Guest Post: Why am I getting my MLIS? Because I have to.

When I tell people I’m in graduate school studying to be a librarian, I receive the response, “You need a Master’s degree for that?” I find myself struggling to defend it. Librarians do more than what the average person realizes, but how much of that is really gained through the MLS? I usually wind up confessing it is like a stamp to gain entry a nightclub. I’ve been advised countless times by librarians that your coursework doesn’t really matter, but your experience does. I agree that there is no teacher greater than experience, but isn’t this a huge flaw in our profession’s degree? This is also disheartening for me because the first word I’ve used to describe myself most of my life is “student.” I like being in the classroom. I want to learn. I want more degree to mean more than a stamp or a merit badge.

I agree with Library Journal’s Editor-in-Chief Michael Kelley that I have learned almost nothing in library school that I didn’t already know or that I couldn’t have learned on the job or quickly on my own. Coding? I learned the basics of HTML and CSS on my own prior to starting my MLIS, but I was still required to take a basic web development course as a prerequisite for Digital Libraries. Dublin Core? An afternoon of reading would’ve sufficed but instead I had to write 1,500 words comparing Dublin Core to MARC. I wish I spent this time creating records for practice.

Then there are the things everyone assumes we learn in library school, but we don’t necessarily do. Cataloging? No idea! Archives? Tim Hensley, the Director of the Carole Weinstein Holocaust Research Library at the Virginia Holocaust Museum tweeted that he doesn’t hire public history MAs. He hires MLS, MLIS, and graduates with similar degrees because those programs train their students for archival work. This came as a shock to me because my program doesn’t offer archival training. I gained my archive experience under the supervision of a M.A. History graduate instead of a MLS graduate.

I’m three-quarters through my MLIS program and so far the courses have prepared me very little or not at all for a librarian job. This dissatisfaction with my education and preparation as a librarian isn’t unique to my program. Now please do not misunderstand, if you hired me today I’d do an amazing job because I gained experience outside of the classroom. My greatest experience comes from being a Graduate Assistant to the Scholarly Communications Librarian. Previously I had a seventh-month paid archives internship at an automobile museum and was a summer library assistant at a public library. By the time I graduate next year, I’ll have an additional archives internship and a year of full-time experience supervising a study abroad library. I believe I have a lot to offer to a potential employer, but isn’t because of my MLIS. It is because of these library work experiences that I realized that what I am “learning” in my courses is not translating into working as a librarian. Sometimes I wonder how much more I could be learning to better myself as a future librarian if I wasn’t stuck in a virtual classroom three nights a week or typing up papers on the weekends.

I’d love an apprenticeship instead of a MLS/MLIS degree. Librarianship is more like a guild than the academy. Unfortunately, I do agree with Andy that the MLS is here to stay because of the way that higher education is currently structured. Now, we have two options. We can keep advising every new class of MLS students to push through the degree like a chore and get as much experience as possible or we can revise library school curriculum to also prepare our future librarians.

What I want to see is updated curriculum that has caught up to the growing field librarianship. Classes on scholarly communications, copyright, and technology classes that go past basic coding. Not just because I am interested in it, but because that is the direction librarianship is moving. These are the skills I need to prepare myself for the scary library job market. Now you may say that scholarly communications is really only for academic librarians, but making research openly available benefits school and public libraries. And copyright… is there a type of library or librarian that cannot benefit from a stronger knowledge of copyright? Whether it is about protecting the rights of the library or patrons, or determining how we can make our collections available, we need to be educated in copyright law. I got a small glimpse of copyright law in my Introduction to Information Policy course, and decided I needed to know more than what library school was going to offer. This semester I enrolled in the Copyright Law course offered by the my university’s law school. Through this class I gained familiarity with both statutory law and legislative history, discussed the Georgia State case, and had class an hour after the Kirstsaeng decision dropped. It was a great learning experience. No class in graduate school has better prepared me to be a librarian, and it wasn’t even a library school class.

I am an angry optimist and use a Henry Rollins quote as a personal motto, “My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.” I’m optimistic about the future of library school if we work to change it. We need to update the curriculum. We need less talking in the classroom and more doing. Let’s build experience into the curriculum. Projects don’t need to be limited to the last quarter of the semester. Give us the opportunity to practice by creating metadata records for collections, building collaborative websites, and using emerging technologies in our projects. Library students can be citizen archivists and help a university’s special collections with data entry. Projects can be brought to life if implemented by mid-terms rather than writing a theoretical paper. Have us practice virtual reference with each other, research the copyright and archiving policies of journals to discover by doing, and start writing a grant the third week of classes rather than the third to last. Students can work with open source software to develop stronger tech skills and gain experience building a thorough digital library or catalog. We can even build new software, such as an Omeka plug-in. When MLS programs cannot provide these opportunities to learn in the classroom, faculty and students can work together to develop new opportunities. Universities can host an unconference like THATCamp or begin partnering with other institutions to offer virtual internships. This way we can better prepare our graduates. Our profession and libraries deserve this.

