Note: This column appeared in the February 1, 2016 issue of Library Journal. Since the issue went to press, ALA Council voted 78–75 on January 23 to require that the next Executive Director must hold an MLS degree (see “Not Business as Usual | ALA Midwinter 2017“).
For nearly all 140 years of the existence of the American Library Association (ALA), its Executive Director (ED) has been a professional librarian. Today, the credential required to ensure that the ED is a librarian is the Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) degree. However, a group of ALA councilors and Executive Board members apparently want to change that. This column was written prior to the expected debate at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Atlanta over whether the MLIS should be required or only preferred as a qualification for the next ALA ED.
There is no acceptable reason for this change.
The MLIS is crucial for all ALA leaders, telling us that they are professional librarians and have been instructed in the core principles to which our profession subscribes. Our primary values focus on the right of all people to seek and find the information they need to succeed in life and to participate in our society and its government. We believe they have the right to do so in private, with no authority watching or limiting that search. Our standards include the right to free expression, to state publicly what we think, and to protest when any government or other power tries to restrict our access to such information or our freedom of expression.
Of course, others who have not acquired the MLIS or been taught those values may nonetheless share them. Yet when we require the MLIS, we support that certification as well as use it to select our leadership. To abandon the MLIS as a requirement, or to dilute it by calling it only preferred, not required, is to devalue it and the professionalism of the librarians who have earned it.
It isn’t as if the librarians who managed ALA have done a bad job, though some have been better than others. Current ED Keith Fiels is one of the most successful. Fiels, who will retire in July, is a skilled manager and talented bureaucrat and has led with fairness, balance, and skill—no small feat in a field like ours.
Dozens of library educators have declared to me that we “educate a lot more than librarians!” I am sure there are many positions for which LIS programs offer appropriate preparation. But I am a librarian. I remember my struggle to convince my relatives, friends, and others that librarians are members of a learned, authorized profession. The effort to achieve this status began with Melvil Dewey himself.
Now a growing chorus of “experts” from outside the field tell us that libraries and the professionals who administer them are obsolete. In truth, the profusion of information sources coupled with the erosion of the quality of the information they provide has added urgency to the fundamental work of the librarian. We collect and disseminate the facts of humankind after careful evaluation of sources as to their currency, accuracy, depth, breadth, biases, and prejudices. No other profession has that mission.
The MLIS credential is one signal that the holder has at least studied and considered these issues and understands the need for an institution and a professional cadre to serve and protect the rights of all people to accurate information. ALA’s leaders, and indeed all librarians, must be holders of that important degree. We must not abandon it now.