Talking about the MLS

Library Journal editor Michael Kelley stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest last week with his editorial “Can We Talk About the MLS? A Profession Based More on Apprenticeship Might Work Better.” Ambiguity and style aside (E. B. White would have a field day with that subtitle), the substance of the piece addresses a longstanding complaint in the library world: why should librarians have a professional degree (MLS means master of library science)?

Kelley based his apprenticeship argument on his own experience as a reporter and editor. While he may have had no problem breaking into journalism twenty-five years ago, it’s doubtful a newspaper today would hire someone without a degree, and there is no real equivalent professional degree in journalism that compares to the MLS. The apprenticeship he alludes to was really a paying of his dues, doing the work until he earned the respect of his journalism colleagues.  So I had a bit of trouble accepting his argument straight away, as it seemed to be standing on faulty ground.

The division in pay and status between MLS librarians and the staff who do similar if not equal work for lower pay is a problem. I am not sure why this is the case. Teachers may earn higher pay or rating and perhaps compete for administrative positions by completing a master’s degree, but I don’t think teachers with entry level degrees are treated any differently or expected to do any substantially different work in the classroom.  Why should library staff be any different? If there are hard feelings among staff over professional versus paraprofessional distinctions, the real challenge is to make none. A good library director should make all the staff feel valued and valuable, and a healthy workplace is one in which everyone feels they are heard and compensated fairly.

As to whether an MLS actually provides professional mastery, that is a separate issue, parallel to the current debate about what law schools should be teaching. Whether the MLS course of study is adequate preparation for being a librarian, whether it should include a practicum as teaching does, or a licensing system, like the bar, are questions worth exploring. To say that MLS programs don’t cover enough practical aspects of librarianship and therefore the degree is obsolete and an apprenticeship would suffice is a little like  saying we should eliminate medical school and let doctors go straight to residency.  Both theory and practice are important.

Kelley argues that “This is about greater inclusion. There is unlicensed talent up to the job.” Online MLS programs make it easier and cheaper than ever to obtain the “license” to which Kelley alludes; I know a talented and capable library staffer who recently enrolled in such a program. Why shouldn’t those who take the time and trouble to complete a professional degree be afforded greater responsibility and pay?

As to the question of rural libraries facing shortages of MLS librarians, other professions face such shortages and deal with them in a variety of ways.Kelley is correct that city systems replacing MLS librarians in order to save money “does raise an awkward question about qualifications if service is not severely ­hampered.” How is that measured? It’s fortune telling to assume that the MLS librarians wouldn’t have made an impact if they’d stayed in their jobs. And why does either situation mean we should eliminate the professional credential in librarianship?

One problem Kelley didn’t address is that with or without an MLS, library staff are performing more non-library tasks, like technical troubleshooting and community policing. These things take time away from professional library work they might be able to do instead and the situation can lead to questions about what skills are really needed for their positions. It’s not that they are overqualified to be librarians, it’s that they are being asked instead to be guards and help-desk staff and babysitters.

Buy it now?

Yesterday I listened to a Library Journal webinar, “Are Books Your Brand? How Libraries Can Stay Relevant to Readers,”on readers’ advisory. I heard a number of good ideas to share with my boss and coworkers.  But one topic I found a little disturbing: “buy it now buttons” in library catalogs, so patrons can purchase rather than wait for a book.

All the panelists thought this was a good idea, worth promoting heavily so patrons would know a portion of  purchases benefited the library. What I found ominous was that one panelist suggested, based on his conversations with a group of library professionals, most libraries would incorporate “buy it now” in their catalogs without hesitation especially if publishers made it a condition of lending their books.

I don’t know whether publishers are considering that. But I’m especially wary because I know NoveList Select, a popular discovery tool for integrating readers’ advisory in catalogs, links to Goodreads reviews, and Amazon just bought Goodreads. I’d really hate to see Amazon be the sole “buy it now” option in any library catalog, especially ours, since we have an independent bookstore in town as well.

