June 25, 2017

The Midcareer MLIS | LIS Education

Going back to school can take a library career to the next level, or enable entry in midstream, but it presents its own challenges

When it comes to what makes a good librarian, the first requirement is experience—whether in the library, working with records, or talking to patrons and students. LJ’s Paralibrarian of the Year Award is one of many testaments to the work done by those who learned libraries through hands-on labor. But sometimes there is no substitute for earning a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree—either to meet the benchmarks necessary to further a career already in progress, or to shift from an (often already successful) path in another profession.

Earning an MLIS in midcareer brings particular concerns: keeping up with a demanding curriculum on top of job and family responsibilities often needing to stay in place rather than relocating to the program that best fits; taking on tuition costs on top of existing student debt; and mastering new technology at an age when many are comfortably settled into their current skill sets. But as the library field offers a plethora of opportunities for those earning their master’s in midcareer—or midlife, or both—the consensus is that the degree opens doors at any stage of the work cycle, and the additional work is well worth the effort.

MORE THAN A PIECE OF PAPER

The decision to enter an MLIS program in the middle of a busy working life is rarely undertaken lightly, but often it is a library worker’s best path to advancement. For those wishing to transition into a staff position at an academic or government library, or many public library jobs, the degree is a requirement. Even in an economy still digging out of the recession, and a field still smarting from Forbes Magazine’s 2012 ranking of the MLIS as the worst master’s degree for getting employment, increasing numbers of career changers and career boosters have opted to pursue an MLIS throughout the 2010s. Tracy Legaspi, now a contract law librarian at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), was working in an asset management firm when she decided to pursue a library degree. She recalls, “In law school I practically lived in the library, and I always sought out the help of the librarians…. I just felt the pull.”

SECOND ACTS Midcareer MLIS earners shift gears, move up (Clockwise from top l.): Kimberly Partanen, director of Castlegar and District Public Library, BC; Cesar Gallegos, head archivist at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, Santa Rosa, CA; Patrick Lienemann, director, Williamsburg PL, IA; and Tracy Legaspi, contract law librarian at the U.S. Department of Justice. Partanen photo by Chelsea Novak, Castlegar News; Gallegos photo by Nao Shimizu; Lienemann photo by Perla Josue; Legaspi photo by Robin Foltz

“I wanted to work in a federal agency at a federal library,” she adds, “and to do that you definitely need an MLS. You can’t get your foot in the door unless you have the degree.”

Many also cite the potential for incorporating knowledge from previous careers rather than starting from scratch. Jacqueline Freeman explains that as the former owner of an independent bookstore in Michigan, “I had worked with vendors and acquisitions, and so I had my eye out for those kinds of positions.” Freeman, a single mother of two teenagers, was looking for employment with some security and ended up working in print acquisitions at the University of Michigan (UM) Library. Her previous experience got her in the door, but “it was clear that if I wanted to advance within the academic library I would have to go back to school and I would need an MLS degree,” she says.

By 2016, Freeman had earned her MLIS and moved on to a new role as an informationist at UM’s Taubman Health Sciences Library, providing research and knowledge management services—a job she hadn’t realized existed until she was well into the program at Wayne State, Detroit. “I’m a few years older than [most of my colleagues],” she notes. “But that’s never gotten in the way of things. They all have been doing what they’ve been doing ten or more years. So I’m looking at them and saying, ‘Wow, that’s who I want to be when I grow up.’ ”

And sometimes the degree isn’t really about the piece of paper at all. In 2010, Tammy Westergard, a 2016 LJ Mover & Shaker, found herself serving as deputy library director as part of a public-private partnership with Carson City Library, NV, director Sara Jones. Although she had not envisioned a career in libraries, “I was thrown into the absolute deepest end of the pool in terms of library management,” Westergard says. After a year of working alongside Jones, Westergard pointed out to her boss, “You know what? If you get hit by a Mack truck, I’m in charge here. And I don’t know a single thing about librarianship.” She earned her MLS from the University of North Texas, Denton, went on to spearhead a number of innovative programs at Carson City, and then serve as director of the Jackson County Library District, OR

