What does your degree mean to you?

As a library school student or a recent graduate, it is all of our hopes that we’re not getting this degree in vain. The job market however, cannot support all of us and we have to wonder how to keep the balance. Many people point to the library school programs and say that is where the change needs to happen. A couple months ago, Will Manley wrote a post about the growing divide between libraries and library schools and he asked his readers some very good questions, the main ones being “what value does the MLIS have? Is it just a union card?” Through reading the comments, it started to sound like some people just see the graduate degree is nothing more than a stepping stone to their dream library job. In some ways, I can see how this is true, most librarian positions do require that you have an MLS/MLIS. However, the bigger problem is not the “union card” idea, it’s the current state of LIS education. This is an issue very dear to us at HackLibSchool. No library school program is perfect, but that is why this blog exists, to try and change what we don’t like, to add to our curriculum.

It’s hard to ignore this idea of the MLIS as just a union card for the job. Generally, we all have identified a few problems that seem to have de-valued this degree, and none of these should come as surprise. First issue being, lax acceptance rules; after all, higher education is also a business (read more about the numbers on Lauren’s blog). The second point of contention is that library school is seen as too easy, but I personally believe there are plenty of things students can do if they feel this way. In the end, what we all see is a flooded market of graduates to fill the few jobs out there. These are hard times for everyone and libraries have been especially hit hard, but this is also a good time for things to change for the better. It’s good that we identify problems in our field and especially in our education system. We should ask whose responsibility is it to address these issues? Should the American Library Association step in? It’s hard to say, but by identifying what we think isn’t working, we can start the process of changing what we don’t like.

Let’s take a step back for just a moment though. Library Research Service did a survey last May asking librarians, staff and students about the value of the MLIS to them. The results showed that 76% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that their degree was worth the investment. This should really tell us that a good number of librarians out there see much value in their degree, that it can be more than just a “union card”. There are many ways that we all can add value to our own education and what we walk away with in our job search. Joe Hardenbrook, who writes on Mr. Library Dude really summed  it up well when he said “Library school is what you make of it.” It doesn’t matter really where you go to school, what really matters is how you use your time in school. That’s where the value is. I have gotten so much from my degree so far, not only from the courses but from the extra curricular activities that I’ve become involved in.

The MLIS can be more than just a union card, but it’s going to depend on the student to take it to the next level. If you are passionate about this field, then the activities that you take on while in school will eventually translate into things that can go on your resume. Even still, there are many questions and conversations that we as professionals should be consistently having. We need to be asking ourselves about the future of librarianship. We need to wonder if LIS education is headed in the right direction, or if it’s truly preparing students for what libraries will need.

What changes do you want to see in library school education? Do you think think that your degree is valuable? How do we become the change that we want to see?

Categories: Big Picture

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21 replies

  1. Annie–this is an incredible post, thanks for sharing it! I’ve been feeling some frustration lately since I’m coming from the angle of someone who will (hopefully!) be a faculty member at some point, so to hear that the degree is just a union card can be disheartening since teaching future info pros is my dream job! You’ve reiterated what I usually say: that library school is what you make of it. I know every program has things that can be done better, and we should always be open to (and seriously consider) feedback from students. On the same token, I’ve spoken with some students (not most by any means) who feel like the program should be streamlined to push them into a certain job, and that they should not have to actively seek out opportunities to tailor the program. The beauty of LIS is that we have so many avenues people can take, and our graduate programs are typically set up to allow for and encourage exploration. It makes me happy that most of my fellow students recognize the value of exploring and get out there to do incredible things in school and beyond.


    • Yes, I think we need to hear more of the voices of the LIS educators and get this conversation going. Change is only going to happen if both parties are communicating with each other.


  2. I don’t see an MLIS as a union card so much as the only way to get any kind of raise. Cost of living raises in public libraries are relics from the era when AOL seemed bleeding edge.

    In nearly all of my classes more than half the students were already working in libraries, most of us full time. We were spending money we couldn’t afford for classes about things we already did every day, but it was the only conceivable way to advance within the profession.