Chealsye Bowley is an MLIS student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL and is slowly taste-testing her way through librarianship. She currently is a Graduate Assistant in Technology and Digital Scholarship at Florida State University. In August, she will be running away to Italy for a year to be the Library Supervisor of FSU’s Florence Study Center’s library. She tweets @chealsye and blogs for Hack Library School.

25 thoughts on “Guest Post: Why am I getting my MLIS? Because I have to.

  1. AMEN. I was a bookseller for 7 years before I went to library school, and that’s where I learned what libraries call “reader’s advisory” and bookstores call “hand selling.” (Regular folks call it, “Can you recommend a book for me to read?”)

  2. How is FSU even accredited? I graduated 6 years ago from St. Kate’s, and we were required to take basic coding, but were also offered more advanced courses in databases, coding, etc. Basic cataloging was a required course. In fact every course you say wasn’t available was not only available but either required or highly suggested in our curriculum.
    Absolutely actual experience is vastly important, and a huge part of any MLSMLIS is the networking and interning possibilities they make available (why I always always suggest a brick and mortar rather than online experience). But it sounds like at least one serious problem is that some (not all) library schools are not offering what should be core classes.

  3. It is sad to hear so many people in the past couple of weeks posting in the blogosphere about the shortcomings of their MLS program. I didn’t get my MLS in order to get practical experience (though certainly skills like cataloguing and reference are part of such a degree). I got the degree to engage formally with the big picture issues of librarianship: ethics, missions, management, advocacy, etc. Perhaps I am fortunate that I got the education I was hoping for.

    As a library director, I choose to hire MLS graduates for librarian positions because they have a big picture view of the library world. I do not expect much if any library experience, but instead look for wide ranging experience that is transferrable. Where my job entails holding a vision for the library, having librarians on staff who are committed to the vision of librarianship in general is immensely valuable. They lead teams (reference, outreach, PR, programs, public services) where they too create and promote a vision, and their vision needs to encompass the big picture. Handling a reader’s advisory question doesn’t require an MLS; seeing how that RA question fits into the mission of the library perhaps does. I can teach newbies how to use our ILS, but I want them to come in with a grounded understanding of the importance of patron privacy…

    Hopefully in time you will get the opportunity to use your degree in a way that will make you appreciate it more.

    • Thank you! Its so disheartening to hear the people I am graduating with saying they feel the MLIS was a waste of time or just a means to an end. You learn so much if you open your mind a little bit and focus on the applicability to your profession not just the project specifics.

  4. Hi Chealsye,

    There are a couple decent points here, but I have to say with all due respect, that if you had taken Cataloging and Classification, you might have had a more positive experience with creating MARC records.

    Yes, experience is absolutely what you need to get a full-time gig in *any* field — not just librarianship — and it seems like you’re getting that at FSU, despite your best efforts to trash the school everywhere. So, show a little more gratitude for the opportunities given to you by FSU, such as Florence, and your Scholarly Communication job.

    FSU lets you tailor your own program (we ARE all adults, right?), outside of four basic courses in: management, research methods/ assessment, Foundations, and Info Org (which actually came in handy during Cataloging…but again, you so far have chosen not to take that course, and that’s fine, but certainly not FSU SLIS’s fault).

    Obviously, there is room for improvement…no one will argue that. But you advocate for faculty to be involved. Ok…many *already* are involved up to their eyeballs…aside from their own publishing and teaching requirements (undergrad during the day, grads at night). What more do you want them to do? They’re only human.

    And not only is FSU SLIS accredited, it’s ranked number 13, thank you very much, up from a year ago.

    The ALA Student Chapter at FSU has won recognition from the ALA’s NMRT 2 years in a row, ironically in part, for our positive outreach efforts.

