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Okay, Who Cares if Library School is Easy

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.



  1. AL is a bit obsessed with her increasingly downscale degree.

    Get over yourself, AL. No one is impressed with an MLS. Doesn’t matter where you got it, or what your GPA was.

    If you wanted more prestige and respect, you should have become a plumber. They have more skills, make more money, and are better liked because they don’t spend their days navel gazing.

  2. getting a library degree was the smartest decision I ever made. considering most of my other previous decisions involved burglery or poaching, yep, this was the best. I’ve been employed continuously since two months after getting the degree. but then I was willing to travel to get work. and I wasn’t picky about the job. I don’t know if I learned anything outstandingly necessary to be a librarian that I couldn’t have learned elsewhere for free; but now, 75 years later, I’m glad I did it. because my loan is almost paid off.

  3. One major advantage of coming from a better program like Michigan’s was that the networking (alumni and recruiters) is way better, and you can switch to a track like human computer interaction or information policy if you get halfway through the program and realize the library profession is a sinking ship. I think less than 1/3 of recent grads from Michigan’s program even end up working in libraries because they have the option of going with other, better-paying non-library employers. I’m guessing that’s not an option with most of the MLS-only or less-established programs.

  4. Can I agree without coming across as a major suck-up? What I got from library school was acronyms, brilliant internships, contacts and the ability to be on Facebook while appearing to be incredibly attentive. Granted, I can’t use my acronyms, having recently been castigated by a board member for throwing around aneurysms for using “ESL”(we’re a little bit rustic out here).

    However, among fellow librarians we do tend to sneer at those with degrees from certain schools. I think among ourselves we know what’s quality and what’s not. Shouldn’t we be happy with our low pay if we can enjoy such snobbery?

  5. AH – Sorry, you’re wrong. I went to that “other” school in Michigan and was able to find a better-paying non-library employer just fine. It had more to do with my work experience and extra-curricular activities then the name of the school on my degree.

  6. It definitely hurts the profession that the quality of programs can be so radically different. However I do not think it is contingent that a good program be difficult.
    One large problem is the lack of leadership from the ALA on library curriculum and accreditation. It makes sense that programs are so different when the governing body is not clear enough on what a library degree should be. Once again the ALA is one to two decades behind on a pressing problem.

  7. Bruce Campbell says:

    DREXEL IS #9!!!! GO DRAGONS!!! *kidding Stephanie*

    I miss your blog, Effing.

    Good post, AL. I feel more depressed and enlightened every day while reading your blog.

  8. Anan (A Moose) says:

    Wow…what the heck are they doing at Pitt and UMD? They’re dropping FAST.

  9. Stephanie says:

    Drexel has risen from #11? Wow. I guess I’m worth a little more now. That’s depressing.

    But still not as depressing as going through library school with all those dullards. Just glad I didn’t pay for my degree. Thanks, Tuition Remission! ;)

  10. Stephanie says:
  11. Your friendly neighborhood librarian says:

    You know what they call someone who graduates last in medical school?


  12. Good article AL: As a manager, I learned it’s not degrees that matter, it’s skills. Librarians that bring their talents to the table are the ones that get jobs. I went to SJSU, ranked 22nd in USNews List, and the program was lousy although ranked than great schools (I question this USNews ranking criteria). At San Jose, I learned nothing marketable to get a job. What was it I learned again? I think it was referencing, cataloging (how many cataloging jobs are around now-a-days?), information seeking behavior, and other silly fluff like History of Books. It is because I have an MBA, and took years of Spanish (able to speak & write) that I was able to get my first library job. My advice for those looking for jobs, or students currently in school, is to become multi-disciplined, to have technical skills needed in libraries, and if you don’t secure a library jobs after 3 years from graduation, then change professions….you’ve been weeded out….

  13. Good post, AL. I agree with DG. When I finished school, no one cared where you went to school, what your GPA was, what classes you took… The only thing that mattered was “what can you do for me” right now. Experience mattered, additional skills mattered, and the ability to change quickly and adapt to changing technologies mattered. I’m a new manager and this is what’s important in my workplace.

    My program wasn’t in the top 10, but I thought it was good when I was in school. Still, for other students it was not. It depended upon what the student put into it because excellent work meant an “A” and little work earned the same “A,” albeit a high verses a low “A.” Managers know this in the library world, meaning that finishing the MLS program is just one step and by itself doesn’t get the applicant very far.

