The Master’s Degree Misperception

“I didn’t know you needed a master’s degree to be a librarian.”

If you haven’t experienced this statement firsthand, you’ve certainly read about it. It is the notion that what we are doing as a career, a calling, and an occupation requires an advanced degree of study. It’s an image issue that pops up for the public librarian on a fairly regular basis. And, like it or not, it is here to stick with public librarians for a long time.

Once upon a time, there was no degree requirement to become a librarian. Anyone with a degree could be a librarian; it was simply a matter of learning the collection, the classification system, and the established policies and procedures of the library. With the advent of the MLS and MLIS programs, this has created a new layer of requirements for budding librarians but has not been accompanied by a shift in duties and workload. On any given day, I can be standing at the circulation desk side-by-side with a support staff member doing the same thing that they are doing. So long as this arrangement exists, the perception that librarianship does not require an advanced degree will continue to taint the image of the profession.

(Two things to note before I continue: first, that this is certainly not the full limit or extent of my job duties. If there is a line of people waiting to check out, I’ll step out and lend a hand. It’s good business, it’s a good show of support for my fellow staff member, and it’s a nice reminder about that aspect of the library experience. Budget tightening measures have also reduced our staffing numbers so that there isn’t another staff member around or on the desk to help out. Second, I don’t think there is anything wrong with a librarian doing these tasks. However, I’d like to imagine that I got an advanced degree so that checking out books would be a once in a while thing, not a regular gig.)

It is a disservice to the education, to the degree, and to the profession when the bulk of a librarian’s daily tasks could be performed by someone with a GED. It does not take a master’s degree to place a hold on a book, clear a copier, push in chairs, tell people they are being loud, shelve items, or other similar tasks. When librarians are seen doing this and then told there is an advanced degree requirement, there is a reasoning dissonance that occurs in the outside observer.

Our professional focus should be on the management and organization of materials; these are the things for which we are schooled and trained to do. So, this leads me to a question: how can we separate the MLS from the paraprofessional? Should the profession insist on a greater separation of duties? Should we surrender the reference desk over to the paraprofessional and adopt “research hours” where we can sit down with people who have actual reference questions? What needs to change in how we approach the job in the context of the library?


Author’s note: I’m not ignorant of the fact that this post will not apply to some libraries that have a smaller staff; nor that there will be times when there is a crossover of duties between librarians and paraprofessionals. I’m simply saying that this will continue to be an image problem so long as it is found in the majority of public libraries around the country.

125 thoughts on “The Master’s Degree Misperception

  1. I have two issues with what you have written. First, any staff member at a library should be expected to be well-rounded and help out everywhere as they can. Cross-training is important, particularly with limited budgets, therefore, this trend is unlikely to change.

    Second, this seems like an argument going backward. Instead of having an integrated system where everybody does a little of something, you have librarians going back into silos where they are “too good” to perform certain tasks. I don’t believe that philosophy helps the profession or perception from the public.

    On the public perception issue (I guess I had a third issue), most people don’t understand the inner workings of a library. For that matter, they don’t understand a lot about how services are delivered for ANY store or business. The question should be, do they get a value service coming into the library? Does it matter who is doing it? In some areas yes, we need a professional librarian to do the work, that’s why you have the degree and that’s why you are paid to do the work that you do.

    • Jeff:

      (1) Under your well rounded argument, should I take it to mean that if we have a janitor on staff, I should be able to clean the toilets? I don’t buy your version of the well rounded staff member idea because it means that anyone can do anyone else’s job which, if I take to the extreme, means that a student page can do the job of the director and vice versa. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t help out, but when it becomes a primary job duty or focus, then there is an issue here.

      (2) I did not say that librarians were “too good” to do the job; I’m saying that if I wanted to check out books, place holds, or unjam the printer, I could have saved myself some money and not gotten an MLS. I realize that staff shortages will create these situations (as mentioned in my author’s note) and there will be crossover. My point is that I don’t need a master’s degree to answer where the bathroom is or to place a book hold on the reference desk; my degree is better suited for people asking deeper questions in terms of research, reader’s advisory, and subject exploration.

      (3) That is what I am getting at. There are jobs for the professional librarian and that the focus of their job should be those areas. There is a major trend that sidetracks those people from that area. I’m saying that we should get back to that and let paraprofessional staff handle the more mundane and rote work.

      • In some libraries, librarians DO do some of that work (janitorial or otherwise).

        You are obviously taking my argument to the most extreme, that’s fine.

        A director can and has checked out books before, circulation staff can answer 90% of questions that used to be reference work. There is work that needs a professional, but they should be able to help in other areas.

        Frankly, you sound like you are saying you are too good for the work, and frankly that pisses me off.

        • Jeff, you’re putting words and meanings into my mouth. I find that upsetting. I do not say “I’m too good for this work”; I am saying “if librarians are seen doing the same work as their support staff the majority of the time, then people will wonder at the value of an MLS degree.” That’s it. My point is creating a wider gap between staff and librarians would assist in changing this perception. It’s not a measure of the work or whether a librarian is “too good” for it; it is a matter of creating enough of a difference in duties that people would notice.

          I’m not saying that I’m too good for the work so please stop saying that this is the meaning of my post.

        • I think you’re arguing in the wrong direction. I don’t think Andy is saying he or any librarian with their MLS is too good to pitch in at these day to day tasks, he concedes readily enough that they need to get done and especially in the case of budget concerns or a small staff there may be no one else. Instead he’s asking what can be done to let the public know that you DO have these advanced degrees and therefore an advanced skillset that they could be taking advantage of as part of the library’s services.
          In other words what can you be doing to really show patrons that librarians have an expertise beyond checking out books, because if you’re not thinking about that what was the point of getting your degree?

          • The only way is to prove it and demonstrate the value. If you say to someone that you are a librarian, a standard response is, “Oh so you check books out all day?” An OCLC report also stated that the public perception of libraries is books.

            My argument is that Andy is saying if he checks out books, then that’s not demonstrating his value. No it isn’t, but it isn’t adding to that perception of librarians, it was already there. Librarians have a transformative value to communities and it depends more on how we market ourselves. Andy’s having to check out books has nothing to do with that.

  2. Perhaps the MLIS is too general. There are a number of jobs in the library that would be better suited to people with different degrees. Does the IT Staff all have to be MLIS holders? How about Subject Specific Reference Librarians helping people with research? Most of my time is spent using my Subject Specific knowledge to help people, a subject specific degree supplemented with some sort of database training would be more useful.

    • Are you talking about something like a dual program in conjunction with another academic department? Something like (for example) a Biology/Library Science degree or program?

      • I was thinking more smaller certification programs. I don’t think every librarian benefits from the whole MLIS package. If I had a Masters in German History with the intent of helping students do research, why do I need a good portion of the MLIS classes? I could use a certification on techniques and how to do a reference interview and I’d be just fine.

        The MLIS seems more appropriate for those who catalog and deal with the “inner workings” of the library, as opposed to the outreach, customer service or tech services positions.

        • Unfortunately, most MLIS programs have extremely abstract approaches to cataloging, acquisitions, and other “inner workings” of the library. These skills, too, are much better learned on the job than in a classroom where there is a lot of theory and little or no practice of the techniques.

        • My guess is that an MLS/MLIS program could not be restructured to account for such a usage. It’s either all or nothing, really; I can’t imagine carving out different levels of a degree, but I have been wrong before.

  3. I know what you mean. The “you need a Master’s for that??” was always the first thing people said when I informed them what my degree was going to be in. To this day people still say it, and, honestly, it burns me up.

    However, I’m not sure if separating ourselves from the “mundane” work is the answer. It might be. But do you think that might be seen as an elitist approach to the problem? I would say that we should do more to show the patrons that what we do requires a degree (I’m assuming some people could debate you don’t need one, but that’s for another day) but a lot of what we do can’t necessarily be seen, plus you have the staffing issue. I agree with you that the image is a problem, I’m just not sold that not doing the grunt work is going to help that image.

    • Let me try to illustrate it in another way:

      If you saw an architect on a construction site building walls, laying concrete, and planting bushes, what’s the thought that comes to your mind? Is it that he has designed a wonderful building? Or is it wondering why he has a degree in architecture when he is clearly engaged in construction?

      • Your example is a good one. I agree that the image is indeed a problem, but again I’m not sure that the separation is the best option. With that said, I admit that I don’t have a better option.