    • I think Sam makes a good point. I always felt guilty when people said “your degree is what you make it” as I often feel unsatisfied with my degree/quality of program. But since I have been working in libraries (full time for the past year and part time for the six years before that), I didn’t need library school to teach me the basics, I needed it to teach me the more advanced stuff that maybe I couldn’t learn on my own. Thus I was often frustrated by class time and assignments that dwelled on content I knew well but I had to take because they were core classes.

      I also tend to forget that the reason I didn’t have time for resume boosting extra-curriculars was because I was working full time. In a library. And since I had a ton of librarians tell me that job experience matters more than your degree, so I started to value my degree a lot less. Obviously everyone’s situation for is different, but I don’t think that your MLIS has to be the Best Experience Ever for you to be a good librarian.


      • A law degree is a union card. I never got why a union card was such a bad thing from the posts Annie refers to. If library education works it’s nice to know that librarians all have a high level of training and expertise. I wouldn’t want a teacher with out a masters degree, just like I wouldn’t want to go to a dentist without an advanced degree in dentistry. Why should we ask our patrons to go to a library without a well trained librarian?


      • I understand what you’re saying and I can see how each program will differ. I guess for me, taking some of the classes taught me the “why” of what I was doing. For example, I volunteer and create metadata records for my state library. If I hadn’t taken a class in it, I wouldn’t understand the fundamental principles of information representation, particularly in a digital environment. Without the class, I think could have gotten by but now that I have an understanding of the theory, I think I can do a better job.


  3. Great points Annie! I agree with you that library school is what you make of it. In a lot of ways this doesn’t seem any different from being an undergraduate, or from getting some other professional degrees. A lot of people see their undergraduate degree as nothing more than a note on their resume that will move it past the HR person screening them, but I felt like I got so much more out of my undergraduate education than letters after my name. Library school has been the same way – it has opened my eyes to issues I didn’t know existed and made me feel passionate about them. It has taught me the value of networking and sharing information with my peers and pushed me past my comfort zone. A lot of the information shared in classes maybe I could have learned on the job, but not the reasoning and history behind it.

    As for students who maybe shouldn’t be here or those who, as Julia mentioned, feel like it should be a glorified training program, maybe we should look at them as practice. In our careers we will have to deal with patrons, staff and likely administrators or board members who don’t really see the value of or reasoning behind our policies and we will have to defend them. Maybe working with classmates who do not share our passion or our interest can possibly help inoculate us to the stress and frustration of dealing with these future situations.


    • This is such a great perspective–I love the idea of sharing our passion and learning to work through frustration, rather than just writing off students who don’t share the same level of enthusiasm!


  4. Sorry, but I thought that LRS survey was really dubious. They pretty much asked people working in libraries if they thought their library degree was worth it…and (not surprisingly) they mostly said “yes”. How would the numbers look if they asked all MLIS holders…especially all those who are out-of-work or left the profession?

    Just look at the difference the numbers show between younger and older professionals and I think you can see there’s a serious problem….


    • I had thought about that connection too. I think another aspect of the unemployment problem is a ballooning effect of higher education. Since the economy is so bad, many people are going back to school but are they graduating to a better job market? Not really. This is a very major problem that our country is facing.


  5. Getting my MLIS was a career change for me so I felt it pretty necessary to get the degree. And I honestly believe it has opened up doors to me that otherwise may not have been opened. That is also what having a high school degree and undergrad degree can do. I think that lately, having a Master’s is almost like having an undergrad degree, it’s starting to be more and more expected, no matter what the area is. That’s not to say that we should all just pony up the cost and keep our mouths shut, but I know for a fact that I would not be in my current position if it weren’t for, not only the degree, but the solid information world education I received in my MLIS program. I may not have learned *everything I needed to know in my program, but that’s what other activities are for.

    Like anything else in life, it’s about learning what your skills are and how to market them. I consider my degree to be one of my “skills.”


  6. It seems to be a common refrain that the best way to get a job is through working experience, and that the most valuable skills you take out of library school come from enrichment experiences outside the classroom. To me, this doesn’t validate the usefulness of a degree program, but rather underscore how irrelevant the coursework itself is. Why do I need to spend tens of thousands of dollars to do internships or take workshops or even participate in professional organizations? If the value of my degree comes primarily from the work I do apart from my degree program, what good is the program itself serving me, besides being an artificial hurdle to assure potential employers how serious I am? You get out what you get in, sure, but if I need to put significant amounts of time into my degree outside of my classes and homework, that tells me that those classes and homework aren’t teaching me very much about what I need to know to actually get a job.


