Is the MLS still relevant? Or, what am I doing here?

(Note: This is a paper I wrote for my Introduction to Information Professions class in my first semester of library school.)

In recent years, the question of whether or not having a master’s degree is still important in the field of librarianship has been widely debated. The MLS degree itself has transformed, adding an “I” to become the MLIS (Master of Library and Information Science), and in some cases losing the “L” all together. The University of Texas at Austin for example, offers an MSIS, or Master of Science of Information Studies. Many degree programs have gone online; of the 62 ALA-accredited programs, 19 offer degrees that can be completed without ever setting foot in a classroom. As the field of librarianship has become the field of information science, fighting to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving information landscape, it makes sense that the professional training for the field would undergo some changes of its own. There are some, though, who would have us do away with the MLS all together.

On her blog “The Librarian of Fortune,” Mary Ellen Bates recounted hearing “the head of a large corporate library…[say] that as she reviews resumes for info pro positions, she counts an M.L.S. degree as a point against an applicant” (Bates). As I understand it, for the woman who made this statement and others like her, the MLS represents two problems: theoretical as opposed to practical knowledge, and a background in outdated traditions and skills at a time when innovation and change is crucial for libraries. These arguments against the degree are not entirely unreasonable, if greatly exaggerated.

It is true that what is taught in MLS programs does not cover everything and must be supplemented with experience. I once explained to a friend that the most important things I was learning in library school were the names of things I would have to learn elsewhere. This wasn’t a complaint, however. It is important to master the vocabulary of the profession and to understand the skills that a career in libraries will demand. A program that requires only twelve courses to complete couldn’t possibly teach mastery of every one of these skills, but if it makes its students aware of what they are, it has already achieved a great deal.

It is also true that the curricula of master’s programs are not in all cases being updated at the same rate that the field is moving forward. Many schools are making a real effort to reflect the progression of the field, as evidenced by the renaming of degrees. But most (Pratt included) do not offer nearly enough courses in digital and web technologies, to name only one area of knowledge that has become crucial to the successful information professional. Again, though, the MLS isn’t really about learning skills. If anything, it is about learning the philosophy that forms the backbone of this profession: to vastly oversimplify, that information is good, and that people should have access to it. It is true that we have reached a point where libraries must innovate and evolve, but that fundamental understanding of why they exist hasn’t changed.

While it is true, then, that the MLS has its limitations, to say that having the degree makes a person less qualified to work as an information professional is absurd. To have a background in and understanding of the long-standing traditions of librarianship—even those that are outdated—does not necessarily indicate that an individual will be resistant to or incapable of breaking with these traditions (though there are certainly some who are). If anything, knowing what exactly we are moving away from makes us better equipped to do so. As the old saying goes, one has to know the rules before one can break them.

In “Protect Professionalism,” an editorial in Library Journal, John Berry explains that the MLS degree has been criticized as being “little more than an indoctrination and orientation to library values, customs, and jargon.” This is actually not an inaccurate description of what these programs offer, but this “orientation” is hardly something to be derided as insignificant. I believe that it is exactly this alignment with the goals, attitude, and ethics, and fluency in the language of librarianship that defines the professional.

A reference librarian who I spoke with recently offered her opinion on the degree, which highlights another thing that these programs offer students: knowledge of themselves. As she sees it, the one or two years spent completing the master’s is more than anything else a time to determine what kind of information professional you want to be. There are so many possibilities, and it is important to assess your own personality in order to choose the right niche. Someone who is excellent at information architecture, for example, may be ill suited to reference service. Before you can become a professional, it is crucial to know certain things about yourself: what excites you, what bores you to tears, what you’re good at, what would best be left to someone else.

Berry also talks in his editorial about whether the MLS is merely “a ‘union card’ to get into a closed shop.” The library administrator who prefers not to hire those with the degree seems to indicate that it isn’t, or that if it once was, it no longer is. There are certainly jobs, such as information technology and highly specialized positions, for which another degree instead of or in addition to the MLS might make a candidate more qualified. There is also a place in the library for people without advanced degrees, though one hopes that administrators are being honest about what that place is and not replacing degreed librarians with paraprofessionals out of purely budgetary concern.

The matter of professionals and paraprofessionals and the MLS versus other advanced degrees points to an important question that we must ask when discussing whether or not the MLS is still relevant: relevant to whom? I have argued that the degree is not just relevant but critical to the next generation of librarians, insofar as it provides them with the fundamentals—the skeleton on which they must build the body of knowledge needed to be successful information professionals. But whether or not the degree is relevant to those making hiring decisions in libraries is not a point that can be argued. In answer to that question, all I can say is: I hope so.

Works cited:

Bates, Mary Ellen. (8 September 2010). “Is an MLS still relevant?” The Librarian of Fortune. Retrieved from: http://www.librarianoffortune.com/librarian_of_fortune/2010/09/is-an-mls-still-relevant.html

Berry, John. (1 November 2003) “Protect Professionalism.” Library Journal. Retrieved from: http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA329319.html

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