        Let me ask you this question: Do you think that our profession deserves to demand an MLS/MLIS??

      • I’ll go back to the above argument. The public’s perception of libraries is books. Most people who come into a library check-out books, therefore they associate the profession that way. The fact that you have to check out books sometimes isn’t connected.

        Maybe I am not understanding your point, but it sure sounds like “I didn’t get a degree to do this.” That’s fine, but it’s not connected to the general perception problem. It is more connected to budgetary realities.

        What value do you provide to the community as a librarian that they cannot get from someone without a degree? That’s something you need to prove. It’s not what you don’t do.

      • I’m wondering how is it possible an architect designs buildings with “only” a bachelor’s degree, however an average public library needs multiple people with master’s degrees to function. This is the problem. Librarians should be be like MBAs of information. There should be one required per library branch. The rest can be handled by people with a bachelors and the rest can be handled by high school students.

        Hiring as many MLS degree holding librarians as are hired is ridiculous. Architects and engineers do some way more complicated things and they most frequently manage to do it with only a bachelor’s degree. MLS degrees are waaay overkill.

      • This is not a particularly good example. If you ask many good builders, landscapers, etc they will tell you that often the architect is impractical and creates a building visually appealing but in practice is not necessarily possible or even soundly designed..

  4. Look, you’ve got a professional degree that doesn’t pay all that well and isn’t the most respected. Live with it.
    I definitely would go with the “research hours” where you can sit down with people who have “actual” reference questions. That would be a hoot.
    The fact that most of the things you learned in library school can be done by “paraprofessionals” is something that most librarians have to come to grips with, unless they can obtain a high management post, or a specific research library position.
    You don’t sound very agnostic to me – this is typical librarian whining.

  5. maybe what we do doesn’t really require a degree? I’ve worked in libraries all my life and when I finally got my MLIS 6 years ago, it didn’t really provide me with anything I didn’t already have just from experience. I’m actually all for getting rid of the degree, which in many cases, is just a big, tedious, expensive hoop.

    • I think a conversation about the requirement of a degree (master’s, bachelor’s, otherwise) would be an entirely different post. It has been something I’ve been wondering about for awhile, so this post might be the nudge to make it happen.

      • Maybe this is the “I’m Going Into Way Too Much Debt Right Now” part of me speaking, but I really don’t think the MLS is totally necessary for every librarian either. I know there are plenty of amazing things about getting an MLS that make you better at your job, but I have yet to learn much that I couldn’t have learned at the workplace, or in an undergraduate degree program.

        So that is my great (and probably not particularly original) idea: turn library science into a professional undergrad degree, like teaching, nursing, or accounting.

        Of course, someone would probably have to make librarianship a little more lucrative/glamorous/reliable to attract impressionable 18-19 year olds into that course of study.

        That was a big fat ramble and my brain is going off on a million tangents. Let’s make the payscale more competitive, and reflect skill and talent! Bonuses? Question answering quotas? Hazard pay for cleaning bathrooms and doling out child discipline?

        Anyway, I think those people who ask “why do you need a masters?” are right. I don’t need one, and I have yet to be convinced otherwise.

        • What a great idea, Jessica!

          I commented elsewhere regarding it, but having different degree levels (bachelor, masters, PhD) related to one’s career goals in the field would allow those who want to get an advanced degree for further management or academic opportunities while not acting as a barrier for someone who just wants to work at a library.

          In thinking it through, this would require an entire academic generation to pass through to reach this point. You’d have to go through the current glut of MLS holders that are saturating the market before the BA or BS holders could get a foot in the door. (Along with the likely backlash of BA or BS holders being hired over MLS holders since they would have a lower salary demand.)

          • FYI – I DO have my undergrad degree in Library Science – actually called “Library Science Education” because I took quite a few ed classes as well as LS classes, and was supposed to work in a school library with this degree. Before graduation I was required to student teach K-12, but when I graduated I decided that I enjoyed my public library experience (gained each summer) more than student teaching. I landed a job as a Youth Services Librarian at a public library, one that “required” an MLS.

            I AM working on my MLS degree now, but really I often feel that it’s an inane amount of busy work (and tons of $$) for a job that I have already been doing professionally for 9 years.

            (But I want to finish what I started, and let’s be honest, won’t complain at the “prestige” associated with having my MLS degree.)

            • Oh! I just realized that my post might come off as “librarians don’t need degrees” – that is NOT what I meant! I just think a bachelor’s degree is perfectly suitable for SOME library jobs. (And my BS in Lib Sci Ed was incredibly similar in content to the MLS I am working on now)

              I DO think having a library degree is vital. Just not sure that is needs to be an advanced degree/MLS/MLIS.

              I will also add that currently in the state of Pennsylvania, school librarians need only to take an exam and then they are certified to be a K-12 librarian…no classes needed. I know that was not the focus of your post, but I do get incredibly frustrated that “all you have to do is take a test” and you can be a school librarian – whereas I have been taking classes/working in libraries for over 12 years to do my job successfully. (I’m now a high school librarian)

              Rant over 😉 Maybe I need to blog about the school library aspect and my frustrations with it!

              • I would hope that you would write about it.

                This reminds me of the ‘alternate route’ they have to teacher certification in my state. In other words, if you have a degree without teaching, you can get certified as a teacher without going back for an education degree. It counts life experience (if I recall correctly) towards accreditation.

                I think it would be a big win to create a process that counts experience, but I’m not sure how popular that would be with colleges.

          • I know I’m late on the bus. But I just wanted to add that I have been seeing this trend in my area (SD,WY,ND) at public libraries.
            People who wanted to be paraprofessionals at the library only needed different levels of education.

            So like a Library Tech 1 and 2 who works in Circ or in the back arriving orders and periodicals just needs 2 years of higher ed.

            A Library Associate who would be doing copy cataloging, reference work, or programing needs a B.S. or B.A.

            And A Librarian 1 and above who would be in charge of a department (lower management and up) needs a MLIS.

            Also at the library I am currently at the Youth Services Manager does not have a MLIS but a Bachelors with a Library Media Minor. She has been working in Youth Services for over 30 years though and was basically grandfathered in when they made the MLIS a requirement for management.

  6. So what I’m thinking (and I apologize for any flippancy; I haven’t time to edit better) is something like —

    The public doesn’t know what librarians do behind the scenes, but the public doesn’t know what anyone does behind the scenes, really. I used to be a teacher, which showed me most people have no idea what teachers do when they are not in the classroom in front of students. I have a very limited idea of what my doctors are doing when they’re not examining me, or what lawyers or epidemiologists or social workers do all day.

    All of these are positions that generally require advanced degrees. But I think for many of them, people would not be surprised that they require advanced degrees, because the public-facing elements of those jobs appear sufficiently complex or technical that people know they would need special training to be able to do them.

    If the public face of libraries isn’t presenting (as far as people can tell) anything they couldn’t do for themselves…what is the point?

  7. A terrific and thought provoking post, Andy. I am currently in library school and last semester my class spent a good portion of an afternoon discussing this very topic.

    I have worked as a paraprofessional for 12 years. It has been my experience (and I realize that not all public libraries are run in the same way), that when those in supervisory or directorship positions allow paraprofessionals to do the same tasks as degreed librarians then they are essentially dismantling the degree that got them to those higher positions in the first place.

    Sometimes I wonder why I am working so hard for that master’s degree when the job appears to be satisfied by a lay person. When I began my career in the library, there were certain things (such as reference questions) that were referred to a degreed librarian. I think that budget cuts have blurred the lines of the professional/paraprofessional in negative ways. It is up to librarians to speak up for the degrees that they have worked so hard for, and to demand that their supervisors acknowledge their level of commitment to the profession and advanced educational status.

    • Thanks Lyn.

      I don’t necessarily see a line being blurred as a bad thing in light of budget changes and constraints, but it does lead to these sorts of self questioning within the profession. I don’t think it’s a bad sort of self questioning per se, but it does leave paraprofessional and support staff going “what the heck?”

  8. Perhaps I missed it, Andy, but you might extend your inquiry by considering whether the degree, given the intellectual rigor of the field, might better be an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree or certificate program instead, or, more to the point, whether we actually need a degree in the first place.

