In defense of the MLS; or, confess your unpopular opinion
I have been mostly off Twitter these days, save for daily dips to see what new horrible political news has taken shape. So I am, here, admittedly jumping into a (probably contentious) debate without having seen all sides. But since I happened to catch a whiff of this evergreen libraryland discord over the value of the MLS and whether those without it can truly be called librarians, and what it means for the future of the profession… I have some thoughts. Apologies if I sound like a broken record.
I think it’s telling that so many people complain about the MLS by disparaging it as nothing more than “a union card” without actually considering what that means. (Sidenote: in 2015, only 20% of librarians were union members). What is the problem here? If it’s the less-than-rigorous quality of the MLS curriculum, fine (though I will say that I have had less-than-rigorous instruction in many other disciplines, not just library science—ymmv). But that’s not getting to the point of professionalization. Part of it has to do with enclosure: to identify the specialized knowledge or expertise that is required for the job, so that those who do the job can enjoy a certain level of professional autonomy. Autonomy is important.
I can be good at numbers and bookkeeping but if I want to get a job in accounting I know that I need to get certified. People do it all the time. I think what we need to be talking about is how our institutions and organizations can support individuals in getting the degree as a path to a library job. I had a colleague in library school who worked at an NYPL branch library and was earning her MLS, funded (perhaps partially) by her current employer, so that she could become a librarian and not a library technician. And she did, at her neighborhood branch. This is a thing that happens. It should happen more often.
At my workplace, an MLS is required for a library appointment at the Instructor level. If you get a second master’s you can move up to the Assistant Professor level: tenure-track and an increased salary. Oh, and our benefits include a tuition waiver, so you can chip away at that second master’s degree without paying up front or taking out student loans (though there is that nasty business of doing an MA while working full-time). This is a thing that happens. It should happen more often.
The MLS is a professional degree, one that opens up a field of jobs that would have been previously unavailable to you. That does not mean it confers instant expertise, no two-year degree program can do that. But it socializes you into a profession (hey, it professionalizes you!) and orients you towards the history, ethics, and internal debates of libraries. I’m not saying you can’t get this from experience working in a library. I’m saying that it is perfectly okay to require a credential from people if the point is to build a profession that coheres around a code of ethics, where the goal of employment goes beyond personal gain. It does not mean that having an MLS makes you more virtuous or sincere or better-at-your-job than those without it. But it does signify a commitment to the profession—not just your current occupation, but to the profession at large. We don’t even realize it while we’re doing it.
But back to that recent debate—the resolution in question was talking about the degree requirement for an executive director of a professional organization. This is not about whether an experienced library worker should qualify for a librarian position without holding an MLS. I actually think it’s ok to pass on that upper-tier opportunity if you don’t have the degree required in almost all of the jobs in that profession. And if you’re an experienced library worker (i.e., not already a library director), I think there should be a path to the degree offered by your employer. Maybe that’s a pipe dream, but I think it’s more beneficial to libraries and librarians than actively dismantling the MLS as a credential. Yes, the privileged have an advantage in getting a credential, but that doesn’t negate the benefit that is conferred when the disadvantaged obtain a responsibly administered credential. I believe that we can do the lift all boats thing and try to bring quality, financially-supported MLS opportunities to experienced library workers who want to pursue them. Or, we could in theory.
I want to say one more thing: yes, Chris Bourg is an amazingly talented library director, and Bethany Nowviskie has done a phenomenal job leading the DLF, without the MLS. I have no doubt they made their institutions and organization better and they most certainly improved the lives of their patrons and staff, not to mention the librarian community at large. Aren’t they proof that the MLS should be a nice-to-have and not a requirement for such roles?
In a vacuum, yes. Of course. But we do not live in a vacuum. In the U.S. (and outside it!) we are waking up to a government that persistently defunds and is actively trying to dismantle public education, cultural heritage institutions, the arts, humanities, you name it. IMLS itself might be on the chopping block, the NEA and NEH are also at risk. So let’s ask: why not just have the Parks Department run our public libraries like community centers to provide PCs and Internet access? Why not just have the Business Services division on campus contract with a company to provide access to databases? Why not just have that volunteer parent take care of organizing the books in the school library, or ask Scholastic to send us an assortment and planogram? LIU literally locked out their faculty and replaced them with temporary hires to teach college classes! There are probably hundreds of thousands of people in this country who think those are fine solutions, and our response is always, “Librarians! Code of ethics! Expertise!” We know the value we bring, our supporters know the value we bring, and we all truly believe that the lives of our patrons and our society generally are improved by it. Not to get all “slippery slope” on everyone, but… the MLS credential is the only piece holding this system together. It’s a deeply flawed system, but if the MLS is just a “union card” then that’s a hell of a lot closer to a union than most librarians will get. Solidarity forever? Maybe? Please?
The fight for libraries hinges on the future of librarians. We have to find a way to open the doors to our profession without letting go of the only thing that makes it a profession.