If it quacks like a librarian…

I’ve been disturbed for some time about the vehemence with which we emphasize the divide between MLS librarians and everyone else working in libraries. Dean Giustini’s recent (and recently removed) post decrying LJ’s decision to honor “paraprofessionals” with Movers & Shakers awards and asserting they don’t have the “right” to call themselves librarians simply reinforced what I hear when talking to groups of paraprofessionals or when surveying people for my books: many non-MLS library workers are unappreciated, undervalued, and ignored.

It’s one thing to value the MLS. It’s another thing entirely to condescend to non-MLS librarians (yes, I said librarians), paraprofessionals, and other non-degreed library workers, to discount their opinions, and to ignore their contributions to their libraries and to librarianship as a whole. We don’t need to be infighting; we have better things to do. We don’t need to be putting up barriers; we need everyone’s contributions and input.

What is it they say about academia — that the politics are so fierce because the stakes are so low? All this talk about “erosion of professional standards” boils down to this: we’re terrified because the outside world doesn’t tend to value librarians, and we’re worried people will pounce on any excuse to fire us, lower our salaries, or otherwise devalue us further.

Well, guess what. The outside world doesn’t know — or care — that librarians have an MLS. They don’t care what LJ decides to print. They just care about the service they receive and whether someone can do the job she was hired to do.

We’re not doctors, we’re not lawyers, and we can’t compare library school with law or medical school. We don’t have a monopoly on intellectual freedom or finding information. In some cases, sure, a MLS adds value. In some cases, sure, there are paraprofessionals who never assimilate the principles of librarianship. In some cases, there are also MLS librarians who spend their days reading the newspaper and ignoring their patrons. Yes, librarians like to categorize things, but people aren’t so easily catalogable, folks. An MLS doesn’t automatically make someone a good librarian, just as the lack of an MLS doesn’t automatically make someone a bad — or non — librarian. There are occasions where a degree OR relevant experience can do us just fine. There are occasions where another degree (MPA springs to mind) + experience might be more useful than an MLS.

If you’re running a corporate library solo without an MLS, guess what: you’re their librarian! If you’re running a rural library sans MLS, taking every opportunity to read the literature and grab CE opportunities and try new ways of better serving your patrons, guess what: you’re a better librarian than some degreed “professionals” who figure that earning the MLS was enough already.

No, I’m not saying that everyone who works in a library is a librarian. I’m saying that people who are doing the work of a professional librarian, who contribute to our profession, who keep up with the profession, and who are committed to the principles of the field, deserve the title of librarian — regardless of their degree status. People who have contributed to this profession deserve recognition, whether by LJ or otherwise. People who have opinions about this profession should be taken seriously and engaged on the basis of their arguments, rather than dismissed on the basis of their degree status.

The librarian who inspired me to enter this field never earned her MLS. And yes, I think her official title was something like “YA Specialist” — but anyone who says Nancy wasn’t a real librarian has to answer to me.


  1. Bob Watson:

    In my own curmudgeonly view, a high percentage of those who *have* MLS degrees aren’t really librarians either.

  2. Judith Siess:

    I too was surprised to see people without MLS degrees in the Movers and Shakers. I agree that many non-degreed librarians are very good and sometimes even better than new MLS grads. But I think it does not help the profession to cite them as outstanding LIBRARIANS and would prefer that LJ just cite degreed librarians in M&S–perhaps they could have another list of M&S among other library workers? (They could recognize more people that way too.) After all, they have the Librarian of the Year and Paraprofessional of the Year….

  3. Sara Zoe:

    hear hear! I recently finished my MLS and am relieved to now say, I am a librarian- in response to, What do you do? Before I had responded, I work in a library- for fear the questioner would jump down my throat. My entree into the world of library work made me want to turn tail and run, not become a librarian: the issue of who is “real” and who is not is way too reoccurring on list serves like lm_net. Only through a gracious mentor/boss was I encouraged to become a “real” librarian – and her urging was so that I would be able to make a career of it (financially), and for no other reason. MLS in hand I guard carefully against absorbing any of that poisonous mentality!

