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.
Well said, Meredith. I’ve often wondered if those who are so adamant about discriminating against non-MLS library folk do so because they’re insecure about their own skills and contributions. I’ve met some library clerks who had revolutionary ideas and I’ve met some MLS-holders that seemed to move against the core values of our profession. A degree is one measure of your preparation to do the job, but is not the only one… and it is certainly not a measure of how *well* you do the job.
I’m certainly not advocating discrimination against, lack of respect for, or rudeness towards non-degreed library professionals (my own mother is a school librarian with a masters in instructional technology, not library science), but the question I keep asking myself while reading these posts is: what is the point of the MLS then? If it’s not necessary in order to be considered a professional librarian, what is it necessary for? I can’t help but be concerned; after all, I changed jobs recently and when my old position was posted, the MLS requirement that had been there three years before when I applied for it was gone – and this was for a position that was written by my former supervisor, a degreed librarian herself.
The conversation we should be having is not whether someone without an MLS should or should not be considered a librarian, but what does an MLS-carrying librarian bring to the table that makes the degree itself intrisically valuable to employers. Until we discover some way to do that, there’s always be resentment on both sides – from MLS-carrying professionals who feel that the degrees and education they spent considerable time and money on are being rendered less and less useful, and from non-degreed professionals that feel that their experience and skills are discounted simply because they don’t have the degree.
I completely agree, Amanda. I think the MLS SHOULD be a requirement for certain jobs. But I think we need to demonstrate (as you said) what value we bring to those who are creating those job requirements, rather than denigrating those who don’t have it. And maybe library schools should also play a role in that; showing how they are preparing people for the librarianship of the future. If they’re not, then they need to figure out how to do it or no one will bother to get the MLS.
Meredith, I really appreciate your take here, along with Rachel’s and Dorothea’s.
My early work in libraries was as a student assistant, a student supervisor, and as a paraprofessional. I have now done several years in various graduate assistant jobs. I have yet to have a professional librarian position. Does this mean that I am not a librarian? [That is directed more at others than to Meredith, btw.]
The best that can be said is that I have yet to hold a professional librarian position. Very true. So what? I have been doing original cataloging (serials, no less) for 2 years now, I have recently been given Enhance status so can now fix (most of) those ridiculous LC and OCLC QC records that often suck, and I have presented at a professional conference. [By the way, I did get several comments from people who attended that they were upset to find out I was not a “Librarian.” Yep. Made me feel REAL good. But they learned something from me whether they chose to admit it or not. What did make me feel good were all the good comments I got and the fact that MANY people contacted me over the next few months for help and I was asked to present a version of my talk at our state group.]
Anybody that has the chutzpah to claim I am not a librarian had best be ready to be made a fool of. Because here is the deal … There will (always?) be vast disagreement over just which jobs are “professional librarian” jobs.
As soon as someone starts listing jobs that meet their version of the requirement to be one someone else will deconstruct that listing.
Another view I heartily laugh at is the whole “library school gives you the theoretical underpinnings necessary to be a true member of this profession; it allows us to work from a joint understanding of who we are and where we are going” and related mumbo-jumbo. That is pure rhetoric that is espoused by most any grad department and they want you to believe it. In some departments and some programs it may be true, for some people. But it is nigh on impossible in our short and highly varied programs.
Even here at UIUC–which I think has one of the finest LIS schools available today–that is complete and utter nonsense. Just look at all the talk in the biblioblogosphere and our “professional” listservs to see that there is little joint understanding and how much utter confusion there is over where we are going.
What title one is afforded is not relevant at all. What does matter are the skills, attitudes, and dedication with which one discharges their duties.
I do agree that LIS schools have a responsibility to help demonstrate the value of the MLS, but I am not sure that is even possible any more. The roles and functions in which we operate in libraries are far too divergent at this point for there to be much of a common core such that we “work from a joint understanding of who we are and where we are going.”
