Do I really need an MLIS?

There’s been a lot of discussion in library land about whether or not the masters degree makes one a librarian. Rachel Singer Gordon wrote a nice piece about how many people without masters are good librarians by virtue of their actions. Of course, to those with the degree it calls into question if the masters is required at all. The debate has made a lot of people look critically at the profession, though perhaps not critically at themselves, which is usually a good thing. Rachel wrote a follow up where she summarized her position and highlights other comments. The Annoyed Librarian took time away from her cats and martinis to weigh in, and The New Librarians blog has a very good examination of the debate.

I’ve been talking to some of my colleagues about this issue for a while. It’s interesting how many people told me I was wasting my time when I started my degree program, but I knew that for the type of work I wanted to do (be a reference librarian at an academic library), and MLIS would be required. It’s not to say that I absolutely need the degree to be a good reference librarian, but the institutions I want to work at would require it. I conceded that and enrolled at Drexel. I won’t say that library school has been intellectually challenging, and I agree with the others who say it’s a lot of busy work. I think that outside practical experience, there’s no way to really learn some of the important skills (like how to create complex search strings) without busy work- it’s sort of the nature of the work. I think I have a better understanding of what the whole point of it is before I started library school, and I definitely have a keener sense of how to serve the user and to focus on the user than I did before. I don’t think my philosophy has totally been shaped by library school, but I think it is has given me better skills and a better understanding that would have probably taken years otherwise.

Does it make me better than somebody without a degree? No way in hell. I do like that everybody concedes that there are people without MLISs doing the work of librarians who are fantastic, and there are people without MLISs who aren’t so great. Of course the same is true for degreed librarians- some are amazing and some make you scratch your head and wonder how they get by day after day. I think individual libraries can really impact how this divide is perceived. Luckily where I work, there is something or a meritocracy, though there definitely is a glass ceiling where people max-out without the degree. Overall though, good work seems to be recognized. Hell, UC Berkeley’s head librarian (and his no. 2) doesn’t have an MLIS.

Some people have suggested a year of experience before one can apply to the masters program, and I can see merit to that opinion. In Drexel’s on-line program, I’ve seen people struggle with concepts which seemed rote to me because I have to deal with it every day at work. I know not everybody is lucky (ha) enough to work in a library, but that experience really helps with library school. Internships should be required as well, giving future applicants not only concrete experience but references as well. Library school programs with an emphasis on practical experience in some form would definitely improve the profession, so that more time can be spent on the theory, and it would shake off the image of some places as degree mills.

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