The Critical Librarian / The Scholar Librarian / Other library literary critical approaches?

About Aaron McCollough

English Literature Librarian, University of Michigan

With this post, I want to do one thing, and I want to avoid doing another thing.


–I want to ask for feedback about the scholarly practices of librarians with subject expertise in English Literature.


–I do not want to get tied up in the PhD v. MLS debate sparked by Jeff Trzeciak’s April talk on the Future of Academic Librarianship. I know there are merits to talking about the differences between these degrees, but there is plenty of discussion taking place elsewhere on the subject.


So, with that out of the way…


*It has occurred to me lately that many English Literature specialists publish scholarly articles all the time, but I’m not sure how many publish scholarly articles that pertain to (or amount to) English Literary criticism. My first question, then, would be: what amount of our scholarly output as professionals might fall in this domain? I’d love to hear from people who are doing work they consider literary critical, and I’d love to hear about people you know of who are doing this kind of work. I’d also like to hear from those who don’t do it, of course, but (as I said above) I’m not particularly interested in rehearsing a debate about educational backgrounds; there’s no reason to assume that a subject-based critical practice would be arrogated to the PhD-holders.


*My second, related, question is: are there (could there be) meaningful differences in the way librarians do literary critical work? That is to say, might librarians be bringing something unique to the table here, and if they are, how would we describe that uniqueness?


*My third, and final, question depends on the first two. If there isn’t interest in those, then the answer to this one is obviously just, “no.” Might it make sense to start a peer-reviewed academic journal (probably open-access / online) that focuses specifically on the critical scholarship of subject specialist librarians? I’m probably imagining a “humanities” scope rather than the narrower “literature” scope, but you see where I’m going with this…

10 Responses to “The Critical Librarian / The Scholar Librarian / Other library literary critical approaches?”

  1. Jen Bartlett says:

    Hi Aaron – Thank you for bringing up this topic. I would also be interested in hearing about the scholarship that humanities subject specialists are doing. Another point of discussion might also be how our institutions treat such work from a promotion and/or tenure perspective. When I was getting my master’s in English (and working as a librarian), I presented at conferences as a graduate student, but this activity wasn’t recognized in my role as librarian. My current institution provides more support, but now I have less time, alas. What are other people’s experiences?
    I’m intrigued by the peer-reviewed journal idea too. Maybe this could be a good topic for a round table discussion at an upcoming conference?
    Thanks again!
    Jen Bartlett, University of Kentucky Libraries

  2. Pete Coco says:

    I think this would make a great journal. There’s really quite a diversity of experience and perspective amongst humanities librarians and a forum for articulating what we all have in common would be pretty neat.

  3. Aaron McCollough says:

    Hi Jen & Pete–

    Thanks for the input. I’m curious about this, too (which I guess is obvious). Because the scholarly publishing world is changing so rapidly, because the role of the library in that change is interesting but up-in-the-air, and because “scholarship” is an ambiguous part of our professional development and credentialing, I think it’s a very worthy thing to talk about in a professional context. I certainly don’t think we want to mimic the deeply flawed publishing practices of the “disciplines,” but we do have contributions to make, and this seems like a good time to be asserting them to a broader audience…

    I hope others will chime in.


  4. Liorah Golomb says:

    Since becoming a librarian my research has had a librarianship focus, but I try to tie in my subject background in dramatic and other literature as well. I’ve published on the MLA bibliography, graphic novels in academic libraries, and selecting poetry for academic libraries. Right now I’m working on one of the Scarecrow books on doing literary research. I have a project in the early planning stages with my colleague, the history of science librarian here, on scientific events in plays.

    I can compare differences in how I work as a subject librarian with what I did as a drama scholar. Now my writing involves a lot more evidence-gathering: testing searches, polling people, comparing practices, etc. I never had to do an IRB application in my past life. 🙂 Pre-librarian writing involved a lot of close reading, textual analysis, and applying performance and literary theory to creative works. I find the latter more enjoyable but the former more useful to my current profession.

    My university doesn’t require me to publish in librarianship for tenure; I could write about anything, as long as it involves research and is published in an established peer-reviewed journal.

  5. Susan Barribeau says:

    My university doesn’t require me to publish for tenure either but I do anyway sometimes. I have not published anything yet in my current Humanities (English) Bibliographer position. The transition from my former (Electronic Resource Librarian/Electronic Resource Officer at UWisconsin Madison) was an interesting one, I could write about going (backwards?…not exactly) from E to lots of Print. I also manage/build two lively special collections (Cairns Collection of American Women Writers and our “Little Magazines” collection). That was an interesting learning curve. I am a liaison to several large and multifactioned departments – managing those relationships and keeping on top of local scholarship has also been a new thing for me over the past 3 years of my “new” job.

