Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Those Elite Librarians

Recently, I read an exchange between librarians in which one librarian argued that MLS-holding librarians should be doing different work than paraprofessionals, and that to check out books or other rather simple tasks often left to high school graduates was inappropriate for professionals, or something along those lines. Another librarian accused the first librarian of elitism. You know it’s a sad day for the elites when a librarian has wandered into their midst.

We often hear things like, “I didn’t get an MLS so I could [insert menial task].” And it’s true every time. Had I wanted to spend my life shelving books or staffing a circulation desk or punching a clock at break time, I would certainly not have gone to library school.

The professional master’s degree should mean something, but it’s an open question as to whether it actually does mean anything. What should it mean?

It should mean that the professional does work of a higher caliber than the nonprofessional. The work should be more complex and done with more autonomy and self-direction than that of nonprofessionals. Part of the problem is that there isn’t enough of that work to go around in many libraries, so the librarians have to do other things to fill their days.

Some libraries “solve” this problem by restricting what nonprofessionals are allowed to do, no matter how capable those nonprofessionals might be, merely because they have no MLS. It seems to me that rules of this sort confuse the issue. The problem isn’t that some nonprofessionals can’t do the work of some professionals, but that there isn’t enough professional work and thus librarians zealously guard what little there is so they feel important.

This works both ways, though. I have heard nonprofessionals complain about poorly performing professional librarians and ask why they should get special treatment just because they have a library degree. Some also complain that they are just as capable as the librarians. And some are.

But if they want to be treated as professionals, all they have to do is get a library degree. We MLS holders with triple digit IQs know the work itself isn’t that difficult. If you’re smart and can tolerate a lot of fluff and group work, you can get through most library school classes easily.

What separates professional librarians from nonprofessionals is more than just the knowledge gained in an MLS program, which varies widely. It’s also the fact of having completed the program, and this is more meaningful than it might seem.

When I’ve heard nonprofessionals complain about some distinction in work, benefits, or flexibility, I have sometimes suggested that they get an MLS themselves and become professional librarians. Problem solved! Inevitably, I hear about how difficult it would be, and about all the obstacles: the money, the time, family responsibilities, balancing school with work, etc.

Only once, to someone I actually liked, did I note that the same was true for most of us. Most of us worked full-time or part-time or multiple jobs to pay for library school. We balanced two or more classes a semester with jobs and family commitments. Those of us with other graduate degrees did this for even longer.

And during that struggle, we learned far more than whatever was taught in library school classes. We learned discipline and efficiency. We learned to balance the demands of truly professional work, which doesn’t begin at 9am and end at 5pm Monday through Friday. We learned that if we didn’t like our lot in life, it was up to us to better it. Instead of sitting around complaining, we worked hard, made sacrifices, and improved our situations. (Considering the nature of most library work, obviously most of us were pretty hard up beforehand.)

That’s one of the things that distinguishes the professional from the nonprofessional. Does that make professional librarians elite? To an extent, it does. This bizarre pretense that everyone is equally good at everything doesn’t stand up to reality. That’s the pretense behind calling someone “elitist” when they merely point out the truth that some people are better at or know more about some things than other people, and that distinctions should be made.

I don’t want an auto mechanic operating on me, or a gardener fixing my car. I want people to do the jobs they’ve been trained for. And just as I want an auto mechanic to fix my car, I understand that some mechanics are better than others. There is an elite within every profession. In manual trades, the elites are the ones whose work approaches that of art. A great plumber or electrician can be much more of an artist that some schmuck with an MFA splattering paint on a canvas.

To some extent, the same is true in librarianship, as in every other field. In general, librarians know better how to do library work than nonprofessionals or nonlibrarians. What’s more, the good ones have the attitudes and beliefs of the professional. They do the work that needs doing and don’t watch the clock waiting for their next coffee break.

Within the field of professional librarians themselves another elite emerges. While stuffy, status-conscious librarians might like to pretend they’re elite because they have an MLS and that person standing beside them doing the same work doesn’t, most librarians don’t think that way as far as I can tell.

But it should be clear that some librarians are better librarians than others, or that they know more or are better at communicating what they do know to their peers. While I poke fun at some of the sillier pronouncements of librarian bloggers and speakers, it’s pretty clear there’s an elite of sorts in the profession. The elite innovate, and we follow. The elite write, and we read. The elite speak, and we listen. It doesn’t matter if we think what they have to say is silly. They’re determining the national conversation about libraries. That alone makes them part of an elite.

