Information Context, Learning Context

Ashley’s previous post on ethnography got me thinking about a topic that has been buzzing around in my mind–the importance of context for information and for learning. While Ashley focused on learning the tools of a different discipline, anthropology, for direct use in librarianship (i.e., librarian as ethnographer), I wonder how much can be expected of librarians in terms of knowledge about the communities and knowledge contexts in which they work. After all, information and learning carry little meaning out of context, and librarians certainly deal with information in very concrete situations with discrete users, questions, and fields of knowledge.

More narrowly and less abstractly, this post is in part about whether a second master’s degree or some courses in a particular discipline outside of LIS should be required for librarians. How important is domain-specific knowledge for practicing librarians?

For some library positions, this question has a straightforward answer (e.g., law librarians need a legal education background). And for others, job ads sometimes state a preference for experience in the field (e.g., science or engineering library positions at academic libraries prefer applicants with at least undergraduate-level degrees in related fields). But what about other kinds of librarian positions? Should reference librarians have (or seek) domain-specific knowledge? Should general librarians at public libraries? Should youth services librarians have a degree in child development or education as well? Should digital librarians have a computer science degree? And in a slightly different vein, should librarians in management positions be required to have an MBA or a similar kind of management-oriented certification?

My knee-jerk response is that the second master’s should never be a baseline requirement because I believe that requiring additional diplomas for jobs and/or advancement in careers creates severe problems in the educational system (but that’s a different post topic…). I also think that librarians and library students should work more actively to demystify the work that librarians do, to help people in the general public understand both the value of the MLIS degree and librarianship. The MLIS should be seen as a professional degree that imparts important knowledge and skills; LIS as a field should be seen as a substantive domain of knowledge in and of itself.

Do you discuss this issue in your program? Does your program require coursework in different disciplines? Do you have other graduate degrees or plan on pursuing another master’s as part of your career goals in librarianship? What are the pros and cons of requiring a second master’s degree for a professional librarian position?

What do you think of this issue in relation to other topics frequently discussed on HLS such as the importance of gaining experience working in libraries while in school, choosing useful courses, and learning computer programming and technology skills?

Here are a few related articles I perused while composing this post:

  • Florance, V., Giuse, N. B., & Ketchell, D. S. (2002). Information in context: Integrating information specialists into practice settings. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 90(1): 49-58. Retrieved from
  • Jantz, R. (2003). Information retrieval in domain-specific databases: An analysis to improve the user interface of the Alcohol Studies Database. College & Research Libraries, 64, 229-239. Retrieved from
  • Starkey, J. (2006). Everything you always wanted to know about getting a second master’s degree but were afraid to ask. Career Strategies for Librarians. Retrieved from

24 replies

  1. Well you know what they say about the road to hell, but I think in this context intention is critical. Those people I know who just went and got a second degree “because it would help” still seem to be floundering. Those who either came to library school with a masters or have gone from library school to get another masters with very specific goals in mind as to how they want to use those degrees are having better luck.

    Specialization has always been more of the “quaint hobby” in library science, while the majority of people remained generalists who could move between positions or into management. These days, though, the key to success IMHO is specialization. It doesn’t pay to be inflexible, of course, but having a very clear idea of what you want to do will inform how you get to that point.


    • I waver between thinking that more specialization might be a good thing for the field at large and thinking that librarians are better off as generalists…. I guess a balance between the two will remain important for some time to come at least…


  2. I agree with the above poster – a second master’s definitely isn’t a magic potion that will get you a job, and some of the most successful new librarians I know don’t have a second master’s, and in some ways I think it helped them because they didn’t pigeon-hole themselves into one area, and they were open to exploration. On the other hand, I can think of others who DID have a second master’s, and they had those exact same qualities of open-mindedness and dogged persistence that got them to where they were today.

    FWIW I have a second master’s (in history, specializing in book history), that I got before starting library school, and I don’t regret it for a second. It gave me experience in research, conference presentation and publishing that has been key to my identity as a librarian (and as a professional in general), and just generally made the inside of my brain (and therefore my life!) more interesting.

    But I took very few financial risks to get that degree – I’m not sure I would be interested in doing the process backwards, or that it would have been good for my librarian career. I think that once you have your MLIS, it could be a career-limiting (and personally frustrating) move to shift gears and get even more education right away.


    • The order in which people pursue multiple degrees does seem to make a difference in terms of the kind of trajectory one’s career may take. I wonder if there have been studies that explore how people’s careers develop based on their educational path. I also have another master’s already (in English) and hope to be able to draw on the knowledge and skills I learned in the academic world for my library career!


