Late last week my librarian twitter-sphere erupted into a new round of what is a regular topic of debate about the place for advanced subject degrees in the profession (for example, see here and here). Proponents argue that advanced subject degrees can directly inform library work by providing in-depth knowledge into a subject area being served. Proponents also argue for the indirect benefit of gaining experiential knowledge into the processes of academia. Opponents highlight that these perceived values are inflated, foster exclusion and elitism, and undermine the value of the library degree. The terms of the debate are fraught because they deeply interrogate the concept of librarianship as a unique profession. They also take on new meaning as PhDs are being increasingly positioned as having value for careers beyond the tenure track.

Yet, the debate can be re-framed by considering how scholars articulate their research support needs and what knowledge and services are necessary to provide that support. Most notably, there is a difference between the broader experiential insight that may come from going through the process of attaining an advanced subject degree and the specialized subject knowledge that is the goal of any such degree. Ithaka S+R’s work examining the research support needs of scholars by discipline complicates both of those positions.

For the Research Support Services (RSS) program, we examine scholars’ information-based activities and support needs by discipline through qualitative research. The goal of this program is to explore when and how disciplinary needs inform information-based services towards improving those services. Most notable in the context of the debate around advanced subject degrees and librarianship, in our previous studies in history, art history, chemistry and religious studies, we have consistently found that scholars do not generally rely on or perceive value in librarians with advanced subject degrees at their home institutions providing specialized reference support. Scholars are more likely to rely on their colleagues and students and, in the case of the humanities, information professionals at other institutions working on primary collections of relevance, for such specialized support. This insight, considered in conjunction with the reality that most collecting work at the institution level has been de-coupled from subject specialization, challenges previous models of subject specialist work, and by extension, the value of advanced specialist degrees to do that work.

The RSS program’s methodological approach also highlights that attaining an advanced subject degree is not the only way to gain insight into the experiences and needs of scholars in that subject area.  Using qualitative research methods (semi-structured interviews and photography) also enables us to capture the activities and perceptions of scholars. Crucially, for our recently completed religious studies project, our soon to be completed project on agriculture, and our currently fielded projects on public health and Asian Studies, this research is conducted by librarian collaborators. For each project we work with cohorts of librarian researchers who study the needs of the faculty at their own institutions and write local reports based on those insights, which complement capstone reports that Ithaka S+R writes based on data collected across the participating institutions. Recognizing the potential for qualitative research to provide insight into human activities and perceptions repositions advanced subject degrees as one among a variety of mechanisms for gaining insight into the information activities or needs of a discipline or the activities of academics more broadly.

There may be situations where earning an advanced degree in addition to a library degree is beneficial for library work. With the rapidly evolving information landscape, it is crucial that we attend carefully to what those benefits are. Understanding the needs and expectations of a key constituency, the scholars, is essential to doing so.