    • I would think that a degree could be scalable. If you are looking for management or directorship or have academic leanings, then a master’s or PhD should be in your future. If not, a bachelor’s program instead. It’s not like you can’t return for the degree or gain the comparable education through experience.

      Personally, I think some of the degrees should be in conjunction with library studies. There is no reason not to and some experience from other fields would be helpful. (Off the top of my head, someone with a sociology background may bring some expertise in how to observe or ask patrons about their interests or requests.)

  9. I think the point some of the commenters are missing is: we have an advanced degree. If we start with the assumption that the degree is not useless, then the question is really: what should librarians be doing? We have all seen that vacant librarian positions are being replaced with parapro/staff positions as libraries discover that some things do not need MLS expertise, such as working service desks and the general rote tasks that day to day keep the library running. What does need MLS expertise? Collection development, research assistance, library management & administration, supervision, IT management & development, etc.

    In light of all of the discussion around about the scarcity of librarian positions, perhaps this is the natural outcome of allowing skilled staff to take on additional roles in the library. Librarians are freed up to do more administrative, leadership, change management, community relations, etc. If you’re not quite sure what the value of your degree what, perhaps you’re doing it wrong. And let’s be honest – yes, an MLs from the 1970s may not be as useful as one from 2009 unless the older librarian has kept up their skillset.

    I am not a fan of deprofessionalizing the reference desk – there’s a lot to be said for someone who knows the nuances of how database design works (this from an academic librarian, so YMMV in public libraries). Making an appointment is inconvenient, particularly when people assume that the desk is already staffed by a librarian who can help them.

    But yes – “Our professional focus should be on the management and organization of materials; these are the things for which we are schooled and trained to do.” In addition to materials, add people. And facilities. And community engagement. Assessment and measuring impact on various user groups, and extrapolating from that the direction library programs should move in. The possibilities are endless, but they require thought and effort.

    I do think that if librarians shy away from these responsibilities and are content to *only* work service desks and do work parapros and the untrained can do nearly as well, that there is no reason to keep them as librarians as such. Do librarian level work. If a librarian can’t figure out what that is, perhaps they shouldnt be at the professional level after all.

    • I think there is a difference in the type of librarian. Also, there is the problem of expectations when getting the degree.

      If you work with the public, customer service, programming, reference, etc. then there will be work in which you don’t need the degree. These are areas that are being de-professionalized. However, there are plenty of librarian jobs where the degree is absolutely necessary, as Colleen as demonstrated above. Understanding that difference while still in school is of great benefit.

    • “I am not a fan of deprofessionalizing the reference desk – there’s a lot to be said for someone who knows the nuances of how database design works (this from an academic librarian, so YMMV in public libraries).”

      I agree with Colleen 100 percent. At the library where I intern, only those with an MLS are allowed to sit the reference desk. More than once have I seen a paraprofessional there. Sadder still, the professionals don’t even know what they’re doing! One person sitting there last week didn’t even know how to handle a basic reference question with the use of our databases – she came over to ask me at the children’s desk!

  10. Interesting debate – I started with library experience on the “Why do we need this piece of paper” side and over the past few years have moved over to the other side. I’ve been thinking recently about how to let people know what happens behind the scenes in all roles. The library day in the life is a great idea but is obviously limited to the echo chamber (why do I feel like these are becoming library buzz phrases?!) If your library has a blog with general information for the public, maybe day-in-the-life type posts could be interspersed with other announcements?

    • It certainly would take strides towards giving people a better idea of what happens in the library as a whole. A break from the idea that we are simply stationed at desks on an ‘as needed’ basis would be welcome.

  11. One thing that bugs me is how this idea applies at an academic library. These days, having an MLIS is no longer sufficient to be a librarian at a research university. You need at least two masters degrees. I love working as an academic librarian, but I’m aware that I’m restricted to small colleges unless I want to shell out another 30 grand for another masters that I essentially will not use at all. I’m sure it’s necessary in some environments, but ultimately this requirement amounts to a hyperprofessionalization of this segment of the field. And frankly, there are no positions that could possibly pay enough to make two masters degrees a viable option. Just a thought…

    • That sounds more like a product of academic inflation. What previously required just a bachelor degree now requires a masters; and a PhD for that which previously required a masters. In this case, it’s is the requirement of two master’s (one in library science, one in the field of study) that creates a tougher than necessary requirement for position placement. That might be the burden that the academic library has to face in the coming years in trying to fill positions with candidates who are ‘qualified’.

    • Josh, I work at a very large public university and I don’t have a second masters and I have faculty status. When I was library school, I was told, and I never checked, that an academic library job required a 2nd masters, so I went into public libraries first, but as it turns out most of the people I work with don’t have one and most academic job openings don’t require one (“preferred” is not a requirement). I think there used to be a requirement for subject specialists to have 2nd masters, but that’s not really the case anymore. Most schools realize that MLIS is the terminal degree, just like most the performing arts faculty have MFAs not Phds…… Except for that weird school in Pennsylvania that requires all their librarians to have Phds.

      • At most SUNY libraries a 2nd masters is required at some point (usually by tenure or promotion to Associate Librarian), but is rarely required for entry level hires with an MLS. At my medium sized 4 year college that offers nothing above a bachelors, we require a 2nd masters to get to Associate Librarian (or 36 credits towards a PhD), regardless of position in the library. Give me a break. It’s not like we’re mentoring doctoral students or multi-million-dollar-funded faculty researchers who need subject specialists who are well versed in the ancient ways of the blahblahblahs.

        This general navel-gazing, life-choice-justifying discussion has popped up in my viewfinder every 8 months or so for the past 14 years. I can’t swear by it, but I think I’ve noticed a shift in the way MLS students and working librarians are leaning…are more of us/you saying “this MLS is/was a huge expense that I might not be able to justify… was it realllllly reallllly worth it? pride and professional rhetoric aside?”

        I have mixed feelings. I really believe my MLS alma mater was among the best, based on comparison with the knowledge/skill sets I see in new grads from other progams. I came out of it grounded in the history and theory of the field, while actually having learned some applicable and marketable “skills.” If every program was as good as mine, I’d say bring on the MLS’es! But from what I’ve seen, they’re not all as good, and I wonder what some of these people have been doing for the last 36 credits.

        I’m lucky…I got a primo job right out of my MLS, been here for years, tenure, etc. There were approx. 10 qualified applicants when I was hired. Three years ago when we hired another entry level, we have 47 qualified applicants. They all had an MLS. Ouch.

  12. Perhaps it was the focus of the courses I took, but the message I got in graduate school was clear: the purpose of the librarian is to manage.

    At the time, I didn’t think of it as a progressive idea. That the profession keeps bringing it up (in similar terms to this post) makes me think that maybe it was.

    Either way, I have to admit that I agree. Librarians should be managers. We should manage projects, manage people, manage libraries, manage departments … we’re tipping away from being front-line staff and being pushed into roles of planning, organizing, and evaluating services.

    Is that really a big change? I don’t know; I’ve been a project manager since I got out of grad school, but it makes sense to me.

    • I see the management aspect of it as well. The more time spent with the collection equates into working on better methods of access, better interfaces, and better materials for patrons. That’s just how I see it.

    • Or to consult. This happened upthread on the subject of reference, but not every position in the library that benefits from professionalization is management. Management is indeed one track, but even public and children’s libraries benefit from experts. Like any other field libraries benefit from the synoptic focus by some in management and the myopic focus of others in fields of expertise.

  13. Why do people ask this question? I believe that it is evidence that these people had never seriously considered how a person came to be a librarian and that they do not really know what is involved in being a librarian (other than the mundane tasks that they normally witness being executed in the library setting).

    In many cases, the skill set we use is akin to the skills upper level management or administration would draw from in other areas of the working world. Often people have no idea what it is a manager of a plant or a superintendent of a school does all day. Yet, it is common knowledge among the public that these people would hold degrees to get these positions. They know this because they experience this first place in the actual work-place, or a family member or friend experiences it and speaks of it. TV shows and literature also frequently allude to how the proverbial success ladder works in common workplaces. But how many people are privy to working in a library or knowing someone who works in a library? It is not enough to visit a library once a week to understand the professional demands of a librarian. If we help out on the circulation desk it will not disturb their impression, since they do not know what other duties we do when not on the desk. Concurrently, if we are in a back office working on collection development and program planning, this will not inform them of the necessity of the degree either since they will still not be informed of what it is we do.