By “elite” we mean all those who are running libraries well, doing their jobs exceptionally well, doing things other people want to imitate, or shaping the beliefs of the profession. Are they better people than everyone else? Hardly. But generally they probably are better librarians than the majority. To say so isn’t “elitist.” It’s a fact. Using “elitist” as a pejorative term merely marks one as a member of the resentful non-elite.



  1. Over half the paraprofessionals in our academic library do hold MLS degrees (and in some cases additional MA degrees too) but there are simply not enough professional positions to go around, and many of these overly qualified paraprofessionals can’t move to another part of the country where there skills might be in more demand for family considerations. So, in some cases, “Get a MLS” is not much of a solution

  2. Real Librarian says:

    Sadly, librarians are not professionals, with or without an MLS.

    They basically are highly paid clerks.

  3. Your observations on those libarians who are innovative reminds me of the book Linchpin : are you indispensible? / Seth Godin. Aslo in the public library branch where I work, we all pitch in to get it done.

  4. I’m sorry you feel that way, “Real Librarian”, but I certainly don’t. My job in no way resembles being a clerk, and if it did, I would work to change it.

    This seems much more like a thoughtful article than an “annoyed” rant. I like it!

  5. Agreeing w/Ahniwa on this one. “Real Librarian” is obviously not one, or would know the role of Librarian is so much more than a “highly paid [sic] clerk.”

    Additionally, Annoyed has hit the nail on the head with this one. IN MY EXPERIENCE, some MLS-holders do think they are better than the part-timer. But around here, we all know we are just one more cog in the machine that has to do our job to make it run, and none of us think we are better than the others.

  6. “If you’re smart and can tolerate a lot of fluff and group work, you can get through most library school classes easily.”

    If you can tolerate a lot of fluff and group work, you can get through library school easily.

  7. Real Librarian says:

    I am sorry I offended you Ahniwa.

    Bring it up with the professional group that monitors librarians.

    Ooops there isn’t one.

    Remember, anyone can call themselves a librarian, go work in a library, do library work.

    Try that with the law.

    Or with medicine.


    back to shelving books, cataloging books, answering reference questions, ordering books, managing staff, doing reports, etc.

    Ooops, I forgot, special librarians aren’t really librarians. Go turn me in.

  8. Real Librarian: “Sadly, librarians are not professionals, with or without an MLS.
    They basically are highly paid clerks.”

    Clerks, pretty much. But highly paid? In what library/state/reality? More importantly, are they still hiring?

  9. @ Real Librarian – It really sounds like you are not happy with your job. If you really believe that, why not get a job that you’d find more rewarding? There are plenty of people who feel the same way about their jobs (look at pharmacists. They probably have it worse). Since you don’t like it, wouldn’t it be better for you to try something else and let a new person have the position that may be happier in the position? More importantly, wouldn’t that be better for the people you serve on a regular basis? If I thought my doctor didn’t like his job, or my lawyer hers, I would probably find someone who does.

    @ AL – I really liked the article. I have had several conversations with coworkers, MLS and non-MLS, about the “professionalism” of the degree. I agree with the sentiment that there is an elitism to it for the reasons you mentioned, particularly the “I actually bothered to slog through the work to get the MLS” argument. At the end of the day though, it is a philosophical difference.

    The “professional” sees an attachment to the workplace and its success as a reflection of their own well-being. If the library improves, its because they had a hand in making it better. It’s their livelihood, and people with MLS degrees are more likely to have that sentiment because they worked to learn more about librarianship and they care about their workplace.

    Non-professionals, quite a few MLS degree holders included, see a library as the place they go to get the paycheck every few weeks. As a colleague of mine once noted, they think: “A bad day at home is better than a good day at work.” Weirdly (for me at least) this is true. I have people that work for me who would rather deal with the hell of their personal life, and in their case it is quite awful, than spend even a minute past five completing a task. It’s the “I don’t get paid overtime” mentality.

    The “professional” understands that getting the job done improves the library and, thereby, improves their lot in life. “Professionals” see their jobs as opportunities, which is why most of them got the MLS degree in the first place.

    P. S. – No, the MLS holders may not be required to shelve, BUT given the right circumstances (i.e. there’s no one else, they have done anything else more important and the shelving NEEDS to get done) then a “professional” shouldn’t see it as an insult if they were asked to do this task. They would understand that keeping the library running is really the most important job that they, or anyone else at the library, is hired for.