STUDENT DIRECTORS

Many midcareer MLIS candidates, however, are not looking to break into a new field but to acquire the bona fides they need to step into management roles. Particularly in small and rural libraries, the path to directorship can be fast-tracked with the acquisition of a degree—and sometimes the degree comes after the promotion. For instance, when David Leonard was tapped to lead the Boston Public Library (BPL) in 2016 he had served as BPL interim president for two years and, before that, as director of administration and technology for six but had not yet earned a library degree. He is currently enrolled in the library science PhD program at Simmons College, Boston, having completed his MLIS. Similarly, California State Librarian Greg Lucas, former senior editor at Capitol Weekly, was not yet a degreed librarian when he stepped into the role in 2014; he remedied by enrolling in the California’s San José State University (SJSU) School of Information (iSchool).

After several years of college and four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, Patrick Lienemann followed his wife to the University of Iowa to get his MLIS. Lienemann first looked for a job and was hired by the Williamsburg Public Library (WPL), about 30 miles from Iowa City, as a part-time ­librarian. Soon after, the assistant director retired, and he moved up to fill her position. After a year the director retired as well, and in May 2014 Lienemann became the WPL director; he started his master’s degree that fall.

Aside from Williamsburg being a small town without many degreed librarians, Lienemann attributes his rise to the board’s approval of his experience in both his undergrad library, where he worked as a circulation assistant, and the marines, “so they took a chance on me.”

Rather than being a necessity for his directorship, Lienemann was concerned that his MLIS program could be a liability. “When they offered me the position, I said, ‘I would love to take it, but I want to be up-front—I’ve been accepted to library school. And one of my priorities is to get this library degree,’ ” he says. Fortunately, his board was supportive. “They made sure I was able to modify my schedule so I was able to go to classes, whether it was leaving early or coming in late…. Without the support of the board I wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

Lara Croft, director of the Langdon Public Library, Newington, NH, had her sights set on a directorship practically from the beginning. While pursuing a master’s in education, she served at the Byron G. Merrill Library in Rumney—“a wonderful small town community”—working 13 hours a week because that’s how long the library was open. Her next library job, as an administrative assistant in another system, had her working closely with the director. “It opened my eyes…[to liking] being involved in all of the facets of working in a library. And that was what I felt like working in a relatively small New Hampshire public library would afford me…. I would get to be the kind of generalist that the director can be. So I tailored all my decisions after that toward building a résumé and experience that would help ultimately achieve that.”

Croft enrolled in SJSU’s iSchool in 2015 and a couple of months later landed the position at Langdon. While she wondered at first if she would be able to manage both the directorship and the master’s program, she also credits the support of the library board. “They understand the demands of the MLIS and also budgeted to pay for it, so I have a lot of incentive to continue it. But I’m doing it fairly slowly, one class at a time.”

And while Kimberly Partanen, director of Castlegar and District Public Library, BC, didn’t go into her program with a directorship in place, her late start in the field—she didn’t begin her undergrad degree until she was in her 30s—drove her ambition: “When I finally finished my master’s, it made me a little sad that I was already so late in my career. That’s what sparked me to look for a public library directorship…. I thought, I’m going to finish doing something that I really love doing.”

MLIS FROM AFAR

While the choice between an online or on-site MLIS program is often a personal one, many people already in the workforce have often taken free online courses or MOOCs, such as those offered by Coursera, Udacity, or edX. They may have also enrolled in shorter online workshops through state libraries, associations, or private training providers as part of their professional development, so they know whether the format suits their learning style.

