Yes, You Need a Degree for That. [Starter Kit]

Don’t let the flood of questions overwhelm you!

When I was starting library school, nobody warned me about the sheer number of questions I would receive, from family, friends, and random strangers. Most of them are variations on a single theme:

You need a masters for that?

While I’m still getting these questions, now that I’m more than halfway through my program, I think I have better answers…

You’re going to grad school for what, now?

Library and Information Science. Yes, it’s the degree I would need for some types of library work, but nowadays it’s so much more than that! Librarians exist to connect people to the information they need, and these days those connections are just as likely to be expressed by digital mean as by physical ones.

Library & Information Science has a human focus that’s stronger, in my mind, than some of the other information-driven degrees. I wanted my graduate degree to reflect my own values and interests, but while the MSLIS is a professional degree, it’s interdisciplinary, and I’m not bound to work in a library simply because the word “library” is in the degree name.
So you need a masters degree to alphabetize books?

No, but advanced training allows me to design entire systems for cataloging–Alphabetizing might make sense for some collections, but others might do better with Library of Congress subject headings, the Dewey Decimal system, or something else entirely. Most systems–even the ones that are most common–have some glaring inconsistencies, and my degree will prepare me to help fix them, or design an entirely new solution for the collections I’m working with.

That said, organizing and sorting a collection is really the least of my worries. My degree is professional training that goes far beyond a single library collection. I’ll be an information scientist; a guide to the information-overload jungle, able to forge raw data into useful information, training others in the sorts of techniques required to be considered literate in the new big-data era.

Can’t a volunteer do your job?

It depends on the job, and on how much training the volunteer has. Think of an EMT–Many Emergency Medical Services squads are entirely volunteer-run, but the implication that “anyone” could walk in off the street and save a trauma victim is misguided at best. Volunteer EMT’s go through many dozens of hours of training before they ever go on a call, and EMT’s have to keep up with a strict schedule of professional development and continuing education or they risk losing their ability to practice. While I’m not suggesting that information work is life-or-death, I would hope that volunteers planning to “replace” a librarian have an equivalent background of training and experience.

Bear with me: Librarians do a great deal more than “library work.” While we should have the necessary training when we graduate to go work in a library, we also have the experience we need to be a force for good in our communities. We can help drive better business decisions by preparing white papers and environmental scans in brief. We can encourage people of all ages to be curious about their world. We could use our talents to serve only our own ends, but instead we provide perspective and insight to anyone who asks, and help them sort out some of the thorny problems they’re faced with. We are social workers, educators, businesspeople, scientists, and far more than that:

We are librarians.

Of course, the questions are evolving just as my answers do. What questions have you been faced with as you start or finish library school? What were your answers? Let us know in the comments.

Categories: Starter Kits

16 replies

  1. Ha! Ohhh I’ve gotten these questions before too. “What, you need a master’s to shush people?” Hilarious.

    Your answers are far better explanations than I usually give people; sometimes I can explain that the field is so much more than shushing and shelving books, but other times it’s just easier to let the person make their little joke and be on my way. During the past year as I began my program, however, I have radically changed my family and friends’ understanding of my field and what it is exactly that I can do and want to do with this degree. Now they defend my choice to others on occasion as well, which is really cool. 🙂


  2. When I was going for my degree and people would ask me questions like those you mentioned I would start to describe my classes and what I was learning and that would always stop them in their line of questioning my choice.


  3. I totally echo Leslie’s sentiments. My time and experience in library school and working at various library-type jobs over the past few years has been a great learning experience for my family and friends. They have gone from quizzically questioning my choice of field to having a more complete understanding of the great variety of things librarians do. The average person hears “library” and immediately thinks of their local public branch, but my family and friends now see that libraries come in all shapes and sizes-universities, government organizations, businesses, museums, law firms, schools, etc. It is really neat to see them experience the realization that libraries, and librarians, are everywhere! I am still always surprised that so many people, in our technology-saturated age, still think librarians do nothing but work with books. When they heard that I was learning web-design and programming in library school, it really opened their eyes.


  4. I get that question all the time…I usually just laugh it off, mostly because those who ask it don’t really care about the answer… I sometimes even play along, telling them that next semester I’m taking Library School 832 “Advanced glaring over glasses.” and 844 “Bun Styles and Cardigans.” I know I should try to change the misconceptions of the general public, but usually they don’t really care, and if they do they ask again and I will explain, if they don’t care they leave it alone.


    • This made me laugh out loud while working at the reference desk today. Some people truly think we practice those things. We have to show the public that we’re not the stereotype. When being asked by family about what I do, I say I am a teacher, researcher, proof-reader, collaborator, web designer, and all around know-it-all.


  5. Like the other commenters, I get the same question as well. I feel like the first thing I had to do when I decided this field was to create an elevator pitch for what I do and why I chose it. It’s hard to do, but it gives non-librarians the information to realize that we don’t just shelve books and it’s an opportunity to get more respect for the profession.


  6. I get “You need a Master’s degree to put books back on a shelf?” a lot. I’ve been getting it for so long now (since high school) that I’m sick of it. I explain to them that volunteers or shelvers do that work, that a librarian is the person who helps you find the information you need and can knows the different cataloging systems. Now that I’m halfway done, I try to explain the different things I’ve learned and their eyes typicall glaze over.

    I also get “Are you practicing your shushing?” from a couple of unlces when I visit family. But I just ignore them.


  7. Very interesting. I’m an Info Science graduate but I often wonder ‘do I need a degree for this?’ The answer in some ways is “yes”, I wouldn’t have got my first professional post without one as it was a minimum requirement of the post but in terms of my day to day tasks since….I don’t think so. I love being a librarian and would do nothing to devalue the profession but I think it’s a shame that some sections of the profession (particularly academic librarianship) deem a degree essential barring some excellent candidates. I guess I’m quite romantic about what I do – I see it as an art! (especially when devising cataloguing and classification schemes which requires instinct, empathy and imagination). I also think it’s one of those professional that it’s best to learn through doing it and work your way up as you prove your skills and aptitude. I get frustrated on behalf of younger colleagues who have all the right skills to be a librarian (not just a library assistant) but may hit a glass ceiling in their career unless they can find the money to pay for an MA and fund themselves taking the required time out from full time work.



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