  10. My MLS is worthless says:

    I wish I could return my MLS. I worked very hard for it, but I don’t want it and I drop a couple benjamins a month paying Sallie Mae for it. After 3 years of school while working full-time and 2 years of not getting promoted and not getting every single librarian job I’ve applied for, I consider librarianship a slowly dying profession that is becoming more and more competitive. Admittedly, my lack of success in this profession may have something to do with my own failings, but I’ve also noticed some slow changes in staffing that appear problematic for the survival of the profession. Automation has contributed to the trend of paraprofessionals (and, increasingly, patrons themselves) taking over many tasks that used to be done by librarians because they are cheaper, while MLS holders are seen as a liability because they’ll ask for a higher salary due to their “elite” status. I love working in the library but I wish I could get my MLS money back. Knowing what I know now, I would have pursued a higher degree in green technology or something like that.

  11. Liz Stewart says:

    Opinion: I will soon be attending an MLS program. My earliest library job was with an incrdible person who fulfilled the purpose statement of the ALA: “To provide leadership for the development, promotion and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.”[1] which she(Maureen) did. She was never afraid anyone would learn “too much and take her job.” Remember we must inspire others in the workplace or we are just taking up space better by filled by someone else.

  12. rollingeyeslibrarian says:

    All very valid points that bring honesty to a much-needed, profoundly unaddressed topic which needs more open dialogue! Good precision over much suppressed truth. Unfortunately, this truth comes at a pivotal time when MLS is at its height of abuse as the MLS people are being dispensed more remedial work with fewer bodies which justifies the pervasive complaints people have about the lack of professionalism entailed. It’s a vicious cycle. Fighting to keep programs open with libraries closing is useless. I would argue that there is much professional work to be done but we are yet to gain enough control over library identity to make it robust enough to accomplish anything profoundly important that makes a national statement. The fact that our own identity is at drift makes us even more vulnerable as libraries and library educators. We have become schlock fiction and movies, not education. Why is it the public’s fault that supervision can’t find a proper MLS identity? Just because we do not have a reporting agency for efficiency does not mean we cannot evolve to a professional nature.

  13. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    @Real Librarian – find a job you’ll enjoy. I am not a glorified clerk and I’ve worked at public, special and academic libraries over the last 30+ years.

    @My MLIS is worthless – are you willing to move? Or are you committed to a particular location. If the latter, you probably did waste your money. I loved living in Austin but I knew I would NEVER get a professional position there. So I moved to a cultural backwater to get started in the profession. Turned out to be a pretty smart move.

  14. Real Librarian says:

    I am sorry to have trouble all you professionals.

  15. Bruce Campbell says:

    Excellent postage, AL. There are many librarians who are riding the gravy train to retirement and can’t be arsed to learn the most user friendly software to help them track statistics. And there are the librarians that seek out ways to optimize workflow and make the library more relevant.

    If any of you are the former, would you please make your way towards the nearest Rotary club and let us lead?

    I’m guessing “Real Librarian” is not the innovative type or doesn’t see a way a library can be improved.

    I agree with NotMarianTheLibrarian. Start rural, work your way up.

  16. Readers interested in an outsider’s perspective may want to check out my post “Thinking ’bout library professionalism”.

  17. Well, in scheme of Library Hierarchy, I guess MLIS holders would/could be considered the “Elitists,” but please, we are talking about the library here. There are only so many castes to begin with.

  18. Really enjoyed this post, hopefully in a couple of years I’ll have my shiny library degree and can see the issue from yet another side. Right now I’m just a menial Tech, checking out those books and affixing property stamps to the new ones, but even though I have an MA in Literature I never really thought these tasks were beneath me! Really, I prefer the way you’re defining elite here, a great way to think about it.

  19. NewLibrarian says:

    I work in a city run library and am one of only three MLS holding employees in the library. The rest are either high school students or paraprofessionals all under 30. Although my title doesn’t include ‘librarian,’ (which irks me to no end) I do everything from simply checking books out/in to providing reference to planning every event that goes on in the library. Yesterday I found myself scrubbing hardened candy off a shelf. For a second I thought to myself, “I didn’t go to library school for this…” but then I remembered the three years I was unemployed applying for every library related job I could find whether it required a degree or not.

    Although some days I wish that I could be an elitist librarian, saying “not my job” to circulation duty or anything else unrelated to collection development or programming these days you do what you can to gain and keep a job in this field.

    Thanks for, AL, I found this article insightful and true. Someday I hope that I can call myself elite, a person in the field who writes, reads and inspires others, but for now I’ll be content to work towards that goal while learning from those exceptional librarians I hope to one day join.

  20. Techserving You says:

    Ahniwa – your position is really the exception. There are not a whole lot of jobs out there that involve statewide coordination of services. The fact of the matter (and I say this as someone who has worked at several large universities – including that “H” one in the Ivy League – and two small elite liberal arts colleges) most professional librarian positions include a lot of clerical work.

