Do You Want a Master or Do You Want a Jack?

What are your strengths?  And are your strengths the same as the strengths as all of your peers?  My guess is, probably not.  I don’t ascribe to the jack of all trades, master of none concept.  We each excel at different things, because of our personal enthusiasms or access to resources, among many other reasons.  Libraries hire based on needed skills, often because there are gaps to fill or skills to supplement. It’s good to know your strengths – and weaknesses.

It can be hard, but it’s worth knowing what you have mastery of and what you don’t.  It’s a strategic knowledge, at a personal and organizational level, to know the scope of mastery.  It’s an antidote to the master-of-one, master-of-all perceptions that can otherwise muddy strategic choices in your career (life?) and for an organization..

At the bottom of this Library Journal post is an update on a topic I’ve been keeping an eye on: whether the American Library Association Executive Director should have an M.L.S.  The vote failed because less than 25% of members voted, but the preference was 2-1 in favor of the requirement among those who voted.  I’m not an ALA member so I don’t really have a dog in the fight, but, while I can understand the approach, it seems to be a statement rather than strategic necessity.

And it’s a different discussion from the typical does-a-librarian-need-an-MLS one.

There is an entire specialized group of people who run associations (and have their own association – no pressure for that ED!).  They run bar associations and library associations, and so on.  An executive director of a library association should be a highly skilled association director.  That may or may not be compatible with someone who has a library degree.

There are M.L.S. degreed librarians who are also certified by the ASAE, some running subscription law libraries, but that pool is going to be smaller than all ASAE-certified executive directors.  For my money, I’d rather have a skilled executive director who could brush up their understanding of libraries than a skilled library manager who needs to understand how associations – HR, development, membership retention, marketing – work.

I’ve seen the same thing in the law library world.  There is a conventional wisdom that law librarians with a law degree can somehow operate better as a law library manager or director.  One aspect of this, which seems a bit crass, is that lawyer-trained faculty or practitioners will look down less at a J.D., regardless of skills.  So the law degree takes on a distinguishing function that may not actually improve the likelihood that the person holding it will be successful.

It reminded me of a discussion that was going on amongst public libraries a few years back, when some Ontario public libraries were hiring directors (CEOs) who weren’t librarians.  That makes sense to me, and apparently it’s not uncommon.  It’s no secret that some of us get promoted beyond where we should be.  It requires the person seeking the position as well as those doing the review to be able to assess whether mastery in one area (or even just having a degree) necessarily will extend to mastery in other areas.

It’s not just in hiring.  We see this with libraries who are trying to figure out how to justify their role in an information environment where their old measures and attractions may not be as effective.  Public funding is under heavy pressure and it can be attractive to attempt to broaden reach to create a more defensible target – but it can be done at the expense of strategy.  Sure, you’re capable of doing it – but are you the best situated?

What is it that the law library is fundamentally good at?  What is it that the law library staff have mastery in?

Knowing answers to those questions are not only good for understanding the role the library and staff plays.  It is important to understand where growth can occur immediately, and where growth might occur given additional training or resources.  And it requires the same assessment – is the law library good at the service or resource or is someone else better able to deliver it?

I saw a report recently by someone who had an M.L.S. and but didn’t understand law libraries.  It proposed the same sorts of resources that public libraries are considering: maker spaces for lawyers with 3D printing, information commons, and the like.  There may be law libraries out there who have litigators wanting to 3D print their exhibits but it wasn’t applicable in the context for which it was proposed.  Not every idea – not even every good idea – works everywhere.

If you work in a library that circulates things, then a basic mastery the library probably has is circulation.  First, books.  Maybe that’s all.  A law library might circulate tools to students and litigators (laptops, projectors, a skeleton or an anatomical torso) even more than books.  But tools? seeds?  Is the mastery in being a lender, or is the mastery in access to information? or something else?

It can be a mistake to assume that a degree confers something that experience can’t.  And I think that people who have a responsibility to manage an organization should be cautious about making a statement that may be an obstacle to fulfilling the organization’s best interests.  If a qualifying degree improves the pool of candidates, or the likelihood of success, great.  But the examples I’ve seen have tended to narrow the pool and place limits on the organization’s future possibilities.


David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.

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