The MLIS: Gatekeeper or Necessary Credential?

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the fact that a master’s degree is required to be a librarian. For me, choosing to pursue a graduate degree in library science made perfect sense. I have not worked in libraries before, nor is my undergraduate coursework directly relevant to the duties of a librarian. As it does for many career changers, pursuing additional education felt like a good first step for me. It was only after beginning my coursework that I learned that the necessity of the degree itself is a somewhat controversial topic. Emily Wros addresses some of the reasons that a master’s degree is commonly required to get a job as a librarian, and Carissa Hansen’s 2015 post describes some of the controversy over this requirement.

The need for the MLIS can undeniably be a barrier to entering the profession. Although one can work in other types of library jobs without the degree, job postings for librarian positions frequently require an MLS/MLIS from an ALA-accredited program. There is certainly the argument to be made that “ this is a professional field and not just a job,” as Alexis Waide of INALJ believes. However, in a profession that suffers from an astonishing lack of diversity, I think it is worth questioning if this is a barrier we need to uphold (especially with the rising costs of tuition at many schools and the ballooning nationwide student loan debt).

There are valid criticisms of the MLS/MLIS not adequately preparing students for what they will face on the job. Camille V.L. Tomas and Richard J. Urban, for example, studied the preparation an MLIS degree afforded data librarians for the workplace. They found that many people perceived the degree to be outdated, and only 33.79% felt that the degree prepared them well or very well for their jobs.

In addition, we know that many of the day-to-day skills needed by librarians can be learned on the job. In 2003, the Western Council of State Libraries studied the core competencies of library practitioners (those who, due to a lack of MLIS graduates in certain regions, are working in librarian roles without the degree). Their survey found that the competencies for library practitioners are not dissimilar than those of professional ALA-credentialed librarians. One survey respondent, quoted in a 2006 issue of Public Libraries Magazine, wrote: “If a library practitioner can do all this, then they are really a librarian – with or without the degree.”1

Of course, I 100% believe that an MLIS is a valuable experience. For me, it absolutely was the right way for me to begin my journey as an information professional. Likewise, it is not uncommon for practicing librarians to feel that their graduate education allowed them to learn things that would be difficult for them to learn at work. A recent Twitter thread on the topic garnered dozens of responses and hundreds of likes, and answers ran the gamut from metadata and reference interviews to “how to think like a librarian” and ethical issues and beyond.

However, I question the need for it to be the sole path to becoming a professional librarian. Personally, I believe that graduate-level LIS education should always be an option, but I don’t know that it should continue to determine who can and cannot be a “professional” librarian. Perhaps library science should be like education, where it is a common undergraduate degree and there are an abundance of alternative certification programs; or perhaps there are other ways to reimagine the career journey yet to be determined.

As library school students, we represent the future of the profession. I think it is worth asking ourselves if the current LIS education framework truly supports the diversity and access integral to library services. If it does not, how can we reimagine and reinvent it? What could a more equitable system look like?

  1. Helmick, C., & Swigger, K. (2006, April). Core Competencies of Library Practitioners. Public Libraries, 45(2), 54–69.

Caroline Hron Weigle is a first-year student in Wayne State University’s online MLIS program. You can find her on twitter at @hronweigle. Connect with her on Linkedin here or check out her personal library school blog.

Photo by Henning Kesselhut on Unsplash

4 replies

  1. We already have a problem where librarianship is devalued. Dropping an MLIS requirement will devalue it even more.

    We have too many instances where someone is put in charge of running a library with little training or experience and they are titled, “librarian.” They may keep the library running on a day-to-day basis, but do they advance the library and work as a trained advocate for the profession and for the importance of the library to their institution or community?

    A degreed librarian works to understand the information needs of the library’s patrons and advocates for changes that meets those needs. They observe Ranganathan’s fifth law of library science and know that libraries are growing organisms that change over time.

    Like

    • Ouch! I am a liaison librarian in a regional uni in Australia. We have the same conversation happening here. I argue that my Masters (Research) in Education plus extensive experience teaching and in research administration has given me invalauble skills for my job, ones that are not taught in any library qualification. I am certainly not going to spend the time and money on the qualification just to tick someone’s box, and no manager has requested it.
      Similarly, My pd is focusses on online pedagogy and creating online communities. Thats where my librarianship is at, and that is what I share wjth my team (all qualified librarians).
      However, I do agree with Caroline… IF I wanted to work in a different library sector (without a bevy of stuff managing the technical library stuff) I’d recognise I need the secret library business taught in library school and I’d get myself enrolled straight away.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been going back and forth with the whole getting the MLIS degree for the past year. A part of me wants to take the step and check some schools out, but another is cost. I’m already in debt from my Bachelor’s degree, so I don’t want to go into more debt…but on the other hand, to learn more about the field and gain some experience I’m not getting from work (I’m currently unemployed) would possibly be helpful. It’s all up in the air still. But who knows? Maybe I’ll jump in some affordable program and see where it takes me!

    Like

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