The Master's Degree Misperception

Submitted by AndyW on Thu, 09/02/2010 - 14:47
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“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.