  3. I agree with all of these posters. Having an MLIS is the price of entry, as it should be. However, the 2nd masters is a crapshoot. I remain unconvinced that requiring it for a law librarian position, or business librarian position is worth it given the jobs context. In my position, they could have definitely required a CS degree although its usefulness would be limited.

    In this day and age, I think LIS schools do a pretty poor job preparing people for anything beyond traditional librarianship or archives. This assertion is based upon my own experience in a non-traditional LIS position. I was well educated in the principles of traditional LIS, but woefully unprepared for anything beyond that sphere. In this day and age, it should be taught that LIS positions exists in a myriad number of places; rather than requiring specialization without experience students should be given exposure to a huge variety of different LIS positions. This way students would gain experience, contextual information on applying an LIS degree, as well as an understanding that there are actually a huge number of jobs out there for LIS people. The problem being that nobody is applying for them.


    • I certainly hope the MLIS remains the price of entry! One of the other things that spurred this post was hearing repeatedly this semester (from library directors and other people in the field) that the MLIS is no longer seen as the best degree for work in the library. One position for a youth services librarian even has the MLIS as an optional degree, with other graduate degrees dealing with child development (education, psychology, social work, etc.) as acceptable substitutes. I was very disturbed to hear that particular detail though I know that there are plenty of libraries that have opted for other educational backgrounds for their specialized librarians, offering professional development training after hire for library-specific skills and knowledge.


  4. I’m working on getting my MSIS at UT-Austin with the intention of going into rare books/special collections librarianship. I already have a highly specialised first master’s degree (in medieval manuscript palaeography and codicology), so I feel like that will be a HUGE help to me in my job search because I already have 2+ years’ worth of experience working daily with rare books and manuscripts. (I’m also considering going on to do a PhD in manuscript studies since librarians I’ve spoken to in special collections roles (two of which have PhDs and one of which is pursuing a PhD) have advised me to think about that.) Do I think having another master’s should be required? No, not really. Do I think having it will make me more competitive as a candidate? Yes. Am I worried about having to go on and do another degree to become even more competitive? Yes, very much so. As Bronwen points out, there are financial risks involved with any education beyond undergradaute degrees, and the job you eventually get may not be enough to offset those risks.


    • Oooo medieval manuscript palaeography and codicology! Sounds awesome. 😀

      That line between “required” and “makes more competitive” seems hazy to me, though. Even if a second degree isn’t a stated requirement for a position, it could effectively be so if most of the applicants have the degree. This is also the issue I have with requiring degrees for positions in general…. it creates this pressure on the educational system and expectations for more and more schooling for less and less career reward. In my local public library system, for example, there are a lot of paraprofessional staff positions (high school diploma is the educational requirement) that are effectively the entry-level positions into the system. We library students have actually been advised to apply for those positions in hopes that we can then advance to a professional librarian position in the system in a few years. And I know more than a few people with the MLIS who are in these positions…. It’s troubling… this disconnect between degrees expected and availability of jobs, between the career trajectory advertised and the trajectory that actually is possible….


      • I think it’s very hazy, which makes it difficult to navigate. I also think your insight about the local library jobs in your area is on the mark, although in my experience not all libraries are open to hiring recent MLIS grads into non-professional roles. My first library job was as a paraprofessional library assistant at a medical school library, and when I was leaving the job to come to library school I got to assist with the hiring process and we got a lot of recent MLIS grads applying for the role (which was scary enough as I was going into library school to see how many recent grads couldn’t find professional jobs to apply for 😦 ). In the end, my boss decided to automatically reject anyone with an MLIS as overqualified, which I think was an understandable but kind of shortsighted decision. I understand that lots of MLIS grads aren’t getting the experience they need in the kinds of libraries they want, and why is it so bad to hire someone as a paraprofessional as a stepping stone to a professional role? I think if your local library system is bringing people into paraprofessional roles and then allowing them to advance into professional roles, that is great! But at the same time I’d hate to see paraprofessional roles start requiring more than a high school diploma. :/

        To me, I think for people who want to go into specialist areas (medical, legal, science, special collections, etc.) more courses need to be offered in those areas at library schools. At UT (where, granted, the focus is more on the Information side than the Library side of the MLIS), it’s sad to see that there is only one legal librarianship course offered once a year. Same with science librarianship! There are two business librarianship courses, at least. If we’re going to start needing specialized knowledge about an area before we can get a job in that area, maybe the answer isn’t another master’s degree but a series of specialized courses in the library school?