  5. Chealsye,

    I’m sad to hear your experiences with your MLIS program were less than stimulating. So many of my colleagues and friends have had similar experiences, and, at times, I had them too in my classes. I think some of the source of dissatisfaction is expecting to get real-world skills in our classes. In my opinion, that’s not what the MLIS is for. The MLIS should prepare us to be thoughtful, engaged, critical information professionals that grapple with the theory and politics embedded in information structures (as you mentioned, things like copyright and open access and digitization). Understanding the nuanced ways Dublin Core differs from MARC in terms of assumptions it makes about the nature of information, user ability, and organization is important to our work. Having this kind of insight is what makes us professionals.

    I agree with Mary Jo that our degree should prepare us to engage with big picture issues of librarianship. I’m not sure if our dissatisfaction comes from our programs not successfully doing this, or from what we expect our programs to deliver. Something to think about, anyway.

    I appreciate your insight and your bravery in sharing your experience.

    Best,
    Rebecca

  6. Your MLIS education is what you make of it. FSU does in fact offer technical courses in databases, networking, mobile apps, advanced web design,social media management, and virtual reference just to name a few – and for example, in Fall of 2012 at FSU SLIS in the basic reference class, I taught students to work hands-on in virtual reference such as doing Questionpoint chat, SMS text messaging via Mosio, and answering questions for actual users in the IPL2 digital library email reference service. In my Virtual Reference Environments class, I brought students into a virtual world over two class sessions to explore virtual reference skills in a 3-D digital environment, learn to build and code in-world, and visit a virtual world library. The learning opportunities are there at FSU, and each semester, I strongly encourage all my students to take the technical courses, but ultimately it’s up to them whether to make that effort or not.

  7. While my MLS program did leave a lot to be desired, I actually really appreciated the ‘lack of rigor’ of my [still top-ranked program] because it freed me up (to an extent) to be very self-directed and invest my time in work and independent reading, etc. After all, this is graduate school, and neither the profession nor the students would be served well by producing ‘cookie-cutter librarians.’ The job pool is too diverse for that. As Wayne Bivens-Tatum has recently noted on his blog, there really isn’t ‘one major skill’ that every librarian must absolutely know to be successful. Contemporary libraries and their staffing needs vary far too much for any program to adequately teach that. Most of my classes did involve practical and relevant projects rather than theoretical papers (but there were some of those too), which was very useful. I do agree with you in that I think the ‘core’ requirements don’t deliver as much as one expects. I’m of the mind that students might be able to make better use of their time and tuition money saved by some sort of apprenticeship structured around foundational seminars in which students bring to the forefront problems they encounter on the job or through independent reading, study, networking, etc. E.g., Students would be enrolled in 1-2 seminars each semester that broadly focus on an area of professional interest (e.g. technology/digital projects, academic librarianship), and the rest of the time can be spent working, interning, volunteering, shadowing/mentoring with other librarians. The student could then share and discuss current issues first-hand with each other in the seminar setting. Some of the MLS classes that I found most beneficial in retrospect were rather loosely-structured, often built around themed days of ‘link-show-and-tells’ that exposed the class to all the diverse and numerous projects that were happening in the field. My MLS program was certainly not ‘academically rigorous,’ but it did provide me with the time and environment to shape my interests and skills and build my experience. Especially in this day and age of little funding for professional development, these independent pursuits are what will prepare students best for the necessities of their future professional lives.

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  9. My first class in library school was computer basics. It was mandatory. We learned about computer history and had to make web pages in Netscape. I rebelled and built mine with Dreamweaver. It was a complete waste of time for me, and probably for 90% of students. Instead of computer basics for dummies, why not computer basics for librarians? Expose us to common programs in use at libraries. Show us how to make databases. Teach tech that matters.

    This was in 2006. I hear things have changed since.

    Aside from that, I wish library school taught a basic class on patron interaction, coping with difficult or dangerous patrons, and how to help the homeless, low literate, ex offenders and other patron types common to cities.

    • Exactly. There’s so much in terms of real-world skills that wasn’t covered, or even mentioned, in the classes I took–everything from dealing with drunk patrons, drug abuse, or sex in the bathrooms to dealing with bullies and/or narcissists in the workplace, to how to remain calm while giving an enraged patron news s/he doesn’t want to hear, to tactful ways of dealing with parents determined to drop their kindergarteners off while they go run errands. And then there’s the constant attacks on funding and the soul-crushing bureaucracy….