    Therefore, I do not think it is what we are seen doing or not doing. I believe the stigma comes from a lack of exposure to what it is we do beyond what is seen. Where is a realistic depiction of a librarian on television? Where is an informational commercial that informs the public about what it is we do? Why aren’t we at events like The New York State Fair promoting our profession and what it is we do? We need to educate people. We need to meet the public outside of the library in interesting, but informative ways so that they can see begin what it is that we do and why it is that a degree would be necessary.

    Anyone know any TV show producers? Or even a good ad agency?

    • And something perhaps with less Noah Wylie in it.

      There is something to be said for what can be observed by the average individual. If such a person comes to the library, they can see me physically checking books in and out and interacting with customers. If such a person sees me staring at a computer screen, that’s the limit of their perception; they don’t see me as organizing databases, making LibGuides, or emailing performers to arrange for programs. In the past, you could watch a librarian engaged in the collection and adding/removing to it; today, the technology has made information arrangement much more subtle.

  14. I don’t know that two master’s degrees is amiss, depending on the actual job of the librarian. If you’re a collection developer or subject librarian at a research university, I think it’s perfectly proper to require folks to have a graduate-level in-depth knowledge of the literature they’ll be selecting and giving research consultations on – faculty should be able to come to that sort of librarian with their research dilemma, and their research questions (if not always their skills) are far more involved than the average undergrad receiving library instruction.

    If there’s no real need for such deep specialization, though, I would agree that it’s unnecessary. In that position, it would be interesting to ask for a justification for the need for the degree. You may not be able to change the system, but it’d be nice to know if there’s an actual answer or if it’s just for show.

    • This reminds me why law firms look for scientists and engineers with JDs for patent law; they want people who can read and understand what can be very technical documents. There certainly is a need for such an level of multiple academic accreditation. If I was an advanced particle physicist, I’d certainly want a librarian who could at least know what lingo in order for them to help me find what I’m looking for.

      • Just as an FYI, the patent bar is a separate examination from the state bar exams. A lawyer must pass both to practice patent law, and must have an undergraduate degree in a hard science or engineering to sit for it. So that’s why they look for those people too…they have to. [/pedantic librarian]

        • Hey Guys – in case your curious – technically you don’t have to sit for the patent bar to “practice” patent law. There are patent litigators and patent prosecutors. Litigators – the ones who battle it out in court – often aren’t patent attorneys because they’ve not sat for the patent bar. However, they can argue patent cases in most courts. Patent prosecutors, on the other hand, have passed the patent bar, and they are allowed to practice before the US Patent and Trademark Office. That means they can file patents and argue cases in front the PTO’s court-like board. Generally, most “patent attorneys” are registered before the USPTO, but that’s not always the case. Just an FYI.

  15. I have to say, my personal experience of the Library Masters is that it is not an advanced degree. Seeing the phrase ‘advanced degree’ used a lot in this post and in the comments has really clarified this for me. I think librarianship
    demands post-graduate qualifications mainly because that’s the only option which works – no one realises they want to work in libraries at under-grad age, and there is arguably not three years worth of stuff you could usefully learn on a degree, either.

    I have done a library MSc and another non-library MA. The latter felt like an advanced degree – the former felt like under-grad level study that was just one year long instead of three.

    That’s just my own experience – perhaps it’s different outside the UK or even just at other universities than the one I did my Masters with, i dunno.

    So, I seldom feel like ‘i didn’t get an advanced degree just to [insert menial task here]’ – I just feel like, I didn’t (really) get an advanced degree.

    • I have to agree that my experience of a UK library MA (at, I think, a different institution to Thewikiman) was that it wasn’t particularly ‘advanced’ in content, only in its requirement that you have a first degree in something.

    • Great points, wikiman! I had a similar experience where my MLIS MA program felt like undergrad 1.5, and my History MA (I was doing both at the same time and at same school) felt like I was doing at least double the work and double the stress. I’m not sure if this is because the MLIS program at the school I attended is lax, but I doubt it since it’s well regarded (at least in that state).

    • Yeah, ditto. (And, contra Colleen, I did not slide through — I did an internship, I petitioned out of the required tech course and took a harder one instead, I went way beyond what several of my final projects demanded, I got (forthcoming) published…) But fundamentally, with few exceptions, my classes were not intellectually rigorous, compared to either my previous MA or much of my undergraduate work. (Really, my undergrad was harder than my MA, too. My college is sorta known for its workload.)

      On the other hand, I didn’t go to MLS school to spend a really rigorous two years, either (I was warned not to expect it). I went to open a particular career door which I want to walk through. It’s a very expensive way to open a door, but the degree did leave me substantially better equipped to — well, maybe not be employed [grim, desperate laughter about the economy here], but at least to join the conversation.

      • Andromeda, I’m really interested that you feel that your MA left you feeling “better equipped […] to join the conversation”, because that’s exactly what I feel I *didn’t* get from my MA. The course content was OK, but it seemed curiously distant from real librarians doing real work, and from any of the big issues that people are discussing on blogs and elsewhere.

  16. “I have done a library MSc and another non-library MA. The latter felt like an advanced degree – the former felt like under-grad level study that was just one year long instead of three.

    I’m also a holder of other masters degrees, and what I realized is this: there are some MA degrees that are research intensive, and are intended to launch you into a PhD or scholarly career (my MA in PoliSci was like that, and as my first, was what i based my other comparisons on). But there are other degrees – like the MLS, though there are others – that to me are not research degrees but advanced professional degrees, and appropriate to do at the graduate level.

    Regarding the rigor of the MLS program – it’s uneven across programs, as I understand it, but so it every other discipline, and that shouldnt leave a grad student in the lurch. Not feeling challenged? Design an independent study, take more challenging electives, get a tough internship in, beef up your tech skills not with social networking, but some serious CSS or programming work. Or, of course, you can just slide through, accepting a non-rigorous program. But GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out), and if you have nothing special to show for your time in the program, don’t complain when you dont get a job when you graduate.

  17. To offer a different perspective, the basic requirement for a professional librarian position in most countries outside the US & Canada is a bachelor’s or lower.

    I also know that some of the public libraries that I have found to be on the cutting edge of librarianship – notably DOK in The Netherlands – are directed by individuals without formal library training.

    In my opinion, before jumping into how to protect the value of our expensive educations, which seems like a defensive position, we should step back and assess whether a master’s degree really should be required for entry-level library positions.

  18. Agreed with Meaghan – but I think we’re seeing that, with many vacant librarian positions being turned into parapro positions that *dont* require the MLS. There’s a lot of grump that it’s due to the economy, which I’m sure is part of it, but I also believe it’s a long overdue overhaul of considering which positions really *do* require the MLS to do the job well.

    • Colleen is correct here, I think. When I got out of library school and took my first “professional” job at a public library branch in a large, urban system, my initial reaction was “I went to grad school for *THIS*????” The job just didn’t require the knowledge and skills I obtained in library school. It seemed like a high school kid could do the job I was doing. I think this is because that reorganization Colleen mentioned wasn’t happening yet. Libraries were staffed based on a pre-automation model that required more professional staff….and this was back in ’96.

  19. I didn’t finish reading all the comments, so someone may have made this point but–why is this a topic upon which so much time and library blog space is wasted? Are we really this insecure about our relevance? And I’ve heard the argument that public perception affects funding and therefore we need to be concerned about it. But honestly, I don’t buy that. I think there is a segment of the librarian population who spends far too much time concerned that people don’t know they have an advanced degree. People don’t care how the sausage is made or who made the sausage–they just want the sausage.

    I’m currently supervising the Circulation Dept of a public library while pursuing my MLIS and frankly, many of the librarians in my system would have benefited from some management training. Or at the very least problem solving skills.

    • I don’t see it as a ‘relevance to the public’ issue; I see it as ‘relating our education credentials to the work that we do’ issue. And if there is a lot of blogspace devoted to it, then perhaps it is still an issue for many library professionals out there. I generally don’t get a deluge of comments on posts where people tend to think of it in one way or another; judging from the response so far, it’s something that people feel pretty strongly about.