    I’ve been in the “field” for almost 15 years. I agree with a lot of what the AL is saying here. Quite frankly, I went to get my MLIS because I was capable of doing “professional” work (I mean, beyond the clerical stuff…) but couldn’t get a job doing it. I, and many of the other paraprofessionals in the libraries in which I worked, had more knowledge of library work than any new MLIS without a lot of experience has. By the time I got to library school, I learned literally NOTHING new. I had catalogued, I had worked in acquisitions, I had staffed reference desks. I just needed the piece of paper.

    But, getting that MLIS did mean something. I was not one of those who balanced work with school – I quit my secure job with excellent benefits to move and go to school full-time – taking out loans, wracking up opportunity costs, etc.. No, this wasn’t stupid – I attended a “real” research university and got more of a “real” grad school experience (outside of actual classwork) being friends and living with students in other programs, etc., and don’t regret it. I easily got a professional job right out of school. So, in a way, I do agree that getting the MLIS suggests that you’re willing to at least inconvenience yourself for your “profession.” But… as another commenter posted… what of the paraprofessionals who have MLISs, or (at least at that “H” school I mentioned) even PhDs???

    I work with a woman who started an MLIS program – at great expense to the department, which actually paid 100% of the cost – and then quit to pursue an MEd, because she found the MLIS program to be boring. Yet, when it comes to the division between professional and paraprofessional work, she is the most vocal paraprofessional I have ever met. I’m not sure how to respond to her… starting the MLIS and then dropping it in favor of another program might be even “worse” than just not starting it.

    Yet at the same time, hello…. the MLIS is really an “emperor’s got no clothes” sort of thing. The program does not impart a body of knowledge. For people who already have extensive library experience, it doesn’t impart anything new. It doesn’t teach you about professional work… I agree that “professional” work does exist and is done by some librarians… but it’s library basics which are taught in library school. The rest, if there is a rest, is learned on the job once in a professional position. So is dropping the MLIS program but still wanting to do professional work really that bad? Basically what we’re saying here is that “you don’t learn anything in library school, but if you want to do professional work, you need to suspend all rational thought, suspend your good judgment, and suck it up and suffer because the rest of us suffered.” That only contributes to the bitter, unhappy population of librarians. Is that really what we want the MLIS to represent? Just inconvenience, expense, suffering? And if you don’t want to go through that than you shouldn’t be doing professional work?

  21. Someone who started and then quit? That takes real guts, because this program is so easy to finish! Ha!! And people take offense to these people yet realize the degree itself is an “emperor’s got no clothes” degree? REALLY????

    Think of it this way: there are researchers and there are laborers. The engineers do the research. The construction workers build their ideas. You don’t see engineers digging ditches…they may be in the ditch making measurements, but they aren’t down there doing the digging. But in library world, the MLS librarian is down there in the ditch, with the shovel, digging the ditch.

    In essence, it is because there are no “gateways” to information or knowledge. If you cannot control access to the information, you cannot charge a decent price for aquiring that knowledge! And if librarians make the sorting process more obscure, it only achieves disgruntling the masses, who then revise the sorting method themselves. Once more, librarians are disposed.

    It’s a good pre-retirement job once you’ve pulled down your “real retirement” elsewhere!

  22. What an excellent post. I’m tempted to hand a printout to the next para who complains about this issue.

  23. Techserving You says:

    My thinking with the paraprofessional coworker who started the MLIS but quit and started the MEd program, yet whines and whines about how she’s not considered a professional librarian and doesn’t get paid as much is….

    yes, the MLIS is an “emperor’s got no clothes” sort of thing. No, I don’t like that the value of the MLIS seems to be that it’s a “badge of honor” which indicates we spent money, and suffered…. rather than being an indicator of having learned a body of knowledge. I don’t think it makes much sense to say, “you need to get the MLIS just to suffer as the rest of us suffered, and then you can join our club.”

    BUT in this particular case… where she started it and then dropped out to pursue a degree in another field… I do have to say, “if you wanted to be a librarian so much (and not a teacher, presumably) then why didn’t you finish the degree? You made a very clear choice that you wanted to work in ANOTHER field (not that there’s anything wrong with that, perhaps a wise decision) so why would we want to consider you to be a librarian?”

  24. Unfortunately, my program didn’t offer a specific archival degree, so archivists were stuck taking many of the same classes as librarians. These classes are required for all students in the program as a condition for being accredited by ALA. SAA doesn’t have its own system of accreditation for archival degrees (and may never have one) so most archives programs are within library schools, even though many archivists come into the programs with a history background. I really wish the archival degree was part of a history program instead of being under the auspices of the liberry skool.