It appears that library “buy it now” buttons are already available through OverDrive. I know there are long wait times for popular e-books because of the restrictions publishers place on library e-lending. I was relieved to see OverDrive allows patrons to select from several stores, including IndieBound. I still don’t like it.

Yes, the mission of libraries is to promote reading and provide access to reading materials. But libraries are also free and our resources are freely available to all. It’s already possible for someone who doesn’t want to wait for a book to go buy it. Why should we alter our mission to provide e-commerce?  A better alternative would be to educate library patrons about why there is such a wait for popular e-books (thanks to Brian Herzog at Swiss Army Librarian for noting that link on his blog).

Libraries could also do more to provide readers’ services to those on long waiting lists. Sometimes the print version of a popular e-book is sitting on the shelf  — wouldn’t it be nice if patrons could see that when they place an e-book hold, or get a message to that effect? A good suggestion I heard on the webinar was to make a “read alike” handout for books with long waiting lists to give people at the service desk — why not email it to those placing e-book holds? Or, email patrons who get on the list for a book with 5 or more holds, inviting them to reply with likes and dislikes (or even use a nifty reader’s advisory form like this one, mentioned in the webinar) and receive personalized reading recommendations from a librarian?

I would think that gaining support by providing excellent professional service is the key to a library’s long term well being, to a far greater extent than the bit of money possibly on the table with “buy it now.” I hope libraries stay out of e-commerce and instead focus on being an indispensable resource for readers in our communities.

Bookmobiles to the rescue

I have fond though somewhat vague memories of visiting a bookmobile when I was a kid. A recent thread on the New Hampshire State Library’s email list confirmed that most libraries in this area of the United States no longer have bookmobiles. I’m hoping some of them are in storage somewhere.

This morning in the New York Times I was happy to read that in the Rockaways, where several Queens Borough Public Library branches were damaged by Hurricane Sandy, an old bookmobile bus is making a real difference to residents impacted by the storm. The article says that while information, power outlets, and free coffee were the initial draws, books are what people are seeking now. And that the staff actually drove to Connecticut for fuel. Librarians rock.

American Libraries reports on the Queens bookmobile as well as the library’s programs for families in area shelters. The article also mentions other flooded and damaged libraries in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts, and efforts to aid their recovery. Galley Cat reported on storm aid from publishers for libraries and schools, and also noted that Brooklyn Public Library’s bookmobiles were delivering relief supplies earlier this month. The library’s website listed other ways they are helping storm victims, from online learning to pop up library service.

So if your library has a mothballed bookmobile, it might not be a bad idea to give it a tune-up from time to time. It may come in handy if there is a natural disaster. And it also might be wise to think about how your library could help the community in case of a large-scale emergency. Our colleagues in  Sandy-impacted states are providing plenty of inspiration.

Do Libraries Sap Attention Spans?

My son’s freshman class at college read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr this summer. My husband is reading it now. Last night he read aloud: “until recently the library was an oasis of bookish tranquility” but now, Carr dramatizes, “The predominant sound in the modern library is the tapping of keys, not the turning of pages.” The implication that by offering internet access, libraries are contributing to the “shallowing” of our minds struck me as fairly improbable.

At the public library where I work, I recently chatted with an English teacher looking for a good book to take her mind off work. She’s the second teacher to tell me this summer that her students can’t read as much as when she began teaching. She assigns shorter classics so they won’t get frustrated, and because she’s learned that they won’t finish longer works. But she says they are reading, and she noted that how and what is probably less important than she once thought. As she put it, she sees teaching English as helping  kids become competent, not cramming them full of particular titles.

The teacher and I agreed someone reading an entire New York Times article on a smart phone (like my son) is getting the same depth as someone reading the print edition (more if like me, that person is skimming over morning coffee before rushing off to start the day).  So aren’t libraries broadening access to reading by catering to both print and online readers?

As Carr notes, library internet service is very popular. But many of the same people using the computers at my library are checking out books. And those who don’t use the computers are probably not Luddites, who are really fairly rare, but rather people who can afford computers and internet service at home. According to the ALA’s 2012 State of America’s Libraries report, libraries across the country have seen circulation increase, as my library has. From what I can see, people who have nowhere else to use the internet are finding their way into the stacks while they’re at the library, and not the other way around.