    • I think it depends on the person. If you already have a strong resume before you go back to school, you probably don’t need to beef it up as much. For me, I had minimal library experience before starting school. Going to school provided me with opportunities to get more experience and practice using what I learned in class, translating those into skills that I could put on my resume.

      I agree with you though, this does say something about the state of LIS education. I think it’s ripe for change.


  7. I disagree with the higher standards for admitting students. I wouldn’t have gotten into a program if the standards were higher. I’m a good library student, and I’m smart, but I didn’t get the idea of work as an undergraduate. The biggest problem with a low admission standard is that after people are admitted we pander to the lowest common denominator in our classes and our standards. The real reform needs to come in the quality of the education.

    One complaint I’ve heard frequently relates specifically to the standards for online courses. Library Schools with an online component need to hire educational course design experts to help their professors with these classes. I agree with people who say that they are disappointed in these classes. But I think that by helping professors achieve at the same level as they would in an in person class we’d make a huge dent in the gripes about Library School. As long as you have them on staff they could help with the in person class room issues too.

    Ultimately though I think it’s up to students to supplement their education. I don’t think library schools will be able to change fast enough to keep up with the changes in libraries. That means we’ll have to educate ourselves out side of the class room, as will the next generation of library students. I think a lot of the complaints about library schools getting further away from the library are non-unique. They sound like some of the ten year old essays I’ve read about the problems with library schools. The new reality of library school is that students have a responsibility to bridge that gap. We the Hack Library School movement should leave behind a set of tools that the generation after us can use to deal with this reality, and programs should start to develop a paradigm that recognizes this.


  8. I feel like my course is basically a money racket, you do the MLIS because that’s what you have to do in order to get a job, and they make you do some busy work essays and projects (which you have the pleasure of paying to do), when you could have used your time more usefully doing actual real projects or writing that people other than your tutor might read if you didn’t have to spend the time getting a piece of paper.

    To say the MLIS is what you make of it is kind of cop out in my opinion, I don’t feel like the course really provides me with opportunities I couldn’t have got elsewhere with a bit of research. Sure I can choose to work on my interests and develop skills in areas that aren’t taught, but I could do that anyway.

    Also, (and I guess this is the main problem) it just seems like the content of the course is so removed from what might actually be useful- for instance, the one vaguely tech course is like how to do a little bit of html, other than that, nothing. It’s just about writing essays (which believe me I’ve had far too much practice in) rather than about learning any useful skills, particularly ones to do with scripting/ programming which will be useful in the future.


  9. Library school for me is basically just a piece of the puzzle. Getting practical experience and just general immersion into the library world are other pieces. While the content may not be as difficult as a law degree or a medical degree, I feel like it is much more difficult in this profession to nail down exactly what you should do to get the most out of it.

    It seems like practical experience is more valued, but that MLS still pops up on most job announcements. So if you have to get the degree, you should probably get the most out of it that you can. I haven’t been 100% satisfied with all my courses, and I almost wish they were more challenging sometimes. However, getting into an MLS program has certainly changed my life and was my entrypoint into this sometimes wonderful, sometimes frustrating, but usually interesting profession.


  10. I will preface this by saying that I have another Masters and had started a PhD program before starting my MLS program. It felt like going back to being an undergrad. I went from writing 30 page term papers to 5 page double-spaced piles of fluff.

    I now work in an academic library. Having that other MA has opened a lot of doors for me in terms of getting respect as an equal from faculty members. It means to them that I’ve actually done serious research and understand what they are trying to do – which is not something they expect from someone that only has a BA & a MLS. Unfortunately, my experience of library school was such that I can’t really argue with their assumptions about the value of just an MLS.

    Those critiques aside, I do think the MLS was worth it. I learned a lot about tricks that I didn’t know as a researcher (which I now totally sell as a reason students should come see me for research help). I learned a lot about how e-resources work. But I do think it needs to be a lot more rigorous, at least for those of us hoping to work in academic libraries.


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