The Matter of the Master’s

When the economy eventually recovers, will the value of the MLS degree recover with it?

June 5, 2012


Don’t get me wrong, I loved library school and I think programs that comprise a master’s degree in library science form the foundation of our profession. But what happens if the MLS degree withers away and dies?

Let’s suppose that some time in the preapocalyptic future, the MLS ceases to be a financially viable degree. That is a distinct possibility. As an academic program, the MLS is only as strong as the job market that supports it. The only reason that you pay for and pursue an MLS is to get a job. It’s not like pursuing a degree in, say, art history or English literature, where you want to expand your knowledge base and satisfy a personal intellectual interest. The sole purpose of the MLS degree is to give you a practical occupational skill set.

To be more specific, you go to library school to get a job in a library. Yes, I am aware that certain laptop MLS programs are trying to sell the notion that the MLS degree will qualify you for all different kinds of careers, but we all know that’s just used-car salesmanship. In fact, I have seen people link my name to this sales pitch: “Look at Will Manley. He ended up becoming a city manager for a rather large city.” I chuckle when I see that. I didn’t go to library school to become a city manager. In fact, being typecast as a librarian was a serious obstacle I had to overcome in order to become a city manager. But that’s a column for another day.

The MLS degree is in trouble because we’re mired in a depressed economy. Parents and students are seriously questioning the return on investment for a job training program for which there is a dwindling supply of jobs.

Ah, but when the economy recovers (and there are hopeful signs on the horizon that a recovery has started) won’t the librarian job market recover along with it?

Not necessarily.

The massive budget cuts of the last five years have forced school, academic, and public libraries to learn to function with fewer and fewer MLS holders, and library users don’t seem to notice the difference. Can they tell that there are fewer new books to choose from? Absolutely. Do they realize that there are longer and longer waits for popular ebooks? Absolutely. Do they notice when main library hours are slashed and branches are closed? Absolutely. Do they know when a professional librarian has been replaced with a paraprofessional or even a clerical person? Rarely, if ever. To the average American, a librarian is a person who works in a library.

Don’t be shocked that school boards, university administrators, city councils, city managers, library boards, and even library directors are taking close notice of this lack of perception. Yes, people still want libraries. That’s not the issue at all. No, I take that back. That is precisely the issue. People want libraries so desperately that they are quite willing to sacrifice the cost of professional staff to get full hours and robust book budgets restored.

So when a professional librarian resigns or retires, what should a library director do? The temptation is great to downgrade the professional position and put the resultant savings into books and hours. If the last five years have taught us anything, it’s that difficult choices have to be made. Administrators and trustees are under the gun to deliver the goods, and that basically means three things: computers, books, and hours.

My only surprise is that the library profession is slow to admit this reality and even slower to brainstorm new ways to train people to work in libraries.

WILL MANLEY has furnished provocative commentary on librarianship for more than 30 years and in nine books on the lighter side of library science. He blogs at Will Unwound.


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