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.

Science Fiction and Qualifications

Today my partner, Joe Gebis (future Ph.D.), received a box of science fiction novels from his brother in the mail. I asked him why didn’t his brother give the books to a library, rather than pay for shipping to send them here. Apparently public libraries don’t need lots of science fiction. I told him that was impossible since most librarians are nerds. He laughed and said they’d rather spend money on Rock Band. He seemed bitter, but he had a point. Of course I work in an academic library so the only frivolity I delight in are the odd articles talking about penis envy in transit operations.

Joe’s imminent graduation reminded me of something else that I meant to blog about last week- people who sign their name with their degrees. For some reason, I’m fine with Ph.D.s signing their names with their degree, but librarians who do so flag themselves as possibly pedantic. I know that’s not really fair, and I will cut slack to solo/corporate librarians working in a non-library environment, but when I get an email from somebody on campus or my branch of SLA signing off as, “H. J. Blaume, MLIS”, it annoys me. I would assume most people have the degree, or it seems to be obvious. I know when I get my next set of business cards they’ll say “Kendra K. Levine, MLIS, MSIS”. They’ll also say I’m the grand poobah of public services and probably never actually exist. I think you should be proud of getting an MLIS (no matter how easy it is), but people should detect it from your level of competence, not your email signature.