How to Answer “So You Need a Degree to Do That?”

“You need a Master’s degree to be a librarian?”

This oft encountered, teeth grinding question is something of a rite of passage for every one who joins the librarian field and was part of Tumblr post that came across my feed. I’ll even admit it makes my eye twitch as I summon up the willpower to provide a rationale and polite answer to this query. Hell, you can’t even get out of the profession without it being a source of contention as librarians themselves wonder why an advanced degree (as opposed to a bachelors) is a requirement. Beyond that, it spirals into a conversation about what MLS/MLIS programs teach and their standards, but I want to get back to examining the original question.

To wit, I am thinking that the question itself is not necessarily an indictment of the profession, but an indication as to how much literature and information access is taken for granted in our modern society. The United States (as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK for my international readers) boasts a literacy rate of 99% for citizens over the age of 15.  Books are a short drive or a click away, depending on your preference of medium, and are relatively cheap. The same case could be made for movies and television shows, another lending staple of the public library, as people are able to get them on different formats, On Demand and premium channels, or by subscription (NetFlix or Amazon Prime). The internet killed the encyclopedia (and, in my opinion, your average reference collection) by creating a platform for people to be able to both search and share information on any topic that you can possibly imagine. Wi-Fi (specifically, the free kind) is rapidly becoming a staple of the retail experience, creating an consumer expectation and by proxy creating even more internet connection points. With their rapid technology cycles, cell phones now provide the instant access to both the internet and personal contacts to access information. You’d have to take yourself into some pretty rural areas to not be able to pick up any signal at all, be it Wi-Fi or cellular.

You get the picture.

That’s why I’m considering that the question is less about being a librarian and more about how much literature and information exists in the lives of people these days. It’s the kind of thing that librarians of the last century only dreamed about; being able to provide quick and accurate answers wherever the people happen to be. Even the computer novices that I teach are infected with this concept as they wait only a few seconds before re-clicking on a website link. (“Have some patience,” I tell them. “You do realize that the signal to the website is possibly traveling hundreds of miles if not thousands of miles on your behalf in only a few seconds, right?”) Information has become fast, cheap, and ubiquitous. Why would it take an advanced degree to curate, manage, and disseminate?

That is where the ignorance of the origin of information begins. Those Wikipedia articles? Someone had to write them. The internet browser and connection protocols? Someone had to program them. The transmission lines that carry information packets around the country and the world? Someone had to place them there. The modern ease of access gives rise to the false sense of ease of creation when nothing could be further from the truth. The generations of multi-disciplinary efforts have created this connected world where the benefits are so taken for granted that a lack of access is seen as unlikely, odd, and almost unrealistic. It belies the enormous effort to keep all of these things running, from server farms to metadata management to IT infrastructure. As anyone who has put together a project or performed knows, the time and effort it takes to make it look easy is tremendous.

In looking at the question again, I’m seeing it as less of an attack and more of a chance to demonstrate how the library comes together. Everything has been selected for the community, be it the materials, the services, or even the furniture. These selections have been made by educated professionals who have familiarity with the items in question. It’s an institute built around providing the best answers, not the fastest. The sheer volume of information that is being generated on a daily basis is staggering, nevermind the assortment of mediums that it comes in. Would you really want someone without an advanced degree sifting, sorting, curating, and maintaining it? Especially on your behalf for your benefit and future generations?

I don’t think so.

11 thoughts on “How to Answer “So You Need a Degree to Do That?”

  1. Thanks. Like you, I’ve had to field that question, but I didn’t express it so well. So many aspects of our profession are, as my director says about cataloging, rocket science. I’m going to save your comments to remind me what to say the next time it comes up. (If you don’t mind!)

  2. I’ve often wondered though, why there couldn’t be a library science degree equivalent to a Bachelor’s. I spent two years learning, as a MLS/MLIS/MSI student, valuable information that didn’t require (or lean on or build on) what I learned from my B.A. degree. How much more knowledge, especially depth in knowledge, could we learn if we took 4 years to learn the science of librarianship? If we transformed this Master’s degree into a Bachelor’s degree, we could also combat that pesky issue of being one of the lowest-paid jobs that requires an advanced degree, quite possibly reducing our struggles with student debt.

    • I agree, Kristel. I can understand requiring an advanced subject degree if you want to be an academic librarian, but I feel that the theory portion of library science could be learned in a year and then another semester or two could be spent in a practicum or internship.

    • I studied for my librarianship Bachelor’s equivalent in Germany for 4 years (including one practical semester). Over there you only really (generally) need a Master’s degree equivalent to become an academic subject librarian, and you are very likely to cover a subject area related to your Bachelor’s degree (which is what they look at when they hire you).
      In the UK it seems easier to become an academic subject librarian for a subject that you know not a lot about, just because you have a Master’s degree in librarianship, not because of what you studied for your undergraduate degree. In my opinion needing a Master’s degree for most professional posts in the UK makes librarianship seem more exclusive than it really needs to be.

  3. I understand the argument about only requiring a BS for librarianship, and I agree with much of it. However, what if we tried imagining life if every librarian suddenly only needed a BS. What values would be lost? Would a libraries “pool of knowledge” be instantly lower? Beyond personal reading/interests, would librarians become more homogenous in their knowledge as a group? Would ANY bachelor’s degree soon be “good enough” for becoming a librarian? How quickly would the salary drop even more than what it is now? Could I be a successful art librarian, even though I know nothing at all about art or artists?

  4. So I guess the follow up question is how to practically change the public image of the profession from being poorly compensated semi-professional book stewards to the Goddess-Empresses of Information? My suggestion would be to identify and promote the librarian equivalent of Carl Sagan to popularize the way librarians see the world, and how that worldview informs the work they do, and how that work benefits civilization. Kickstarting a web series similar to what Feminist Frequency did might not be a bad way to approach it.

  5. Pingback: BONUS ENTRY: summarizing bloggers | Ex Libris Krista

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