But if there is any such common core and particular value to be had by having this degree in common then THAT is where the discussion should be focussed–amongst ourselves as individuals, our professional associations, our so-called accrediting body, and the LIS schools.
Until that conversation is had then most of this discussion is at best a waste of time, imho. Although I do appreciate the sane voices of Meredith, Rachel and Dorothea. I just wish they were able to put that energy into a more holistically better discussion than in trying to add some sense to a nonsensical discussion.
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about library school, there is a lot (perhaps too much) time devoted to teaching skills useful to students without prior library experience. For those working towards their MLS with decent experience under their belts, it’s very hard to specialize in topics that can enrich your work experience (36 credit hours is not much time). I have felt that the MLS should be more like other professional degrees (MBAs and JDs), that either require more credit hours or allow for concentrations exceeding 36 hours. Otherwise, how can anyone really get anything out of it?
This isn’t to place the blame entirely on library schools, however–I think that a lot of “traditional” library work has become unspecialized. And for good reason, because it’s not stuff you need a degree to learn (even if you did 10 to 15 years ago). It just does not take a MLS to perform much of the day-to-day library work anymore. Sure, some higher level and administrative positions should always be limited to degree holders. But I do believe that experience can substitute for an MLS in certain positions.
Overall, I just want to say that the MLS does not indicate one’s intelligence. I really wish people wouldn’t act like it is.
The ideal solution for the degreed/non-degreed librarian issue? Drop the MLS requirement and scale the training back into a Bachelors of Library Science. (Yes, there really used to be a Bachelor of Library Science. One of my professors, who specialized in educational librarianship, actually had a BLS before getting her MLS.) If we really don’t learn that much in library school–and at least for me, that was true; on-the-job training has provided so much more than my traditional, non-tech grad school ever did–then it’s a waste of time and money to bother getting a grad degree when the profession is stressed by lack of funding, outsourcing, key decisionmakers who don’t know jack about the value of librarians, and librarians who can’t effectively articulate what they bring to the table. Here in D.C., almost every federal and corporate library is staffed by contractors. I myself am presently a contactor. At least I’m making a bit more $$ than I did as a public librarian, even if I have to pay for my own health insurance. Honestly, why bother going for a Masters when you’re still the ‘hired help’? It’d make more sense to get a BLS, temp as a librarian for a few years (yes, a BLS would still make you a degreed librarian), and then go back to get a Masters in something with a more practical focus (ex: info technology; education) in order to justify the considerable pay hike a Masters degree * should * deserve. I know that as I say this I’m devaluing my own grad degree and the time/effort I put into it. But I suspect I’ve entered a dying profession. I now believe that librarians will continue to be devalued and outsourced until we teeter on the verge of extinction. Then, at the final hour, we’ll experience a remarkable resurgence, much like the educational field has experienced, and become vital again. It’s a waste of time to argue over whether having a degree makes you a better librarian than someone who doesn’t have one. Anyone in a library who can respond effectively to reference questions, who can excel at the required tasks and who has creative, innovative ideas should rightfully call themselves a librarian. In my former position, there were people on staff who were librarians by virtue of having worked in the system for 10+ years. They knew more than me. I respected this, and learned from them. Too bad I didn’t realize on-the-job training was better than blowing a couple grand on a useless Masters degree BEFORE I went to grad school! And please, let’s get a dose of reality here: an MLS is NOT comparable to an MBA! If that was the case, I’d have tripled my salary in the first position I took post-grad school…as my MBA-earning brother did! These days, an MLS is basically a certification. Looks good on paper, and what you’re certified in may be useful depending on the industry or the need for your skills. Unfortunately, right now I see little permanent need for librarians. Which is why I’m already considering another career change.
In addition to you and Rachel, I also enjoyed Dorothea’s take on this (at http://cavlec.yarinareth.net/archives/2008/03/30/is-librarianship-a-profession/). She lays a lot of blame on the LIS programs for the current struggles to define our “profession” and its direction, saying “they don’t actually dare set the intellectual bar (either of admission or of program content) very high.” She adds: “I knew some people in library school who were, I’m sorry, dumb as a box of rocks … They concentrated in a certain specialty which I won’t name (but we all know what it is, don’t we, librarians?).”
