In Which I Answer a Reader Question

by Elizabeth on November 11, 2010 · 6 comments

in Adventures, Job Hunting, librarians, librarianship, library school

On Tuesday I got an email from a new reader (by the way, I love getting email from readers!).  Annie is in her first semester of library school and wrote to me asking my opinion on the recent attitude change towards MLIS degrees.  With her permission, I’m answering her question here.
The Question: I want to thank you for the advice that you posted on there, it’s very helpful to someone like me who’s starting out. As I click around on all these various blogs, I’m noticing a certain attitude about MLIS degrees. Some people who are really bitter about wasting their time and money on it. It actually is freaking me out because I wanted to get this degree to help me get a job. What do you think of this attitude? Is it unfounded or am I totally screwed when I graduate because there won’t be any jobs?
My Answer: Yes, I too have noticed that attitude about the MLIS, especially on blogs like the Annoyed Librarian.  I agree, to an extent, with what they are saying.  Many of the online programs have become degree mills.  They accept just about everyone and everyone graduates because (and the longer you are in school, the more you will notice this) library school just isn’t that hard.  Sure, there is a lot of work, but compared to many graduate programs, library school is a breeze. 
Because just about everyone graduates, there are tons of new librarians entering the work force.  Unfortunately, there aren’t enough jobs to go around for all of these new librarians.  Budget cuts/a poor economy, a high rate of unemployed librarians, and a lack of new jobs opening up (whether created because of expansion or filling open positions) has led us to this point.  Yet, the ALA and many library schools are still proclaiming that librarianship is a rapidly growing career, new jobs are opening up all the time, and tons of librarians are getting ready to retire.  Us recent grads, unemployed and newly employed librarians alike, know this isn’t true.

However, does this mean that the value of the MLIS has decreased?  Yes and no.  Yes, because too many degreed, professional librarians means that the job market is overly saturated.  Yes, because there are lots of highly qualified unemployed librarians out there applying for entry level jobs as paraprofessionals just to have a library job.  Yes, because of those so-called degree mills letting anyone become a librarian whether or not they are truly qualified and/or suited to be one.

But at the same time, no the value of the MLIS hasn’t decreased.  Why?  Because, let’s face it, as much as we say a paraprofessional can do anything (and sometimes better) a professional librarian can do, it just isn’t true.  I have a wonderful, very competent library assistant who just cannot do the work I do.  She’s great working in the library and working with our users, but she isn’t comfortable at doing reference work (PubMed confounds her) and cataloging just doesn’t make sense.  I could spend lots of time teaching her those skills, but I can’t teach her the background nor can I really answer the “why?” questions; that’s something that one can only learn in library school. 

Anyone can learn to be a good searcher or a good cataloger or even a good administrator on the job.  But that’s not just what library school is about.  Library school is about gaining experience in several different fields of librarianship.  It’s about learning how to conduct research in case you are ever called up to write a grant or design and publish a study for your institution.  It’s about exposing yourself to a variety of ideas and viewpoints from a vast group of librarians.  It’s about making connections, both social and intellectual, with your colleagues. 

So in my humble opinion, the value of the MLIS has decreased, but is still incredibly important.  Without one, you are stuck checking in books, shelving, and doing simple tasks, not because you lack the skills to do other things but because you don’t have that piece of paper that says “Masters in Library and Information Sciences” on it. 

Annie, my advice to you is to stay in school and stay very positive about your chances of getting a job.  Become a well-rounded librarian.  Take classes in a variety of subjects; do at least one internship (more if you can manage it); get a part-time job or volunteer in your local public or academic library; get involved with the research your professors are doing; make important connections with professors, other librarians, and students by joining associations, going to conferences, and discussing library issues with those around you.

Stay positive! The job market will turn around one of these days.  If you work hard and open yourself up to all sorts of possibilities, you will likely find yourself working as a professional librarian very soon.  It may not be in the place or even in the type of library you wanted or expected, but it will be a library job.  And, hopefully, that will be enough to start.

I invite you to check out my series on what I wish I learned in library school (read the comments; they are really good), my guest post series from new librarians, and check out my friend Lauren’s post on internships.

I hope this helps and answers some of your questions.  Again, thanks for writing and for reading!

What is your advice to Annie?  What do you think her chances are at getting a job?  What is your opinion on the attitude towards the MLIS these days?

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lauren November 11, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Thanks for linking to my post, Elizabeth – great advice! I agree with almost all of your advice to Annie – the only thing I would modify is that I think Annie (and every other MLIS student) needs to consider the possibility of not working in a library. Traditional library jobs are disappearing constantly, and there are 20,000+ students in library school right now.

However, our research and information skills are transferable, so not only could we work in a special library (that may not even be called a library), but we could do research, indexing, and other jobs.

I would recommend "What's the Alternative?" by Rachel Singer Gordon ( to get a sense of all of your options with the MLIS.

I don't think you should immediately give up on the idea of the traditional library job – but I went through a funk where I believed I would never get ANY job with this degree, did my research, did as much as I could to learn new skills, and now I feel better about my chances about being employed after library school, library or not.


2 Jess November 11, 2010 at 6:58 pm

I don't really have any new advice, but would just recommend getting as much work experience as possible. While I did do well enough in classes, I'm fairly confident that I wouldn't have been hired for my job without the work experience I was lucky enough to get while in library school. That included both an internship/practicum and a couple of jobs in the campus libraries.


3 Reeni November 12, 2010 at 1:52 am

Dropped by to say hi and thanks for linking up your recipes!


4 agnosticmaybe November 12, 2010 at 2:10 am

While I think your advice is pretty much on the mark, the only thing I have is a question is what your reader wants to *do* with their degree. It's about standing out in the job market. The one piece of advice that I would give is to volunteer, intern, or take a job at the type of library you want to work at (or any, if options are limited). Work experience is the key difference between people who are getting hired out of school now and those who are not.

It's just that simple.

Library Journal had an editorial on the 'graying profession' portrayal, and some bloggers have also taken the ALA to task for this. I've written about it a few times on my blog. In the people I talk with on a regular basis, the big question is whether libraries will get funding restored when the economy picks up.


5 Elizabeth November 12, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Excellent advice. Thanks for sharing everyone!


6 Annie November 12, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Thanks Elizabeth for posting and and thanks to everyone else for the advice. I'm not sure where I want to go with my degree, originally I wanted to do art librarianship but I'm interested in digital librarianship as well.

I currently work at my university library and am hoping to get an internship this summer. I originally wrote to Elizabeth because I started noticing this cynical attitude among new graduates who weren't getting any job leads. I'm wondering how many of them maybe don't have any library experience at all or how they got in that situation. It's interesting to see a big divide in attitude. I have also recently met 2 young graduates who have dream jobs and they were hired immediately after graduating.

Honestly, they just don't tell you about the reality of the situation in school, so that's why I've turned to all of you who have real life experience to see what advice you all have to offer. Thank you again!


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