The MLIS, in theory

Meredith Farkas’ post, Skills for the 21st Century Librarian, raises some interesting questions about the nature of librarianship. She writes, “while some of my courses [in library school] may have given me a firm grounding in the theories that undergird the profession, I don’t find them relevant to what I do on a day-to-day basis.” Further, she notes, many “of the topics covered at my library school…are perhaps better learned on the job.” So, is an MLIS degree even necessary to be a librarian? Or is being able to do the day to day functions of the job enough?

My answer to both of these questions is no.

I think it’s too simplistic to say that an MLIS is required to be a librarian. I strongly suspect there are people working in the field who meet all of the ALA’s Core Competencies and understand the “theories that undergird the profession,” as Farkas puts it, without the benefit of an MLIS degree. I think they are—and should be considered—librarians. The difficulty of this for the library profession, though, is that we have no external way of telling whether someone is able both to unite theory and meet the day to day realities of being a librarian or if they are just “doing their job” and missing the requisite big picture perspective Farkas talks about. And that, I think, is where the MLIS comes in.

As we’ve seen in our own library school program, while opportunities to obtain practical experience abound and are encouraged, they are not required. But plenty of theory is. I think the MLIS today stands as an external affirmation that the bearer understands the theoretical underpinnings of the profession, with library schools leaving the practical skills to be picked up on the job. And I do think understanding the why of the things we do is important. When I was in elementary school, we had to learn how to do long division before we could use a calculator. I think the article “The Online Catalog: Exceeding Our Grasp,” by Anne Grodzins Lipow, which appeared in the October 1989 issue of American Libraries, describes the same principle, applied to just one aspect of a library. Lipow writes:

“This incomplete attention to staff’s understanding of how the public catalog works can lead to a quiet erosion of a library’s catalog expertise, an abandonment of responsibility by public service staff to provide that expertise, and a misguided justification by library administrators for replacing professional librarians with staff who have limited searching skills…if a user calls a filing problem in the online catalog to the attention of a staff member, there is a good chance that neither one will understand why it happened or how to correct it…Without this knowledge, that staff person to whom the public turns for advice is only a small step ahead of the patron, if that.”

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2 thoughts on “The MLIS, in theory

  1. I really don’t think a MLIS degree is needed to be a librarian. I worked at a Public Library for the past decade, and I learn lots of stuff that are practical and functional to make the job go by smoothly. Most of the things I learn, I will not really use that much, but it acts as something I can use to reference and refer to if needed. Big 6? Super 3? I took the INFX class on SQL…and I don’t think I will use SQL ever again! =p

    I tell my friends that I need to go back to school to be a librarian, and their reaction are humorously the same! “What? You need to go to school the be a librarian?” If everyone else thinks like that, something is up in the air…

  2. What a great post, Nel! I totally agree that some people already possess the requirements necessary to be a librarian sans MLIS. For those people, grad school can be considered kind of a “putting the skills into action” thing. A really, really expensive putting the skills into action thing.

    One way I thought about it was this: I learned a lot of librarian-y habits and procedures from great librarians before I started grad school. But maybe some of those librarians weren’t naturals and became great from learning and practicing the theoretical aspects of librarianship they picked up in grad school.

    It’s such a person by person situation it’s hard to say that grad school is a completely useless requirement.

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