Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Rage Against the MLS Machine

There’s nothing more inspiring, slightly ridiculous, and a little sad than idealists. Sometimes they inspire great art, or great revolutions, or some other great thing that people later will hate, but much of the time they just sit around frustrated that the world doesn’t understand how great it would be if everyone would just listen to them.

Librarianship attracts a lot of idealists, it seems, or else there wouldn’t be many librarians subject to the alleged scourge of “vocational awe.”

Then there are the librarians who hate libraries, at least the way they’re currently constituted. Some hate it that people still read books instead of spend their time 3D printing, and some hate it that the people who work in libraries are librarians, like this librarian who is raging against the “MLS Machine.”

I’ve been known to rage against the MLS Machine as well, but mostly because it’s a machine designed to ingest people and spit out somewhat educated librarians at a rate faster than the profession can absorb, and has now done so for decades.

The current rager has the opposite problem, that there aren’t enough people considered librarians!

The article is posted at Medium, which seems to be where people go when they don’t want their arguments well done. Let’s take a look at the logic.

The author knows one really smart person without an MLS who works in a library but won’t ever be respected or promoted because she doesn’t have a degree. Therefore, the degree is holding people back. QED.

No, that’s not quite fair. There are a lot of really smart people without MLS degrees working in libraries. I’ve known plenty.

But she uses this fact to argue that “the MLS degree has held us back.” Only it hasn’t held “us” back. It’s not even clear it’s held her acquaintance back, who could, if she’s so smart, go get an MLS degree. And if she’s really smart, she wouldn’t bother and would get a better job instead.

We’re assured that “The ‘MLS haves vs. havenots’ culture is toxic.” Is it, though? It might be in some libraries, because of bad management, but in any organization there’s going to be a division of labor. Librarians are hired for one task, non-librarians for another.

There’s nothing forcing either the librarians or the non-librarians to take those jobs, and if they’re so talented that a lack of a degree is really holding them back, they’ll succeed anyway, either by getting a degree or getting another job.

If they’re content to keep working indefinitely in a job that they believe is “holding them back,” it’s not the job holding them back. It’s something else: family concerns, geographic immobility, lack of talent, etc. If you can’t go get a better job, you’re not being held back by a degree; you’re being held back by life.

Another alleged problem: “The vast majority of people with MLS degrees are white.” That’s absolutely true. She didn’t mention that the vast majority of MLS degree holders are also women.

One of the things you might not realize if you live in an ethnically diverse area, but the vast majority of the American population is white, 72.4% according to the 2010 Census. Even if librarianship mirrored the population, it would still be overwhelmingly white.

The rager thinks “it’s due to a tradition of racism in our country which has denied generations of people of color from accessing higher education,” and she’s probably right.

Is the answer to hire people as librarians with no higher education at all? That is indeed her answer. Instead of a college degree and an MLS, she asks “What if future librarians could take an intense 12 week course for a few thousand bucks, in lieu of an MLS?” Like “code schools,” but for librarians. Is “coding” a profession, though?

Has anyone done a demographic study of the “future tech employees” who find these code schools attractive? Are they racially diverse, particularly if we exclude immigrants? I seriously doubt it. This is a “solution” that is just pretending there’s not a problem with race and access to higher education.

And do you really want a toxic culture? Hire some 19-year-old with 12 weeks of librarian boot camp and claim they’re qualified to do the same job as someone with a bachelor’s degree and MLS and see how those two cultures interact.

Another alleged problem: “The weird focus on the MLS as the only degree in our field.” Yes, that is “weird” that a profession would focus on only one degree in its field. No other profession does that. It’s not like lawyers need a J.D., or social workers an M.S.W., or economics professors a PhD in economics.

Oh, wait, it’s exactly like that. How can there possibly be anything “weird” about a professional degree that works similarly to EVERY OTHER PROFESSIONAL DEGREE IN THE COUNTRY.

Yet another alleged problem: “There are fewer young people working in libraries now than three years ago.” First, three years isn’t enough time to decide if something is a worrying trend. Second, who cares?

It’s apparently a dire situation, though. “The MLS is prohibitively expensive, but you can’t move up without it. And even if you get the degree, you’ll never pay off your student loans because it’s so difficult to find a job. And even if you find a job, if you’re a woman, you’ll make 18% less than your male colleagues. This situation screams at young people… run.”

