aspiration to grow into the type of librarian that exceeds the generalist, but does not quite meet the specialist… Something which Smith and Oliva (2010) have termed a “renaissance librarian”. A renaissance librarian is someone with accomplishments in diverse areas, who possesses knowledge in many subjects. They achieve this through “broadening their intellectual horizons by cross training informally with each other and obtaining formal training from their colleagues and from outside resources.” They attend and participate at conferences, pursue professional instruction courses, read professional literature, and collaborate with team members (p.144). Renaissance librarianship is the way for me.

References

Mayer, J. & L. J. Terrill.  “Academic librarians’ attitudes about advanced-subject degrees.”  College & Research Libraries, vol. 66, no. 1, January 2005: pp. 59-73.

Pereyaslavska, K. “How much is too much and how little is not enough.” The Courier, vol. 47, no. 3, Spring 2010. Retrieved June 29, 2010 from http://units.sla.org/chapter/ctor/newsletter/courier.asp?eid=24&aid=269

Smith, D. A. & V. T. Oliva. “Becoming a renaissance reference librarian in academe: attitudes toward generalist and subject specific reference and related profession development.” Reference Services Review, vol. 38, no. 1, 2010: pp. 125-151.

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