By Meredith Farkas | March 29, 2008
Rachel Singer Gordon is one of the people I admire most in the profession. She thinks so much about all different aspects of our profession and has written so many thought-provoking, controversial, and helpful things. She has written two recent gems about the whole MLS vs. non-MLS debate. Definitely check out If it Quacks Like a Librarian (and the 60-something comments) as well as the follow-up Whole lot of quacking going on. The whole MLS versus non MLS debate seems to get people much more riled up than do much more important things in our profession like how we demonstrate our relevance to today’s patrons. If people stop coming to libraries, it won’t really matter who has an MLS, because none of us will be employed. Not to say this isn’t important, but it shouldn’t be as big a focus as it is.
To be honest, I think there should be positions in libraries that are only for people with an MLS. I was under the impression that was the price of admission before I got my MLS and it seems fair enough. However, if someone gets hired for a position without an MLS who is doing the same thing as someone who does have an MLS, they should be considered a librarian. It’s not their fault that they were hired to do a librarian’s work without the degree; it’s the fault of the people who created the job ad and job requirements. If it’s a librarian job, then they are a librarian when they are working that job. And to take it out on those people because they lack the degree is the worst thing we can do. Being snobbish and making people feel disrespected does not make us seem more “professional.” What we need to figure out is how we can communicate the value of the degree to library boards, administrators, municipal or university HR, etc. And I think many of us have a difficult time doing that, perhaps because some of us don’t feel like we learned all that much while getting the degree.
I’ve been an idea person since way before I got my MLS. While I was working on my MLS, I worked in circulation at a busy public library. I loved the work and I was really passionate about doing a great job at it. One day, I had an idea for putting a desktop shortcut to the catalog of the county library 15 minutes away on the computers in reference, circ and the information desk. So often, people want a book “right now” and would rather drive 15 minutes than wait days or a week for an ILL. When people asked if we had a book that we didn’t, no one ever thought to check the county library and see if they had the book there. They’d send them to make an ILL request. I talked to my fellow library assistants and we all thought it was a great idea to do that. So I took it to the professional librarians. And basically, I was blown off. If I’d been given a good reason why that wasn’t a good idea, I’d have understood. But I was treated very dismissively, much like Richard Moore in his comment on Rachel’s first post:
In the olden days, whenever I expressed an opinion in front of a “librarian,” I would be asked, “Where did you get your MLS?” This was code for, “Do you have permission to speak?”
And that’s really what it’s about: respect. It’s the idea that everyone has something useful to bring to the table and that good ideas can come from anyone. If a library clerk had a great idea about re-imagining the reference desk, should we ignore it because they don’t have an MLS? No… but it happens. Too often, we judge ideas by the person it’s coming from, not by the strength or weakness of the idea itself. That is wrong, wrong, wrong. I didn’t care about being a Library Assistant versus a librarian. That was fine. It was being treated like I was somehow less deserving of respect that got to me. As if 11 months later when I did have my MLS, I was that much more capable. Someone in the comments of Rachel’s first post even said “I believe that those with an MLS do deserve respect.” Yes, and so does everyone who works in a library and does a really good job for their patrons. It’s not the MLS that makes us deserving of respect; it’s our commitment to good customer service and being great at what we do.
A lot of people have talked about licensing librarians the same way we license doctors, hair stylists, social workers, etc. I was in a profession that required licensure prior to this, and I can tell you that I don’t think it helped to add any legitimacy to our profession. As a new social worker, you register as a licensed clinical social work intern and you spend two years getting weekly supervision from an LCSW (if there isn’t one at work, you usually need to pay for it yourself, which can cost between $5000 and $10,000 for two years-worth) and prepare for a really scary test (which you pay for yourself). Once you pass the test, you’re licensed. Then you have to get a certain amount of CEUs every two years, which is often not paid for by your employer as well. Once you are an LCSW, you can provide therapy and bill insurance yourself (you also have to pay for liability/malpractice insurance for yourself). Without an LCSW, you have to work under an LCSW and they bill insurance for you and you usually end up getting a smaller piece of the pie (and often still have to pay for your own liability/malpractice insurance). Librarians don’t bill insurance. Librarians don’t get sued for malpractice when we answer a reference question badly. Having licensing would lead to a lot more expensive (and unnecessary) hoops to jump through, and would serve the same purpose as having a hard-and-fast rule about the qualifications for certain jobs. Just saying “to do ___, ___, and ___ you must have an MLS” is just as good as having licensure, because having us need to get licensed doesn’t mean that the people in charge have to hire only licensed people to do the work of librarians. There were social workers who didn’t have an MSW and weren’t licensed (and the clients didn’t know the difference either). We spend enough $$$ now on a profession that really doesn’t pay that well. And patrons still won’t know (or care) that we have a degree in library/information science.
And, like Rachel, I have to laugh when people equate practicing librarianship without an MLS to practicing medicine without an MD. My husband is a doctor and I would never have the gall to pretend that our training is even 1/100th of what he went through. If anything, our degree is more like an MBA. You can work in business without an MBA, but an MBA teaches you the fundamentals of business, teaches you to be a manager, etc. Why do some people get an MBA? More money and more upward mobility. That’s why you get an MLS; because a lot of the really good (and better-paying) jobs require it and because the odds of your moving up in the profession are far more slim if you don’t have one.
I think deprofessionalization is a real problem, but it’s not about people working as librarians without the degree. It’s about the underlying assumptions and trends that lead to that happening. The fact that the people making decisions don’t see the value of the MLS. The fact that budgets are shrinking and administrators want to be able to be able to keep the same number of staff for less money. The fact that what we do as librarians is changing and it’s more difficult to show how what we do is different from jobs people do without professional degrees. We need to do something and I don’t know exactly what we should do. But I do know that we will not make our profession better by focusing our ire on the people without an MLS who have been given jobs similar to ours.
We are so lucky to have people from all different educational backgrounds working in libraries. It offers us valuable insights and helps prevent us from getting tunnel vision. It’s good that not everyone sees working in libraries as a life-long profession and that we get turnover and people who see things with fresh eyes. We should value the opinions and ideas of everyone in libraries. Some people suggested in Rachel’s comments that if people want respect, they can get an MLS. If the only way people can get respect in the field is to get an MLS, who is going to want to work in those positions that don’t require an MLS? I know I didn’t. I decided to leave my public library job and finish my degree more quickly so that I could be treated with respect.