Yes, We Should Talk About the MLS

It looks like Library Journal’s Editor-in-Chief Michael Kelley spun The Wheel of Perpetual Library Topics and it came up on that pesky graduate school requirement, the Masters in Library Science and its related brethren. “Can We Talk About the MLS?” is an editorial that takes on the notion that all roads to librarianship run through an MLS program, arguing that while it is good venue for learning the underlying theories of librarianship it is a terrible platform for practical and extraordinarily varied skills that span the spectrum of library types and jobs. Furthermore, the degree itself is required hurdle for getting a job in the field. Michael concludes by wondering if this “expensive and unnecessarily exclusionary credential” is stopping the kind of talent we need right now from getting into the field and if other routes (such as apprenticeship) are equally viable options.

My gut reaction is that the MLS is here to stay not because of anything to do with the profession but the way that current higher education is structured. Graduate programs are student loan cash cows allowing these institutions to charge hefty tuitions for a degree that is essential to employment. Our license to practice is their license to print money. Factor in the emerging online programs with their larger class sizes (read: more money), larger class sizes (read: more money), and an overall shift towards adjunct faculty (read: less overhead), it would be a hit to the bottom line to eliminate or weaken these programs. Academic inflation becomes the cherry on top of this expensive educational sundae, one that all of us with MLS degrees have been compelled to eat so that we can practice within the field.

If I asked for comments about less-than-vigorous classes that can be found in MLS programs, I could fill this entry with stories as far as the scroll bar would take me. Personally, I’ve heard about an MLS program teaching an entire semester graduate credit class on (wait for it) Microsoft Office. That’s the punchline to a joke I can’t even conceive since my mind can’t wrap itself the process that would make that possible. I’ve heard similar stories about classes of a dubious nature, but that’s the one I always come back to.

I’ll admit that I look at the MLS program through a very skewed lens. I went from a year in law school to a library science graduate program and they simply don’t compare when it comes to rigor. Law school was running a marathon while the MLS program was a nice scenic 5k run. They have radically different undercurrents; where law school is trying to cull the weak, library science programs are a bit more, uh, inclusive. Perhaps if I hadn’t had that experience I would feel differently about it, but it is what it is.

Now, if you were to hold a gun to my head and ask me to recall the names of the classes I took or you’d shoot, I’d have to say, “Tell my family I love them”. There isn’t much I can connect from the classroom to my work, mainly smatterings of community outreach and reference practices. I wouldn’t categorize them as useless but as not being useful for how I ended up in the library field. Perhaps I am more to blame for my class choices, but I can’t say that all the classes I took were exactly memorable either. However, I know my experience is limited to the program that I attended. I’m sure there are many who would come out to defend their programs.

Back to the editorial, I wonder if there is another viable path to librarianship. Rather than apprenticeship, my thoughts went over to the alternate route certification for teachers. While I don’t pretend to know the nuances on how a program like that would work for librarians, I do feel that if one can be developed it would be a way of attracting the needed talent from other fields into the greater librarian fold. A Master’s requirement can effectively slam the door on someone whereas an alternate route method could keep them moving in our direction. If we want evolution in the field, we can start by not inbreeding when it comes to qualifications.

It seems silly and a bit boorish to demand an MLS out of everyone who deigns to work in the field, especially if they are accomplished outside of it. I know there are prominent people working in libraries right now who do not have an MLS. It even feels a bit ironic to promote inclusiveness of a wide variety of viewpoints as well as services but professionally hold ourselves to a cattle-chute credential requirement.  I understand that there are common standards, practices, and principles that all librarians should be drawing from, but I cannot think that there is only one way to achieve that. In a time of varied learning models and platforms, shouldn’t our professional accreditations expand beyond the MLS?

17 thoughts on “Yes, We Should Talk About the MLS

  1. Personally I found my MLS to be a hindrance to getting a job – most of the open positions were paraprofessional and managers are told by administration that they are not allowed to hire MLS graduates for those positions. I only got to my current position because someone was able to break the rules. I think it’s a shame and I’m constantly telling people who ask me about library school to get a lower level library job first, then go for the degree.

    • Agreed completely! I had a lot of trouble as well and so did my husband. We both took jobs below our education and ability level just to get some kind of library job after being assured that the MLIS would be out ticket in. Frustrating! And I also agree that the degree process itself was at times ridiculously difficult and sadly far too easy. The classes swung between professors that were overly demanding, requiring 20 plus hours of work that a full-time working adult student could never manage to get done in addition to other classes. And other professors seemed to know less than I did about the topic they were teaching. And I went to an accredited university with a history of rigor.

