The Master's Degree Misperception

“I didn’t know you needed a master’s degree to be a librarian.”

If you haven’t experienced this statement firsthand, you’ve certainly read about it. It is the notion that what we are doing as a career, a calling, and an occupation requires an advanced degree of study. It’s an image issue that pops up for the public librarian on a fairly regular basis. And, like it or not, it is here to stick with public librarians for a long time.

Once upon a time, there was no degree requirement to become a librarian. Anyone with a degree could be a librarian; it was simply a matter of learning the collection, the classification system, and the established policies and procedures of the library. With the advent of the MLS and MLIS programs, this has created a new layer of requirements for budding librarians but has not been accompanied by a shift in duties and workload. On any given day, I can be standing at the circulation desk side-by-side with a support staff member doing the same thing that they are doing. So long as this arrangement exists, the perception that librarianship does not require an advanced degree will continue to taint the image of the profession.

(Two things to note before I continue: first, that this is certainly not the full limit or extent of my job duties. If there is a line of people waiting to check out, I’ll step out and lend a hand. It’s good business, it’s a good show of support for my fellow staff member, and it’s a nice reminder about that aspect of the library experience. Budget tightening measures have also reduced our staffing numbers so that there isn’t another staff member around or on the desk to help out. Second, I don’t think there is anything wrong with a librarian doing these tasks. However, I’d like to imagine that I got an advanced degree so that checking out books would be a once in a while thing, not a regular gig.)

It is a disservice to the education, to the degree, and to the profession when the bulk of a librarian’s daily tasks could be performed by someone with a GED. It does not take a master’s degree to place a hold on a book, clear a copier, push in chairs, tell people they are being loud, shelve items, or other similar tasks. When librarians are seen doing this and then told there is an advanced degree requirement, there is a reasoning dissonance that occurs in the outside observer.

Our professional focus should be on the management and organization of materials; these are the things for which we are schooled and trained to do. So, this leads me to a question: how can we separate the MLS from the paraprofessional? Should the profession insist on a greater separation of duties? Should we surrender the reference desk over to the paraprofessional and adopt “research hours” where we can sit down with people who have actual reference questions? What needs to change in how we approach the job in the context of the library?

Author’s note: I’m not ignorant of the fact that this post will not apply to some libraries that have a smaller staff; nor that there will be times when there is a crossover of duties between librarians and paraprofessionals. I’m simply saying that this will continue to be an image problem so long as it is found in the majority of public libraries around the country.

AndyW

Comments

If I didn't have an MLS

If I didn't have an MLS I would never have been able to get the job as head of Adult Services / Reference. That of course means I never would have had the opportunity to yell "Put your penis away, that is inappropriate." across a crowded computer room.

Thank god I left the underpaid nightmare that was public librarianship five years ago.

"Our professional focus

"Our professional focus should be on the management and organization of materials" Really? What about the management and organization of our libraries? Is that not also a professional activity? Managers are librarians too. Do we really want our libraries managed by non-librarians?

A Paraprofessional Responds

I responded to this post over at Shelf Check, and I'll paste it here, too:
It is exceptionally rare that I get offended enough by a librar* blog post to respond to it with more than pulling a coworker over and saying, "Get a load of this," but Andy Woodworth's The Master's Degree Misperception at Agnostic, Maybe, got--as we used to say in high school--on my tits. Read it, but here are two excerpts:

"On any given day, I can be standing at the circulation desk side-by-side with a support staff member doing the same thing that they are doing. So long as this arrangement exists, the perception that librarianship does not require an advanced degree will continue to taint the image of the profession."

-----

"It is a disservice to the education, to the degree, and to the profession when the bulk of a librarian’s daily tasks could be performed by someone with a GED...[H]ow can we separate the MLS from the paraprofessional? Should the profession insist on a greater separation of duties? Should we surrender the reference desk over to the paraprofessional and adopt “research hours” where we can sit down with people who have actual reference questions? What needs to change in how we approach the job in the context of the library?"