Well, we may or we may not, but here’s my .02 of a solution: divide up the LIS schools. What if current graduate programs offered two different degrees? With all the debate over “i” schools or traditional library programs, why couldn’t both exist under the same roof but with two separate tracks available? I’m thinking of something like an MIS available for those perhaps interested in research, academic or techie careers and something like a Master’s in Library Arts (like we needed another MLA acronym, but there it is) for those who want a professional career, but along a different track. Maybe this is just a polite way of shuffling along the Rock People into their own separate world, but the profession is pretty split already (unofficially), and keeps splintering under the weight of the many groups all identifying themselves as “Librarians.”
Just a suggestion – totally offensive or way off base?
I would liken the MLS to Westpoint. Yes, people can reach the higher ranks of the military without going to a military academy. But, the military needs the best and brightest to be specially enculturated and trained to lead.
I am halfway through an MLS, preparing for a second career (I’m a statistician). I do wish there was more theory and intellectual effort required in the program. I have been seeking outside readings to fulfill that part.
As a degreed librarian, I have no problem with non-MLS librarians at all. There are even some of our reference clerks that know certain local information that I don’t, because they have lived here longer, and I usually defer to them regarding that sort of information.
A lot of the higher-ups in my institution also do not have library degrees, and they are very good at what they do. The problem is, they seem to look with slight disdain upon those of us working here who do have degrees, and usually the reverse of “Where did you get your MLS?”…“Do you have permission to speak?” results. Even though we have our degrees, we don’t get many chances to bring our ideas to the table.
That being said, I really like your response to Amanda’s query about the importance of an MLS. What matters most is the value brought to one’s library, and to the profession as a whole, degree or no degree.
Not that it is completely the same thing as a license, at least not in New Jersey and isn’t as tough to get as a license to practice law (or even social work as you described above) a number of states do require a “Professional Librarian’s Certificate” for public librarians. In my experience it amounted to filing an application and paying an approximately $50 fee. I’m not sure if that made me a better librarian, but I guess it i something a judge could revoke under certain circumstances.
I”ve been following this debate across the blogosphere and only now feel moved to respond. I’m a degree-holding librarian who has spent most of her professional life working with non-degree-holding librarians. I now work at an institution where the divide between MLS and non-MLS is very stark and it is amusing and pathetic all at the same time.
I enjoyed getting my degree and felt that it was reasonably rigorous (mostly theory, very little practice save for cataloguing and programming). However, my professors made it clear to our class that we were _not_ learning to be front-line staff because you didn’t need an MLS to do that… rather we were learning to be managers.
They compared the MLS stream to an MBA or MPA (the MIS stream was compared to an advanced computing degree). I vividly remember my management professor (and this was a required class) telling us on the first day of classes that we should not expect to be reference librarians or children’s librarians or cataloguers – we should expect to head those departments and then move up the chain of command if we so desired. Larger libraries were seen as the exceptions to this rule – though even then my professors felt that this would change. This made sense to me then (late 1990s) and it still does today.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…I consider myself REALLY lucky to have gone to a 48 credit hour MSLS program at Columbia. We had to know everything…grad level research and statistics, history and case studies, practicums and (at the time) current technology proficiency.
We had to write a thesis and be able to handle real-time library management situations.
Or maybe it was just myself and my fellow students. Most all of us have enacted change and worked beyond the expectations of librarians in whichever field we’ve ended up. We were dedicated to doing that.
I see my degree as a stepping stone. Would I have done as good a job as I do now without it? Perhaps, but the MSLS gave me entry into seeing how things are done, why they are done and the best plan of attack to improve upon them. Just saying somthing “sucks” or the current librarians are out of touch means nothing. Knowing how to play in the sandbox while making a BETTER sandbox is what grad school should be. It certainly was for my second masters as well.
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