    The archives classes I took were usually more academically rigorous than the classes that I was required to take with the library students. It was frustrating. I find it embarrassing to be associated with the librarians just because I share, in name only, the same degree. There was little overlap in the classes taken by the librarians vs. the archivists outside of the handful of classes required for everyone. I would LOVE to be able to say that I have a “Master’s Degree in Archives and Preservation” rather than a MLIS or MSIS or whatever they want to call it. I don’t consider myself a librarian.

    However, I do read the AL because its fun to see people bitching (justifiably) about the degree!

  25. After close to 20 years as a paraprofessional I finally went to library school & got my MLIS. As others have pointed out, I didn’t necessarily learn anything new & it wasn’t at all difficult, just time consuming, particularly since I was also working FT. But the bottom line for me was that there are far more opportunities for advancement in libraries for even the most mediocre librarians than there ever will be for the best paraprofessionals. Case in point: although it took me 6 months to get a professional position at a large research university, just over a year later I was promoted to department head. Not bad for someone less than 2 years out of library school.

    On the other hand, the reason I put off going to library school for so many years is that I worked with far too many librarians who abused their professional status, mostly by bullying the paraprofessionals. These so-called professionals delighted in regularly reminded us that because they had their degrees they were better than the paraprofessionals could ever hope to be. Never mind that they were making questionable decisions that made the library look bad or took years to correct. As far as I’m concerned, the idea that possession of an MLIS is an indication of competence is one of the biggest shortcomings of the profession. Having the degree absolutely does NOT make you a good librarian; it’s what you do with the opportunities afforded by an MLIS that define your status as a professional.

  26. With the way library staffing is these days, it’s only smart to let the people being paid to do the higher-level tasks do them, and not have $30/hr people shelving books. It can be done in emergencies, but it’s really a waste when there are other things to do that need to get done (and when the book budget tanks, it takes longer to select titles, because each item counts so much more). It’s somewhat of an attempt to “work smarter not harder”, although most of the smartness went out the window and it’s getting harder and harder to work any harder. But it’s election year and heaven forbid we cut services.

  27. If you look at the job postings, virtually every position worth having in a library requires an MLS. Maybe it’s different if you work as a para and can get ahead on the inside, but if you are trying to break in to the library field it appears to be a requirement. I’m slogging my way through library school right now, and I work and have kids, a husband, and sometimes even a life. What other choice is there?

  28. If sleeping in your office, closing your door for 90% of the time you are in the building, pushing your work onto other staff, and spending as little time as possible on reference is what it takes to be a librarian- then I weep for the future of libraries.

  29. dinsdale1978 says:

    @Real Librarian: Annoying troll is annoying.

    I think you have some good points here. The degree should make the tasks performed beyond that of someone without the degree. Should such a leet librarian get their hands dirty in the trenches (shelves) or check out books? I think so. I went from student worker, to staff, to librarian at 3 different institutions. Each had a different feeling for how to divide the labors of the library.

    Does this degree make us a “master” of the library? Sadly no, as it more often than naught should be seen as a admission ticket to a rather elitist club.

    The real question shouldn’t be about degree level but why we still attach science to this qualification.

  30. Non-MLSer ParaProfesional says:

    I’d like to state something as a 24 yr paraprofessional with training. “Support Staff” is a better term than “nonprofessionals” – the 2nd doesn’t fit the times.

    Several issues come to mind with getting an MLS: money, limited access and responsibilities at home. That is my story.

    I have seen where some unprofessional MLS holders have treated support staffers like slaves. Setting them up for failure because the MLS holder does not know how to train them. The turnover in those jobs are high, pay so low it is laughable – welfare gives more.

  31. I Like Books says:

    I don’t know what paraprofessionals should be doing. But I can tell you what MLS-holding librarians should be doing: anything that needs to be done! Naturally they should handle the librarian stuff when there’s librarian stuff to be handled. But if the place is overflowing with unshelved books because the library fired some low-paid staffers, then, as time and duties allow, those MLS-holding librarians are NOT too good to be shelving books.

    Me? I was cleaning toilets with a PhD in physics. I have no patience for people who think their education makes them too good to do something that needs to be done. That education and higher pay means they have more responsibility, not less. And one of their responsibilities is to identify what needs to be done and make sure it’s getting done, even if they have to do it themselves.

    (That’s a lesson from the business world, too: whatever it takes, keep the business moving and the customers happy. I’ve never had a manager that wouldn’t join in the scut work with everyone else.)

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