I was sad and angry when Mike Kelley’s editorial triggered a host of attacks on the credential with which I began my career (“Can We Talk About the MLS?” Editorial, LJ 5/1/13, p. 8).
I already worked at the Reading Public Library, MA, when I enrolled in the MLS program at the School of Library Science at Simmons College. It was just before I turned 30, more than five decades ago.
Even then, in the prehistory before the digital era, critiques of the MLS like Kelley’s were common. As a young man, I was sympathetic to them. I had been appointed youth/reference librarian in Reading without an MLS. To get it, and enhance my CV, I cut a deal with the director, one Joseph Schmuch, a refugee from classics studies who had earned a Simmons MLS. I agreed to work nights and weekends so I could study for the MLS full-time in daylight. It was helpful to me that Schmuch had added most of the LIS books I would need to the Reading collection.
The studies for the MLS at Simmons made me a far better practicing librarian than I expected they would. Most important, they converted me from an amateur librarian to a professional.
In the courses in library service to young adults I learned about the hormones, insecurities, and questions of adolescence in ways that allowed me to bond with the gang of YAs who invaded the library every day and stayed until closing. I was able to serve real needs, from simple homework help to dealing with the anxieties of that age group. I ended the library’s usual practice of calling local police to eject problem teenagers and learned to attend to them myself, using techniques taught at Simmons by Jane Manthorne, a YA specialist from the Boston Public Library (BPL).
I learned that running a library is more politics than business and that a public institution or agency faces far greater levels of accountability to governing bodies and citizens than does a private company. Public administration and budgeting, I discovered, are different from private sector management in complex and difficult ways that require managerial skills you don’t get in business school, even at nearby Harvard.
I learned that the measures of success for a public agency like a library are nowhere near as simple as a corporate bottom line and that every customer of a public library is also an owner of it, creating a challenging need for sensitivities to personal and professional interactions that I had never known before library school.
Library school taught me the history of libraries, especially the U.S. history. It introduced me to the great documents of the library movement, from the founding report of BPL in 1852 to the forming of the American Library Association in 1876. It taught me about the building of the great American public libraries in Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere.
I learned from that engaged Simmons faculty that librarians not only serve but have a point of view and an ideology; that our core values make librarians respond differently from others to such issues as free access to information, public funding, and intellectual freedom.
There were lessons in rigorous research, the validation of information sources, the delicacies of service to patrons, and the difference between broadcast sources of information that deliver a small piece of the human record to millions and individualized information agencies like libraries, which deliver access to the entire record in as much or as little depth as the individual seeker requires.
My studies for the MLS provided me knowledge and understanding of the underlying foundations of librarianship, plus a grasp of the context and framework in which a librarian must make decisions in the practice. Studying for the MLS converted me from an amateur librarian to a professional. I am grateful for that knowledge and those skills.