When I tell people that I’m going to school to become a librarian, they often look puzzled and ask why I need a graduate degree to work in a library. Usually I just shrug and mutter something about management skills because the real reasons are a little much for a casual conversation. It’s also kind of an awkward question, since an MLIS isn’t really necessary for a lot of positions and it doesn’t guarantee a tangible set of workplace skills. So why am I in grad school, spending too much money and constantly complaining about homework?
Librarianship was professionalized early, with Melvil Dewey and friends kicking off the trend for libraries in the late 19th century. Professionalization means standards, and standards usually mean schooling. The first library school opened at Columbia University in 1887. The first library graduate program, funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, was founded at the University of Chicago in 1928. Librarians love rules and hierarchies, and the professionalization train has only been picking up steam since then. Specialized degrees and certifications can even be required for support staff, especially in the larger library systems.
A major component of graduate education is learning how to be part of a professional community. Going to conferences and presenting your work is encouraged at the undergraduate level, but for graduate students it stops feeling like an extra credit activity. Now it’s expected, and it’s baked into the lesson plans, homework assignments, and assistantship positions. Every grad student somehow sits on three committees, one of which they co-founded. At first this struck me as excessive and privileging of folks headed for a career in major academic libraries, but eventually it sunk in that participating in the community is most of the point in getting the degree. All of the sitting around and talking happens for a reason: improving the field of librarianship.
As an illustration, let’s take the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system. You can learn to shelve books using the DDC, or assign catalog numbers according to its rules, without formal library education. Independently, or in an undergraduate-level class, you can learn the history of the DDC, where and how it’s used, and that many of its categories are problematic or outdated. Graduate school gives you the tools to fix or replace the DDC, and to understand how complex a task that really is. You’re given the tools, and you’re expected to use them.
Last but not least, the point of going to graduate school is to speed up the process of promotion. I’ve known many library department heads and catalogers who don’t have the degree and are unequivocally good at their jobs, but it took them years (or decades) to work their way up to their current positions. I enjoy shelving books and working the circulation desk, but no one’s going to pay me a living wage to do it while I build enough credibility for an administrative job. It’s like playing a freemium game- in theory you don’t have to pay anything and if you have enough patience and work hard you can do well. In reality it’s a lot easier and more fun if you’re able to hemorrhage cash.
Additionally, libraries don’t want to invest in training employees and would rather hire someone who can get right to work after filling out the tax forms and being shown the lunchroom. The reasons for this are outside the scope of this article, but it’s the flip side of the degree trumping experience. The degree, as a mentor of mine pointed out, demonstrates a potential employee’s capacity to learn. It’s not the three to five years of experience that employers prefer for entry-level positions, but it’s a start.
Emily is a rising second-year graduate student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She is not taking any summer courses and has already forgotten that homework exists.
Categories: Education & Curriculum