A question I'm almost afraid to ask: Is an MLIS necessary?

Posted: May 30, 2008 in Library School

Opening a can of worms here, but after two semesters of graduate school, and lots of comments from those who are already librarians, I wonder how necessary my thousands of dollars spent on an MLIS actually are.

So far I’ve enjoyed my library classes, but what I consider to be most applicable to the real life library setting have been things I could have learned on the job. I’m computer literate, very willing to try new programs, and I know how to use reference books and the internet. The basics are really quite simple, or easily enough learned.

If I wanted to go into the technical side of librarianship that would be different. If I had interest in developing new information storage and retrieval methods I would most definitely need extraordinary amounts of classes and training. But to be a librarian? I’m honestly not sure at this point.

I know I have just over a year to go before I get my degree; I’m not even halfway through my courses. But what bothers me is hearing from so many librarians, “Library school is useless. I don’t use anything I learned.” Yet that library degree is, nine times out of ten, necessary for promotion within the field. Librarians get paid higher salaries than paraprofessionals, generally, though we all know the profession isn’t one you get into for the money. You get into it for the passion, generally for books but not always. I’ve known librarians who’ve told me, “I really don’t have time to read.”

That bothers me almost as much as hearing my library degree won’t actually prepare me for being a professional librarian. How can a librarian say that? Then again, try getting help at a bookstore. I was in Barnes & Noble last week and an employee asked a customer “How do you spell Confucius?” WHAT? She also hadn’t heard of ‘The Analects of Confucius,” a major work in the literary canon. She asked how to spell “analects,” too, misspelling it at least twice before she hit on the correct spelling. It took every bit of restraint I had not to spell out both words for her. I wanted to see her struggle, to see how long it actually took her. Good thing the young man she was helping was as clueless and also extremely patient.

At this point I find myself questioning the efficacy of earning my diploma, but I still have a lot of classes ahead of me. It’s possible I’ll change my mind along the way, but it’s also frighteningly possible I won’t. For now I’ll reserve final judgment, but having three children to put through college I worry about the money I’m spending on my own degree, especially when I’m counting on my salary raise post-degree to help pay their way.

The necessity of the degree, added with the somewhat rocky future of the library as an entity in the internet age are both concerning, not just to me but to an awful lot of people. It’s time we examine both these issues. It may even be past time on the latter.

I hate to be a pessimist, but looking at the library from the outside, as I did before I started pursuing my degree, I see a lot of points that need to be addressed in order for the library to stay vital. It isn’t just the books anymore. It’s about an awful lot more than that, staying on the cutting edge, providing more services to specific groups, and hiring people with technical ability.

We all believe in the library. Now we need to take action, shunning ambivalence and striking out in new and vital directions. I don’t know what all these actions should be, at least not yet. And I’ll keep pursuing my MLIS degree with the hope it turns out to be necessary. But if not, that’s a few thousand dollars shot. A few thousand I could have really used. I guess I’ll find out the answer to that question soon enough. In the meantime it’s onward with the game plan, with the hope it all works out in the end.

  1. Melissa says:

    If you want any job in a library other than a paraprofessional job you have to have the MLIS. I’m in library school now and can’t even get a job as a clerk. With 20 years office and technical experience, I am repeatedly told there are other people more qualified than me. Most of the time I don’t even get a response to my resume.

    What’s the answer, I don’t know. Library professionals won’t look at anyone for a professional position without them having the MLIS.

  2. Lawrence says:

    You’re right, this is a can of worms but it needs to be opened and discussed. Two thoughts come to mind:

    My experience with library school was that it gave me a foundation of knowledge and skills to build upon once on the job. The philosophy of librarianship and why we do what we do, in addition to how we do it, has been of great value to me. In my experience, this stuff is typically not learned on the job yet it does enhance the performance of those who have it.

    My second thought concerns the future of libraries. I think there will always be a need for libraries and librarians. I also think that the libraries of the future will look very different than the libraries of today. We are in an era of change and it’s up to us to be sure that libraries and librarianship keep up with the change. If libraries go out of business, it’ll be because we let it happen, not because we were replaced by something else. I’ve had the same experience as you at the Barnes and Noble (and other big box stores regardless of what they’re selling), their employees are not well rounded and they don’t know the inventory either. When it comes to service, libraries are superior. Likewise, my experiences with technical support staff at private service providers has been like walking through a deep muddy field wearing loafers. Again, when it comes to service, libraries are superior. What makes the difference is the philosophy, knowledge, and skills that librarians have. All we need to do is adapt and satisfy the changing needs of the public for the services offered by libraries. My observation is that some libraries and some library schools are changing and adapting while others are not (and some cannot, they alone don’t have the financial resources to do it and this is a problem too). We need new librarians entering the field who not only know the philosophy, the knowledge, and the skills of librarianship but also can see the future and have the knowledge and skills to achieve it.

    Hopefully this will add to your frame of reference as you think about your career. Best wishes.

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