-----

While I do like the idea of "research hours," I'm afraid I'm fairly sure my paraprofessional self could handle them as well as many--though certainly not all--professional librarians.
I've worked in libraries on and off, mostly on, for 16 years, in both circulation and reference. I've worked in two academic and three public library systems (my personal preference is for public, because of the greater diversity of tasks and of patrons served, but I'll admit that at my last academic job I made twice what I do at my current public job). I have consciously, actively chosen not to obtain a master's degree in library and information science for the following reasons:
1) I want to work in public libraries, and librarians in public libraries don't make much unless they're in management,
2)I never want to be in management, and
therefore, 3)I can't bear the thought of the expense of the degree in comparison to how much I am likely to make after obtaining it. I don't want to be paying for my MLIS for years to come, especially as I have a high school junior and a seventh grader who want to attend college. If I truly, deeply thought that I would be learning things that would make me far, far better at my non-management, non-cataloguing job, I might go for my MLIS. But folks: I can read professional journals, I can read blog posts and professional presentations, I can engage in seminar-like discussions with professional and paraprofessional library staff in the blogosphere--I--anyone--can learn so much on my own online and in conversation with colleagues, that I really don't feel that not attending school limits my acquisition of knowledge about the work I do. I learned about Ranganathan's Laws by Googling them after seeing them mentioned in a blog post, and they were the same five laws you learned about in library school.
I love school. If someone handed me a full scholarship to library school, I'd happily go. I don't think library school is a joke or a waste of time. But I'm disgusted with tuition hikes in this country, the turning of learning into little more than a business, and will not go into hock for a degree.
If it's important to you that people outside libraryland understand why your work requires an advanced degree, and you don't think that working the public library floor contributes to the perception that it does, I suggest working in academic or corporate libraries, being in management in public libraries, or--as I prefer to, degreed or not--giving such awesome and knowledgeable service on the public desk that people are dazzled by the depth and breadth of what you can show them. This last does not require an advanced degree. It requires a hungry and dedicated mind and attitude, and a constant willingness to search out new ways to meet your patrons' needs. These days, I'd argue that it means you need to know about tools like superscreenshot.com, zamzar.com, and fillanypdf.com--little things that make your patrons' lives and work much easier once you've demonstrated them. It means keeping your eye out for the good stuff.
More on Woodworth's "someone with a GED" remark and college-as-business: in case you haven't noticed, most service staff have undergraduate degrees now, at least in my town. What's more, several service staff folks working in my county have master's degrees in library science. The jobs aren't there, people. And frankly, again because of the "businessification" of college, degrees hardly mean shit any more. It doesn't say much about your intellect, these days, if you have managed to complete a master's degree. Sure, you worked hard, you learned some stuff, fine--but the degree was ultimately a purchase. One could say "an investment," but if we're looking at the financial picture for most public librarians, it's an investment without much of a payoff.
One of my favorite library-related quotes is from Frank Zappa: "If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library." Now--I realize Zappa's talking about undergrad here; I'm not suggesting one goes to library school to get laid. BUT the point is: you can learn a lot in a library. And one extension of the point is, when you work in a library, you learn a lot. The library's original raison d'être--or one of them--is to make opportunities to learn available to folks who might not otherwise be able to afford to learn. So it seems especially ridiculous when library staff, like Woodworth in this case, assume greater intellect and ability on the part of folks who have been professionally educated and that it's best for autodidacts to stick to telling patrons where the bathroom is. If ANY profession should value the self-taught, it's this one.
I may have blogged this before--I know I've thought it before--but, even when it comes to medicine and law, I would rather be treated or represented by an intellectually-engaged, enthusiastic paraprofessional than someone with a degree who's complacent and resting on his or her laurels. Degree ? competence. Degree ? good service. A degree simply means that you worked for and obtained a degree. It has nothing to do with whether you'll be a good or dedicated librarian in practice.

Woodworth concludes his post, "I’m not ignorant of the fact that this post will not apply to some libraries that have a smaller staff; nor that there will be times when there is a crossover of duties between librarians and paraprofessionals. I’m simply saying that this will continue to be an image problem so long as it is found [that paraprofessionals and librarians often do the same work] in the majority of public libraries around the country."

To my mind, the best way to solve an "image problem" is to provide patrons with knowledgeable, kick-ass, "I can't believe how much time you just saved me," "I can't believe you were able to find a book series that my reluctant reader devoured"-type service. And to have a good, helpful, I-want-to-make-your-day-easier attitude when, yes, telling folks where the bathroom is or helping them figure out how to make double-sided copies. Because they'll remember it, and when you seem friendly, they might (they often, in my experience) decide to ask you another question, a more, in Woodworth's words, "actual reference question" (that they may not previously have felt comfortable asking, or as if it was worth "disturbing" a librarian about) after they take their leak.

thank you!

For finally stating the obvious. This is something that I have been talking about recently with my co-workers. 95% of the work we do on the reference desk could be handled by a trained monkey. There is very little "real reference" work being done at the desk. We are a department of 14 degreed librarians. We share collection development, programming, and class duties, but we are all required to work on the desk 3-4 hours per day. Since much of our time on desk involves telling people where the printer is located and how to acccess our computers, I have realized that we could cut our degreed staff in half and replace them with paraprofessionals. Librarians could then spend their time doing behind-the-scenes work with collections and programming, etc. and be on standby when more complex questions do come to the desk. We are adding book a librarian service, plus we already rove, so librarians are still available, but we should no longer be chaining ourselves to the desk.

Experience versus the degree

I agree with Anoymous's post regarding the fact that experience and ability are what counts. I have my MLS and I spent 9 years in public libraries (5 of those as a reference librarian) before moving to the private sector as a law librarian.
Like one of the above posters, I got my MLS because my library paid for it and I couldn't move up without it. In my experience, one of the best reference people I ever worked with did not have an MLS while the three most incompetent people I have ever worked with had the MLS.

But you don't

You need an MLS to be a qualified librarian. You can do the job of a librarian with just experience and ability.

Re:The Master's Degree Misperception

It is fact that earlier day their is no requirement of qualification but it is also true that the education teach so much thing in your life.

Jamaica News

Public libraries, specifically?

