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'MLS strongly preferred'.

One of my academic colleagues in library land sent out an email. Her message read, "I recently saw an announcement for a library technical assistant position in which an MLS, while not required, was listed as 'strongly preferred.'"

Her message continued: "The duties of the position are clearly of a paraprofessional nature. It seems to me that this announcement, with the MLS 'strongly preferred' as a qualification, is emblematic and symptomatic of a devaluing of our professional degree that is occurring in all types of libraries today. I think it is worthwhile for us to reflect--in library schools, in our local, state and national library organizations, and in our own workplaces--what our professional degree means anymore."

Meanwhile, another academic colleague--one with a couple of decades' worth of experience--told me that the starting salaries for new librarians being hired at her large research institution were getting higher and higher "for people who have a library degree but not a whole lot of experience." She was particularly concerned about who was being hired for library jobs that would logically seem to require specialized knowledge and/or training.


"We have a nuclear collider here," my colleague said. "You'd think they'd want someone (for a science librarian position) who had at least some sort of background in physics." Instead, she said that they settle for the lowest common denominator and spend several years training the person, who then leaves ... and takes his or her newly acquired subject area expertise right out the door.

The Navel-Gazing Question

On the surface, it looks as though we're talking about a couple of different issues here. But if you give it a little thought, you can see how they're both related to the same navel-gazing question that gets asked over and over again in our profession: What, exactly, is the value of an M.L.S. degree? Note that I use the term "M.L.S." in a generic sense. Some of us have M.L.I.S. degrees, for example, and my degree is an M.A. in Library and Information Science.

I'm sure I've written about this issue before in any number of iterations. I'm as prone to navel-gazing as anyone else or maybe more so since I've also worked in journalism, another profession whose practitioners are constantly obsessing over their collective value.

To be perfectly honest, this is as much about perception as it is about anything else. As far as a sizable chunk of the general populace is concerned, anyone who works in a library doing anything at all is a librarian. And this is in spite of the fact that the profession has changed radically since the late 1980s, when I graduated from University of South Florida School of Library and Information Science.

At the time, I remember thinking that a library degree represented job security. I could always walk into a public library or school or the local community college and get a job. I might not get rich, but at least I was employable.

Now? Not so much.

But in spite of the lackluster job market, library school is arguably more popular than ever. And this is why you can even get your master's degree online now. But then, what are you really qualified to do?

For many of us, librarianship is a second career, and we each bring something a little different to the profession. I remember being quite impressed with the diverse backgrounds of many of my library school classmates: professional musician, police officer, automobile assembly-line worker, human resources manager, retired army sergeant, and registered nurse.

In an ideal world, there would be suitable specialized library positions for all sorts of people in organizations where they could each make a valuable contribution. But look at what has happened over the years.

Special libraries in particular have been disappearing since well before the Great Recession. I've heard many complaints that our professional associations have done little or nothing to promote the value of our profession. And yeah, I'll say it: I'm talkin' to you, SLA(Special Libraries Association). How much time and money was wasted in an attempt several years ago to rebrand the organization rather than actually working to promote the profession?

Finding the Perfect Candidate

At any rate, the good old days are long gone, and many of us feel fortunate to have any sort of library job at all. The job market being what it is, you will indeed see paraprofessional employment listings where an M.L.S. is "strongly preferred."

It is also why many academic libraries are satisfied with "good enough" rather than making an effort to find someone with interest and expertise in a specific subject area, those who may be a better fit for a particular position from the get-go and will likely stick around longer. "Good enough" is easy to find.

Somewhere along the line, we--as members of a profession--have allowed ourselves to become generic, interchangeable parts and, in all too many cases, glorified clerical staff.

A master's degree in library science is only as valuable as whatever else you are able to bring to the table. Library school is not like medical school or law school. And librarians are not like accountants or engineers, where there is a fairly well-defined skill set that generally leads to some sort of professional certification.

For better or for worse, it's up to you to define and demonstrate your value because librarianship does not have the same clear identity that so many other professions do, like it or not.

I am currently employed by an organization that had no idea it needed a librarian. I was hired to do web work and a few other things. It's an office full of behavioral health professionals who are busy traveling and training other behavioral health professionals. It quickly became obvious to me that they didn't have time to keep up with their professional literature. I started providing a weekly research update for them.

They were clearly frustrated by MEDLINE and the electronic journal library at our parent organization. I started doing their searches for them. When I overheard someone complaining to someone else that she couldn't find certain statistics she needed for a presentation, I found them. She was thrilled. And then I was fielding similar requests from others.

One day, someone stopped by my office and told me, "I don't know how we ever managed without you here. You save us so much time." And I said, "Thank you. That is what librarians do."

Shirley Duglin Kennedy is the web content strategist for the Center for Deployment Psychology in North Bethesda, Md., and editor, with Gary Price, of the weblogs Full Text Reports ... and INFOdocket. Send your comments about this column to
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Title Annotation:INTERNET WAVES; Master of Arts in Library and Information Science
Author:Kennedy, Shirley Duglin
Publication:Information Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2012
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