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New Terminal Degree: Yes Or No?

New terminal degree: Yes or no?

If the responsibilities and obligations of academic librarians are changing and resembling more that of our faculty colleagues, should the PhD be the new terminal degree?

Thirteen academic librarians (four library directors; nine librarians in various roles) were asked to respond to five questions about the PhD. Of these, six were LIS PhDs, five hold doctorates in a variety of disciplines (higher education, art, business, political science, and education), and two are still in process (communications studies, humanities).

In their own words, here are excerpts from their comments.

Should the PhD be the new terminal degree for academic librarians?

“No, but I think that there is a place for a doctorate, particularly if you want to go into administration.”

Colleen Cook, Dean of Libraries, McGill University

I don’t think it is necessary ‐ it’s more important that we understand the forthcoming needs of academic libraries and find people who have those skills and talents, whether they have a PhD or not.”

Denise Koufogiannakis, Associate University Librarian, University of Alberta

“Perhaps one day, but probably not at present. There are certainly benefits to having a doctorate, but instituting it as a requirement for entrance to academic librarians would create a tiered system that I’m not sure would serve the profession well.”

Rumi Graham, Graduate Studies Librarian, University of Lethbridge

“I don’t think that it should be ‘the’ terminal degree, but I think and hope that it is recognized as ‘a’ terminal degree.”

Adam Lauder, former W.P. Scott Chair for e-Librarianship, York University, and current instructor, OCAD University

“No. Generally it is a theoretical degree and is not focused on practice. It would be ideal, I think, if there was some reward for having a higher level degree, but is should not be an essential component of the job for everyone.”

Margaret Law, Director, External Relations, Library, University of Alberta

“No. I don’t think we necessarily need more librarians with PhDs, particularly if all the PhDs were in Library Science. Most academic clients tend to value the services and programs we offer as professionals not necessarily the research we might be doing. Generally liaison librarians are recognized for their professional knowledge and skills not their academic bonafides, i.e. whether they have a disciplinary PhD or not.”

A current University Librarian in Western Canada

“No. We should first be stressing a second Masters perhaps over a PhD. I don’t really see how this would add to the work of many people. And would possibly place an unnecessary financial and personal burden on folks keeping many people from joining the profession. It also depends on the order one receives the degree. Would we want people to have a MLS? Or is there an argument for getting rid of the MLS? Despite the problematic nature of some aspect of the MLS program, there is important professional knowledge conveyed with the program.”

Stacy Allison-Cassin, W.P. Scott Chair in E-Librarianship, York University

I want to say ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to this question. If the PhD becomes the new terminal degree for academic librarians, I would strongly advocate that individuals have at least five years directly related experience in practice between the MLS and the PhD; I believe the person who enters the PhD program directly from a MLIS with limited or no practical experience will be too narrow in perspective, understanding and knowledge.”

Nancy Black, Executive Director, Library, Nipissing University & Canadore College

“I would argue against that. I believe that most librarians have the necessary education and expertise they require to do their jobs well. I do think that libraries can benefit from PhD librarians, particularly in emerging non-traditional areas such as scholarly communication. I don’t believe that all librarian roles require a PhD. I would also stress again that PhDs will only be valuable if libraries are able/willing to evolve and provide people with positions that allow them to make the most of the experience and expertise they have gained.”

Pascal Lupien, Research and Scholarship Librarian, University of Guelph

“I believe that questions like this are partly responsible for the hostility with which some librarians view the PhD. Librarians with PhDs can make some librarians without PhDs feel professionally insecure. And yet, I believe that in an ideal world, yes, all academic librarians would have a PhD. One is simply better equipped to work in a university environment as a member of the academic staff with a PhD than without a PhD.”

Scott McLaren, Associate Librarian, Humanities & Religion, York University

“No, I don’t think so. I do however think that librarians should individually and collectively consider what knowledge, education, and experience that we feel would contribute to stronger individual researchers and a stronger research culture within our profession. And then look for new and unique ways that librarians may gain this knowledge and experience. I just do not believe that the PhD- and its accompanying efforts, commitment, and costs- are the only or best way to meet those desires and needs.”

Selinda Berg, Head, Information Services, Leddy Library, University of Windsor

“I have the pleasure of working with a group of very talented and capable colleagues, most of whom do not have PhDs, and they make very fine librarians and archivists. I do, however, believe it to be important that librarians and archivists position themselves as expert consultants (as opposed to service providers) in their interactions with faculty. We need to be mindful of demonstrating our expertise and our value, and non-professional graduate study cultivates our scholarly identity while immersing us more deliberately in academic culture.”

Andrea Kosavic, Acting Associate University Librarian, Digital Services, York University

“As a general rule across librarianship more generally NO. However, within academic librarianship and for those seeking a career within professional practice with a focus on academic librarianship, it should be a requirement before tenure is approved; as opposed to at initial recruitment. If you are serious about being part of The Academy, then a doctorate comes with that territory. For my position to be reflected in practice, employers will need to understand the commitment necessary to support practitioners in early to mid-career, who enroll in doctoral studies. Support in practical terms ﴾time release, financial assistance, etc.﴿ and a set of very clear standards for tenure will also be required.”

Vicki Williamson, Dean of Libraries, University of Saskatchewan


Michael Ridley is a librarian and the director of the First Year Seminar Program at the University of Guelph. Former chief librarian and CIO at Guelph, he is currently a part-time LIS PhD student at Western University.

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