  4. rachel:

    Judith – Actually, if you look at LJ’s call for nominations, this isn’t a librarian award, but one for “emerging leaders in the library world.”


    I believe they’ve included non-MLS folk, vendors, etc. since it started.

  5. Meredith:

    Great post Rachel! I could not agree more. The Movers and Shakers award are for people moving librarianship forward. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing in libraries so long as they meet that criteria.I think sometimes people need to feel like their degree was worth something, but to devalue others in order to do that is just ridiculous. It’s just like university faculty treating librarians like they’re lesser people because they don’t have a PhD. We all have something useful to offer and none of us is better or more/less indispensable than others.

  6. Dean Giustini:

    Hi Rachel,

    My points were actually somewhat different, in my recollection, from what say above. I would appreciate it if you would amend your post to reflect that I tried to raise a legit point about the lack of Canadian librarians on the list. In fact, no Canadian librarians were mentioned although I have already applauded the two other library workers who were.

    On a positive note, I believe that all the libraries I have worked in have included a wide range of talented people, both with and without formal credentials. I think it’s inaccurate to say that I am devaluing their contributions, because I have put myself on the line for my own staff many times in my career.

    But, as I think some of the discourse (and the heightened emotion) reveals, librarians are feeling uneasy about the digital age and their place within it. In medical libraries, where I work, many librarian positions are being downgraded and filled by very talented people. Is it a leap to say that LJ’s Movers and Shakers list is connected with this trend? Yes, it is – which is why I removed the post. However, if administrators can close libraries, and find talented people to provide library services from closets (and get awarded for it), it seems clear to me that we have not advocated for our profession.

    I’m not sure if you are concerned about this at all, but I hear these concerns from other health librarians in Canada.

    I want to emphasize that I didn’t mean to suggest that I was “decrying” anyone for the work they do, but I do believe that librarians need to advocate for a place in the new digital universe, and we need to reward the best among us. If we don’t do that, who will?

    By the way, Meredith’s point about PhDs and faculty – I’ve never had *any* faculty or physician treat me poorly in my work because I do not have a PhD. And I’ve worked in academic contexts for a long time.

    all the best

  7. Phil:

    Rather than relying on anyone’s subjective recollection of Dean’s post, we could refer to what he actually wrote. You can see his entire post here

  8. Abigail:

    Thank you for a beautifully well thought out post. There’s a lot of discussion online of the use of the title “librarian” and I think you provide a better definition than gets passed around on often hot-headed listservs. I’ve got an “agreement-response” over at my blog, if you feel like reading a little Friday me-tooing.

  9. rachel:

    Dean – Thanks for commenting and clarifying some of your arguments. I would have been happy to link to your original post, but you pulled it down while I was writing this. (Thanks, Phil, for the jpg.) I do remember your points about Canadian representation (and would suggest that you nominate some of your colleagues for next year’s award), but I’m here more interested in the whole “non-librarian” argument — which is your own verbiage. You’re obviously not the only person making these arguments; your post just served as the impetus for me to write something that’s been brewing for some time.

    I do agree that we do a darn poor job marketing our value to our stakeholders, but disagree that the MLS/non-MLS divide is where we need to draw a line in the sand. While I’ve never been a Canadian health sciences librarian, I’ve been a U.S. public librarian, and know that more than 30% of U.S. public librarians lack MLS degrees — but that many of them are doing little things like RUNNING LIBRARIES. I think it’s an insult to call these people “non-librarians.” And, it’s definitely an insult to gratuitously throw “non-librarian” in when you’re disagreeing with a colleague’s arguments, as if that should close the debate right there.

  10. rachel:

    Abigail – Thanks for your post. I do agree with your point that non-MLS folks should think long-term, and always encourage people to get the degree if there’s ANY possibility they’ll be working in libraries for more than a few years; it opens up many more opportunities and helps prevent a situation where they’re ‘locked in’ to their current workplace.