  14. Techserving You says:

    I think choice of MLIS program matters, but only if you know from the start that you probably won’t stay in the library field (as I did, when I decided to get the degree after working as a paraprofessional for several years.) I just have to add that there are some excellent programs in Canada at schools which are ranked very highly internationally as research universities. (McGill, University of Toronto, UBC.) I’m not saying it’s the quality of the MLIS program which has anything to do with the reputation of the school… obviously. But these schools are, on the whole, more well-regarded than a number of the so-called “top” US MLIS programs.

    In any case, outside of the library field, most people don’t really know anything about the nature of the MLIS degree. I’ve got a 3.9 GPA from a very well-regarded university? Excellent! Add that to the fact that I have an undergraduate degree from a top liberal arts college, and I have a pretty good-looking resume… when no one knows what an MLIS is all about. I do have to point out, though, that at least my Canadian MLIS program was 2 full academic years instead of a year and a summer… 16 courses… it apparently accepted about 50% of applicants, and had a waitlist. I have no doubt that is far less selective than other graduate programs at the university, but it would be an example of a *somewhat* more selective MLIS program.

    In any case, I am content in knowing that I only have schools on my resume which will attract attention in any field. (And have… both schools often get my foot in the door.)

  15. I was going to be all huffy about this part:
    (excluding fluffy departments like education, of course) – I want to be a teacher.

    But its TRUE! The programs are touchy-feely and refuse to be academically rigorous on principle. The EDUCATION programs! Argh!

    Done now. Enjoyed the article.

  16. DG, all those classes at SJSU are optional. It was your choice to take the fluff. Their program has so many different classes available that you can go as technical or as fluffy as you like.

  17. I Like Books says:

    I think some library schools are self-consciously trying to make their programs harder, so they won’t be as fluffy any more.

    Anyway, NOBODY cares where you went to school. Not in librarianship, not in engineering, not in law, not anywhere. This is something that the business world has looked at a number of times. Talented people succeed. They also get into the Ivy League schools. But that doesn’t mean that getting into an Ivy League school will guarantee your success. It’s correlation without causation. That Ivy League degree might help you get your first job. After that it’s your work experience that counts.

  18. cranky librarian says:

    DG – I went to SJSU too when there still was an in-person facet to the education. I did not take the fluffy courses. Why did you waste your time doing that & then complain about it?

    I actually have to do original cataloging on occasion in my job. So that cataloging class has come in handy. Not all librarians end up working in lame public library systems where our main job is to clean up vomit & deal with immature library assistants. Heck I even have to negotiate contracts & stuff.

    I saw the writing on the wall in California – Prop 13 has eviscerated the state. SJSU over produces librarians. UCLA is too hard – wah wah… The state underemployment rate is like 22%. I bailed.

    I’ve gotten my two library jobs because I have great customer service skills & I am will to relocate anywhere. They may be crappy jobs to some librarians – but at least I’m workin’ and not subbin’ or being stuck in a state that is in need of a constitutional convention to fix the mess it’s in!

    SJSU worked for me. I even learned stuff. Gosh!

  19. ItGirl, congratulations, and you’re right, going to a particular school does not necessarily have to limit your options. It certainly was not my intent to dis Wayne State (which in my opinion actually has a stronger LIS curriculum than Michigan). Maybe a better way I could make my point is that not all library schools have recruiters coming from Google and Microsoft and Deloitte and the CIA, etc. It just helps to have that broader portfolio of options when you actually have to find a job.

  20. Quick note: use Google Maps to locate Clarion University of PA. That’s one reason why someone might go to Pitt instead, assuming that you’re an on-campus student.

  21. I agree–I chose my program not knowing how awful it was, but because it *had* been highly ranked and well-regarded at one time. Then I was stuck there. But it was through that craptacular program that I got great experience in our libraries as a student, super references, opportunities for professional development, and my first professional position after school. I’m kind of glad it was easy because I was able to work more without having to worry about my classwork. I do hope though that it will become more rigorous to encourage some (or any) natural selection.

  22. I found that the course work was what you made it, and thought my two year experience at the school pretty good. The grading was too easy, but those who didn’t put the work into it typically didn’t find jobs post graduation and that was when the economy was good. Being young, without obligations, I was able to move to attend school, though I could have done it all online. I chose my particular school for the reputation of the professors in the field I wished to pursue. Classes were both online and face-to-face. All online would have been a different deal because I would have lacked the opportunities I had to work under some terrific librarians in the community, and form professional relationships with teachers and mentors.

