I got a degree so I could fix the printer?

Yeah, it’s that old topic again. You know, the “should you ever bother with the MLIS?” problem. Only slightly different. In this version it’s the “I got the MLIS so I shouldn’t be expected to do that” argument. Andy Woodworth sort of stepped in it with his post The Masters Degree Misperception. He writes:

It is a disservice to the education, to the degree, and to the profession when the bulk of a librarian’s daily tasks could be performed by someone with a GED. It does not take a master’s degree to place a hold on a book, clear a copier, push in chairs, tell people they are being loud, shelve items, or other similar tasks. When librarians are seen doing this and then told there is an advanced degree requirement, there is a reasoning dissonance that occurs in the outside observer.

You should go read it. It’s interesting, but not entirely on point. I like that it’s a more nuanced version of “what’s the point” with a little bit of elitism thrown in. You know that feeling, “I got my masters for this?” (Or maybe you don’t?) You should also read Emily Lloyd’s response, which I also enjoyed.

Now of course, I have to make it about me because isn’t everything about me? (That’s supposed to be a joke.) This week our student employees have had erratic schedules because it’s the first week of classes and they’re getting their own situations settled. As a result, I have spent quite a bit of time checking books out, putting holds on things, and fixing the printer. Did I go to grad school to do any of these? (Maybe the printer since it was a networking issue one of the times…) Not exactly, but I did go to grad school to be a good librarian and make our library a better, more service oriented space. If that means slumming on the circ desk, so be it. I say slumming it with sarcasm, because I think it’s really important to understand your patron’s experience with all aspects of the library.

Andy tries to soothe things over a bit with language about how his idea really can only be applied to large libraries, but I’m not buying it so much. So the degree should mean you’re only involved with planning and management and high level research? Then how will you stay connected with your users? It’s been a growing trend where more and more degreed librarians are being taken off the reference desks and given office hours instead. It’s got to suck to be taken away from the users like that. I love the fact that I spend 20 hours a week on a reference desk looking out to a library full of students and really getting an idea of what they’re doing. Even if it means that a lot of my interactions with them are for things that don’t really require my degree, it benefits me a lot as a professional.

Online Education – When the Ivory Tower goes to Bits

reading, originally uploaded by kendrak.

(That’s me, lo almost 4 years ago doing course work for my online MSLIS/MSIS program.)

I’ve never been able to (or really tried) to hide the fact that I went to school online. Was it my first choice? Not exactly, but given my options and my field I think it was the best choice for me at the time. I was worried that somehow my degree would be considered less worthy by my colleagues, but that hasn’t been the case. I still get the weird looks when people make the connection that “attended” a school in Philadelphia whilst living and working in Berkeley, but they get over it quickly. So that’s my background – I am a product of online education, as are several talented librarians. It’s hard to ignore that for many areas, it’s the only option for library school.

There has been a lot of discussion and angst about online programs recently in the area. University of California’s Commission on the Future is looking at ways to maintain access to education in the face budget woes, and they seem to determined that online education is the answer. The pilot is supposed to start with online courses that are required at all the campuses, which makes sense on an economies of scale thing. The Daily Cal and SF Chronicle have talked about it. It’s clear from the mood on campus that people are not happy at the thought. It’s clear that UC is thinking more students means more money, and there are legitimate concerns about the quality of education, but it could help make UC affordable and possible for many students who would otherwise qualify, if it were not for cost. Just yesterday it was announced that fewer Latinos were admitted this past year, while out of state admissions saw a jump. It’s related, naturally.

Then today University Diaries reported about a story in Georgia, where a student is accused of taking tests in online courses for a fraternity. Margaret Soltan’s concern is that with online courses you have no way to verify the students are who they say they are, and why she refers to online education as poor white trash. I can’t really tell how tongue-in-cheek it’s meant to be, being educated in poor white trash manner, but then again I’m not really trying to be too much of an academic. I am in the quasi-ghetto of the library after all.

Regardless, I think there is good reason to be concerned with how academia proceeds with online courses, but that doesn’t make online education and distance learning the end of civilization or the worst thing on the planet. I don’t think Drexel was like the University of Phoenix. (Or maybe I’m lying to myself?) I can’t imagine whatever UC ends up doing will be like something like they advertise in those catchy/annoying Education Connection commercials. I also wonder how much of the concern is legitimate concern for the quality of education for the students, and how much of it is concern about change. Maybe I would feel differently if I took the other path where I because a professor of Historical Germanic Linguistics, and I would be up at arms about how we are ruining the academy. I wish the criticism of online education didn’t have that tinge of elitism that tends to be so entrenched in higher education.

Honestly, when I think about people getting online degrees I think of my classmates. Most of us were either working full-time or raising families and working part-time. The flexibility of the program allowed us to continue to do so and only take out loans for tuition. There are lots of bright students who simply can’t afford to go to university with the current model, yet we as a society keep telling them that college is the answer. We need to change the message I guess.

Branch out from Cataloging

Cliff Landis, who rocks, recently blogged about the future of cataloging and the disconnect from library school. Many schools don’t teach about recent advances in cataloging, such as FRBR or RDA, and I don’t really remember either coming up in any of my cataloging courses. If new library school graduates are expected to get a job, then they need to know about new and recent developments in the field. To me, that seems pretty obvious, but I also know it can be difficult to adapt curriculum quickly to reflect what’s really going on in the profession (though it doesn’t really have to be a snail’s pace).

I would argue the flip side to Cliff’s argument is that catalogers, and the library world in general, need to step aside from RDA and AACR2 and get involved in metadata control. For many librarians and information professionals, this is an obvious step because it’s essential the same action, just framed differently. For many though, I’ve mentioned the opportunity for librarians to integrate themselves in their organization through metadata, and it seems like it’s still a dirty word. Are MARC records the only area catalogers can manage? Why is Dublin Core a big mystery? Perhaps it is because I’m recent graduate, and because I also studied information systems, that it’s clear that the skills and expertise of librarians easily fit into other areas. I know Drexel’s introducing a class about metadata control for library students, and I hope other programs are in process of doing the same. I would also like to see some sort of continuing education to help current catalogers look outside of the box and get past the jargon of their systems.

Should you go to library school?

It seems weird that this past week a number of different people have asked me for advice about applying to library school. Not so much where to apply, since there’s only one school in the area, but more about what to expect and if they should do it. I couldn’t bring myself to enthusiastically say, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” All I could answer was, “Have you worked in a library and do you have any idea of what you’d want to do in one?” How’s that for cautious?

I know part of my response stems from my weariness of school and work. I started at Drexel in Fall 2006. Since then I’ve managed to go to school full-time, work full-time, under go treatment for breast cancer, and volunteer an excessive amount of time at KALX. Two years on, I’m in dire need of a break, so of course I probably am not as enthusiastic about library school as I may have been otherwise.

I think it’s important for future librarians to think about those questions before applying to school. It’s not like having a masters will hurt your career, but why go into debt when you will be perfectly happy in a position that doesn’t require the MLS? I really love the library world, but I know that there are some jobs that don’t need the degree and I don’t think somebody spending the money on one is the most sensible thing in the world. I definitely think that it’s good to get experience before taking the plunge, but I don’t want to advise somebody to spend $40k to get a masters, only to work as a paraprofessional for $35k a year.

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.