A profession based more on apprenticeship might work better
I have worked for more than 25 years as a reporter or an editor, and I have never once considered going to journalism school. Once I got my foot in the newsroom door, I realized quickly that journalism was a white-collar job with a blue-collar rhythm. All you needed was to serve your apprenticeship, learn from the more experienced members of the guild, and then work hard to master the craft. The rest fell into place.
Why is librarianship any different? I did go to library school. I got a master’s degree in library science. I now see it as nice to have, but I question its value. Maybe it is because I was an older student and had already learned much about organized information seeking as a journalist. But I learned almost nothing in library school that I did not already know or that I did not honestly feel I could have learned just as easily on the job or on my own. Coding? Ever hear of lynda.com or w3schools.com?
I learned a lot of theory, but I never learned about things that are arguably far more central and concrete to the trade. S.R. Ranganathan? OK. But how about OverDrive? How about fair use? How about ILSes even?
Most justifications for the MLS amount to generalities about cultivating principles and finding information and organizing materials. And, of course, you need the degree to get a job. The last justification, in particular, is quite unconvincing if the question is what skill set or ethos does the MLS confer that can only be gained through higher education, as opposed to an apprenticeship? Requiring an MLS to get a job is quite different from asking if one really needs an MLS to perform the job and value the profession. And as Wayne Bivens-Tatum has argued, is it even realistic to assume that a single skill set exists that can address all the variety of library jobs?
Browsing through job ads, I am sure, is a dispiriting exercise for many who aspire to work in libraries. Either the pay is ridiculously low, for pages and the like, or the requirements are absurdly high—an advanced degree as well as years of experience even for entry-level positions. And did I mention the pay is absurdly low?
Many face an unpalatable choice: start working in a library to get a foot in the door and gain experience only to confront an expensive and time-consuming certification blocking advancement, or spend the time and the money to obtain the credentials only to find it difficult to get in the door owing to a lack of experience or overqualification.
This is about greater inclusion. There is unlicensed talent up to the job. Some libraries, particularly in rural areas, rely on uncredentialed staff to operate them. It’s terrible that MLS staff are sometimes let go and replaced by uncredentialed employees in larger systems (like New York City’s), pitting staff member against staff member, but it does raise an awkward question about qualifications if service is not severely hampered.
Can we have a rational discussion about this? Why is this editorial wrongheaded? Why is the MLS indispensable? What does it confer that could not be accumulated incrementally on the job just as well? Most important, can’t we have a fraternal, respected, and smart profession without overreliance on an expensive and unnecessarily exclusionary credential?
Michael Kelley, Editor-in-Chief