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Do librarians really need a master's degree? The American Library Association says yes.

By Casey Reep

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July 28, 2014

Librarians don’t actually push book-laden carts or memorize the Dewey Decimal System. Several specialized librarians employed in a typical library have responsibilities that can include anything from teaching patrons how to use computers and find reliable information to managing budgets for buying books and costly databases. Some work with the library catalog to organize books, CDs, and DVDs by subject, author, and content. Others answer reference questions and make book recommendations. On the whole, all librarians help patrons find information.  

But to do that, they need a master’s degree. 

I was astonished to find this out when I worked as a page at a public library during high school. (It was actually my job to push carts and shelve books.) Even working within the institution, I didn’t know what responsibilities and duties librarians had in their daily schedules. I finally decided to do some research and find some answers.       

A century ago, librarians didn’t need a master’s degree to work. While there was an established library school in New York for training librarians, the American Library Association recommended only two or three years of college education to prepare for it. 

But Charles C. Williamson’s report Training for Library Service, published in 1923, argued that there should be a distinction between the professional work and the clerical work done in libraries. Education for the professionals was his suggestion. Local librarians in Chicago rallied in support of proposed education for librarian professionals, and in 1926 the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago offered its first summer institute for Library Science. Other library schools began to appear around this time.

By the 1930s, a bachelor of science in library service was the standard—it was a four-year undergraduate program followed by a one-year, 30-hour major in library service for students seeking librarianship. In 1948, however, there was “nationwide professional dissatisfaction” with these educational patterns, resulting in the replacement of the five-year bachelor’s degree program with the five-year master of library science (MLS) degree program. 

Then the 1960s saw the introduction of the modern-day two-year master’s degree. 

What caused the change from a B.S. in library science to a two-year master’s program for college graduates? 

Certainly, technological advances have made their way into libraries. Many resources have been digitized over the years, and computers are now commonplace. Some of these changes made librarianship easier—complex cataloging is now copied from the Library of Congress and sometimes carried out by staff instead of librarians. 

But perhaps the introduction of labor-saving devices made it harder for librarians to find information, and thus justified a longer period of education. Perhaps librarians need more technical skills.  

Let’s look at another technical occupation for comparison. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, engineers need a bachelor’s degree for most entry-level jobs; librarians need a master’s degree. It would then follow that librarians need more technical skills than engineers, who design and construct roads, skyscrapers, and airplanes. 

If that is the case, librarians with the higher degree and greater technical skills should earn more money. But that is not the case—far from it. 

The median annual pay for librarians in 2012 was $55,370. Among engineers, agricultural engineers earned the least with $74,000, and petroleum engineers earned the most with $130,280 in median annual pay. Why can an engineer get a job with four years of education while a librarian must often spend six years in order to start at the bottom? In North Carolina, the median tuition and fees for residents is $33,140 for a four-year engineering degree while it is $41,380 for a six-year library science degree, based on proposed tuition for the upcoming academic year. Not only are librarians’ salaries lower than engineers’, the opportunity and financial costs for librarians are higher.  

It’s no wonder that Forbes denoted Library and Information Science as the worst master’s degree for a job. 

From a logical standpoint, it would make sense to lower the degree requirements to a bachelor’s. It would cut down the opportunity cost for librarians who want to start working in a job they love, and would drastically decrease the financial cost of earning the degree. 

Unfortunately, that will not work. 

The American Library Association lists the MLS (master’s in library science) as a requirement to serve as a librarian in most types of libraries. A study of entry-level job requirements by Nazi Torabi, a liaison librarian at McGill University in Canada, concluded that a master’s degree was compulsory for entry-level positions, but that the degree alone was insufficient, calling for practical experience from internships, co-op programs, or employment.      

And even these prerequisites do not ensure an immediate job after graduation—many MLS graduates are having a hard time finding full-time work. A survey taken by the Library Journal in July found that many MLS graduates are working part-time or temporary jobs. A librarian in charge of hiring said in another Library Journal article that “systems require years of part-time work from credentialed librarians before even considering them for full-time positions.” Sixteen percent of public librarians and 6 percent of academic librarians are part-time. Additionally, employment in libraries has been declining since 2002 and reached its lowest point in sixteen years in May 2013. 

All of these factors may be examples of an unusually successful effort to protect jobs. 

Increasing degree requirements along with additional certification for younger librarians mean more job security for older librarians who are already working full-time. Eighty-six percent of full-time librarians are between the ages of 30 and 59, according to the American Library Association. In some academic libraries, tenure is given to librarians. These standards and requirements, as Collingswood (N.J.) Public Library director and Lead Pipe blog author Brett Bonfield notes in an essay, are “minimizing competition and protecting working librarians from termination.” 

Other librarians share similar views. They argue that the master’s degree is devalued or unnecessary, considering that librarians’ responsibilities have not changed drastically since the late 19th century. One librarian says that “the advent of the MLS and MLIS programs … has created a new layer of requirements for budding librarians but has not been accompanied by a shift in duties and workload.”  The Annoyed Librarian, who now has her blog hosted on the Library Journal, remarked that the librarianship master’s program is boring and intellectually unstimulating. Still others question the justification for the master’s degree—librarians do just about everything, remarked 21st Century Library Blog and MLS graduate Dr. Steven Matthews, so the logic that those with and without an MLS degree are assigned mutually exclusive specialized jobs is false. Still other librarians wonder whether a bachelor’s degree would be sufficient. 

In my view, for the responsibilities a librarian has, a bachelor’s degree is sufficient. Many aspects of information-seeking can be done on the job, and it hardly takes higher education to read books to children. As cataloging is being outsourced, it requires fewer librarians to organize materials by this method, and the use of the standard Library of Congress records overturns the need for making new records. 

But in terms of job entry requirements, I do not foresee a positive change. Libraries seem to be successful in protecting their employment. As more students graduate with MLS degrees every year—North Carolina alone produces an average of 369 graduates per year from its five graduate library schools—it will become even harder for them to find full-time jobs. Degree requirements may even go up to counter the influx of graduates in the job market. This will only hurt future graduates, who will undoubtedly have trouble finding jobs about which they are passionate.

 


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