Gary Shaffer, a 2006 LJ Mover & Shaker, received his PhD in managerial leadership in information professions from Simmons College while serving as CEO of the Tulsa City-County Library. “It was a standard PhD program—i.e., grueling—and all of us were working full-time as well,” he recalls. “We had comprehensive exams, we had dissertations, but we had a lot of practical coursework as well from very well-known leaders in the field and lots of [work] around fundraising. We had courses in human relations, leadership, management…that could be applied on the job immediately.” Shaffer is currently paying it forward very directly by helping design a program for others in the same boat: he’s the director of the University of Southern California’s Master of Management in Library and Information Science program, with a distance learning curriculum specifically designed to prepare library professionals for practical leadership and management.

Many online degrees are cost-effective as well, which means that librarians can often cover their tuition without adding to existing student debt.

Freeman chose the online program at Wayne State University in Detroit, even though UM had a tuition re­imbursement program that would have covered 75 percent of her degree. But Wayne State offered her a full scholarship, plus a computer, funding to attend the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference, and a mentor. Because she needed to keep working full-time, the online program offered enough flexibility that she didn’t need to cut back on her library schedule or take time off.

Partanen enrolled in SJSU’s iSchool because she had no local library school options. She was living with her family in Northern British Columbia and working for the University of British Columbia Okanagan Library when she decided to pursue her MLIS; the nearest library school was more than 500 miles away. However, Partanen was enthusiastic about the offerings at SJSU from the start. “It was exciting for me to know that the distance was not going to be a barrier, that I didn’t have to leave my family to go to school—and that I could still work in the library job I had,” she tells LJ. “Because when there’s only one library in town and you’ve got a job there, and it’s a valuable position to you, you can’t just step away from that…. At least I couldn’t.”

As Patricia Guardiola, assistant head of the Fisher Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania, who received her MLIS through the University of Kentucky’s online School of Information Science, points out, an online program allows you to interact with a wider variety of people. “You’re not limited in terms of viewpoints and diversity in the class.” Guardiola first took a job as a bilingual library assistant at the Louisville Free Public Library, KY, when she had trouble finding work teaching art history as an adjunct during the recession. “I don’t want it to sound like I turned to librarianship as a last resort, because I really didn’t,” she explains, “but the timing seemed to work out.”

ON LOCATION

Still, relocation to an area with interesting work and networking potential can be a draw, even with the added burden of living expenses.

After Cesar Gallegos fell in love with special collections while getting a bachelor’s in English at the University of California, Irvine, and running a retail clothing store, he decided that not only did he want to pursue a library career, but he wanted to do it in New York. “There was this connective thread of loving history and archives and libraries. I felt that being in New York would put me in the middle of all that.” Gallegos packed one suitcase and moved across the country to attend the Palmer School of Library and Information Science at Long Island University.

The move was the right one for him, he recalls. New York’s cultural institutions offered him a range of opportunities, including internships at the New Museum and at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), where he was eventually hired as digital lab manager. After packing his suitcase again and moving, with his fiancée, back out to the West coast, Gallegos is now head archivist at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center. But, he says, his time in New York was valuable. “Sometimes people say internships are just like grunt work, but there are a lot of fantastic things that I learned,” he says, adding, “I felt like when I moved [to New York] I really didn’t have a choice, that I needed to be successful. This field is so competitive—if you’re really passionate, you just have to pursue it.”

MIDCAREER CHALLENGES

The issue of “grunt work” is another challenge for those earning a degree when they already have hands-on experience in the field—how do you reconcile the idea of internships when you’re already out in the workforce, or mandatory core courses when you’re a director?

To a certain extent, having a variety of skill levels in one class means that some redundancy is to be expected. “That was a little challenging for me because there were elements of ‘OK, these are a lot of things I’ve already experienced in the workforce,’ ” says Gallegos. “But you have to go into a program like that thinking that’s going to happen anyway.”

Lienemann feels that some of those redundancies helped lighten his schoolwork load a little—a welcome development in an extremely tight schedule.

Often, midcareer students find value even in the basics. “You know,” says Croft, “they don’t feel basic. My experience is that they can feel a little removed from my day-to- day job, and yet they’re important because they help me understand how this profession works.”