    • I think part of the increased soul-searching that is being done by librarians is due a lot to the economic crisis (everything always leads back to that, just like roads in the Roman empire). We’re being forced to evaluate ourselves so that we can better convince the holders of the purse-strings that we deserve more than we’re getting. It’s been brought up that degreed librarians are woefully underpaid in comparison to the cost of their educations (and this gets amplified by the second master’s degrees). There is some need to justify this cost, not only to ourselves for the debts we gather but also to others to explain why we should be paid that extra $10,000.

      • However, in an economic crisis, if an MLIS were to demand that they no longer spend time doing anything other than “professional” duties, most likely what will happen is that positions will be re-classified, and more paraprofessional positions will be created. And maybe that is how it should be.

        The real issue here isn’t making sure that the work we do is related to our education. It’s re-defining the profession in such a way that the holders of the purse strings recognize the continuing need of the services which we provide.

        Andy, you are typically a guy looking for ways to do that. This post sounded more like an old-school librarian wanting to get into the wayback machine.

        • I wasn’t trying to advocate for going back to a “before” status in terms of librarian jobs and skills; I was wondering what it means *now* to be a librarian in terms of duties. I wouldn’t want to go back to a previous model, but currently, the role, duties, and tasks of the librarian are a little less than clearly defined these days.

  20. Wow, lot of comments on this post! This is a small aside but you should check out “The Demise of Library School” by Richard J. Cox. He just published it (was one of my professors in library school) and I just picked up my copy at the library today. I’ve only glanced through it briefly so far and might write some commentary on my blog once I finish, but it sounds like a book that might interest you.

    • Thanks for the title. If we aren’t already receiving it as part of our approval plan, I’m going to request a purchase for my library.

  21. I’ve been thinking about this some more and wondered this: how many jobs today require graduate studies that could probably be done well without these degrees? I believe one could make a logical argument that the following could be done well with only an undergraduate, bachelor of science (not arts because of the subject specificity) degree:

    -teacher (the Master’s is a relatively new requirement)
    -pharmacist (also relatively new)
    -market analyst
    -physical therapists
    -speech pathologists
    -guidance counselors
    -marketing coordinators
    -CEO’s and top level managers (see this article in Forbe’s: )

    I’m sure there are other jobs that could be listed, too, but I think you see my point. The degree is like a bonus. It does not necessarily guarantee any sort of success (look at the problems within the public educational system or consider that Bill Gates doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree much less a graduate degree).

    So, then, what is the difference if people know we have graduate degrees? A graduate degree is an advantage if it is used as such, but it doesn’t really prove anything tangible. Performance on the job is what garners respect from consumers of a service, but only if those consumers are aware of what constitutes evidence of that performance. In our case, there is a certain mystery about what it is we actually do beyond what is seen. We need to educate people so they know the difference between a sub-par librarian and a stellar librarian (and I’m talking about going beyond the whole shushing thing). We need them to understand what it is we do so they can clearly judge for themselves if our profession holds value- or not.

    Also, in the big picture, people don’t care about degrees. They care about service. If we create a library community where the members of that community have a voice that is heard and service is provided that meets their needs (not the needs we might believe they have, but the needs we hear them detailing), then we will have value. They will respect us for the service we give them, not the degree we display on the wall. Oh, and by the way, if a para-professional can do that, what’s wrong with that? Should CEOs of companies without degrees be fired? Does the lack of the degree make such CEOs any less valuable? Of course not. I look at a degree as an advantage that I am glad to have been able to have. It’s like being afforded a clear advantage in a race. You can choose to use this advantage and be outstanding, or you can be cocky like the good ‘ol hare. Use the advantage, but respect those colleagues that stay the course at a slow, steady and reliable pace because if they provide value to the community, they deserve to have respect and kudos, too.

    If you want respect, start collecting those notes of thanks or documenting those verbal comments of gratitude. Display them prominently on a wall. It will remind you that when you serve this profession well, people will notice and value you. It will also remind the less reflective and appreciative members of the community of just how valuable and valued your services are (it may be they never thought of it before).

    And make sure, whenever a chance presents itself, to reveal part of the mystery of what it is that we’re all about when we’re doing our jobs well outside of the spotlight. Use of media that goes beyond a sexy, half-naked man could be helpful, too. And I don’t think our value has a damn thing to do with physical sex appeal or Old Spice, either. It’s a nice gimmick, but we need to bare the true, full monty. They’ll likely be impressed….that is if we dare to bare ourselves outside of the library world.

    • With a few of the degrees you cite, graduate level certification isn’t quite as new as it may seem. Speech pathology and pharmacy are both advance practice fields, and have been historically.

      Honestly I’m probably more comfortable investing in a company whose CEO worked their way up from being an engineer with the company. When I want medical advice though, I greatly prefer a professional with 20-30 credit hours of pharmacotherapy to one with up to nine credit hours. What we get from an ALA masters in Library Science is different than a research intensive masters in a particular field, but the morsels of knowledge acquired are in line with a serious professional education.

  22. I’ve worked side by side with a number of brilliant MLS librarians in a public library setting. I respect them and their advanced degrees. The best ones showed me the “tricks of the trade” and learned from me as well. Over the years, I learned more from the patrons how to help them best. No advanced degree was needed for 99.66% of the questions typical of a public library reference desk. The ouch factor comes into play when despite a decade of experience with story times, teen book clubs, and creating programs for adults (and glowing recommendations) I can’t get a foot in the door of a public library job without the MLS. Public libraries (in non-academic settings) could save themselves money and perhaps get on with better things if they left the MLS requirement out of the reference job. Being a good listener, having the deep desire to serve ones neighbor, and having basic research skills gets the job done. Save the masters requirement for when it is truly needed, and leave the grunt work those who haven’t earned their way out of a “regular” public library job.

    • That’s the flip side of my point. If a library can use the paraprofessional in that capacity, why not utilize those staff members so as to free up library staff for other things? I wrote more on that as a reply to Emily Llyoyd’s post (linked below), and I sense another post in the future directly addressing it.

  23. Pasting my blog response ( here:

    It is exceptionally rare that I get offended enough by a librar* blog post to respond to it with more than pulling a coworker over and saying, “Get a load of this,” but Andy Woodworth’s The Master’s Degree Misperception at Agnostic, Maybe, got–as we used to say in high school–on my tits. Read it, but here are two excerpts:

    “On any given day, I can be standing at the circulation desk side-by-side with a support staff member doing the same thing that they are doing. So long as this arrangement exists, the perception that librarianship does not require an advanced degree will continue to taint the image of the profession.”

    “It is a disservice to the education, to the degree, and to the profession when the bulk of a librarian’s daily tasks could be performed by someone with a GED…[H]ow can we separate the MLS from the paraprofessional? Should the profession insist on a greater separation of duties? Should we surrender the reference desk over to the paraprofessional and adopt “research hours” where we can sit down with people who have actual reference questions? What needs to change in how we approach the job in the context of the library?”

    While I do like the idea of “research hours,” I’m afraid I’m fairly sure my paraprofessional self could handle them as well as many–though certainly not all–professional librarians.

    I’ve worked in libraries on and off, mostly on, for 16 years, in both circulation and reference. I’ve worked in two academic and three public library systems (my personal preference is for public, because of the greater diversity of tasks and of patrons served, but I’ll admit that at my last academic job I made twice what I do at my current public job). I have consciously, actively chosen not to obtain a master’s degree in library and information science for the following reasons:

    1) I want to work in public libraries, and librarians in public libraries don’t make much unless they’re in management,

    2)I never want to be in management, and

    therefore, 3)I can’t bear the thought of the expense of the degree in comparison to how much I am likely to make after obtaining it. I don’t want to be paying for my MLIS for years to come, especially as I have a high school junior and a seventh grader who want to attend college. If I truly, deeply thought that I would be learning things that would make me far, far better at my non-management, non-cataloguing job, I might go for my MLIS. But folks: I can read professional journals, I can read blog posts and professional presentations, I can engage in seminar-like discussions with professional and paraprofessional library staff in the blogosphere–I–anyone–can learn so much on my own online and in conversation with colleagues, that I really don’t feel that not attending school limits my acquisition of knowledge about the work I do. I learned about Ranganathan’s Laws by Googling them after seeing them mentioned in a blog post, and they were the same five laws you learned about in library school.

    I love school. If someone handed me a full scholarship to library school, I’d happily go. I don’t think library school is a joke or a waste of time. But I’m disgusted with tuition hikes in this country, the turning of learning into little more than a business, and will not go into hock for a degree.