Why this obsession with young people? Do I detect some ageism?

As it happens, I would offer the exact same advice to young people. Run! But I would offer that advice out of concern for the future of the young people, not out of concern for the future of libraries.

There might be many reasons to be concerned for the future of libraries, but a lack of people qualified to be librarians isn’t one of them. For all the people supposedly held back by their library jobs because of the lack of a degree, there are plenty of other people with the degree to fill those jobs.

The biggest problem with this argument is that there isn’t a shortage of librarians. If there were a shortage of librarians, it would make sense to lower the professional standards, or get rid of them entirely, the way public schools in some states are finally hiring people who didn’t get education degrees.

As long as there are plenty of people with MLS degrees competing for jobs, there’s no incentive for libraries to hire anyone else in librarian positions. Period. No matter how idealistic they are.

As for the young people, they should run. Avoid library school. Go do something else. You’ll probably be better off in the long run, and libraries will be just fine, so everybody wins.



  1. Peter Ward says:

    Library schools need more competitive entrance requirements. Now all that’s required are two box tops and proof that you can sign a check. We have diluted the profession in this way with people who should be doing something else.

  2. anonymous coward says:

    Much truth here.

    The MLS is junk and so (rightfully) people think anyone could get it, if only they were encouraged to/given scholarships.

    White women are vilified as being cloistered against diversity- but mention white men and it’s all “Men have every other profession, this one is ours!” And forget about pointing out that the diversity among almost ALL graduate level degrees is equal to that of libraries, then it’s “we aren’t talking about other degrees, just library ones. that makes it a library problem.” THIS is intersectionality. It isn’t that they are women, it’s that they are white AND women. It isn’t that they are white, it’s that they are white AND men. It isn’t that they are talented, but that they are talented, and a certain ethnicity, and a certain gender, and with/without a certain education level they we should embrace them as “librarians.”

    I’m not saying it’s wrong- any of it. I’m just saying it’s much more complex than either AL or the source are accepting.

  3. With or without the MLS there’s still more people looking for library jobs than there are library jobs. Not having an MLS may prohibit some people from getting a job as a librarian, but library jobs are getting eliminated when people leave/retire and not getting refilled, so there’s not enough open jobs anyway.

  4. The enraged person in question is conflating a lot of different issues. While I don’t dispute that there are far more MLS degreed librarians than the job market can absorb, some of the person’s points were valid. First, the issue of the cost of a graduate degree is an important one. Degree inflation has affected librarianship less than many other fields (since it has always required a Masters degree). Nevertheless, I sympathize with the plight of young people of modest means who find more and more jobs out of reach due to the cost of a Bachelors, then possibly a Masters, and maybe even doctoral degrees, for fields that did not have these requirements until relatively recently (i.e. a pharmacist used to need a Masters, now it’s a Pharm.D.). Not that this issue is due to librarianship or the MLS, but I get where they’re coming from regarding cost.

    Second, I think whether the MLS is necessary to do a librarian’s job is a valid question also. I got my MLS from the largest program in the area, and honestly I’ve actually used the content of only 9 out of the 12 classes, and one of those was my internship. Much of the MLS content was irrelevant, outdated, or lacking in rigor. My MBA degree has been more relevant — at least that taught me how to manage budgets, assess staff performance, oversee large and complex projects, and follow employment law. The skill I use most often in my work is teaching, and guess what? The MLS coursework had nothing whatsoever to say about how to teach adults. (The School Media concentration does include some pedagogy, but only for children, and if you weren’t school media teaching wasn’t covered at all). I find the vast majority of most librarians’ jobs is learned on the job, not in the classroom. We all know this — why else the requirement of at least two years of experience that appears in most job postings?

    I actually think a post-Bachelor’s certificate program would be a better degree than the MLS — say 12 credits rather than 36, specialized to a student’s interests (reference/instruction, tech services, management, etc.) That should be followed by an internship. Apprenticeship would work in this field. Go ahead, start hating on me, but I actually think the MLS and what it covers should be rethought. Part of what prevents that is the fact that we’ve all got one, the degree is useless to get hired in any other field, and we don’t want to render our investment obsolete.

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