Mar 02 2009

To MLIS or not to MLIS?

Published by rachel at 10:01 am under careers, education

by Genevieve Williams

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, a freelance writer, and a public relations coordinator.

8 Responses to “To MLIS or not to MLIS?”

  1. [...] To MLIS or not to MLIS?… [...]

  2. Shaunna Mireauon 03 Mar 2009 at 10:28 am

    Great article! As a Library Technician with many years experience working in a Librarian role, I can tell you that my job opportunities over the years have been limited by not having an MLIS.

    In a niche market (I manage a law firm library) it is possible to move forward to a position of management responsibility without an MLIS, however it would be more achievable, and in a shorter time frame with credentials.

    I think the biggest issue is that our profession and the knowledge required to make good decisions for your organization has a constant learning cliff. If you come to any library position without the willingness to climb the daily cliff, you are sunk.

    Every library worker has a critical role to play in making a visit (virtual or in person) to a library a positive experience. This field is all about professionalism, marketing, and customer service.

  3. Genevieve Williamson 05 Mar 2009 at 10:37 am

    Learning cliff–that’s a great way of putting it. I didn’t want to spend too much time on the credentialing issue because it’s been discussed so extensively elsewhere, but I do think that whether one can do a professional librarian’s job without it depends a lot on the individual and the context he/she is working in.

  4. Tornayaa Miltonon 05 Mar 2009 at 11:42 pm

    I feel that a MLIS degree is important when applying for administrative librarian positions. Because the fact is when one earns the MLIS degree, through what ever courses they take, they are somewhat more prepared professionally than one who has been a beginner in a professional librarian position and is learning the ropes as they go along because they were a favorite among the selection group which hired the individual. I am working in an environment which I feel that my degree does not mean anything( which I know it does) because the person in charge of the library does not have a MLIS and she is not familiar with the job and I have a MLIS and I cant even get considered to get paid as a professional librarian because of structural polices which are in place in the rural communities; so I really feel that one you have earned your MLIS, then it is only right that you operate in a professional role no matter what your classification or pay grade maybe.

  5. Chris Fergsonon 07 Mar 2009 at 10:48 am

    Stimulating article, Genevieve, but perhaps for reasons you didn’t intend. As an academic librarian of 30 years, schooled by people whose professional and social experiences were rooted in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I’ve been keenly aware of librarianship’s long-standing sensitivity to status, pay, and intellectual origins throughout my career. And periodically I’ve wondered when we as a profession would clearly move beyond the stigmas and low pay associated with being a largely female helping profession, on par historically with the low pay and low status of nurses and school teachers. Nurses are now emerging as the true heroes of the health industry, teachers have moved center stage in the arena of education reform, and your article (while this likely was not your intention) gives evidence to me that librarians have made a great leap forward in social and professional status over the last decade or two. If we were a publicly-traded stock in the early ‘90s with the emergence of the Internet and expectations that the Library of Congress would be on a CD next year, we would have sunk to no better than a penny stock. These days, librarianship is generally regarded as a blue chip stock (although that might not be the best analogy at this moment in U.S. economic history). But you catch my drift – it’s the thoughtful understanding of our profession’s history, deep awareness of its relatively recent transformation into a critical player in the “broader information landscape,” and professional engagement beyond the library silo evidenced in your piece that validates my hope for the future of our profession. Nicely done.

  6. Genevieve Williamson 11 Mar 2009 at 10:55 am

    Tornayaa, your comment brings up a couple of thoughts I had while working on this article.

    Several people have made the point, in discussions like the one I linked to, that one can learn the profession on the job, but I think your comment emphasizes why that isn’t always a good idea. One can learn the kinds of things that MBA and other professional masters’ programs teach on the job as well; I don’t think that that by itself invalidates MBA training. But the point about professional preparation is a good one.

    The issue of a supervisor who doesn’t understand the value of an employee’s professional training is a frustrating one, and I think is a problem in a lot of professional arenas. I don’t know if requiring the supervisor to have the same professional credentials is necessarily the only answer–my father, a lifelong computer programmer, once told me that the best boss he ever had didn’t know anything about programming, but she DID know how to manage people and to value their work–but I do think it’s a valid one, especially in libraries where the director is also called on to be a librarian.

    For any academic librarians who might be reading this and are attending ACRL, I see that there’s going to be a debate on the MLIS on Friday.

