A Master’s Degree in LIS: Weighing Our Educational Standards

Before I started my library degree, I often found myself wondering – why do I need a master’s degree to become a librarian? If the requirements and options were different, couldn’t I just become a librarian after getting a bachelor’s degree in the field? Turns out, I wasn’t alone. We’ve been evaluating and debating the pros and cons of the master’s in LIS at Hack Library School for a while now.

Now that I’m two months into my master’s degree, I have an easier time grappling with the question of necessity. Even though I’ve been working in libraries for a while now, I can see why it is beneficial to learn about some topics in the concentrated manner that a class provides. Library science in the wild is different than library science in the books – duh! But, I do feel that I’m building a better foundational knowledge than I could through only on-the-job experience. It can be hard to make connections between everything you learn on the job, and the degree has already helped create some cohesion for me. So, two months in, the master’s seems worth it.

That still doesn’t answer the question of why we can’t become librarians by earning a bachelor’s degree in LIS though. For that, I decided to do what any reasonable librarian-in-training from the 21st century would do – I asked the Internet! What I found is that the debate over this issue is heated. Librarians get pretty peeved when discussing this topic. Just take a look at the comments on this article from Library Journal or this article from INALJ.

Here’s a summary of what I found in conducting my quick online survey:

Individuals who are pro master’s in LIS believe:

  • The master’s degree creates librarians who can be strong advocates for the profession.
  • Librarians, and academic librarians in particular, need a master’s to truly meet the research needs of the patrons they serve.
  • The MLIS teaches useful theory. You can’t just learn through practice because theories inform our policies. The MLIS creates good policy-makers.

Individuals who are pro bachelor’s in LIS believe:

  • A bachelor’s degree more accurately aligns with the pay entry-level librarians receive.
  • A bachelor’s degree just fits most entry-level librarian jobs better – especially entry level public librarians and reference librarians.
  • Only mangers and subject specialists truly need a master’s degree in LIS – hands-on experience is much more important for entry-level positions.

The problem I see with arguments for the master’s degree is that most of what pro-MLISers argue for could be accomplished through a bachelor’s degree as well. On the other hand, I have a hard time convincing myself that making a bachelor’s in LIS the standard would create very well-rounded professionals. The subject knowledge gained from doing a non-library related undergraduate degree helps you bring something unique to the field, and that is important.

One of the more compelling arguments I’ve heard for making a bachelor’s degree in LIS the standard to work in the profession is the comparison drawn between librarians and school teachers. The argument posed is that if teachers can work in their field with a four-year degree, then why would librarians need to get a master’s degree to work in their field? There is an enormous amount of responsibility that comes with being a teacher, and if they can do their jobs with a bachelor’s degree, then why on earth are we librarians doing this to ourselves? At the same time, many teachers end up getting master’s degrees to develop professionally, increase their salaries and climb the ladder, so to speak. So, how do we know that it wouldn’t end up the same way for us? If we all had to get a master’s degree in the end, what would it matter anyway?

It’s probably too late for a change in standards to have an impact on current library students’ educational paths. But, if we care at all about what LIS education is like for librarians in the future, then the conversation is worth having. The master’s feels worth it, but if there is a different way to educate librarians that is just as effective, then why not explore it? We should be open to changes in LIS education, and we certainly shouldn’t let our egos or the status quo stop us from making them.


Photo from USAID Guatemala. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

6 replies

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, too, and have come to the some of the same conclusions. Specifically, I think an undergrad degree in a non-library field will provide a richer and more diverse experience at whatever library we eventually end up in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This was definitely my thinking coming into my MLIS from getting a 4 year in English Literature. I made a point of studying as many types of media and analysis as I could as I worked through my degree. I wanted my 4 year to be spent educating myself on art and culture while my masters could be spent learning to manage and curate that culture. There are still plenty of people who think I made a bad decision, and the relentless crap that both of my degree choices get in regular lists of “Best Degrees” certainly doesn’t shore up my self-esteem on the subject.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. To me this is an important issue: could the Bachelor’s degree candidate apply and get accepted to a Master’s program? If not, then I am skeptical how well they would perform as a librarian. Whatever’s keeping them out of a graduate program is probably also a work issue. If so, then, ya, they probably would be a good librarian in pretty much all aspects of the job.


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