Inventing oneself in the research library profession

“I want to be a research librarian”, a newly minted graduate of philosophy told us a couple of months ago. She sees research libraries as being in a process of tremendous change and as a place where she might carve an exciting career for herself. We have reached the conclusion that her wish is genuine and heartfelt. So how are we going to help her?

Until 2000 the answer would have been to ask her to apply for a vacancy in connection with a subject specialist’s retirement and then to enrol at the Royal School of Library and Information Science to do a Master of Library Science degree.

The MLS course was meant for newly employed research librarians, who already had a domain specific Master’s degree.

The idea was that by way of this supplementary programme a graduate would be able to put his/her original domain specific capacity into a Library and Information Science LIS perspective. Thus focus was on the librarian’s traditional practical functions: Choice of materials, classification and systematization, reference work, documentation literature and online search, user service and collection care.

Figure 1: Value compass

Figure 1: Value compass

Consequently, you would be able to meet the research libraries’ needs by combining the heavy domain specific education theory and methods with the librarian’s more traditional practical functions. At that time, the general perception was probably that more prestige was associated with being a research librarian (specialist and theorist), rather than being a librarian (generalist and practician). This is illustrated in the value compass figure 1.

The vertical axis reflects the anticipated level of education in relation to handling the different functions in the library. The horizontal axis is more difficult to label, but it reflects the degree of idealism vis a vis pragmatism in relation to handling the tasks in the library.

The thesis here is that probably the traditional research librarian would often find himself in the upper part of the compass, while the rest of the library staff (including the librarians) would be placed in the lower part. Obviously, this created the basis for potential tension between the research librarians and ‘the others’ (i.a. the librarians).

Not a new issue

This tension is not new. It appears from i.a. Catherine Arnott Smith’s rendition of a conference on education of specialists at the University of Washington in 1967, where ALA’s ‘education officer’ Lester Asheim offered a classic argumentation: “Asheim denied that a specialist education was any business of the library school”

Smith further argued: “The generalist’s argument is, then, that because specializations are the proper domain of subject experts, and subject experts are practitioners, and practitioners by definition cannot be full-time faculty members because they are busy practicing, then no full-time faculty member can teach specialist courses, and, therefore, all education located in a library school must necessarily be the education of generalists”.


A useful tool in understanding and explaining this field of tension is Bourdieu’s Field Theory. The Field Theory explains the structures in a given social world (like for example a library), including the power struggles which individuals and social groupings engage in against each other: What the struggles are actually about is to obtain the position(s) in the field that gives you the most prestige.

In our value compass the vertical axis represents the volume of cultural capital, which according to Bourdieu more often than not is based on the volume (and length) of education: The more education, the more cultural capital and consequently prestige. It is therefore obvious that more prestige is obtainable as research librarian in a research library when prestige is tied up with the length of the education.

But a field is never static, as there is naturally always a struggle for the power to decide exactly what is associated with power and what is not. Moreover, here the authors perceive that the research librarians are under massive pressure: The library world is probably one of the places where traces from the transition from industrial society to knowledge society are most clearly evident. Almost nothing is like before.

Lift of the library profession

The library profession has therefore had to upgrade itself in order to keep up with developments. Numerous new disciplines have been incorporated. Today it is for example necessary for a librarian to be very familiar with information technology, statistics, cultural mediation, scientific study methods, communication and pedagogics, just to mention a few examples.

Being a librarian is today a highly specialized area with its own Master’s and Ph.D. degree. Putting books on shelves, cataloguing and systematization are now just a small part of the modern librarian’s tasks.

The educational lift of the library profession has meant that the librarian now moves above the horizontal axis, thereby also challenging the research librarian’s position in the field. This is for example reflected in the research libraries’ annual reporting to Statistics Denmark, which shows that the percentage of staff in the research libraries that comprises the research librarians in 2015 was 9 percent compared with 11 percent in 2009.

