Who Needs the MLS?  In a Fast-Changing Field, Librarians Consider the Investment.

How valuable is a master’s degree in library science? Opinions from the field have fluctuated, along with the fortunes of the profession. 

Johnna Percell, children’s librarian at DCPL, found her graduate training in diversity and inclusion invaluable. Photo by Joy Asico

How valuable is a master’s degree in library science? Opinions from the field have fluctuated, along with the fortunes of the profession. In 2012, Forbes declared library and information science the worst master’s degree, based on pay and limited job prospects. The article was published amid a hiring drought brought on by a recession, which lasted until 2013.

The number of library science degrees awarded in 2016 was 5,715, a decrease of seven percent from 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://ow.ly/Rbil30lTe5Q; that data did not distinguish among degree variants, including school certification tracks). Meanwhile, graduates in the workforce rose by 9.5 percent from 2015 to 2016, to 23,514. Librarian employment is expected to grow nine percent from 2016 to 2026, about average for all careers.

For schools offering the MLS and related degrees, including certificates required by many states for school librianship—Maryland, Washington, and New York among them—the post-recession years were a time to rethink what degrees must offer to attract and prepare students for an evolving field. Changes in tech, the nature of information, and school priorities have shifted communities’ expectations of libraries. As John Carlo Bertot, codirector of the Information and Policy Access Center at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies (UMD iSchool), puts it, "Librarians are caseworkers as well as information professionals."

Rebuilding a degree program

By 2014, the school librarian specialization at the UMD iSchool, which historically enrolled around 60 students, had dwindled to a handful. Professors, including Bertot, the MLS director at the time, held seminars with speakers from the American Library Association (ALA), along with other luminaries in the field, and arranged listening sessions with managers and hiring officials in libraries across the state.

The effort yielded lessons. "We’ve seen a pretty systematic dismantling of public sphere safety nets for the better part of four decades," says Bertot. "The library is becoming this social safety net within communities. We needed to really rethink our program and how we prepare people for careers that might be quite different from what they thought they were getting into."

The UMD iSchool also took strides to bolster U.S. school library leadership. Since 2011, a team led by Ann Carlson Weeks, professor of practice at the UMD iSchool, has run the Lilead Project, created to build community among school district library supervisors. In partnership with Old Dominion University’s Darden College of Education, the Lilead Project offers fellowships and professional development to supervisors.

Regarding changing demands in public librarianship, Bertot points out that the DC Public Library (DCPL) hires applicants with backgrounds in social work. One library director told a crowd of about 70 library professionals that given the choice between an applicant with an MLS and one with retail background, he’d choose the one with retail experience.

"If you’re not someone who likes to deal with people, this probably isn’t the field for you," Bertot says. "You may have nothing in common with the people who come to you for help—desperately seeking help in some cases. If you’re not willing to hold back judgment, don’t pursue an MLS, because not all libraries serve comfortable, middle-class populations. It’s up to you to find a way to reengage those who have been left behind, to move them forward with the services you have."

This reality check led the university to relaunch the degree. The MLS became an MLIS (Master in Library and Information Science) with new specializations, including ones titled "diversity and inclusion" and "the youth experience," which focuses on understanding how young people interact with technology.

Stefanie Freeman’s employer, Bowie State University,offered tuition assistance for her MLIS.

Valuable training for diverse patrons

Johnna Percell found the diversity and inclusion specialization invaluable to her position in the DCPL main branch, where she is a children’s librarian in a new department called "outreach and inclusion." She and five other librarians are charged with identifying who is not coming to the library and how to make them patrons.

In particular, the degree allowed Percell time to consider how her background might play a part in how she relates to patrons who are different from her. "I’m a white girl going into predominantly black neighborhoods. How do I make sure I’m not just imposing my own values and not just being a little white savior?" she says. "The MLIS allowed me time to sort through some of my own privileges and how that might come into play [as] I’m interacting with my patrons. Reflections like these helped me to design my programming with more community input than I might have otherwise."

This summer, Percell visited day camps run by the Department of Parks and Recreation and the DC Housing Authority, and youth organizations, like the Boys and Girls Club. She brought books—including a picture book about Mahalia Jackson and a kids’ version of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, funded by the "Book Rich Environment" initiative.

She also led projects connecting kids with local history. One was modeled after the Hunger Wall created by the Poor People’s Campaign on the National Mall in 1968. Back then, participants wrote about why they were camping out on the Mall and what they hoped to change. With Percell’s guidance, kids made their own Hunger Wall using historical photos from the DC campaign, their own art, and messages such as "No More Silence; End Gun Violence." Percell and colleagues arranged for the posters to be hung outside of local businesses.

"Could I have learned some of what I do on the job? Sure, but on the job there is always more to do than time to do it," Percell says. "Finding the time to get into the ethics and bigger-picture thinking about some of the issues in our field would be challenging."

