When I tell people I’m in graduate school studying to be a librarian, I receive the response, “You need a Master’s degree for that?” I find myself struggling to defend it. Librarians do more than what the average person realizes, but how much of that is really gained through the MLS? I usually wind up confessing it is like a stamp to gain entry a nightclub. I’ve been advised countless times by librarians that your coursework doesn’t really matter, but your experience does. I agree that there is no teacher greater than experience, but isn’t this a huge flaw in our profession’s degree? This is also disheartening for me because the first word I’ve used to describe myself most of my life is “student.” I like being in the classroom. I want to learn. I want more degree to mean more than a stamp or a merit badge.
I agree with Library Journal’s Editor-in-Chief Michael Kelley that I have learned almost nothing in library school that I didn’t already know or that I couldn’t have learned on the job or quickly on my own. Coding? I learned the basics of HTML and CSS on my own prior to starting my MLIS, but I was still required to take a basic web development course as a prerequisite for Digital Libraries. Dublin Core? An afternoon of reading would’ve sufficed but instead I had to write 1,500 words comparing Dublin Core to MARC. I wish I spent this time creating records for practice.
Then there are the things everyone assumes we learn in library school, but we don’t necessarily do. Cataloging? No idea! Archives? Tim Hensley, the Director of the Carole Weinstein Holocaust Research Library at the Virginia Holocaust Museum tweeted that he doesn’t hire public history MAs. He hires MLS, MLIS, and graduates with similar degrees because those programs train their students for archival work. This came as a shock to me because my program doesn’t offer archival training. I gained my archive experience under the supervision of a M.A. History graduate instead of a MLS graduate.
I’m three-quarters through my MLIS program and so far the courses have prepared me very little or not at all for a librarian job. This dissatisfaction with my education and preparation as a librarian isn’t unique to my program. Now please do not misunderstand, if you hired me today I’d do an amazing job because I gained experience outside of the classroom. My greatest experience comes from being a Graduate Assistant to the Scholarly Communications Librarian. Previously I had a seventh-month paid archives internship at an automobile museum and was a summer library assistant at a public library. By the time I graduate next year, I’ll have an additional archives internship and a year of full-time experience supervising a study abroad library. I believe I have a lot to offer to a potential employer, but isn’t because of my MLIS. It is because of these library work experiences that I realized that what I am “learning” in my courses is not translating into working as a librarian. Sometimes I wonder how much more I could be learning to better myself as a future librarian if I wasn’t stuck in a virtual classroom three nights a week or typing up papers on the weekends.
I’d love an apprenticeship instead of a MLS/MLIS degree. Librarianship is more like a guild than the academy. Unfortunately, I do agree with Andy that the MLS is here to stay because of the way that higher education is currently structured. Now, we have two options. We can keep advising every new class of MLS students to push through the degree like a chore and get as much experience as possible or we can revise library school curriculum to also prepare our future librarians.
What I want to see is updated curriculum that has caught up to the growing field librarianship. Classes on scholarly communications, copyright, and technology classes that go past basic coding. Not just because I am interested in it, but because that is the direction librarianship is moving. These are the skills I need to prepare myself for the scary library job market. Now you may say that scholarly communications is really only for academic librarians, but making research openly available benefits school and public libraries. And copyright… is there a type of library or librarian that cannot benefit from a stronger knowledge of copyright? Whether it is about protecting the rights of the library or patrons, or determining how we can make our collections available, we need to be educated in copyright law. I got a small glimpse of copyright law in my Introduction to Information Policy course, and decided I needed to know more than what library school was going to offer. This semester I enrolled in the Copyright Law course offered by the my university’s law school. Through this class I gained familiarity with both statutory law and legislative history, discussed the Georgia State case, and had class an hour after the Kirstsaeng decision dropped. It was a great learning experience. No class in graduate school has better prepared me to be a librarian, and it wasn’t even a library school class.
I am an angry optimist and use a Henry Rollins quote as a personal motto, “My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.” I’m optimistic about the future of library school if we work to change it. We need to update the curriculum. We need less talking in the classroom and more doing. Let’s build experience into the curriculum. Projects don’t need to be limited to the last quarter of the semester. Give us the opportunity to practice by creating metadata records for collections, building collaborative websites, and using emerging technologies in our projects. Library students can be citizen archivists and help a university’s special collections with data entry. Projects can be brought to life if implemented by mid-terms rather than writing a theoretical paper. Have us practice virtual reference with each other, research the copyright and archiving policies of journals to discover by doing, and start writing a grant the third week of classes rather than the third to last. Students can work with open source software to develop stronger tech skills and gain experience building a thorough digital library or catalog. We can even build new software, such as an Omeka plug-in. When MLS programs cannot provide these opportunities to learn in the classroom, faculty and students can work together to develop new opportunities. Universities can host an unconference like THATCamp or begin partnering with other institutions to offer virtual internships. This way we can better prepare our graduates. Our profession and libraries deserve this.
Chealsye Bowley is an MLIS student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL and is slowly taste-testing her way through librarianship. She currently is a Graduate Assistant in Technology and Digital Scholarship at Florida State University. In August, she will be running away to Italy for a year to be the Library Supervisor of FSU’s Florence Study Center’s library. She tweets @chealsye and blogs for Hack Library School.