  11. Dean Giustini:

    Hi all – I see your points, all. I do regret making those ‘non-librarian’ comments, and admit that I am always uncomfortable when someone asks me whether libraries can be managed by non-degreed folks. Of course, as you point out Rachel, it depends on the skill levels of those in contention. As for David, I really regret that we have had such a blowout. If you search on my blog (and his) we both admired each other for many years up to our disagreement in January. For that, I feel the most sad.

    In any case, I apologize to anyone who was offended and the jpg serves as a tombstone to a badly-considered post. If we were all the same vicinity, I would take us all for dinner and cocktails, we could argue and debate and laugh. I’d make sure to embrace you all, whether or not you truly believe that I value everyone’s input into this crazy, wild but fulfilling area of work we find ourselves in.

    Have a good weekend all

  12. David Rothman:

    And here again Dean is being intellectually dishonest. We didn’t have a blowout. I criticized Dean’s article and he went on a weeks-long ad hominem tirade. I categorically reject his characterization of the unprofessional hostilities being anything but unidirectional. His implying that I ever exhibited a comparable level of personal hostility is another dishonest personal attack.

  13. Amanda:

    I think it is a bit of an inappropriate comparison, law and medical school to library school. Why can’t we be treated like other careers that also have professional designations? Say accountants or engineers? Can a non-accountant be head of an accounting firm? Sure. But s/he probably ought to have some kind of management degree, or at least something more than grade 10 math (well, how hard is adding and subtracting anyway) Can a non-librarian be head of a library? Same again. Unless we have some sort of meaning attached to the degree, then library boards will continue to believe that those with degrees should be replaced by those without, simply because regardless of skill, those without degrees can not command the same salaries as those that do. Just because I am proud of my accomplishments does not mean that those without degrees are idiots. But I firmly believe the tasks required of my job necessitate something beyond liking to read.

  14. If it quacks like a librarian… | Library Stuff:

    [...] Rachel Singer Gordon – “Well, guess what. The outside world doesn’t know — or care — that librarians have an MLS. They don’t care what LJ decides to print. They just care about the service they receive and whether someone can do the job she was hired to do.” [...]

  15. gwp@mac.com:

    Seems like the least of Rothman’s problems is a lack of an MLIS

  16. Miranda:

    Having been a paraprofessional [paralegal] and now being a professional [librarian] there is a difference in the way one is treated. Yes, law school is not library school, but in order to be a librarian one should have an MLS or MLIS. Having the degree provides some authority to what we call ourselves and I believe the ALA should vehemently enforce that. I would argue that if librarians better held the line with regard to the requirements and the ALA enforced those requirements like the ABA [American Bar Association] does, then librarians would be more respected and better paid.

  17. Miranda:

    p.s. to previous post:
    What would be the harm in calling one who does librarian work without and MLS a paralibrarian?

  18. barbara:

    YAY and thank you Rachel. Hey, I have an MLS and I work in an academic library but I am not considered a librarian by my employers. I am (civil service) staff. I don’t have the glory of being a faculty member and I’m not going to get tenure. I’m not complaining because I don’t have to play politics or worry about publishing. I get to work with patrons, supervise student staff, plan and implement projects and have as much of a good time as anyone who is middle management can possibly have.

    Whether I get treated like a professional or not depends on which librarian I am interacting with and on which day that interaction happens. Some of the librarians at my university see staff as equals and some don’t. I work with the ones who do and ignore the ones who don’t. If they are offended they can look to themselves and change their attitude.

    In any case I appreciate your words and I appreciate LJ for recognizing professionals, whatever the degree status they hold.

  19. Library Tech Confidential » Blog Archive » When’s a non-librarian a librarian?:

    [...] a library ‘paraprofessional’, I greatly enjoyed this post over at The Liminal Librarian. One of the choicest bits: We’re not doctors, we’re not lawyers, [...]

  20. Lemonade Librarian:

    I agree with Rachael’s post, as noted in my blog posting
    But now I think it’s time to given Dean a break. He’s apologized and made restitution by congratulating the Canadian “non-librarians” on this year’s movers and shakers list, as well as posting several very positive posts highlighting individuals who deserve recognition.