    • This is exactly what I did and I’m SO glad I did. I think what might even be more important is that you get that lower level library job first for the experience. I have many MLS-degreed friends with no jobs because they have no experience. Mix that with the fact that people won’t hire an MLS for a lower level job and you’re basically screwed.

  2. As someone who works in academia, I can say with confidence that it is only because I have a master’s degree that my PhD peers respect me. If I “just” had a bachelor’s, there is no way anyone would listen to me.

    • Are you sure they’re your “peers?” It sounds like you work in a stuffy environment full of pretentious academians who care little about substance and actions and whose respect is given only to those with an equal or greater title. It’s a shame that academic Librarians are subjected to such abuse.
      As someone who works at a public Library with Ph.D., Masters, and Bachelors peers alike, I can say that our academic backgrounds have absolutely no bearing on the way we treat each other. We are all peers judged only by the quality of our service to the public, and none of us would question that.

  3. I agree that a graduate degree is more important for librarians working in academia, but does it necessarily have to be an MLS (or equivalent)? Many librarians in large universities are required to have two graduate degrees, the MLS and a subject specific degree. I learned a lot in library school, but the rigor of it was a joke.

    • My grad school experience must be really different than most people’s, because I actually find my MLIS program (which I am currently enrolled in, just completed first year) quite difficult. I have an M.A. from the same university, and was seriously expecting the MLIS to be a step down academically, but it hasn’t been, so far. It’s not quite as challenging as my previous graduate program, but it’s not a walk in the park either. Is this a matter of course selection? The required courses I took in my first semester were certainly easier than the electives I’m taking now. Or does it just vary from one school to the next?

  4. The requirement for an MLS “is stopping the kind of talent we need right now from getting into the field”?

    Then why is the librarian job market flooded to the point that it’s the worst Master’s degree for getting a job?

    We have talent coming out our ears. But we won’t have them for long, since the trend is toward hiring librarians part time. Any millennial with great talent is bound leave librarianship to find a job where they can make at least a living wage and benefits. If libraries want to keep a few of those people, they need to show students and patrons that librarians are essential. I think the degree helps us market ourselves as indispensable to quality education. And even if it didn’t, we’re definitely not hurting for people willing to fill librarian positions.

    • I agree! A master’s degree should not be used as a way to weed people out of the job market, but for the sake of all the “newbrarians” who have earned their degrees in the last few years and are now stuck in a miserable job market we do NOT need to be making the title of ‘librarian’ any more inclusive right now. Those without the degree can do perfectly well for themselves in the paraprofessional positions, especially considering “anonymous for fear of reprisal”s excellent point that libraries are downsizing the number of ‘librarians’ they keep on staff anyway.

    • I am currently a paraprofessional at a mid-size, urban library. I am seeking a master’s in an unrelated field because of the reasons you just stated. I have several friends who did what they were supposed to do: a background in libraries, a history of outstanding programming, a MLS… And they are either paraprofessionals, they work part-time, or they have found work in another field.

      I went to lunch with one of those friends earlier today. He’s had his MLS for two years. He was so excited and he’s so talented. He’d be an asset to the field. But he can’t find a job. His comment was that his MLS was a $25,000 mistake. He’s worn down and he’s frustrated.

      It breaks my heart to know there isn’t a place for me in libraries. One of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had with a supervisor was when I asked my boss for a recommendation for graduate school. No one wants to give up on something they love.

    • The kind of talent that I’m talking about is in field related to some aspects of the library world. The obvious ones are with computer programming and engineering; the less obvious ones are public administration, social work, and business/finance. To say that we have to *hope* that people from these fields will be interested enough in the librarian profession and then jam them through an MLS program is absurd. They have professional degrees of their own right, so why not make it so they can be accredited within the field?

      • When libraries need programmers, administrators, and accountants, they advertise for them, not MLS holders. And they usually pay them better than the poor saps with MLS degrees. People with those degrees won’t take jobs that pay poorly half time with no benefits like librarians will.

  5. Pingback: Around the Web: OMG still with the librarian angst, Forking the academy and more – Confessions of a Science Librarian

  6. Pingback: How to Spend Your Last Summer Before Library School | Hack Library School

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