    If it’s important to you that people outside libraryland understand why your work requires an advanced degree, and you don’t think that working the public library floor contributes to the perception that it does, I suggest working in academic or corporate libraries, being in management in public libraries, or–as I prefer to, degreed or not–giving such awesome and knowledgeable service on the public desk that people are dazzled by the depth and breadth of what you can show them. This last does not require an advanced degree. It requires a hungry and dedicated mind and attitude, and a constant willingness to search out new ways to meet your patrons’ needs. These days, I’d argue that it means you need to know about tools like,, and–little things that make your patrons’ lives and work much easier once you’ve demonstrated them. It means keeping your eye out for the good stuff.

    More on Woodworth’s “someone with a GED” remark and college-as-business: in case you haven’t noticed, most service staff have undergraduate degrees now, at least in my town. What’s more, several service staff folks working in my county have master’s degrees in library science. The jobs aren’t there, people. And frankly, again because of the “businessification” of college, degrees hardly mean shit any more. It doesn’t say much about your intellect, these days, if you have managed to complete a master’s degree. Sure, you worked hard, you learned some stuff, fine–but the degree was ultimately a purchase. One could say “an investment,” but if we’re looking at the financial picture for most public librarians, it’s an investment without much of a payoff.

    One of my favorite library-related quotes is from Frank Zappa: “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.” Now–I realize Zappa’s talking about undergrad here; I’m not suggesting one goes to library school to get laid. BUT the point is: you can learn a lot in a library. And one extension of the point is, when you work in a library, you learn a lot. The library’s original raison d’être–or one of them–is to make opportunities to learn available to folks who might not otherwise be able to afford to learn. So it seems especially ridiculous when library staff, like Woodworth in this case, assume greater intellect and ability on the part of folks who have been professionally educated and that it’s best for autodidacts to stick to telling patrons where the bathroom is. If ANY profession should value the self-taught, it’s this one.

    I may have blogged this before–I know I’ve thought it before–but, even when it comes to medicine and law, I would rather be treated or represented by an intellectually-engaged, enthusiastic paraprofessional that someone with a degree who’s complacent and resting on his or her laurels. Degree ≠ competence. Degree ≠ good service. A degree simply means that you worked for and obtained a degree. It has nothing to do with whether you’ll be a good or dedicated librarian in practice.

    Woodworth concludes his post, “I’m not ignorant of the fact that this post will not apply to some libraries that have a smaller staff; nor that there will be times when there is a crossover of duties between librarians and paraprofessionals. I’m simply saying that this will continue to be an image problem so long as it is found [that paraprofessionals and librarians often do the same work] in the majority of public libraries around the country.

    To my mind, the best way to solve an “image problem” is to provide patrons with knowledgeable, kick-ass, “I can’t believe how much time you just saved me,” “I can’t believe you were able to find a book series that my reluctant reader devoured”-type service. And to have a good, helpful, I-want-to-make-your-day-easier attitude when, yes, telling folks where the bathroom is or helping them figure out how to make double-sided copies. Because they’ll remember it, and when you seem friendly, they might (they often, in my experience) decide to ask you another question, a more, in Woodworth’s words, “actual reference question” (that they may not previously have felt comfortable asking, or as if it was worth “disturbing” a librarian about) after they take their leak.

  24. The public library I work in has a welcome desk staffed by paraprofessionals and a reference desk staffed by librarians. This works out well because patrons see a person that can help them as soon as they enter the building. Paraprofessionals know they can always refer patrons back the reference desk for more advanced questions. Patrons are not told that one desk is staffed by librarians but they often start to figure out that there is a different level of service at each desk. If they have more advanced questions, many will automatically go to to the reference desk. Good paraprofessionals can ask for advice on questions and it should be the role of the librarian to stay up-to-date on the most relevant resources so the can share them with staff members. They are also right there when circulation staff members have questions about interlibrary loan materials and more.

    It was mentioned that librarians are managers. I agree with this because even thought I am not a department head, I see it as part of my responsibilities to make sure that a certain level of service is upheld. When librarians are at the reference desk and accessible to the public, they are right there to troubleshoot when problems arise, interact with the public so they get to really know who library users are and what there information needs are. Patrons that I assist with more in depth questions appreciate the skills involved.

    • I think your experience presents less overlap by design; there are tiers to the desks and levels of support. I’m guessing it’s a larger library that has the ability to do that; not everyone will have that same experience.

      Again, as mentioned before, I think there should be a BA option depending on your career goals.

  25. The idea of changing the requirement to a BA instead of the MLS holds merit. Maybe this could include a mandatory internship. My most valuable experience in library school was working as a graduate assistant at the university library. If we decided to change the requirement to a BA instead of an MLS, it would great to have to option of earning an MLS if you have already earned a bachelors degree in another field rather than having to go back to school for an additional four years.

  26. This discussion holds merit but my concern is that if we decide that we don’t need a reference librarian answering questions for the public, there will be less librarians out of work. I earned my MLS in 1996 and would like to earn a living as a librarian well into the future. If we don’t see the value of librarians at the reference desk, who will?

  27. Pingback: The LIS Masters is a qualification of convenience | thewikiman

  28. Meaghan brings up education in countries. Many countries have next to no formal library education, others have 5 year undergraduate courses to be recognised as a librarian (where, no surprise, drop out rate is high). Other countries, like Australia offer LIS education at both undergraduate and graduate levels. There’s a huge diversity of models, and there is no one right way. What is interesting is how many places aspire to have US style master’s education, even if it is not common in other professions in their country. But that’s another issue entire, one that brings issues of status.

    But when it comes down to it, we all want libraries to be staffed by professional, highly skilled people. That doesn’t always mean a degree. But it might also mean, for instance, that you sometimes spend time doing things that are not degree-level work, because it is more efficient, or just because it is needed. But every profession is like this. Even lawyers, even if they’d never admit it.

    The real gap is at graduation – graduates expect higher level jobs, but they generally find themselves at entry level. So do we need to restructure the expectations that new students come in with? Or do we need to encourage employers to create more higher level opportunities for new graduates? And in a profession where so much is learned on the job, which is more appropriate? It’s not an easy thing to solve.

    I also agree with Meaghan that we need to look at who we are bringing into the profession/libraries. The best IT staff I ever worked with in a library were IT people who had no need, or interest, in getting a library certification. The best communications people have been professional communicators and graphic designers. Libraries bring in the whole community, but we could be more diverse in our staffing. A team of professional librarians, subject experts, and people from a range of other professions – that’s got to work.

    Lastly, I agree with Colleen that education is what you make of it. And pretty much everything else she said.

    • I totally agree with the graduation expectation. The degree does not confer the level of advanced position placement that exists in other fields. (Compare how a PhD, Masters, and BA/BS in Biology and their job placements within a university setting: the PhD will be doing the research, the masters assisting the PhD, and the BA/BS running the basics of the lab. Unless this model has changed in the last ten years, that is.)

      In theory, a linear progression for those recent grads makes sense; in real life, the practice of which may not work as smoothly.

  29. I also take exception to the exclusive use of the term “librarian” to mean people with degrees. Again, I come at this from an international perspective, working primarily with public librarians in Romania in Ukraine. Few of those librarians have access to professional library education, most work in small towns and villages fulfilling all the duties of a librarian and are heavily invested in their communities. Does their lack of a degree really make them not librarians? I can tell you that this distinction is not made in many countries outside the US, and many non-US librarians I have spoken with find it confusing.

    How can we say that the people doing the work of the library are not “real” librarians?

    • I agree. I am a paraprofessional working in a public library. I can live with not being a “real” librarian as my duties are more tech related than anything.

      My husband is the director of another library. Both he and the director of the library that I am employed at have degrees in English. Both are treated like they are not “real” librarians because they don’t have the actual MLS. But, some new grad shelving books that DOES have the degree is a “real” librarian?

    • My use of the “librarian” title has more to do with the union that represents county workers (myself included) than the ability of people to do librarian work. If you have an MLS, you can have the title of “librarian”; if you don’t, you are either a librarian assistant or associate. It doesn’t reflect the ability of the non-MLS people to do the same jobs as MLS people; it’s all about the pay, benefits, hours, and opportunities.

