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.

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?

To the MLS Class of 2013

It’s now the middle of August, an inauspicious month that marks the final full month of summer before its unofficial end at the Labor Day holiday in New Jersey. Most library science graduate programs around the country are preparing for another year of instruction for a mix of returning students and new blood. For the fresh faces, I thought I’d offer some advice for their tenure in their graduate programs. While I am a relatively new person on the library scene (having graduated in 2006), I’d like to share some of things I’ve observed in my time and travels.

I encourage other librarians to add their advice to my own (either here or in your own blog) and thank you in advance for taking the time to do so. Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2013:

Network.

If there is one thing that every graduate should leave their program with, it’s a a list of names and contact information. Who are the people on this list? Classmates. Faculty who taught them. People in state or national associations or who work for library vendors. Librarians who tweet, blog, write articles, speak, and present in your field of interest or focus. They need not be good friends, you need not have meet them face to face, but they know who you are.

To say that librarianship is a people business is not simply about the communities that are served, but that vast network of professionals who are brought together by a common cause. Compared to other occupations, librarians are overall a friendly helpful bunch who answer a call for help or advice or otherwise debate. I’ve always been pleasantly surprised when I’ve reached out to people I’ve never met and asked them for advice, commented on something they said or wrote, or otherwise made contact. More often than not, you’ll find that these people are open to conversations, talking about topics of interest, and giving you some additional advice. Yes, some are aloof or time limited or just plain arrogant, but it is a worthwhile chance to take.

Question.

Take this one word advice to all its meanings. Ask out of curiosity for those things you want to know more about. Ask out of investigation and information vetting to determine authority or merit. Ask out of rebellion in challenging both old and new ways.

Ask, ask, ask. Sharpen your inquiry skills since asking the right question saves you (and in some cases your patron) time and energy tracking down the correct answer. It’s never too early to work on your interview skills, even if you never intend on gracing the reference desk. The right questions lead to the right answers.

Work.

There are libraries that will hire people in progress for their MLS/MLIS. You don’t need to wait to have the degree in hand to start job hunting and considering the job market you should apply early and often. If you can’t find a job, find an internship. Some are paid, some are unpaid, but each offers valuable experience. If you can’t find an internship, volunteer. It may not be what you ultimately want to do but it does get your foot in the door.

And if you can’t volunteer, then build your own personal learning network. Find people in the field you are interested in and follow them on Twitter, read their blogs, friend them on Facebook, circle them on Google Plus, and subscribe to the listservs. Get involved in the larger conversations even if you are just a listener. (You should probably build your own personal learning network anyway.)

Find your passion.

That pretty much sums it up. What library or librarian aspect ignites that fire within? Digital divide? Book challenges? Open access? School media? Reader’s advisory? Find it and begin the journey to mastering it. Become the expert, the advocate, the one who stands up before their peers and says, “This is important”. Join forces with others who feel the same way. If you see no one else tackling the issue, than it is up to you to do it.

Have fun.

(That’s up to you to figure out.)

In the end, there’s a lot of noise about the vigor of MLS/MLIS programs, the state of the job market, the value or professional organization, and the future of the profession and libraries. It’s a constantly moving circus sideshow, a necessary but distracting conversation compared to what is going on in the three rings underneath the big tent. It about meeting the expectations of the main event, to provide all the sights and sounds and wonders that people come to the library for, and to ensure the continuation of the show down the road.

You may accept or reject all or none of this advice, but please accept this final one:

Good luck.