“You need a master’s degree for that?” In defense of the MLS.

May 3, 2010

We had our final meeting for my Youth Services class tonight; it’s definitely bittersweet (more bitter than sweet, if I’m going to be honest) to be finishing the program. So since it was our last class, the material we covered was a grab bag of library fun: we started with the recent challenge of Toni Morrison’s SONG OF SOLOMON in one of my classmate’s school districts (the unusual twist here is that rather than the objection coming from a parent, it’s coming instead from a school board member–and the kids were halfway through the book when the challenge arose! The book had been taught for years before anyone challenged it! This has even caught the attention of Anna North at Jezebel.) and then talked about knowing your community and what kinds of programs will and won’t fly (like tarot cart readings, anti-Valentine’s Day programs, or even Banned Book Week events), interviewing and salary negotiation, being advocates for young people, and professional tools and resources.

We also had a discussion about the value of the MLS. Since I started the program almost two years ago I’ve repeatedly found myself called to defend the need for the degree, usually to people incredulously asking, “You need a master’s degree for that?” Initially I didn’t really know what to say because I’d just started the program myself and was a newcomer to the field and didn’t really know what I’d be learning in classes or on the job. But after working in three different kinds of libraries, taking classes, doing projects and internships, discussing this with other librarians and library students, and getting within six days of graduation (!), I feel better equipped to answer that incredulity.

Theoretical foundation
In my earlier post on the need for more rigor in the profession, I mentioned the exclusive body of knowledge that we lay claim to as part of being professionals. While I think we need to work harder to expand and deepen and refine what appears in the library science literature, it’s through a professional degree that we confer that knowledge to the next generation of librarians. You can be taught how to catalog a book on the job, but you’re very unlikely to receive along with that training a lecture on controlled vocabularies or bibliographic access. You may be really good at finding things online or at doing research with print materials, but it’s through a professional degree that you will learn about information-seeking behavior. Librarianship requires specialized skills and knowledge and while some of that can be learned on the job, the theoretical background comes from the studies you do for a degree.

Instilling professional ethics
While you may have considered the ethical implications of library work on your own or be put through ethics training on the job, it is through a master’s degree that you examine library ethics in detail and develop a comprehensive view of what libraries are all about. A day-long ethics seminar at work doesn’t give you the depth of understanding that you get in a semester-long course on intellectual freedom. You not only need to balance access and privacy, intellectual freedom and community responsiveness–you also need to be able to understand and defend why you do what you do.

Connection to our history
Sure, you know who Melvil Dewey was and have probably heard of Nancy Pearl. But do you know Justin Winsor, Charles Cutter, Samuel Swett Green, Jesse Shera, S. R. Ranganathan, Margaret A. Edwards, Augusta Baker, Anne Carroll Moore, Pura Belpré, Helen Thornton Geer, Kathleen de la Peña McCook, Michael Gorman, or Judith Krug? Do you know their contributions to librarianship and how they changed the profession? Do you know how librarianship and libraries have evolved? Do you know how young adult literature emerged from children’s literature and how children’s literature developed in the first place? Do you know how technology has changed the profession? Do you know what the philosophy of libraries used to be and what it is now? Do you know how the field became a “woman’s profession”? You could read books about the history of librarianship, but you’re not going to learn about these things in the day-to-day work you do in a library. And this isn’t just trivia you want to know to impress your friends and neighbors: it is by knowing where we’ve come from and what it is that makes a library a library that we can chart where we are going to go.

Signaling your valuing of your work
Librarians are undervalued. Public librarians are especially undervalued. Youth Services librarians are criminally undervalued. Having a professional degree and defending it to skeptics signals that you value your work, your knowledge, and your profession–and that the profession is a profession and not just a job that anyone off the street can do. An MLS is an investment of your time and your money and you’d better be able to explain why you had to get that piece of paper to be a librarian and how what you learned during the course of your degree makes you a better librarian than someone who just has work experience.

There are undoubtably genius autodidacts who rock the library world without an MLS and who are curious and driven enough to acquire some of this specialized knowledge on their own–after all, a library is a place where you can research and learn and improve yourself and your skills. I’m not trying to claim that one must have an MLS to be a good librarian or that what you learn during the course of your MLS studies will be useful to you every minute of every day you spend at work. But I do think that MLS programs that give us a theoretical foundation, an understanding of ethical issues in the field, and a sense of the profession’s history and future make us much, much better equipped to be excellent librarians than those who rely on work experience alone. And being able to understand the value of that degree and defend it to those who think librarianship is just sitting around reading all day is essential.

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6 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Tweets that mention this &hellip  |  May 3, 2010 at 10:25 PM

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by karl lindner. karl lindner said: this librarian is gonna go far @librarified great "apology" for the "why" of MLS http://bit.ly/dmwWYJ watch, you'll see. […]

  • 2. Vedana  |  May 7, 2010 at 2:22 PM

    As a medical librarian, I definitely understand and value the MSLS degree I have. Without the degree, I would not have the confidence to instruct medical doctors, medical students, nurses, public health people and PhDs in the biological sciences (all of whom use my library) on everything from searching to bibliographic management. It is the four letters after my name which give me that confidence, and that is why I believe this degree is a worthwhile, and worthy endeavor.

  • 3. Suzanne  |  May 11, 2010 at 3:21 AM

    I didn’t realize how important the need for the MLS degree was until I started the program. There is no way I could work at a library effectively and efficiently without the training I’ve gone through. The MLS degree is so necessary.

  • 4. “Why do you need a mast&hellip  |  June 6, 2013 at 12:15 PM

    […] “You need a master’s degree for that?”  In defense of the MLS. (Librarified) […]

  • 5. Reflections on My First S&hellip  |  January 3, 2014 at 11:31 AM

    […] are many articulate defenses of the MLS degree. I’ll point you to a post outlining many of the advantages of a professional degree written by a librarian who I greatly respect: Gretchen Kolderup, who was the coordinator for […]

  • 6. Serum Blog&hellip  |  May 24, 2017 at 8:56 AM

    Mlis Balance Has Been Developed

    […] octors, medical students, nurses, public health people and PhDs in the biologica […]

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