by Christa Williford (Program Officer, Council on Library and Information Resources)
My perspective on recruitment, training, and mentoring for area studies librarians is grounded in my experience with the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, a now ten year-old initiative in which I’ve been involved almost since its beginning. I was a fellow myself from 2004-2006 at Bryn Mawr College and now work closely with current fellows as one of the officers assigned to them at CLIR. Our program seeks to address a variety of issues affecting the development of leadership capacity for libraries and higher education, some of which were highlighted in the provocation statement provided for this workshop.
For those unfamiliar with the Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, CLIR offers recent Ph.D.s from all disciplines work experiences that introduce them to libraries as potential places from which to build exciting careers. We help our program partners, mostly academic and research libraries, create one to two-year fellowships that target short-term institutional needs that recent Ph.D.s can address. We bring each new cohort together at regular intervals throughout their fellowships for conversations about current changes affecting academic libraries, scholarly communication, and higher education. Our approach is much more like a platform for the mutual exchange of ideas than the delivery of a fixed curriculum, so it is rather different from more formal degree or certificate-granting educational or training opportunities. While I strongly believe in the value of our program, I also recognize that it is hardly a “one size fits all” model that could by itself address all the challenges facing us as we work toward building a robust and healthy digital research ecology for area studies.
Laying out a more comprehensive approach to recruitment, education, and training for area studies information professionals is a more daunting task. Before beginning we must come to terms with a variety of factors that are changing, and will continue to change, the roles of these professionals for the foreseeable future. How can we prepare to look out for the interests of future subject specialists when it is far from clear how, when, and where they will be doing their work? At this point we cannot be sure what scholarly research and higher education will look like in ten years’ time, much less for the balance of the twenty-first century. So we are left with the prospect of finding solutions to problems that are as-yet impossible to define.
For this reason, I would encourage current area studies librarians to think of a thorough and ongoing assessment of the needs of area studies scholars as an essential, necessary step toward recruitment and training of those who will be meeting those needs. Professionals who will be building and organizing future area studies collections, making these collections broadly accessible, or developing and sustaining the digital infrastructure in which the collections will live and grow, won’t succeed unless they are able to meet scholars and students where they are. A great deal of research into scholarly information behavior has been done already, of course, but my sense is that some domains we would describe as area studies are better understood than others. I would be interested in hearing from other workshop participants whether this is accurate. Combining the results of scholar needs assessments with a study of job responsibilities of current area studies librarians, as mooted in our Provocation Statement, would do a great deal to inform decisions about recruitment, mentoring, training, and re-training.
Secondly, we might consider that providing a complete support infrastructure to area studies scholars on an institution-by-institution basis through the work of individuals equally talented as research and teaching partners, technical advisors, and collection builders may neither be realistic nor the most efficient way forward. We do well to question the expectations behind individual job descriptions calling for excellence in all of these areas. As students of any area studies specialty know well, developing an appreciation of the intricacies of specific linguistic, cultural, and artistic traditions isn't always compatible with developing an equal appreciation for how these intricacies fit into a broader global context. Mastering theoretical frameworks for a discipline often impairs one's ability to recognize aberrations that challenge these frameworks. Those with the deepest knowledge in any given domain are often not the same people who are best prepared to teach its value to others, and vice-versa. If the producers of knowledge have unequal strengths, it is only reasonable to expect those who incubate, manage, and sustain this production to be similarly diverse. Among future area studies information professionals, some will be better at discerning and anticipating the way individuals teach and learn; others will be better at recognizing opportunities to adapt learning tools and methods from one discipline to another; still others will excel at envisioning technical solutions for the cognitive and social challenges affecting teaching, learning, research, and publication.
For these reasons I would suggest that a broad range of training models will remain applicable to area studies, and an open-minded approach to recruiting is requisite. After years working with the Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, I am encouraged that “MLS or equivalent training and experience” appears more often in academic library job descriptions than it once did, but I still hear from many of our job-seeking fellows that some library human resources departments reject them immediately despite the work experience they obtained through our program. While it may not address all training needs, Ph.D. programs do continue to produce people with relevant skills in area studies, particularly those programs at institutions with good library-faculty and library-graduate student communications. I wish more libraries recognized this, and also appreciated that this recognition in no way devalues the MLS degree or renders it or other professional degrees “replaceable”—rather, Ph.D. training in area studies can complement the strengths of LIS and IT specialists.