  30. I think this debate is healthy and needed – thanks Andy! In my humble opinion the idea of a BA library degree rather than a graduate one as a requirement is wrong-headed. I would argue that in order to get a grasp of concepts like the research process, and the reference interview, and how knowledge is created and disseminated, and more importantly, be able to put those concepts into practice during internships and entry-level jobs, you should have some discipline-specific research experience yourself.

    Granted, some can master many aspects of the profession without a BA, let alone an MLIS, and an undergrad degree doesn’t guarantee these experiences, unfortunately. But I think it does make it more probable and can be a great base to being able to do more and think creatively right out of the gate in your profession, than if you didn’t have those experiences and maturity.

    Having said all that, I do think we should consider some more rigorous form of credentialing through professional development and experience, rather than solely on getting a degree. At the very least, the balance of theory versus practical experiences in these programs should be re-evaluated.

    Just my 3 cents, I could be wrong.

    • As with teaching, the creation of an alternate route for accreditation based on experience (and life experience) might be a good possibility for those who have extensive experience but at limited by the MLS bar. There are times it should act as a barrier; but this isn’t one of them.

  31. I often find that the knowledge I gained from my MLIS program is easily overlooked on a day to day basis because so much of it was foundational. It’s easy for me to forget why some things are so easy for me to understand. For example, there have been countless times when I have been at a friend’s house (someone with an advanced degree – MBA, JD, etc.) and we’ve gone online to look for something. I have had to restrain myself from grabbing the keyboard out of their hands when I see their Google search string. I remain calm for a few seconds as the results come up, and then want to screech again when I see their inability to discern the authority of the information that’s presented. I sigh as they simply give up when they can’t find exactly what they’re looking for (I know it’s out there!), and settle for whatever they are given. These are folks in their 30’s who have completed countless research projects at top universities and who have successful careers.

    Understanding information and being able to find what you need is much easier when you understand advanced searching, when you know what the first reference databases looked like and how they worked (They were books! Of metadata!), when you know what computers are doing behind the scenes when you run a search, when you get why we catalog the way that we do, the maddening truth behind precision and recall, and why our library policies and the institutions themselves operate the way they do based on our history (as a profession, and as a nation)…and so on…

    Could this foundation be taught in an undergrad program? Perhaps. Could it be learned on the job? Perhaps. Or perhaps we could continue the task of reinventing MLS curriculum to more accurately reflect the needs of libraries in the 21st Century.

    We don’t have to accept budget cuts as simply the way it’s going to be forever.

    If we as librarians want to flex our degrees than we need to look outside of the box. Maybe I’m not your average library patron, but my local library does little to serve my information needs beyond simply offering resources – books, databases, and such. Their programming is 99% for children. However, my information needs exist almost entirely in the space between school and real life. I need to know some basic plumbing repair, how to paint a wall, how to change my oil, the best place to take a beach vacation in August, the difference between leasing and buying, what is a living will, do I need a permit to have a garage sale… So, I would LOVE to see my local library be a true community hub of information. A place where local business were available to do programming on a wide variety of topics. A place where I could meet my neighbors and learn a skill or two at the same time. Oh, and I would also like to be able to check out a circular saw – or maybe even an accountant! In my mind, this would be great for libraries as well because they would be supporting the very people who are probably voters and also most likely influential community members. Win-win!

    What if we offered some fee based services (gasp!)?

    What if we spent more time marketing, advocating, “playing the game” with community influencers and leaders?

    What are the barriers to our services and how can we eliminate them? Do our websites and catalogs also reflect poorly on our abilities?

    Can we increase our tribe?

    The things I’m suggesting may be current practice at your library or they may not be possible, prudent, or desirable in any library and they certainly would not apply to every library. I just don’t think we need to burn down the house and excavate the foundation in order to rebuild our profession. Move a few walls? Sure! Update the electric? Yes! But let’s start with what we do best and go from there.

    I’m proud to be a librarian and excited about the future.

    PS: How I choose to define and label myself is a personal decision.

  32. There are really two ways that one can get an education to do a particular professional job. Education and experience. Both are perfectly valid. Think about it this way…can someone walk into a library without an MLS and without any prior library work experience and do the job of a reference librarian? In most cases, no. Can someone with a good deal of experience but no MLS do the job? Probably. That’s the value of the MLS or any other professional degree. It provides one with the skills and knowledge to practice one’s profession upon completion. No experience is really required.

    The MLS is a professional degree. It’s an advanced degree, for sure. My program was very rigorous. However, it’s not an “academic” degree. It’s learning how to do a job, not learning for learning’s sake. An equivalent degree is an MBA, not an MA in History. When I was in library school, I liked to refer to it as a “trade school for intellectuals”.

    • Rob Sage, you wrote:

      The MLS is a professional degree. It’s an advanced degree, for sure. My program was very rigorous. However, it’s not an “academic” degree. It’s learning how to do a job, not learning for learning’s sake. An equivalent degree is an MBA, not an MA in History. When I was in library school, I liked to refer to it as a “trade school for intellectuals”.

      I only wish this was the case with my program, where the Dean of our school specifically wanted it to be an academic degree and in fact, harped on the fact that our program wasn’t a trade school (which made the vast majority of us students smack our collective foreheads). Has anyone else ran into this at their programs? Of course, perhaps this has something to do with the fact that we became an “iSchool” instead of a “library school” (and that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms to open!)

  33. Amen to taxonomylady! It kills me that as public libraries cut hours (which I know is a necessity) that it’s inevitably the hours that working professionals would be able to use the library. Libraries close early on weekdays and weekends, leaving the bulk of the weekday early mornings open, and the programming is largely directed at children, teens and seniors. It’s a shame of a trend. Abigal Goben wrote a great essay about it recently for an LISNews essay contest, available here: – it’s a shame that the programming of public libraries consistently cuts out the young and middle aged professional. Given their hours, libraries may well look at the Post Office as a what-not-to-do – completely inconvenient hours that cause folks to look for easy online alternatives.

    Sorry, tangent. But I do think that’s a space well-ripe for librarians to exploit.

    I also do think it’s important for our MLS programs to actually be imparting the sort of skills librarians actually need. Are our current program designs & accreditations meaningful? At many SLISes, statistics and data manipulation course requirements are minimal, if they exist at all, which filters into the literature as poorly designed, implemented, & analyzed studies. Assessment is huge, and we’re far below the skillset we need to have in those areas (which are usually the realm of more research-oriented MA programs).

    I also agree with Dana that both rigor of programs and post-degree credentialing should be looked at. Many other professions require continuing education (as do some local bodies over public libraries, as I understand it, though it varies by state).

    Some US colleges & universities do offer the BA or an AA in Library Science (or some equivalent). I think throwing out the MLS as a grad degree is tossing the baby with the bathwater, though.

  34. “I didn’t know you needed a master’s degree to be a librarian.”

    My short answer: while there are public library jobs that require a master’s degree (mine is one), I don’t think you need an MLS or MLIS to do public library work. I haven’t done anything since I got my degree that I didn’t do before I got my degree. I just get paid more to do it.

  35. I am amazed at some of the job postings at academic and public libraries requiring an MLIS. I have seen jobs where the job duties were those of a web designer, but the degree asked for was an MLIS. I have seen jobs where the job duties were those of a web programmer, but the degree required was an MLIS. If you were a web designer, or a web programmer, you could easily get a job that paid more and did not require an MLIS. The candidates for these library jobs will be those who have an MLIS and have some modest web design or programming skills and are interested in learning more, but who wouldn’t be qualified to get web designer or programmer jobs at most companies. Why are all these libraries requiring someone working on the web site for the library to have an MLIS? It’s like requiring the construction worker for the physical library to have an MLIS. It’s why people learn to communicate with each other so that those with library degrees can communicate their needs and designers and programmers come up with solutions – an MLIS would be more appropriate as a manager of those positions. MHO.

  36. This is something I think about a lot. I work in a public library and I suspect that the vast majority of what I do could be learned on the job. I’m in favor of keeping the MLIS or PhD for those who want to go into management or teach Library Science (and changing the degree program to focus more on those aspects), but I really don’t think it’s necessary for doing an entry-level librarian job.

    I’ve been thinking of something more like a teacher credential program, where there is a little bit of coursework to ground people in library science, but the bulk of the experience is practicing as a librarian for a year under the close supervision of a mentor. Either that, or a required year-long internship as part of the Bachelor’s degree. YMMV, but I know I learned more from my semester-long internship in library school than I did from most of my classes combined.