  5. I’ve got a second master’s, in education, that I started a few years after I got my first professional LIS position. I did it because I wanted to be a better teacher (that’s my career asymptote, actually) and knew an MAEd could serve both as further career prep and as a subject master’s.

    As for whether or not it should be required… well, it’s all about context, isn’t it? Example 1: If you want to work as a bibliographer/liaison to a specific department at a big university, the professors in that department probably won’t take you seriously unless you’ve got at least a master’s in their discipline. Example 2: If you want to work at a small, liberal arts college (like I do), then the MLIS is the only degree you need.


    • I’d be really interested in hearing more about your master’s in education and your teaching. I’m still trying to pull together an independent study proposal on librarianship and teaching (going beyond library user instruction into conceiving of librarianship more broadly as teaching).


  6. I got a master’s in literacy education before my MLIS. Though I got my MLIS to get away from working with children, I know for a fact that the job I have now as a children’s librarian was awarded heavily on my literacy background, since I had no prior experience in libraries. This isn’t at all what I went to get an MLIS for (but then, I’ve been told you can’t help what you’re good at, no matter if you like it or not) but I do know that I use my literacy ed knowledge every day,and it definitely adds scaffolding to the programs I plan.

    I know that many, many librarians only have one master’s degree, but I’m thankful for my second one.


    • Work with what you got, for sure! And with the way librarianship is going, with more and more people interested in addressing information literacy as a broad concept rather than just basic reading literacy, you can definitely use your background to expand into work with adults rather than children.


  7. I think Paul brings up a pretty good point about how much librarians should specialize. It just depends on who you are and where you are. If you are working at a place that you feel you will stay at for a long time, it might benefit you to specialize because that investment will help you in your job. If you are just out of library school and thinking about just jumping back in, I would hesitate. I don’t have a second master’s but I think I will go back and get one eventually. It just depends on where I end up and what area of librarianship I will be working.


    • I think it should be a cost benefit analysis. As much as you’d like to get a 2nd Masters is the funding available? Will shelling out x 000s of dollars going to be worth it? While there’s no real way of knowing, such a significant investment should not be made lightly. And while no one here seems to be in this boat I know of quite a few people who have now invested $100K in two masters and STILL have no idea what they want to do.


      • You have a good point about cost benefit analysis. The librarians I know who have gone back to school for another master’s or phd have tuition remission at their place of work, so it only costs them time. It also makes sense for them because they know what areas they need to be stronger in to better support their students and faculty.


    • It does seem impossible to generalize about the importance of a second master’s, at the end of the day. As you say, it depends on your particular circumstance and career goals…. What field would you likely explore for a second graduate degree?


      • I’m really not sure, it depends on where I end up professionally. I think I would want to further my education in a way that would benefit what I am doing professionally.


  8. …To come at it from another angle, maybe the problem isn’t the educational requirement itself, but simply the cost of higher ed?

    I’m an outsider, but I do tend to think of people the world of L/A/M folks as part of the academic world: it’s all a larger industry of (mostly-not-for-profit) knowledge professionals. So I tend to look at the world of teachers as part of the same larger system.

    And yes, it’s nigh-impossible in this day and age to get a secure, tenured position at most community colleges with only an MA or MS, like many did 40 years ago. The cost of education makes this regrettable, but I’m not going to attack a system that forces educators and knowledge professionals to get more education and knowledge.

    Better educated and better trained librarians, archivists, professors, or museum specialists are not a bad thing. Putting people into ridiculous debt to have underpaid jobs in these fields, on the other hand, is deeply problematic.


    • Yes, definitely! The cost of education is a huge issue and should absolutely be part of the conversation about degree requirements for professional librarian positions. I would also argue that the issue of cost is strongly intertwined with expectations of the payoff for degrees. People are willing to take out thousands of dollars in loans to earn a degree that they think will increase their salaries significantly.

      A few years ago at my previous institution of higher education, one of the priciest in town, the office of institutional research released a study of recent graduates (with bachelor’s degrees) and their earnings. It was appalling to see that a large percentage (over 50%, if I recall correctly) were effectively still making barely above minimum wage if they were employed at all….


  9. I agree that this is a very interesting and touchy issue. Part of my job is in an art school library. Although the job description did not actually *require* me to have any studio or art history degree and I am able to do all the work associated with this position without such a degree, people there treat me differently because I don’t have one. I can do all the wonderful librarian things that I’m trained to do, but if I had an art degree I think people would take me more seriously and be more willing to accept my librarian advice. I think PhDs are like this too, where having one (and having the knowledge associated with one) is usually not a requirement, but is often very useful just to have. For me, getting a second graduate degree is too expensive just for the sake of having one.


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