More academics

At the same time, librarians and other academic staff made up almost 50 percent in 2015 compared with 45 percent in 2009. Over the entire period the number of employees in all categories decreased by about 7 percent, while the figure concerning research librarians decreased by 21 percent in 2015. Simultaneously, the number of librarians stays more or less stable, and the number of other academic staff has increased slightly.

The statistics illustrate the tendency over the past few years in several research libraries: The classic specialised research librarians are being replaced by more generalist information specialists with an academic background.

Research librarian’s position challenged

At the same time – and probably partly contributing to this – developments within the academic world have brought about an undermining of the role of the research librarian: The subject areas of researchers are steadily getting more specialized and the competition for research funding and jobs has intensified.

Consequently, it has become much harder for the research librarians to keep abreast of developments within the entire subject area. So while the focus of research narrows, the domain specific field, which the research librarian is supposed to cover, is broadening. The traditional task of the research librarian is therefore more or less unsolvable today.

Must choose competencies

The point is that the research librarian’s traditional prestigious position in the field is challenged – yes, in fact threatened. Which brings us back to the original question: How will a young person be able to make a career as a research librarian? When the old education sandwich consisting of a domain specific basis education, with the addition of a supplementary training, no longer provides prestige, what then? Which competencies should a young adult, who wants to make a career in a research library, then concentrate on? 

This is actually such a good question that we are unable to come up with an unequivocal answer. But paradoxically, it is the missing answer that provides the answer.

Choose the right weapons

The fact is that the positions in the value compass change very quickly, because the research libraries are in a rapid state of flux. As we are talking in terms of an almost constant change, it is not clear what provides the maximum prestige in a modern research library and thus what leads to a career: Is it being able to plan a study start event, write a textbook on information search, schedule teaching for researchers et cetera. Or is it being able to focus on breadth or on depth – is it to be practician or theorist – generalist or specialist?

The point is that the research librarian must choose her weapons, because no one can be everything and all functions are important and therefore contain an inherent potential for giving prestige.

Therefore, we do not think that a single streamlined educational offer is the answer to how we can help our young friend. She must – so to speak – invent herself and choose her own way into the system by choosing a palette of different competencies. The only guidance we can offer is to advise her to make sure that she under stands and has competencies within all four positions in the compass.

She will still have to have a certain comprehensive view of her domain specific field, as her entire raison d’etre for working in a research library is her specific specialist knowledge. But she will also have to acquire some insight into important topical theories within the Library, Documentation and Information field. Here she must focus and select amongst a myriad of fields.

Let us take an example and assume that she is interested in bibliometrics, then bibliometric theory will also be very important to her. She will also need to have some practical knowledge: She will have to have some knowledge of how a series of complicated databases and IT tools work, as well as solid insight into quantitative method. She must be enough of a generalist to understand the big differences that exist between publishing traditions of the main fields and the libraries’ role in the knowledge society.

A flexible master education

The point is that today’s competence needs are individualised, because the field is under reconstruction. But this is exactly why a bright young person through careful planning can establish a career by consciously seeking to cover all positions in the diagram within her chosen field. This is why we can only offer her an education framework within which she must – so to speak – invent herself.

In order to create such a framework, SDUB has started a collaboration with Institute for Design and Communication under SDU in Kolding in Jutland, which runs the bachelor degree course in Library Science and Knowledge Communication. The plan is to develop a flexible master education together, where the student together with a career advisor and a study board composes her specialist portfolio.

The flexible Master’s course includes 60 ECTS and can take as long as six years. The study board can stipulate that the theoretical and practical subjects of a certain weight, that the course should be completed with a Master’s dissertation, but otherwise it is in principle completely up to the student and her supervisor which specialist subject to focus on: Bibliometrics? Project management? Management? There are numerous and useful possibilities for a modern research library. 

We expect that the first students can enrol for the flexible Master’s programme starting autumn 2017.

Head of Section University Library of Southern Denmark
Library Director, Ph.D. President, The Danish Research Library Association