    I agree with one of the commentators that the school you go to and the grades you earn generally don’t matter either in library world or in other professions. Being mobile and gaining pre graduation experience is important. Employers are interested in what you can do for them now.

    But it’s so hard for new grads to find a job currently that I actively discourage people from going into the profession without knowing what they are getting into first, particularly if they are unable or unwilling to move wherever. It’s unconscionable to expect people to take out loans and go for a degree with little hope of finding a job because there are too many people in the field. Yes, this can be said for other fields too, but I’ve been told by older librarians that this idea of mass retirement has been around for a very long time, far more than the 10 years indicated in the graying of the profession article on another page on this site.

  23. de la Tour de Auvergne fan says:

    OK, so what if library schools are interchangable. I chose LSU because they had a few challenging classes (including one that was a legitimate graduate seminar that actually required a real research paper) and because I had just finished another graduate degree in a subject area renowned for having way more men than women. So, being a single guy in my early 30s, I go down to Baton Rouge and there are tons of women who look like models and are actually smart, just walking around like they’re unaware they’re anything special – and, yes, there were even a few like that in library school. So I sat through the easy classes, worked and learned in the 1-2 challenging & useful classes, had beers at the Chimes with a bunch of intelligent, attractive Louisiana girls, tailgated on home game weekends (Geaux Tigers) and got a degree that got me a good job. I work, I research and I publish in an academic library where I have great colleagues who are all smart and do a good job. So I don’t give a rat’s a$$ if somebody thinks LSU or any other library school sucks. Going to library school worked for me.

  24. Techserving You says:

    I like books – keep telling yourself that NOBODY in ANY field cares where you went to school. It’s simply not true. (To others commenting on this statement, please read my above post to understand my full position.) There are numerous fields in which educational background of professionals is made public to clients, and the educational institutions do matter. Also, there are many quite saturated fields… where everyone has good experience. Schools matter.

    Schools also matter when you are first entering a new field (not librarianship, see above comment.) Trust me, my undergrad institution is what got me my first job out of college, and continued to make me stand out and be successful in all of my job searches. I also now have two very powerful alumni networks behind me, with successful people in all industries willing to help out fellow grads.

    I definitely agree experience is important, and great experience can trump a Harvard degree that’s coupled with less experience. But it is simply not true that nobody cares where you went to school. Admissions committees for future degree programs, and hiring managers, DO take your education into consideration. I have inside knowledge of this.

  25. Techserving You says:

    I like books – it also sounds like you don’t have experience in other fields. It is utterly ridiculous to say that your choice of grad school does not matter in other fields. In some fields, it is all-important.

    (To others – my point above was that I don’t think your choice of library school matters unless you plan to leave the profession. In that case, I think it does matter. I don’t mean that you need to attend one of those “highly-ranked” library schools – those programs are often at schools which otherwise are not very well-regarded. Instead, attending a program at a university which is considered a research powerhouse and has a good international reputation will serve you well when dealing with people (future admissions committees, hiring managers) who don’t know anything about an MLIS program. a 3.9 GPA from a top-ranked university looks a lot better than a 3.9 for University of North Texas or whatever that school is.

  26. Well, maybe where you went to school does matter, Tech Serving You, though friends of mine in the non library world have said that it didn’t matter all that much. I thought my school was ranked well until I saw that it was below the top 10, and wondered how it got there since it used to be higher up in the rankings. There were so many excellent teachers there.

    I put a lot of work into the process, above what was required, so found that I got a lot out of my classes. Still, no one has seemed to care either in my undergrad or post graduate days where I went to school. They always seemed to be far more interested in what I could do. Interesting that maybe I matters more than I thought it did, and perhaps it did help in landing that first job (even though I didn’t think it did) since the professors at my school were well known in the field. Three of my main teachers now teach in those schools ranked number one and two.

  27. anonymoose says:

    I’ll never forget the person in one of my classes who thought the homework one night was really hard. I said, “Well, I think once you get on the online catalog, it’s pretty easy to look this stuff up and write down the answers.” She said, “Yeah, the catalog…How do you use that?”

    This was at a well-ranked MLS program, and it was more than a month into the program, and the student I was talking to already had a master’s degree in education. She was changing careers after having been a classroom teacher.

    This is a true story – if I could make up stuff as crazy and horrific as this, I’d be putting Stephen King and Joe Hill out of business.

  28. Those top-ranked lists are ridiculous. I went to Pitt and haven’t found a professional job. Everyone I know who went to Clarion is happily employed. Pitt was a joke. Most of the faculty who taught while I was there has gone over to Drexel.

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