On the MLIS: Why I’m Getting the Library Degree

While we at the Riot take some time off to rest and catch up on our reading, we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last several months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Monday, July 11th.

This post originally ran April 6, 2016.


Rioter Michelle Anne Schlesinger recently wrote In Praise of Non-Degreed Librarians, a thoughtful take on why the library degree, Master’s in Library Science (MLS), isn’t a necessary requirement to being a librarian. I fully agree. Librarians can be made from on the job experience, climbing the ranks from to assistant to librarian, and in most states you don’t need a MLS to be a librarian. It’s about the passion for people and helping them find information, the customer service aspect, the love of books and reference services, organization and community involvement and interaction. In library school it’s an ongoing debate, and I look at it this way: the last time you went to the library and someone helped you out, did you ask if they had the degree?

Not everyone needs a master’s degree to be a librarian.

But I do.

I am weeks away from having the Master’s in Library and Information Science (MLIS) and I really need it. The MLIS is a version of the library degree that “prepares graduate students for exciting careers as information professionals who work in myriad information environments and professional positions.”  Most of the jobs I’ve checked out either require the degree or lots of relevant experience, and I’ve never worked in a library or information setting. But I hope to, and one of the ways I’m going to prove myself worthy is by showing I have the skills to be a librarian or information professional based on what I’ve learned through school, and a bit of practical internship experience. It’s been a long process to get here, working full time and writing and taking online courses through San Jose State’s iSchool. And now that I’m almost done and I’m putting together my E-Portfolio, the culminating project showcasing everything I’ve learned and providing coursework as evidence, I can see how far I’ve come.

When I first thought about library school, it was because I wanted a complete career change, and this was the best way I knew to gain the tools I needed to do that. I wanted to be a youth services librarian, to introduce tweens and teens to the kind of stuff I ran to the library to read when I was that age, to work on after school programs to keep them occupied and out of trouble, to just enjoy one of my formative library periods again, from the other side. But about five seconds into my first course I realized the MLIS can be about so much more than being a librarian.

See, there’s the whole information science part, encompassing everything from learning to code and design your own website (which I’ve done), to learning to evaluate, design and implement information retrieval systems to know which are the best for different types of environments (again, done), from learning about working in environments like libraries and archives and corporate settings and schools and nonprofits.

It’s about becoming familiar the language behind the library catalog entries, like MARC (MAchine Readable Cataloging), and why it’s so important—all of the back end things that allow someone to enter a search term, find the book you need and pull it up online. It’s about cybersecurity and virtual services and information architecture and database development and web 2.0 and user experience and protecting intellectual freedom and staying on top of all of the emerging technologies—and it’s about books, and information, and providing equal (open when possible!) access to both, for everyone.

MLIS degree holders (or students in progress to obtain the degree) are art curators, prison librarians, coding gurus developing programs to teach these skills to youth, virtual trainers, academic librarians instructing other students, public librarians perfecting the art of storytime and developing programs to highlight the important role libraries play in early childhood education.

Librarians can do it all, and the MLIS degree helps you understand what path(s) you want to follow, and then provides the most current, relevant information and the historical background to prepare you to get there.

Early on, when I was feeling overwhelmed by the process, wondering if I really did need the degree to be a librarian, I was doing an independent study project working on the LIS Publications Wiki, a site that compiles information on all sorts of publications that want to hear about what librarians are up to, from scholarly journals to publications like this very one, which is how I was introduced to Book Riot in the first place. As research for my MLIS degree work.

Through the wiki I also discovered Hack Library School, a group of librarians who write tips, tools and motivations to help students navigate their way through the degree program. One writer’s perspective impressed and has stayed with me. Also feeling the strain of work/life/school, and answering the question of – why do we need the library degree? Topher Lawton, then a student now a successful, involved librarian giving back to the community, answered the question for me by opining that the MLIS is an amplifying degree: “As in, a degree with the sole purpose of exponentially increasing the knowledge and skills of the person who earns it…The degree, when done well, allows us to do everything *better,* from research to instruction to lifehacking and beyond.”

And that’s exactly what it’s done for me.

My MILS education gave me the education and tools I need to learn how to thrive in the library and information world, and it also introduced me to phenomenal librarians who imparted their knowledge to me and gave me invaluable experiences I will take with me for the rest of my life. Like my internship with Canadian nonprofit Librarians Without Borders, who partner with libraries and librarians in developing areas to provide training, resources and support so under-served communities can have books and libraries of their own.

A librarian I recently spoke with worked for many years in California libraries before she got the library degree, and then it was mostly so that she could advance to director level roles. She told me that in the end she was really glad she went back for the degree. “Going to library school gave me another way of understanding my work,” she said. “It was like living in a house but never understanding how it was built. It gave me an opportunity to look at the overall structure in a way I hadn’t before that.”

I am a lifelong learner, it’s in my blood. My parents, aunts & uncles and many friends are educators leading by example, sharing a love of learning and the structure of school to support me throughout my life. My path will always be to take the classes, get the degree, learn everything I can about a profession from an educational point of view. I’m on my second master’s and there will be more. That’s just my way. The MLIS process has been fascinating, educational, fun, thoughtful, and valuable to me in so many ways. It was absolutely the best path for me.

Do I need the library degree to be a librarian? No. I could’ve landed in a library job without the degree. But I wouldn’t change my educational path one bit. The MILS has been as necessary for me as libraries themselves, and I can’t wait to take my education, experience, and passion to the next level, and continue my own private path to library life.

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