On second thought, maybe it doesn’t matter if library schools are easy. If library schools got competitive, the only difference is that there would be a smaller mass of unemployed and unemployable librarians.
Some last week claimed that I was wrong about library schools, and that some of them were truly competitive. None I’m familiar with, including the highly ranked one I attended, are as competitive as other graduate programs on the same campus (excluding fluffy departments like education, of course).
There are plenty of programs around that aren’t remotely competitive and never will be. People who can manage to get through any college with any degree can find an MLS program somewhere willing to accept them. With online programs, the potential for expansion is almost limitless. If more students accept than you thought, just hire a few more adjuncts! There seems to be a limitless supply of librarians needing extra money and willing to teach.
Another sign that library schools aren’t competitive is the irrelevance of where you went. In case you aren’t happy with your choice of school, keep this in mind: once you have a degree, no one cares where you went to library school as long as it was ALA-accredited. It’s ability and experience that count. All of us know doltish librarians who attended top-ranked library schools, and supremely competent librarians who attended lesser-ranked schools that happened to be the closest school to where they lived.
Sure, maybe if you went to Michigan or Illinois or Chapel Hill or Syracuse, it might get you slightly more attention when applying for that first job than if you attended some lower ranked school, but I’ve yet to see a search committee start weeding job candidates based on where they went to library school. This is even more amusing in academia, where the reputation of one’s graduate school is all important. Every tuppeny ha’penny liberal arts college wants professors with Ivy League degrees, but they don’t care where their librarians are from.
Take a look at this list. The usual suspects are in the top few slots. In this ranking, Illinois and Chapel Hill are tied for first place. It only ranks the top 30 schools or so, and dropping below that are the ones that didn’t make the cut. Among those are Dominican and North Carolina Central University.
Examining the programs and their faculty and offerings, the top two seem demonstrably stronger programs than the other two located in the same state. Students at Illinois and Chapel Hill would have more opportunities. However, sluggards could still pass through them. Two years out of school, the distinction would matter hardly at all. All of them are probably graduating great students and mediocre students, possibly in different proportions.
But even if the top schools became even more competitive, there would still be an overcrowded job market because the other schools would continue to let everyone in. As long as low accreditation standards exist and as long as the degree is seen as a union card rather than a significant accomplishment, it won’t matter much.
We would still have the situation we have now, where the job market weeds out the weak candidates at the expense of the best candidates. For decades, the way the system has worked is to flood the market with people bearing library degrees that are all supposedly equivalent because ALA-accredited. After that, the wheat starts separating from the chaff, but the better candidates still get worse wages because libraries are usually willing to take the cheaper candidate over the better candidate.
Those who distinguish themselves are smart, educated, articulate, comfortable with technological change, and geographically mobile. Throw in some practical experience relevant to whatever job they’re looking for, and these librarians will do okay. Their first jobs will possibly suck, but they’ll get those jobs because they’ll be competing against candidates who aren’t that great. In those sucky jobs, they’ll do everything they can to distinguish themselves even further from the pack. They’ll write for journals or speak at conferences or organize events. These days librarians don’t even have the excuse of no travel funding. Reputations are made online. Look at me. I’ve earned the ire of half the profession, and I don’t even exist!
And they’ll still have to work for lower wages because of the dullards willing to work for significantly less and libraries willing to hire them. The problem might just be that libraries don’t pay enough to attract the best and brightest.
Maybe the best schools would turn out an even larger percentage of library leaders than they do now, but maybe not. There’s only so much library leadership most of us can take. It would still be the case that someone who graduated from Clarion could make as much of an impact as someone from Pitt if they had the ability.
And it would probably still be the case that most people would choose a school for practical reasons rather than rankings. If someone had the choice between going to Clarion ($3,483/semester for full time PA residents) debt-free or graduating from Pitt ($9,097/ semester full time for PA residents) $30,000 in debt, I’d say the Clarion graduate was most likely the savvier of the two anyway. Going heavily into debt for a library degree is always a bad idea.
So maybe none of it matters after all, except for all those excess librarians who didn’t know what they were getting into, the ones paying top dollar for degrees that are necessary to get librarian jobs but hardly sufficient. They’re the ones suffering. But as long as we have the library schools full and the association dues paid, and as long as plenty of us have good jobs, why be concerned about them.