  21. Does the MLS really mean anything? « New Librarians Blog:

    [...] issues tagged blog post, MLS, professionalism at 7:25 pm by J Rachel Singer Gordon has an interesting post about who or who isn’t a [...]

  22. PoorTiming:

    In 2001 I had 8 years of experience in new media and technology but I wanted to work in my local library bringing what I saw were much needed skills to a wide open field. I was told again and again by every library manager that in order to work there I needed an “accredited MLS degree” before they’d even look at my application. So I paid 30K for a masters degree just to be accepted into the club. Now the tide is turning and I find that if I had only waited a bit I wouldn’t have to have gone into debt. I wish this blog post had been written 8 years ago. I could’ve used the boost back then. And yet, in fairness, every professional field has it’s little clubby groups that need to claim exclusivity. This conversation isn’t limited to library-land. Programmers, Nurses, Architects, etc., all have an exclusion clause that prevents cross-pollination between specialties (which only hurts us all). It’s too bad there aren’t more people willing to accept unique talents within their organizations. As a librarian (now) I’d like apply that experience to other industries not normally associated with librarians (unless they are huge enough to have their own private libraries). So far the answer is no one knows why they should hire me. It’s deja vu all over again.

  23. Tim:

    I think I was the most egregious case. I don’t have an MLS, have never worked in a library and the company I run, LibraryThing, isn’t really a vendor–anyway, the fact that we now sell some services to libraries is a sideline and not central to why I was given the Movers and Shakers nod.

    Coming from so far outside, I have no right to tell you guys who you accept and who you don’t. If there are too few awards, that’s a shame. I am particularly shamefaced at being the first Maine M&Ser. I hope I don’t get lynched over it.

    That said, I think a good case can be made that LibraryThing has caught the attention of the library world. And in being the only site of its kind to use library data and, apart from Google, the most important site using library data, it’s introduced a lot of non-librarians to one of the best things about libraries.

    LibraryThing members understand that libraries know a lot *about* books, something that crappy OPACs and the extreme difficulty of getting library data outside of them has obscured. Go onto LibraryThing and you’ll find literally thousands of members–only some 2% of whom are actual librarians–having detailed, intelligent, MLS-worthy discussions about the difference between a work and a manifestation, or picking apart the subtle shortcoming of the MARC language list. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it, but it’s so. More than one member has told me that LibraryThing was a factor in deciding to go for an MLS.

    Somewhere in there is a lesson about openness. Honor whom you want, but design you systems so that someone besides you knows about what’s worth honoring.

  24. Dean:

    Hey Tim,
    That LibraryThang is a new generation web company. I think it’s great that the library community is drawing attention to the fact that LT is offering an important tool for information organization.

    I also appreciated your thoughtful post. Why would the Maine library community be lynching you over winning an M&S award? Just curious.

    By the way, would you have been equally happy for the promotion of LT if you have been interviewed by LJ? and had given the award to a Maine library professional? It might have really gotten you attention!


  25. The Liminal Librarian » Blog Archive » Transparency:

    [...] Dean: Please do not pull this kind of crap in my comments [...]

  26. Dean:

    Could I ask you to do me a favour? Could we find a way to end the string of
    comments on your blog about this? I am getting some rather hateful e-mails and
    it’s becoming a concern for me.

  27. Dale Prince:

    I do have to agree that not having an MLS is the least of Rothman’s problems. I mean, lookit, he doesn’t have one, but is well-respected by the librarian community. A bigger problem would have been the plethora of pens in his shirt pocket in his presenters photo for the recent MLA webcast, but he says he has that under control. So, well, I’m sure there are others.

  28. LibrarySupportStaff.Org » If it quacks like a librarian…:

    [...] This post by The Limnal Librarian is, simply put, a must for everyone to read and understand (even if you don’t agree). [...]

  29. rachel:

    Hi Dean – It’s unfortunate if people are writing you hateful emails, and I certainly don’t condone that. I’m sorry, though, I’m not going to close the comments (and am not sure how that would stop people from emailing you, anyway). Here’s why:

    1) the discussion and links here are only partly about you, but mostly about the larger issue of “who is a librarian.” As I pointed out earlier, I didn’t post this as a personal attack on you (I don’t even KNOW you) or your viewpoints, but because your original post served as a catalyst for something I’d been thinking of writing for some time. Obviously a number of people agree with your original point that non-MLS holders shouldn’t be calling themselves librarians, and that’s fine — if we all agreed, it wouldn’t be an important or an interesting issue.