Just to clarify, are we discussing whether reference workers in public librarians need a degree or the validity of MLIS programs in general?

"I'm a library student in a time when there are far too many library students and not enough librarian positions."

There are growing numbers of jobs out there for information workers as the amount of information our society accumulates increases. The concept of what a "library" is is evolving. We need to look beyond what a public library and the accompanying libraries did 20 years ago for our job models. As the use of research tools becomes more common place thanks to their ubiquity, public library reference does become an easier task. That doesn't mean that there's not a need for librarians in a library. It means that the librarian will need to figure out their __community's evolving information needs__ and create new a job description for himself.

I don't know what the real answer is, but...

I agree that a greater separation between pro and parapro would help -- better pay/more positions for parapros and fewer MLS students and graduates would also help. Oh, and adapting to an apprenticeship system would probably help too, but that's not really the American way.

I'm a library student in a time when there are far too many library students and not enough librarian positions. I've been in support roles for about 9 years and there's no more upward mobility left, which is why I'm (forced into) getting the master's. I'm more than ready to manage and organize information (in many ways, I already am), a jaw-dropping number of my classmates haven't really worked in a library before.

I mentioned apprenticeship because it would be such a relief to the profession if the elder librarians could "take on" appropriate candidates to fulfill and adapt future roles within a library system. There would be no student loans, less unemployed MLS grads, and no whining about tasks being "beneath you." Librarians could earn their place with practical experience. I think we can all agree practical experience is what makes a librarian really good, not school.

Maybe you are asking the wrong question

Perhaps the question should be, "Is should a master's degree really be required?" Perhaps the profession has artificially created such a need in our academic ivory towers. It is almost laughable to expect a part-time librarian to have an MLS. Yet, that is often a requirement. Academic libraries almost have such heightened expectations. A part-time position sure does not provide enough to pay student loans and have enough left over to pay for lunch.

Knowing how to be a professional librarian is not granted by having the Master's degree. Many schools offer a BS and those people are just as qualified as most with an MS.

To me, overrated and we have done it to ourselves and artificially created a barrier to the field.

the article definitley asks the wrong question

"Professionals" learn to do the actual work on the job, not in school. "Paraprofessionals" do the same work, just as effectively, but without respect from many "professionals". The MLS does not make one more competent, only better paid. Give me a library with experienced, intelligent employees vs. director wannabee's with their newly minted degree any day!

I agree

For so long I've felt that I am the only MLS holder to feel this way. I feel a BS with, perhaps, a certificate of librarianship or some aspect of librarianship would be sufficient.

Be the boss

"If you know how, you'll always have a job. If you know why, you'll be the boss."

Professionals are willing to pitch in and do the menial or everyday tasks, and that is as it should be - because we know WHY.

Knowing WHY may or may not come with the MLS. I've seen people with the degree who don't get it, and people without the degree who do.

Staff who aren't willing to chip in to do ALL the things to make the library a success aren't professionals - they are just getting a paycheck.

It's great that staff are

It's great that staff are willing to pitch in, but sometimes that's not the best solution.
You wouldn't ask a civil engineer to stick there finger in a dike to stop a flood...you would ask them to come up with a solution to the problem. They are capable of both, so you want to use them as efficiently as possible

Yes but...

There's a crucial distinction here between being willing to pitch in with everyday tasks and actually having them be an assigned regular part of your day.

Many libraries are part of a larger organization with a complex bureaucracy and a centralized HR office. In our case -- which is not unusual -- the jobs are classified by a central personnel office (for the entire county, not just library jobs) based on written job descriptions broken out with % of time on each task. If not enough time is assigned to professional-level work, the position is downgraded accordingly, as is the pay.

I would also think it's an incredibly rare library where there isn't enough MLS-level work to do, regardless of how overworked the rest of the staff is. If the librarians are always being dragged out to shelve and unjam the photocopier, something is structured incorrectly.

Right here...

is the comment of the day.

You're forgetting someone...

This gets even murkier when considering youth services, where on-the-floor programming is part of our training as well--and is something we enjoy doing, that's why we're in it--but the execution of a lot of programs is or can easily be done by paras and volunteers. The behind-the-scenes parts like budgeting and proposals and resource management are pretty invisible when you've got a bunch of toddlers doing Mother Goose on the Loose. The fact that a lot of us have some background in language acquisition and development, developmental psych, social issues affecting teens, demographic analyses, etc in order to serve our patrons. The professional parts are a lot more than just reference and cataloging and creating records, which are certainly part of the skillset acquired in the MLS but not the only ones!

I think we've done that. Sort of.

Due to staff shortages, we now allow circulation staff to answer basically anything they feel qualified to. We only have the official reference desk staffed in the afternoons, but there is always someone on call if something is complicated and time-sensitive.

But while a librarian is at the reference desk, they still perform overflow circulation duties. The desks are quite close together and lack distinguishing signage, so there is no way to decline to help someone. No one minds this, especially since each MLS staffer only does one 4.5 hour shift per week and is in the back doing some more complex specialty the rest of the time.

Syndicate content