As for that bookish tranquility? The “shushing” era of librarianship was over long before I was in library school, twenty years ago. Libraries are community centers, and we’ve always been places where information is freely available to all. If the internet and its keyboard clicks are a part of that open access, so be it. Reading, whether on a screen or a page, is still very much alive in our hopped-up, attention-challenged, 24 hour news cycle world. It has faced other challenges in its history, as have libraries, and I think both will adapt and survive.

So many citation styles

One of the most common reference questions I hear is “How do I cite this?”  Like most academic libraries, mine provides citation help on our website. Even with online tools and, in the most recent edition of Word, a click of the “References” ribbon at their fingertips, students are often unsure.

As I go over what information is included in a citation, where to find it, which style to use, and how to format it, students often ask why it’s so complicated. Which made me wonder, why are there so many styles? The humanities use MLA and Chicago, and the sciences have APA and  several more. Within styles, why are there different citation formats (mainly parenthetical and documentary, according to

Kerry Creelman, a librarian at University of Houston, explains that different academic disciplines place higher value on particular information about sources, which is reflected in the style formats.  Yale College Writing Center concurs but points out that even within the same field,  journals may require different citation styles.

Maybe there isn’t a compelling argument against a universal citation style.  In-text citations in the three main styles all include the author. APA also requires the publication year and page number, MLA only the page number, and Chicago only the year. Couldn’t a universal style make the source clear? Bibliographies (also known as works cited or reference lists), require similar but not identical information across styles and could easily be standardized.

Besides streamlining the research and writing process, universal citation would make it easier to cite materials across disciplines. And it would save students and researchers time and frustration. I suppose it would reduce my reference desk stats,  but I could live with that. What am I missing? Is there a good reason to have so many citation styles?

Books off the beaten path

Recently a student asked one of my favorite questions: “Can you recommend a good book?”  After we chatted about her tastes, I suggested Lev Grossman‘s The Magicians (she mentioned Harry Potter, and it’s great for now-grown HP devotees), and Tea Obreht‘s The Tiger’s Wife (one of my favorite books, an engrossing novel with elements of magical realism). She checked out one, requested the other and left happy.

Our exchange took place near a beautiful display of new books, and reminded me how much today’s readers rely on recommendations. Whether because of time pressures or the cultural influence of ubiquitous ratings, few library and bookstore patrons seem to browse anymore. They rely on what they’ve heard is good.

Where do they get their information? Mainly from the media, which despite trimming literary coverage still provides most book reviews. There were over 300,000 traditional books published last year in the U.S., and over 2.5 million non-traditional (mostly print-on-demand).  In any given week the media covers a handful of “it” titles (the marketing darlings of large publishers). These few books are reviewed repeatedly, so only a tiny fraction of books get any attention.

Online, there are plenty of  alternatives for readers who want to know more than what publishers are touting.  For crowdsourcing fans, both Good Reads and Library Thing  provide user reviews and discussion groups. Librarians have long enjoyed NoveList, the reader advisory tool from EBSCO. And there are hundreds of independent reviewers whose sites and blogs provide endless recommendations.

One of my favorites is librarian Nancy Pearl. The breadth of her reading is impressive, she groups books into handy categories, and  her comments are heartfelt, warm, and brief. Another warm and witty reviewer is Marie at Boston Bibliophile, whose prodigious reading is mainly focused on recent titles. For erudite and well spoken views on an eclectic mix of books, try Danny Yee’s Book Reviews.

If you are looking for books from small and independent publishers, try ForeWord or Small Press Review, both of which cover these often overlooked titles.  The Short Review, is a gem for short story aficionados.  Poetry fans can consult Contemporary Poetry Review or Gently Read Literature.

This only scratches the surface of free online review content, and I’ve only mentioned non-commercial sites (Powell’s is full of excellent reviews, and even has a user review newsletter, the Daily Dose). But do consider the least technological, most serendipitous approach: spend some time browsing the shelves at your library or indie bookstore, and let yourself be surprised by new choices.