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 To say that MLS programs don’t cover enough practical aspects of librarianship and therefore the degree is obsolete and an apprenticeship would suffice is a little like  saying we should eliminate medical school and let doctors go straight to residency.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.