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As points for discussion in our workshop, we might consider the following:
- How might libraries and library and information schools become more deeply and consistently involved in the training of graduate and undergraduate students in area studies? Are there ways this involvement might reap long-term benefits for strengthening the human and cyber-infrastructures we need for area studies? Possibilities include teaching and co-teaching credit-bearing courses, offering more library-based internships or supervising independent study experiences for graduate students, providing advisory services for theses and dissertations, paid and credited work for students to contribute to library public programs, the inclusion of students on collection development committees, or offering workshops or seminars on data management, research methods, or academic careers in libraries—many of these activities are already happening on our campuses, and are opportunities to catch tomorrow’s potential leaders early in their careers.
- How might LIS schools create opportunities for MLIS students to “cross-train” in languages or area studies graduate programs? The alternative, creating new courses on area studies librarianship and basing them at LIS schools, is not what I would choose to do personally. Potential low enrollment is one problem, but an even greater issue is the vital importance of promoting strong working partnerships between librarians and faculty in area studies long term. It seems sensible we challenge students to work together in the classroom before expecting them to collaborate effectively on the job. However, I’d be interested to hear what others think about this.
- What might first jobs look like for “cross trained” MLIS and area studies graduates? Can we accommodate such graduates in permanent entry-level positions, or are short-term project-based appointments, such as fellowships, more appropriate? If the latter, what would these look like?
- How can we improve continuing education for current librarians seeking to develop their skills as subject specialists? I am often asked by librarians when CLIR is going to create an “inverse” program to our Postdoctoral Fellowship, one in which practicing librarians are given leave and support to obtain work experience in the humanities. Would such a scheme be feasible? I am not convinced that it would be realistic to expect ongoing funding for such a program, but I may be mistaken about this. Regardless, it is clear that without provisions for some kind of continuing education for current professionals, skill sets will continue to stagnate, and long-term solutions to our recruitment problems will remain elusive.
- For those who are currently making recruiting and hiring decisions for area studies positions, what skill areas and kinds of experience are absolutely essential for these positions, and what might be acquired or developed “on the job”? If by chance there is some degree of consensus about professional development needs common for new area studies librarians, it is possible to envision a nationally coordinated effort targeting those specific needs.
- Is there a way to make it easier for area studies librarians to request mentoring, help, and advice from peers at a national (or even global) level as they make professional development and hiring decisions? Since I am not currently an area studies librarian I am interested in hearing how and where current practitioners and directors get the advice they need.
- Can we create opportunities for students, librarians, and scholars interested in the development of information resources in area studies to network with one another not just locally, but globally? CLIR manages the Rovelstad Scholarship program, which awards one LIS student each year with support to attend the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) annual conference. We’ve found over the years that a relatively small investment of this kind can make an enormous difference to a young professional. When asked for an example of what such opportunities can mean, my colleague Alice Bishop wrote to me the following:
"[Our 2011 recipient had a] strong interest in Latin American Studies librarianship [that] led him to pursue a dual-degree graduate program in both Library Science and Latin American and Caribbean Studies…. While in graduate school, he also pursued a number of academic and job opportunities that enabled him to hone his skills in key areas required for an aspiring librarian in the international field: reference, collection management, web design, and bibliographic database maintenance. After returning from IFLA, he wrote 'As a dual-degree master’s student…I have gained valuable work experience and benefited from outstanding mentorship opportunities. However, it was at IFLA’s World Library and Information Congress that I felt, perhaps for the first time, a profound sense of professional identity as a librarian, a sense of belonging to a worldwide community of practice, not simply a profession. I can best describe my experience—at the risk of hyberbole—as transcendent.' He went on to write that he made connections with librarians around the world that will last a lifetime. After receiving the scholarship, this student held a fellowship that took him to Brazil for a year for advanced research and linguistic training."