The Degree Dilemma - Another Librarian's Take

Andy Woodworth, Emily Lloyd and others have been weighing in on the very contentious debate over what an MLS actually means these days. Inspired by their ideas and the related spirited debate, I'm throwing my hat in the ring with two thoughts.

1) Give Me a Chance

Library service as we know it is changing - doesn't matter what is causing the change (the economy, the Internet), but it is changing. Thus, the days of separation of duties - "reference is done by x, circulation is done by y" are probably on their way out the door, if they haven't left the premises already. We are wasting our time quibbling over this. Ruth Kneale asks the question,"why does it have to be versus?" and I agree. If we spend time arguing over who does this or that, guess what? It's time wasted. Work does not get done. The public suffers, for we are not fulfilling our mission to serve the public good.

Purists will throw their copies of the AACR at me, but I say let paraprofessionals handle some light MLS-type work if these two criteria are met:

  • If your library has paraprofessionals that are talented, dedicated, intelligent, and all around GOOD at what they do. In short, they're good representatives of your library, people happy to come to work most days.
  • If this arrangement works for your library without significant disruption to your institutional mission, goals and objectives.

Emily says - "If ANY profession should value the self-taught, it's this one," and as one self-taught in many things in and out of the office, I believe this 100 percent. But, take that second point seriously. It has to work for your library - "mileage may vary," as Andy says. Your library may feel comfortable having a parapro at the ref desk if you are a public library that does not receive complicated research questions. This kind of arrangement is not something I would advocate in a Research I library frequented by faculty or graduate students.

Practical and personal example: I temped in my law firm's library two years ago, when the librarian went on maternity leave. I was in my second semester of school with only one basic reference course in progress and two other core courses completed. I was a paraprofessional although on the way to being professional. I was not allowed to handle research questions from attorneys because administration was concerned my lack of research experience would translate into a liability issues. (In layman's terms: Screw up one research question, and we lose a case and I lose my job.) By the end of my tenure there, I was allowed to handle some light research requests (i.e. pulling cases from Westlaw) after I had proven my capabilities and intelligence. The more complicated work was sent to an outside research firm or handled by the main librarian at home when her time permitted. No one got hurt, and above all, the work got done.

Andy's right - we have an image problem with the MLS when job duties get blurred, especially when the parapros are placed as Shining Examples(TM) beside their fully degreed coworkers. But arguing over what a librarian and what a paraprofessional do does not answer reference questions or find books for kids who waited until the last minute for their summer reading assignments. (The latter happened to me today.) Just do what you can for your library. Be willing to bend and change.

Which brings me to my second point:

2) MLSPA? I Say Okay!

If you want to change the image of the MLS, it's going to have to start at home, with a more rigorous curriculum.

(Pausing here for people to throw things at me.)

It goes without saying that reform in the library school curriculum is necessary and vital, especially if true blending of professional and paraprofessional work comes to pass. I notice many "complaints" (for lack of a better word) of a lack of management skills in library education. Thus, systems who want true managers often look outside the LIS field to gain that skill and find a great manager - but one who may not be familiar with the workings of a library.

I've been an advocate for some time on a combination MLS/MPA and hopefully will be able to pursue one myself, after seeing several friends in the University of Washington pursuing an MLS at the iSchool and an MPA at the Evans School for Public Affairs. Whether they choose to go into traditional library work or not, all of them say to me how useful their Evans coursework is in libraryland. And it's not hard to see why - take a look at the core degree courses for the MPA (full curriculum here):

  • Microeconomic Policy Analysis
  • Microeconomic Management Analysis
  • Managing Politics & the Policy Process
  • Managing Organizational Performance
  • Public Budgeting & Financial Management
  • Quantitative Analysis I & II
  • Public Policy Analysis
  • Program Evaluation

For further comparison, here's the Rutgers University School of Public Affairs and Administration core curriculum. (I won't list all their core courses as they have several concentrations, but theirs goes more in depth than UW's and others I have seen, including courses in Technology and Public Administration, Administrative Morality, and Human Resources Management and Administration).

And here's San Francisco State University's MPA requirements(full curriculum here):

Essential Theories and General Skills

  • Introduction to Public Administration and Public Policy
  • Research Methods and Data Analysis I
  • Research Methods and Data Analysis II
  • Microeconomic Analysis for Public Administration
  • Policy-Making and Implementation

Essential Management Skills

  • Managing Organizational Behavior
  • Managing Human Resources
  • Managing Budgets in the Public Sector

Courses in policy writing, organizational management, budgeting and financial management - if you don't believe those are necessary skills for librarians, here, have some nice oceanside property in Nebraska. Don't want a full MPA or can't afford it? Check out a certificate in nonprofit management from the Evans Schoolor SJSU's Certificate in Nonprofit Management.

Now this kind of educational reform will be easier to implement this in library schools part of a larger university system, such as Rutgers or UW. My UW friends tell me they can take electives throughout the university system, not just their particular schools. (If this has changed or if my understanding is incorrect, please comment.) At my school (Pratt) this would be difficult since the entire institute has a very particular focus - art. The solutions there might be adding additional courses or core requirements, but that's money - and the argument over higher education as a business is an argument I don't want to get into right now, for it's out of scope. Those like me who might be interested in such arrangements may be forced for now to pursue extra certificates or other degrees outside of our MLS until the change comes. But the change needs to come, and it should sooner rather than later. It will address skills missing in today's generation of librarians, and provide necessary change in the degree and job duties that is already in process but far from smooth.

Kate Kosturski
East Windsor, NJ, USA
MSLIS, Pratt Institute, 2010
Reference and Circulation Intern, Middlesex (NJ) Public Library


Don't forget about the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University!
They offer two dual degree options for Public Affairs: MPA/MIS and MPA/MLS

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