Still, Percell feels conflicted about the considerable cost for entry into the field. (In 2016, median in-state, public university tuition was $7,238, and out-of-state, private tuition was $37,500, according to U.S. Department of Education data.) "My job is about breaking down barriers to access, and I learned about how to do that in my MLIS program. Yet we have such a huge barrier to entry in our field," she says. "Because of that, we are a predominantly white field. I think we need to think critically about how we can change that."

Some libraries offer tuition assistance in exchange for a promise to work for the system for an agreed-upon number of years. That’s the route that Stefanie Freeman, library services supervisor at Bowie State University, took. Like others working in lower-level library positions, Freeman couldn’t afford graduate school; she was still paying back loans for her undergrad degree in public relations. Freeman took a circuitous route up the career ladder, volunteering at the Library of Congress and her local library, and eventually landing a full-time job as a library associate at a neighborhood branch. When a supervisory position opened up, she got it by default: no one with an MLS applied. That qualified Freeman for the position at Bowie State, where she got tuition assistance for an MLIS.

Her goal is to land an administrative position in the public library. Freeman maintains that all librarians need professional preparation. "You have to research underserved populations, including the homeless and the mentally ill, and figure out how to serve their particular needs," she says.

Scholarships aimed at promoting diversity in the profession include ALA’s Spectrum Scholarship for students who are American Indian, Asian, African American, and Latinx, among other underrepresented ethnic groups. Kristina Holzweiss, educational technology enrichment specialist at Syosset (NY) High School and SLJ’s 2015 School Librarian of the Year, laments librarianship’s lack of diversity as well as the expense of the degree. She earned hers from Long Island University, which had a higher tuition than other programs she considered, because she felt it was superior. She is against dispensing with school librarian certification requirements, believing it would reinforce the view that school librarians are little more than "people who check out your books and tell you to bring them back in two weeks."

Holzweiss was a seventh grade English teacher when she returned to school for her MLS. She suggests librarians frame the degree and hang it prominently—but adds that its value is much more profound than showing others your professional credentials. "Nothing can replace sitting with your peers and learning from each other," she says. "No one will understand the obstacles that pertain to your little corner of the world like the people in your geographical area. I’m still in contact with people from my MLS program, and those relationships are important to me."

Meanwhile, school librarians have been fighting to keep even minimal certification in place, as some are replaced with lower-paid, noncertified staff. A few years ago, Washington’s Professional Educator Standards Board voted to eliminate certification as a requirement and instead make would-be school librarians take only an exam. Protest letters poured in from the presidents of ALA, the American Association of School Librarians, and community members.

"One board member told me she had never gotten so many calls and letters on a single subject before," says Christie Kaaland, a professor in the school library endorsement program at Antioch University in Seattle, who led the charge against the downgrade and won. She presented testimony to the board alongside certified librarians. "You don’t know what you don’t know about being a librarian until you’ve taken the classes."

Those classes train librarians to become leaders in literacy and technology, says Heather Moorefield-Lang, assistant professor in the department of library and information studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “They can create booktalks using the latest tech tools. They can create digital storytelling experiences in online makerspace environments. They can encourage their faculty and students to do the same.” 

“We want them to leave [graduate school] as leaders, instructors, collaborators, program administrators, and teachers…to know how to integrate technology, build strong collections, engage in peer educator collaboration, lead and manage their library program, and advocate for the field,” adds Moorefield-Lang. “This is why an MLIS/MLS degree is so important: professors in the field are providing boots-on-the-ground training for what you will do every day in your libraries.”

Empowering school librarians

Some graduate programs now teach students how to publicize their expertise and demand recognition. Renee Hill, senior lecturer and director of the school library specialization at the UMD iSchool, instructs future librarians to write newsletters highlighting collaborations with teachers, examples of what the school library can do for teachers, and announcements of new tech purchases. Fundraising skills are also critical. "Bring in money!" Hill says. "How do you find out where the grants are? How do you write a good grant application? This is an assignment I give my students: Identify a need in a school. How would you ask for money?"

It was a course in librarianship advocacy that Ali Schilpp, SLJ’s 2018 School Librarian of the Year, found most useful while earning a master’s of science in instructional technology from Towson University. Now a school librarian at Northern Middle School in Accident, MD, Schilpp promotes her work and expertise daily on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. She has also won tens of thousands of dollars in grants to bring ed-tech tools and opportunities to her rural students.

A school librarian’s social media strategy is critically important, says Joyce Valenza, assistant professor of library and information science at Rutgers University, and programs need to teach it. "I don’t know how you can ignore Twitter and other platforms," she says. "A hashtag is not just used for irony. It is a search tool. It is what connects us....That’s something that I find myself really having to teach."

Valenza acknowledges that some may find work in a library without the degree, but she warns about what they would be lacking. "You wouldn’t understand how best to build a quality e-book collection, and you wouldn’t know how to scale the resources in a way that they meet the needs of all of your school faculty members," she says. "You would be missing so much."

Brenda Iasevoli is an education journalist based in New York City.

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