The Portable MLIS

Posted: April 21, 2009 in Uncategorized


After this semester, I’m within one course and my practicum of earning my MLIS degree. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel is encouraging, but to be honest I’ve loved the intellectual stimulation of graduate school – even the occasional sense of being “under the gun,” in a crunch to finish a paper, prepare for a quiz, etc.

I don’t ever want to lose the satisfaction of learning something new. Theoretically, that’s what the profession is all about, right? If things go according to plan, I’ve found my true professional niche in life.

However, in the public library setting I’ve found reference work to be more about directing patrons toward things, like the copy machine, or the computers, or placing items on hold for them than researching anything. Having come through going on two years of graduate school I honestly feel a little let down by that.

Is there some way to offer my research services to the community? Some method of reaching out to those who need information put together in order to complete a task? I don’t mean doing research papers for students. Getting them materials to help them, fine, but not allowing them to cheat by relying on a librarian’s skills. This is one way I can think of to satisfy my desire to dig into subjects, to really “get my hands dirty,” as it were. Any ideas as to how that’s possible, and how to go about it?

Otherwise, isn’t the public library becoming a source for those looking to access the internet for free, or take advantage of free wi-fi? It’s a place to read books, periodicals and check out other materials, as well. But it’s always been that. These days it’s the computers that draw most people in. Unless they’re parents of small children, then it’s often the programming. For adults, especially retirees, it’s also partly the programming – learning and being entertained, justifying the use of their tax dollars when they have more time on their hands than a lot of working people. And for other adults, book clubs and reader’s advisory, sometimes.

Recently I learned about the book The Portable MLIS: Insights From the Experts, edited by Ken Haycock and Brooke E. Sheldon. I wanted to preview it before I decided whether it was worth the $ 45 price at Amazon, so I ordered it via Interlibrary Loan. I found it covers pretty much all the ground – though more sketchily – of my graduate work. That both lifts my spirits – knowing it’s a worthy book to buy as a constant reference – and depresses me.

The downer part is the book is so good, so thorough, I feel I could have read that and gotten at least half, if  not more, of the education I’ve spent thousands on. The profession requires the degree in order to allow one to climb the ladder, but should it? Really, in all cases?

I think that answer varies, depending on what type of librarianship one pursues. In the public library setting, my own personal belief is nothing we do here isn’t trainable. Ordering and weeding collections, dealing with the public, pointing toward restrooms, copy machines, computers and the circulation desk, don’t require the expenditure of thousands of dollars. How many times have I been asked anything that’s required more than thirty seconds to research? Something that isn’t what’s the phone number of (fill in the blank) or where are the tax forms? Twice, so far, in pushing a year manning the reference desk approximately four hours a week. One instance was a question about information on buying specific tires, which required reading reviews online (and I suspect the person had no internet capability) and the other asked how to find three or four members of the military – where they are now and how to contact them. The second of the two was tough. The military doesn’t seem too willing to share this sort of information, I guess because they’re afraid of possible nefarious intentions. That one actually required some serious digging.

Academic librarians, special librarians and archivists, now those specialties require more specific information. They’re more likely to dig into research, to find special information. Academic librarians also teach. They may even need metadata (shiver) skills, which I pray to the gods I never have to even see again. But public librarians? Things are so different for us.

It’s probably normal to have some buyer’s remorse after spending so much money for a degree. In this economy, especially, grad students are likely breathing into paper bags, thinking WHY AM I SPENDING THIS MONEY FOR A JOB I MAY NEVER GET?!

I’m not the only person questioning the validity of the MLIS degree, though. With nearly every issue of professional journals I see at least one letter to the editor expressing the same question, and occasionally an entire article devoted to the topic. If I Googled the subject I’d probably find loads of hits. And I think I will do that.

What other profession leads people to question advanced education in order to perform their duties? There may be some, but I can only vouch for the fact most people are surprised librarians need a degree. I don’t question doctors needing advanced degrees, nor lawyers, engineers, etc. That seems obvious. But when I tell people I’m getting a degree in Library and Information Studies they look at me as though I just said I’m planning to build a staircase to the moon. “You’re getting WHAT?” is the usual response. I grit my teeth and repeat myself.

Maybe I should chalk it up to the human nature of questioning my choices and my purpose. I’d rather think it’s that than finding out I’m right. Graduate school’s expensive, even with some reimbursement from the library and Friends of the Library. It’ll take two or three years to recoup the investment, maybe more. Not bad if you consider how long it takes doctors to do so, but pretty awful if it’s a gratuitous expense.

As is my wont, I’m going to do a little digging on this subject. It’s doing so after the cows have left the barn, or at least nearly so, but I want to see the percentage of those defending the degree versus those arguing it’s moot. And, also, is there some way to really use the research part of my education, is there some application in the public library setting I haven’t thought about? If we advertise ourselves as research professionals, would more patrons make use of that? Maybe.

In the meanwhile, I’m working on finishing the semester, furiously writing my last two papers, hoping to keep my perfect 4.0. And I’m buying a copy of The Portable MLIS. I’ve decided it’s worth it as a recap of all I’ve learned. Still, my questions nag me, as does the annoyance of not needing to tap into my real passion, research, in the public library setting. But while I’m waiting to figure that out I’ll work on my own research, looking for ways to publish in professional journals, etc. I’ll answer my own questions, fulfilling the part of me that made me choose the profession in the first place. And I’ll hope to find some way to use my unending curiosity professionally. If it’s out there, I intend to find it.


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