Big Picture / Education & Curriculum

Evaluating the MLIS Degree

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Matthew Gunby.

Recently an editorial was published in Library Journal titled “Can We Talk About the MLS?” As a recent graduate from Syracuse University, I wanted to reflect upon my education in an honest manner. On one hand, I have had some of the greatest experiences of my life while at Syracuse, but on the other hand I have been searching unsuccessfully for a job for over five months. I think the mistake of this article is that it assumes a zero sum game, as do many who have responded to it: either an MLIS is valuable or it is not.

If these are the options then I absolutely believe it has value, but at what cost? I recognize that the costs of a degree vary extensively from institution to institution, and while I know Syracuse ranks fairly high in its cost, it is sufficient to say that its cost is generally on the same per credit cost scale as degrees that generally lead to jobs that pay far more.  It may ultimately also cost the same as a humanities focused degree that may lead to far less. The point is not that our degree is uniquely overpriced, but instead that it is a relevant question to ask if we should be paying so much.

I am also conflicted about the social learning aspects of my program. I could not have had the great experiences I had with professors, peers, and professionals outside of Syracuse University’s iSchool. However, while my experiences with professors were generally positive, they were not all that numerous in part because to remain current and to heighten the prestige of the program they are as involved (if not more so) in research as they are in instruction. As part of an active student community we were able to supplement our learning by teaching each other and by reaching out to professionals.  Again, these opportunities would not have been available if we were not students, but the funds do not go to fellow students or professionals, they go to maintaining the institution.  Is this the only way for this sort of community to be sustained?  At the moment, it seems like the answer is yes, but particularly with many forward-looking views of what a library space could be, I think it is worth asking whether this should be the case.

The MLIS being a prerequisite for becoming a librarian should also be reconsidered. First, this undermines all of the great works of professionals who lack this degree. Second, it creates the problem of less engaged students seeking to garner recognition for work they have already done. Third, it creates economic barriers for entry into our profession. I find the idea of a degree mill reprehensible as a librarian, as a former student, and as a moral person. If the MLIS value proposition is that we exclude all but the initiated then we are fast approaching our deserved demise. I do not hold this opinion, but I recognize that many do, and there are valid reasons for this viewpoint.

So what is the call to action?  In short, I am asking MLIS programs to do what libraries across the country have been tasked with: do more for less.  First, library and information science programs need to be more transparent. They need to internally and with their students discuss the costs associated with a program with real percentages and dollar amounts. We also need to discuss how classes are organized.  As R. David Lankes, MLIS professor at Syracuse University, said at a recent conference more generally focused on education: we need to break the tyranny of three credit courses.  As students we often discuss what courses to take in tandem because each has different work loads, but all give three credits and cost the same per credit.  Some are more intensive, others have greater value and still others are taken because they are required.

Next, incorporate more flexibility into the curriculum.  Academic, school, public and special libraries all require different skill sets, and while theory and being able to translate skills are essential to librarianship, different backgrounds and different sets of goals may require different coursework.  This may mean more independent studies, more internships, more WISE courses, and fewer required courses.  The ALA requisites for a successful librarian should still be assessed, but not necessarily by lodging their core competencies within a given class.  Use the accreditation process to make the program better, not to meet a standard.

All of this seems unfair and expensive, but there is good news: students, alumni, professionals, and faculty are generally willing to help.  If we create a participatory culture in education, where students are not viewed as receptacles to be filled, but rather as active shapers of the library ecosystem, great things become possible.  Students can create dynamic websites as part of their class and then future classes can use and expand upon these resources.  Grants to expand student opportunities can be written in grant-writing classes and successful ones applied.  The summative assessment for an instruction class can be teaching a session the following semester.  Libraries near MLIS programs should be constantly engaged in collaborative activities, and with web applications further institutions can also be brought in for mutual benefit.  Supplement professor’s lectures with conversations with professionals in the field.  Leverage alumni relations to get unique internship opportunities.  Much of this is already happening, but we need to do more so that library schools can have a long and fruitful future, and future librarians can receive the nurturing and maturation they need.

I would love to get feedback from others with an MLIS, pursuing one, considering pursuing one, or those who have taken a different path.  I would also be appreciative of professors sharing what they are doing to meet the challenges of the future of librarianship. Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me by email mcgunby@hotmail.com or on Twitter @MatthewGunby.

11 thoughts on “Evaluating the MLIS Degree

  1. Do most MLIS programs have career assistance either through the school career center or through the LIS department? I think there is a disconnect between the career advisor and the academic advisor especially in librarianship. My internship supervisor, who is a working librarian, offers very different advice that is necessary for our field.