    Here’s another way of looking at it: as I’ve moved up the hierarchy in my library, I’ve been more involved in the hiring process and I’ve interviewed candidates for many different positions. I’d much, much rather hire people who don’t have a degree but have a great understanding of customer service and actually enjoy working with the public, than hire a brilliant person with the MLIS who has no customer service skills. We’re a service organization, first and foremost. We can teach and train the technical aspects of the job, but we can’t teach a misanthrope to like people.

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  39. I would not call MLS degree an advanced degree. An advanced degree means that you received a BA in a particular subject or concentration and continued onto a masters level/or professional level with the same subject. Secondly, how large and where your library is located determines how much of a librarian you’ll be particularly in a public library. Thirdly, in New York public libraries you often hear support staff stating that they can do librarian duties. If they can, it could be the fact that many librarians leave certain schools poorly learned and trained.
    Many librarians do no keep up with the latest trends and just tag along or bit off someone else. The support staff are the first to think that they can do librarians work then the patrons.
    I have came into contact with some of the best skilled librarians you can get. Not to boast but I have skills and keep them in tip top shape. As a public librarian I try to ensure that I am skillfully well rounded in
    all various types of librarianship.
    Many librarians are not.
    Lastly, its required to have two masters to work in a academic library, are librarians situated in a corner of the college library denoting the subject they mastered in?
    PHd’s and two masters are required because you’re dealing with students on a college level and a couple of pieces of paper is impressive whether you have skills or not.
    Many public librarians do so much for a small salary and some are doing much of nothing.
    Same holds for library and information schools. Some are rigorous and offer challenging subjects teaching skills and some let you just glide by with a MLS degree knowing very little. Support staff and patrons look and say ” I can do that job”(librarian)
    Finally, if you received a BA in library science then your MLS degree is considered an advance degree.
    A comment

  40. Talk about misconceptions…..A subject masters is *NOT* required at most academic libraries. Sometimes, it’s not required on hire, but is required by the time you’re up for tenure. Most of the time though, it is not required at all. Is having a subject masters beneficial to one’s career? Absolutely. But usually, it is not a requirement.

    I fell into this trap after library school when everyone was telling me that I couldn’t get an academic library job without a 2nd Masters. I was working as a paid reference intern at a college library, so I had the experience, but I just assumed the 2nd masters requirement was true and never bothered to read the job descriptions and ended up working for 3 years at a public library system that I hated.

    Read the job announcement. if it doesn’t say “masters degree in English required” than a master degree in English is not required.

  41. My bigger concern is with a coworker who has NO degree, yet is a popular speaker on the library conference circuit and is having a book published by ALA Editions. So much for the credibility of anyone in the profession regardless of education.

  42. I’m a public librarian and have discovered that most patrons think all who work at the library (with the exception of our uniformed custodian) are librarians. They are extremely annoyed that the “librarians” at the circ desk send them to reference to have their questions answered.

    Recently, I was helping out at the circ desk on a busy day and my neighbor stopped in. She commented, “I see you’ve been promoted to the front desk.” She was serious. She thought working at the front desk was better than being “stuck at” Reference & Information, which is a perfect example of the “reasoning dissonance that occurs in the outside observer.”

    There are so many misperceptions about librarians that it’s hard to know where to begin to correct them. “I didn’t know you needed a master’s degree to be a librarian” is one of the most common responses that I’ve heard when I tell people I have an MLIS (the other being, “What do you learn…how to put books in order?” Grrrrr.)

    Speaking strictly about the public library environment, I’m not sure patrons care about the difference between a librarian and a paraprofessional, as long as they can get what they’re looking for. Rather than having “research hours,” I try to make such an impression on the patrons I assist that they look for me again. If I can’t help them, I connect them with other librarians in our branch who have special expertise (e.g., we have a local history & related docs wizard). I also help out in other areas (like circulation) when help is needed. I find that this results in circ staff referring “actual” reference questions to me with the caveat “There is a librarian who can really help you find the answer.”

    I recently helped an elderly gentleman find a poem he half-remembered. When I found it, he asked me to read it aloud to him because his vision is failing. There is something really special about giving a poetry reading at the reference desk to an old man who is grinning like a little kid. Those are the moments that make me feel like a librarian, even if no one else notices.

  43. My comment directed to gabberooni, those are the moments that make a para feel like a librarian, even if the librarians don’t notice.

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  47. I would really like to read how librarians correct the mis-perception when confronted with those not knowing librarians need masters degrees. Do you take the time to explain what you do, and how that requires an advanced degree? Do you just keep talking? Do you make a joke? As a current MLIS student, I find myself just saying, “Yes, you need a masters degree” and going forward with the conversation. But that doesn’t do a thing to correct this mis-perception, does it? Should I be using that interaction, however small, to help correct the person’s notion of what a librarian is? And I hate to admit this, but I haven’t found a nice concise explanation to pull out during those times. Do any of you seasoned librarians have one?

    Thanks in advance.

    • I would explain it. At the very least, you can educate someone on the degree. Personally, I offer an answer that counters whatever observation they are making.

      “You have a master’s degree and you shelve books?” “Shelving books is but one of my responsibilities. I also do [x, y, z] when I’m not shelving.”

      “You have a master’s degree and you get to read books all day?”
      “No, I don’t read books all day. I do however read about [book reviews, articles about better collections, writeups on programs] so I can make this a better library”

      It’s a little library jujitsu. You take what they are ‘attacking’ (for lack of a better word) and turn it into a positive.

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  49. Pingback: The Mandatory MLS Statement | Realist Librarian

  50. Interesting discussion. I can understand all the frustration about reshelving etc. But I don’t think it’s a problem if it does not take up more than – let’s say – 10% of your working time.
    Libraries are successful and well established in this country. And I am pretty sure this is because they are run by people who are well educated and trained to do the job. Especially because libraries are under pressure, I think it would be the totally wrong approach to lower requirements for the education of librarians.
    The bigger the problems and challanges, the more and better training those who are responsible for the future of libraries should have!”

  51. I must say that the MLIS is something that really puzzles me. I’ve been working in a library for the past six years. During my tenure I’ve been in IT and Library Instruction as well as “helping out” in circ, ILL, reference and cataloging. I don’t have an MLIS. What I do have are an MBA, an MS in IT and an MA in Linguistics. I’ve worked with many MLIS holder who do IT and many who are in management. Let me tell you, an MLIS holder who does IT is generally pretty bad at it. An MLIS holder in Management is also pretty bad it it (caveat: unless they’ve had previous training or job experience in it – but most don’t)

    Making an MLIS degree a management degree, a requirement for the upper-echelon of the library while keeping other types of degree holders out (other types of degrees that are more relevant to the job) is a bad move for the organization. It just serves to add to the confusion on whether an MLIS is really needed or not.

  52. Lot of professions do not really require a ‘degree’, does a lawyer really need a 5 year degree or does a teacher really need a teaching degree? I studied teaching (secondary) and what I studied did not help me for a second in the classroom. The librarian profession is in the transition years and in the future librarians would be coming from IT and computer science backgrounds rather than the traditional humanities background, or the library degree would become highly technical and technologically connected.

    My personal opinion is that there should be a degree requirement for librarians since it limits the job competition.

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  56. I am a Youth Services Librarian and I have an MLIS. However, I am very very confident that a paraprofessional could do my job, as long as that paraprofessional doesn’t scare the kids during storytime (along those lines, any Joe Blow could do storytime). I think the fact that we actually have to defend our advanced studies means that it may not be necessary. For the general public Librarian, there isn’t much actual work that requires a Master’s degree. As far as I am concerned, the only thing it shows is the level of commitment an individual has to the field.

  57. Pingback: The Value of a Communication Degree | lauren's library blog

  58. Hi guys, I’ve read your article and have a few questions? I’m a Research Assistant at a county Museum, I have my Bachelors with a double major in English and History and a large amount of on the job and volunteer experience in customer service, Research, cataloguing, collections management, digitizing collections materials and library science, myself serving as a Congregational Librarian for a small congregational library. I’m 28 years old and without the means to go to graduate school to pursue my masters but I’m interested in taking a position as a reference librarian with the County. While I don’t have a MLS or any credits in LS would my experience work for or against me?

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