  7. Karenon 30 Mar 2009 at 5:23 pm

    While I can empathize with your dilemma, I have one of my own. I worked as the “librarian” of an elementary school library for 9 years. (My official title, as a credentialled teacher was “resource teacher in the library”.) I built the shelf-list from scratch, automated the library, ordered the books, took care of processing of books, catalogued, ran circulation, shelved, ran information literacy classes, did story times, book fairs, visiting authors, family nights, literacy nights, and other programming. I helped train other library clerks and helped to put through a district-wide strategic plan, as well as carried out a strategic plan for my little library.
    Although I had little formal training in how to run a library, I watched other libraries and librarians with a critical eye and asked for help when and where needed. I doubt many professionally trained (MLIS) librarians could or would have been able to find fault with my practices. Indeed, the district librarian commended my program as “one of the most successful programs in the entire district; one of the few that has really taken off.” He commended me for having the second highest circulation, district-wide, in spite of the fact that we were not one of the biggest schools.
    Unfortunately, the district decided that school librarians were unneeded at the elementary level, that mere secretaries who scarcely know what libraries are should run the elementary school libraries, so I was forced first back into the classroom, and then into the public library system, where my skills, experience, and abilities are utterly IGNORED because I lack a PIECE OF PAPER that says that I can do the job that I’ve ALREADY DONE for a decade. I’ve even had librarians tell me that I’m unqualified even to read a story to children because I don’t have my MLIS… not to mention that I taught school for half a decade and ran story-time for forty classes each week for 9 additional years. When I first came to the public library, the librarians apologized for running me off my feet on my first day of work. I goggled at them and asked: “That was running me off my feet? This is holiday routine compared to what I did each day at the elementary school library!”
    I am currently enrolled in an MLIS program, and thus far I am finding the whole thing extremely frustrating… not because the learning curve is so steep, but because it is NOT. I’m writing useless papers about stuff that I’ve already done for real. I’m spending forty hours each week reading about stuff that I could and should be doing because I have the experience and know-how to do the job. Had I known as an undergraduate that I needed an MLIS to do the job I love, I would have done it immediately after I graduated, back in the days when I thought that college work means something. Instead, I’m forced into a meaningless degree in order to prove to the library community that I’m capable of doing a job that I’ve already proven I can do successfully.
    Instead of being a productive and useful citizen of my community, I’m stuck, sitting in a virtual classroom, spinning my wheels. There has GOT to be a better way for those who have come “up through the ranks” to be able to bypass some of this fal-de-ral in order to prove that one has what it takes to become a librarian.

  8. CJon 06 May 2009 at 1:16 pm


    As one who has been employed as a librarian sans MLIS for most of my career, I can empathize with what you’re saying. I have been a solo librarian in hospital libraries, a Montessori school (pre-K through middle school), and for the past 9 years, in a law firm. That said, I absolutely and wholeheartedly believe that the MLIS degree should be required for entry into the professional ranks, and will be pursuing it in the near future.

    Just as a paralegal can’t practice law, and registered nurses can’t practice medicine, no matter what their level of education, training and experience (as well as expertise), library para-professionals/library techs are not professional librarians unless they have earned the MLIS (or similar) degree.

    I have obtained a wealth of knowledge over the decades that I have worked in various library settings, but there’s a foundation of knowledge of the profession that I do not have; I lack the underpinnings that make one a “real” librarian. I have been trained to perform job-specific duties in each of my positions, but not educated in the core disciplines of the profession; I haven’t studied the history, theory and practice of professional librarianship among other things. Far from veiwing coursework in these areas as being “useless”, I view them as necessary to having a full understanding of the profession, and look forward to writing those “meaningless” papers (having already obtained her degree, my daughter has informed me about the “dreaded” foundtation courses).

    When physicians-to-be are still in medical school, they have to rotate through all of the medical disciplines, no matter what specialty they’re interested in. This means that a person intending to be a psychiatrist or dermatologist still must pay their dues in the obstetric, pediatric, and other rotations. Apart from “dues paying”, these rotations are a necessary part of becoming a physician because they introduce the student to the whole person.

    Associate degree nurses who want to advance their careers pursue the BSN. They may feel frustrated that they have to take coursework in literature, philosophy and other subjects which they feel are completely unrelated to nursing. Some may also feel resentment at having to put in the time, expense and effort to obtain another degree when they’ve already worked for years as a nurse. They understand though that advancement in their chosen profession requires this additional degree, or degrees depending on how far they want to go. If advanced education is required for entry into other careers, why should it be any different with the library profession?