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  2. I’m a current LIS student at the University of Illinois and do not seem to find the same issues in GSLIS as you describe here. As Andromeda said, not all LIS courses are worth the same credits at every school — UIUC included. Quite a few LIS courses can be taken for 2 or 4 credits, the latter usually adding a final project or research paper. Also, GSLIS only requires 2 core courses worth 6-8 hours, then the remaining 32-34 hours are electives. I’m also very lucky to be part of a University that offers many opportunities for grad students to receive stipends and/or tuition waivers. As a grad assistant (granted, outside of GSLIS) my 4 semesters in GSLIS will cost me less than a year of undergrad loans (I also received my BS from UIUC). Despite UIUC also being a research University, I have never been more connected with my professors than I am with those in GSLIS. This is definitely due to smaller classes and more discussion compared to the “I lecture, you listen” in a larger class setting. I’m actually meeting up with a well-known professor later this summer (because he is gone this month doing research for ALA) to discuss my interests and goals to work on a possible independent study or project next year.

    Although I do agree with your main points in that generally the MLIS degree is overpriced and that we need to rethink the requirement of an MLIS for some library positions. As we try to evolve into the “modern librarian” we also need to talk about the economic barrier of how one can become a librarian — especially in a public library. I’d be interested in what others think about this or how we could set new guidelines to allow those without Master’s degrees to serve their community.

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    • I have had a great experience with my professors and fellow students, and part of the problem is that students may be too passive, particularly when they are beginning a program. Syracuse also has a number of incredible opportunities to minimize their costs, but I know many were not able to get these opportunities. I knew UIUC only had two core courses, but was unaware of the variation of credits from 2-4. I would like to take part in or at least connect with the ALA committee on accreditation to see how their goals can be met in such diverse ways. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

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  3. I’ll be graduating this summer from my MLIS program at the University of South Carolina (offers an on-campus and online courses) and while most of the classes are 3 credits there are only three required courses and the rest of our courses are electives that we can choose to guide our program into the type of setting we want to have a career in. I personally have chosen the archives/preservation track and our program website offers career guidance where a student can say I want to work in a public, academic, museum ect.. setting and there are class recommendations for those. We also are highly encouraged to have an internship which is for credit and there is also the opportunity to do an independent study. While I’ve had a good experience from my program I do agree that the price is very high for pursuing an MLIS and the main downfall with my particular program is that not all the classes are offered every semester therefore there are some classes that everyone is going to miss out on being able to take and with the high cost of the degree we shouldn’t have this issue. One of the biggest challenges that I have been seeing on the job market however is that a lot of jobs require or suggest having a second masters degree. With the MLIS degree already being as expensive as it is and a requirement for almost any type of library job its daunting to think of the expense of getting a second master’s when you can’t even get a job to pay off the first one not to mention undergraduate loans as well.

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    • I am very familiar with the problem of not having access to classes, because they are not offered in a given semester. I think online classes offered across numerous campuses such as the WISE courses I mentioned are a valuable way to address this problem, but at the same time, I think that online education is still more challenging and more limited than many are willing to admit. It also does not always receive the same regard. I was talking with a library director who entirely unsolicited said that he would have extreme reservations about hiring someone who did their degree online.

      Also, the second degree is something I worry about as well, because of the cost, but also because of the need for greater specialization that may not pan out dependent upon the job market when you graduate. If I got a second masters in English, Philosophy or History, I might be a more competitive candidate for a small scope of jobs, but no better off and far more indebted for more general positions.

      A more general statement about higher education (at least for many majors) is that it is far more like investing in the stock market than investing in banks even ten or twenty years ago. With the latter, there is a fairly significant gain if you can remain disciplined, whereas the former can have larger returns, but requires taking greater risks. I believe faculty and staff at universities must be cognizant of this and try to lessen that risk where possible, even as we as a society need to consider the problems of this new paradigm. SU and many other LIS programs are trying, and I absolutely salute their efforts, but their future and ours are now a part of this more risk-intensive culture, and so the hope of this post was to spark debate on how we could both better our chances.

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  4. Pingback: Interesting post to address | Journey to becoming an Archivist/Preservationist

  5. I’m coming to this article after awhile but I’m currently evaluating the option of going back for the MLIS. I currently work for a public library system in South Georgia and hold a bachelors in English. I feel like I’m obligated to go back to school for a higher degree in order to advance in the profession as our library system employs mostly part time employees (myself included) with only 3 professional librarians for 4 branches. With almost two years experience, I feel comfortable and competent in my position but due to budget constraints it seems the higher degree is needed. Two other folks in our system are currently in library school, making this decision more complicated. I’ve been reading countless articles that are saying the profession is showing slower growth than the average and coupled with the cost of the graduate degree, the prospect of going back is daunting to say the least. I’ve put off going back for more than a year simply due to the cost alone. The only library school in Georgia is about a three hour drive from my home and work. It does offer the degree almost entirely online though. I truly love my job and working with patrons has become a rewarding experience but my main question remains: is it worth it to go back for a degree that will add to the pile of loans I already have (yikes!) that doesn’t guarantee a job when I’m done when older librarians in our system are full time employees without degrees and who are just as much librarians as I will be when I get that over priced piece of paper? Either way, waiting for a full time non degree requiring position or going back to school guarantees a job or career path.

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