    I could write about being involved in various “digital humanities” initiatives as part of my job. I would say that is ramping up, if anything.

    I am building a sub-collection of American women’s manuscript diaries for the Cairns Collection of American Women Writers ( ) and am currently working on an article about that for “Feminist Collections” (which is produced locally) ).

    Nice thread. I believe in publishing.

  6. aline soules says:

    Part of the challenge here is defining what is “library” and what is “literary,” at least for the purposes of one’s position at work. With Liorah (see her comment above), I published an analysis of the platforms through which the MLA bibliography was delivered at the time and we effected some changes on the part of vendors; however, I didn’t consider this “literary” even though it affected literary research (I hope).

    Similarly, I’ve just finished conducting 2,000 searches on the names of 500 literary authors who write in the English language, searches I conducted in two commercial databases, Wikipedia, and the open Web other than Wikipedia. The resulting articles will appear in library journals, not literary ones. Literary? Library? You choose.

    For years, the MLA Bibliography has focused on literary scholarship in a very traditional sense. Now that we have a group in MLA, there is the distant possibility that this might change, but I suspect that any such change, should it occur, will be a long way down the road.

    So, another journal? Maybe, although how will “literary” be defined (back to my starting point). If such a journal is begun, I sincerely hope it will be open access. I am likely to publish my upcoming articles in journals that will not be open access, which concerns me, but those will be my best options.

  7. Aaron McCollough says:

    @Liorah & @Susan, Very interesting. There is clearly a range of things in what you are doing that sweeps from what I personally would identify as “literary critical” work to things that I’d be less likely to identify that way. I’m attracted to the sense I get from both of you that the “generalist” competencies of library subject specialist work open up horizons of critical possibility that might not be firmly identifiable as either “literary” or “LibSci” (per @Aline’s query).

    • aline soules says:

      This is one of the challenges of what I’d call “interdisciplinary” work. In one way, it fits in both camps; in another way, it is recognized by neither. We talk a great deal in academia about the value of interdisciplinary work, but there’s an uneasiness that goes with it. I see much of the work described in this thread as interdisciplinary and it seems to fall in a little crack between the two disciplines. It’s hard to get MLA to recognize it (they’d certainly not publish it in PMLA). There are more options on the library side, but they are “on the side.” An interesting dilemma.

  8. Amanda Rust says:

    I’m not sure if this is 100% germane to the blog post, but when I think about the types of job-related research I’d like to do it often falls more in line with the Comp/Rhet folks in the English Dept. My job has a robust teaching component, and we’re deeply involved with the writing programs, so I’m often thinking about issues in social informatics: production of knowledge, rhetoric of scholarship, media representation of expertise, cultural preservation, self-archiving, etc.

    Aaron, I think you’re right in that a lot of subject specialists aren’t necessarily publishing articles in that subject specialty. And when you talk about the “generalist” competencies of library subject specialists — in essence, that special thing we might bring to the critical table — I see us as having a lot of overlap with Comp/Rhet, Education, and Communications.

  9. Nevin Mayer says:

    Thank you for bringing up these interesting questions. An essay I wrote on a poem by Wallace Stevens will be appearing shortly in JML. I can’t really say that there are “meaningful differences” in the way librarians write about literature. I can say, however, that the research strategies I acquired as a librarian were essential in completing this project. (The editors of JML found the research up-to-date and the argument well-supported.) By bringing in the first-hand experiences I acquired in pursuing a publication in literary criticism, I feel that this experience has enhanced the way that I present research strategies to classes in writing and literature.

    At my school a research article in any field in a refereed journal counts favorably toward tenure. As this essay took me over ten years to complete (it originated in a paper I wrote while working on my Master’s) and because it is quite risky in venturing into a field commonly inhabited by PhDs or near PhD holders, I don’t believe that this is the particular venture to which I would have pinned my tenure hopes. I was also very fortunate in having the support of a Wallace Stevens specialist on our faculty and of the editors of JML on ways to strengthen the theme. A peer-reviewed journal for the humanities writings of librarians would be worth pursuing. Another way of getting the word out on the validity of what we do as librarians, have there been any efforts to write about librarianship in publications other than librarianship? Thanks again, for these great questions.

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