Mar 02 2009
What’s an MLIS worth? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about $24,000 — when you compare the salaries of a master’s degreed librarian and a paraprofessional. (Assuming that you’re interested in being a librarian, since that’s still what the MLIS is primarily intended for. The most recent Library Journal salary survey finds only a small number of MLIS holders working outside the field, and the para/pro distinction is largely meaningless to other information workers.)
When considering whether to earn an MLIS, pay is just one variable. You also need to consider the transferability of the skillset, the value of professional training versus learning on the job, what librarians and other info pros are asked to do that the MLIS doesn’t cover, other options for professional training beyond the MLIS, and the value of the MLIS as a professional credential. Ultimately, how can career information workers ensure that we get the education and training we need to be successful?
The master’s makes the master
Librarianship is an ancient profession, but professional, master’s-level training for librarians is a recent phenomenon that goes back only a little over a century. Perhaps not coincidentally, the advent of library science programs coincided with both the professionalization of other fields and the initial rumblings of the information society, including the rapid rise in information volume, document types, information communication technologies, and information management tools. Professional training confers a couple of advantages: it both generalizes and steepens the learning curve more than does on-the-job training, and it provides a baseline skillset that all professionals in that field can be expected to have.
This does not prevent discussion and debate over the question of whether the professional degree is really required to make the professional. Some argue that, in traditional library settings, a paraprofessional of many years’ standing may have all of the knowledge and understanding necessary to do professional work, making the degree as a condition of promotion redundant. That said, it’s unlikely that the MLIS as a required credential for most librarian positions is going to go away anytime soon.
For non-library professional positions, the situation is murkier, largely because some kinds of information work are so new that professional training for those fields is still in its developmental stages. User experience design is one example, at least as it pertains to digital environments (one can argue, after all, that interior design is a pre-digital-era form of the same thing). We can liken this to training for IT professionals; as recently as a decade ago all you needed was some college technical support experience or a few courses in computer science. Perhaps for this reason, we seea lot of certification programs for things like content management and information architecture; these are typically easier to institute, more adaptable, and cheaper than full-scale academic programs. They also make useful supplements to academic programs, a point we’ll return to later.
When a librarian is a knowledge manager
I’ve often joked that if my title were “knowledge manager,” instead of “librarian,” I’d be making half again as much. Though relatively few MLIS holders pursue careers outside the library profession, the principles involved in other kinds of information work are, at core, the same: the acquisition of information expressed in some form less ephemeral than speech, its organization into some useful arrangement, and its distribution and promotion to users (perhaps with some teaching involved).
Beyond that, however, how exactly one does this varies enormously. This is where the question of whether the MLIS adequately serves the broader landscape of the information professions really becomes pertinent. At about the time that librarianship was becoming professionalized, other people were doing other kinds of information work that have developed largely separately from the library profession. Information architecture, user experience design, and knowledge management arguably developed apart from librarianship; the current environment is more an attempt at rapprochement than a broadening of library science.
This means that, library science programs seem to be largely interchangeable for those who want to be librarians. However, if you’re interested in being some other kind of information professional, it’s worth examining these programs closely to see if they offer what you’ll need to pursue the kind of career you want.
“Lifelong learning:” More than just a catchphrase
Professional degree programs are necessarily slow to adapt and limited in their customizability. Developments in communications and computing fields are radically changing how librarians and other information professionals do our jobs. Already, we see an emphasis in some librarian positions on building tools and information resources, not just acquiring or providing access to them; this has been the stock in trade of other kinds of information work for years, even decades. Since a master’s program of any kind, no matter how comprehensive, is still basically a starter program for a profession — one will not come out of an MLIS program with the expertise of a 20-year veteran, no matter how much work and internship experience you rack up — you can expect to engage in some continuing education on a regular basis.
This can be where some of these certification programs and other forms of training come in. Courses abound for all kinds of things, ranging from master’s-level classes you may not have found time for in graduate school to courses on basics like HTML (or XHTML). With information work of all kinds changing as rapidly as it is, even an MLIS from an up-to-date, state-of-the-art program will be outdated in its particulars within a few years.
Making your decision
Ultimately, the decision of whether to MLIS or not to MLIS depends on your career plans and goals. It’s the definitive degree for a librarian, and can be excellent training for other information professions as well; some of those IA and UX positions prefer or require an MLIS. When it comes to professional training, however, the question must be whether the training you’re contemplating suits the requirements of the work. Whether you choose to pursue a master’s degree, build your own training program or course of study, or some combination of the two, it’s worth considering how the MLIS program’s training in reference, collection development, knowledge organization, and more can help you further your career.
Genevieve Williams is Undergraduate Research Librarian at Pacific Lutheran University. She has also been a content editor for Amazon.com, a freelance writer, and a public relations coordinator.
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