  10. At a recent conference for audio preservation that I attended, there were extensive talks about the recently released Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan. Much of the plan includes guidelines for increasing and implementing education for this particular field, as there is no true program to learn about audio archival. One contributor to the plan mentioned that there were numerous discussions about possibly eliminating MLIS requirements on job descriptions, citing the considerable amount of money that students spend on school for programs that don’t teach them any applicable audio preservation skills, and how students gain much more experience from internships and apprenticeships. For instance, I myself am a student at FSU, and while I have taken courses in cataloging, digital media and libraries, and felt like they were semi-applicable to my future field, I will also never be able to receive hands on digitizing/transfer experience of audio recordings from my school. There’s only one archives course, too, and who knows if I will even be *able* to take that, considering it is outside of the school, and the increasingly difficult-to-schedule course rotation. Because of my situation, I will have to take an internship, most likely in an expensive city like NYC, DC or Chicago, adding on another semester where I might be able to graduate early. It was encouraging to have a rather influential person advocate for the reform or even elimination of unnecessary MLIS degrees from job descriptions.

    • @SolidEssay Yes it is possible, though it is probably easier to find such jobs in smaller public libraries than larger, academic, or special libraries. More often, non-degreed personnel will have positions that are not called “librarian.” Your assumption that this is the kind of profession that one is able to learn on the job or quickly on his own is not entirely accurate – though there are PARTS of the job to which this applies.

      Someone with a library degree should have a wide perspective of the role of libraries in the given community and the issues that libraries face, which is way more involved than just being good at cataloging or helping people find resources (which you can probably learn on the job if the library isn’t too specialized). There are advocacy issues, legal issues, PR issues, ethics issues, accountability issues, funding and finance issues, management issues, governance issues, building issues, and possibly election issues. A librarian with a degree should come out of school with an understanding of the different functions that comprise the operation and administration of a library and how those inter-relate. Libraries have a contract with the communities they serve, and it is really hard to grasp the whole of that without engaging with librarianship formally, as you would in an MLS program.

      • In the contemporary landscape, Mary Jo, those skills can all be learned outside of the classroom and often to a greater degree through experience. I don’t understand your necessitation to address those topics as particularly difficult outside of librarianship since they’re really not. At least, from the basis you’re describing them.

        If you could, perhaps, provide empirical evidence which would suggest that a MLIS is better suited to handle civil and civic issues rather than any number of individuals with some semblance of critical thinking, then I could understand your point better. As it stands now, however, I feel you’re still reaching for straws to defend a degree that is becoming increasingly irrelevant in our digital age.

        • Marcus, the best empirical evidence I have is my own experience. I worked in a library for a number of years before (and during) my degree. It was a small library, so I had my thumb in many pies – I worked circulation, I did reference, I did some selecting, I did all acquisitions, I did tech processing and some cataloging, I did weeding, I evaluated donations, I liaised with the Friends group and supervised volunteers, I did a few programs, and I maintained computers. I learned A LOT.

          Then I went to library school, and a whole world opened up. It was an immersion in an environment where all of those skills came together under a canopy of vision of what libraries can/should accomplish for their communities. I learned the value of professional reading and professional dialogue in the advancement of new ideas about librarianship. I learned to challenge present status with what’s possible. I learned about mission. I learned about management, and in particular, change management. I learned about the potential pitfalls (legal, PR) of different areas of librarianship – like challenges, privacy, advocacy, and the importance of choosing your words very carefully when talking about what your library does. I learned about the importance of having policies to govern administration and operation and the kinds of things that really need to be in those policies – collection development, gifts, solicitation, programs, personnel, safety, etc. I learned about outcomes measurement and getting usable feedback from the community. I learned about forward planning. And I learned more about those things I was already doing in the library – I learned new sources for selections, better ways to track acquisitions, new reference sources, better search techniques, additional readers’ advisory sources and techniques, more detailed cataloguing, and better data gathering. I went from being a very good library worker to being a professional librarian. While I learned skills on the job, I gained understanding through my degree.

          You reference the digital age, as if the Internet and device usage somehow trump all, as if the history of libraries has no relevance to today’s library. The community our library serves is economically comfortable and seriously tech savvy. Our library is as tech-advanced as any our size, and our community certainly appreciates this. But this population of 25,000 visits the library in person 300,000 times per year, checks out over 600,000 physical items a year, and attends about 1200 programs a year. We are vibrant because we understand our community, because we are focused on people first, because we understand what a library can mean beyond the computers, or the collection, or any of the other pieces. We are vibrant because we are continually honing our vision in order to stay vibrant. This takes more than skill and critical thinking; it takes understanding.

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  15. Agree that it shouldn’t be that way but I think that in today “search” world people don’t consider librarians to be very well taught since it’s all about “let me google that for you dear”

    Not saying I agree to that but that’s how it is.

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