Adds Freeman, “Some of the [core] courses were helpful to me to understand the bigger picture of what my role was in acquisitions and then in the larger library. Had I not been employed at the time, the degree would have had a whole lot less relevance for me, I think.”

Internships, too, prove to be critical for many midcareer students, especially those making career shifts. Although Legaspi was living in Kentucky while getting her degree, she decided to pursue the internship of her dreams with DOJ in Washington, DC. When she got the internship, Legaspi moved to Washington and, she says, “got here, loved it, and just knew that this is where I belonged and this is what I wanted to do.” She still holds the job she got through the internship and asserts that even with library school debt on top of law school debt, “it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”

AGING IN

Returning students can feel the differences in age between themselves and classmates who come straight from completing undergraduate degrees, although less so in distance programs—both because age isn’t always apparent online and because such programs tend to attract more midcareer participants. Sometimes the gap manifests itself in outright ageism—the author of this article, whose career change was also motivated by a tight job market toward the end of the recession, earned her MLIS in middle age and was often met with surprise, by her fellow students, that she was so comfortable with technology. More often, however, what’s noticeable are generational differences in communication style or energy levels.

Younger students, says Croft, “seem to have a lot more time to contribute to discussions. There have been classes where I would come home from work and have literally between 30 and 70 messages to read from my classmates…. I feel like the younger folks…are doing a ton of their learning and processing online, figuring things out with each other, and I’m not in that place, even though I’m very comfortable in an online environment. I just don’t have that kind of time.”

Lienemann notes that even when he was finishing his undergraduate degree he was already seven to eight years older than most of his fellow students. “I just made my peace with [it]—they’ve got different life experiences, I’ve got different life experiences, let’s try to learn from each other.” He also noticed that classmates were more inclined to use him as a resource, asking him questions about how his library operates—an educational opportunity for him as well.

Energy drains, time constraints, and additional debt notwithstanding, all of the midcareer MLIS earners LJ spoke with seem satisfied with the education they received and feel, overall, that the MLIS has greatly improved their career options. “I work with [nondegreed] people who’ve been working in this library for 20 and 30 years, and they’re highly skilled and highly professional,” says Partanen. “But I feel that having the master’s degree gave me a little bit of a leg up…. I think that if I hadn’t done it I always would have regretted it.”

Adds Freeman, “There’s a certain part of it that’s the paper—you have to have completed the degree in order to even be considered for certain job opportunities—but even beyond that there is recharging myself, reinvigorating the learning part of my brain that had stopped actively studying and acquiring a new body of knowledge.”

Teaching Midcareer Students

Michael Stephens is assistant professor at San José State
University’s School of Information, an online MLIS program.
LJ asked him to expand on midcareer degree seekers
from the instructor’s viewpoint:


LJ: How do you tailor a class to varying degrees of experience?

MS: I offer multiple paths or “choose your own adventure”–style modules so those with more experience can explore a topic of interest to them. Everyone is invited to reflect on course concepts through their own POV.

My classes can include people at various stages of their careers. Some are returning after years
in another profession, including teachers, attorneys, and folks who have worked in media and entertainment, law enforcement, business, etc. Their experience informs their learning and their sharing/reflection is through the lens of that life experience. It makes conversations more diverse and illuminating for others. This also goes for those who have been in libraries for a number of years and have decided to get the degree.

Do you find resistance from midcareer students to learning core concepts
that they already have hands-on experience with?

The first class many take is my core introduction to Information Communities, which gives everyone exposure to information behavior theory and user research of all types. We also take a close look
at ethical issues and foundations of the field as part of meeting a community’s needs. That gets everyone on the same page. Someone who has worked in libraries for a few years might not have encountered this research even though they see the behaviors playing out with their own users.
It adds context to our profession that might not be there through on-the-job experience.

How do other students react to being in the same class as someone
who has so much experience?

Students seem to support each other no matter where they are in their careers and willingly learn from those who may be “in the trenches.” Those folks are usually eager to share stories about programs they work on or things they do as part of their jobs.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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