    2) You need to own your own words. If you have changed your mind or regret your language, that’s one thing, but I don’t believe that I’ve misrepresented what you wrote in any way. Put it like this: I’ve received some pretty nasty email messages responding to columns I’ve written for LJ, for instance — but I’m not going to run to them and ask that they pull issues out of the hands of subscribers to protect my inbox. I’ve received a nasty review or two on Amazon, but I’m not going to go ask them to close my books to review. I think it’s unfortunate that you removed your original post and that you smoothed out language in others — I can respect a different point of view, but am not sure about the point of self-censorship.

    3) I think that what’s going on here is pretty interesting and that some of the “who is a librarian” points deserve wider professional discussion. It seems kind of antithetical to the whole point of librarianship to arbitrarily cut off dialogue.

  30. The Liminal Librarian » Blog Archive » Who is a librarian? Links:

    [...] noticed that some of the bloggers referencing the “If it quacks like a librarian” post didn’t make it into trackbacks, so thought I’d make a list here so they’re all [...]

  31. Tim:

    >Why would the Maine library community be lynching you over winning an M&S award? Just curious.

    Sorry, because I’m the first Mainer to get it, which is hardly fair to all the innovation that goes on here. Also, I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m not *really* a Mainer at all. I’m one of those Mass people who moved to Portland–which itself is only “just” Maine–for the cheap rent. I’m a bad Mainer. I don’t even like the outdoors very much.

    As for the would-you-be-as-happy question, I dislike the whole idea there. Librarians want the award for recognition but I want it for promotion?

    No, I loved getting it because it recognized *my* contribution to *your* profession. It felt good to see my work and the work of LibaryThing’s community recognized as relevant to libraries and libary science, as I believe it is.

    Without knowing me you can no more assume I’m really after promotion and attention that I can assume you only show up at work for the health insurance. Just because my salary is uncertain and depends on customers does not mean I am unmotivated by a desire to do worthy, interesting things. For what it’s worth, if I were motivated as you say, I wouldn’t be spending my free time trying to resurrect the Cutter Expanded Classification, improving LibraryThing Welsh-language cataloging for about six members and many other such. No, I actually care about this stuff! Even without the MLS.

    Besides, they already interviewed me. ;)

    Incidentally, I take a hard line on “librarian.” I would never use it for myself, but only for our three MLS-carrying librarians. Our main competitor calls touts their “librarian,” who isn’t one. Bugs me to no end.

  32. Bob Watson:

    It would be one thing if the MLS (or equivalent) was awarded after the completion of an intellectually challenging, even demanding, year or two of post-graduate work … but, let’s face it, it seldom is. It wasn’t designed to be intellectually challenging since it was originally conceived as a technical degree. It was once about learning to use the tools of the 19th century trade. It is now about learning to use its successors.

    This is OK inasmuch as the tools, and their successors, are important to what we do. The people who specialize in this (catalogers and, now, db managers) do important work.

    But it is also true that much about what it takes to use a library, to provide outputs (as it were) to our users, is not something which one acquires when getting the degree. A few courses in reference may be enough to learn the major reference sources, but how does this compare to the years of reading (and talking) needed to understand the questions?

    I suggest that the years of experience are harder to acquire than the months of formal coursework. I also suggest that the various online programs now being offered are now beginning to disintermediate the the graduate schools that offer them.

    Times, they are a changin’. As always.

    The question is: what can we, as library professionals, offer the public which is worth our cost?

    The answer, to my way of thinking, is a species of “public intellectual” which provides guidance to in the use and/or application of various types of “information.”

  33. Bob Watson:

    I’m getting sloppy … that should read “graduate work” rather than “post-graduate work.” On the other hand, I suppose the latter *would* be important if we came at this right. ;-)

  34. Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on. « From the Desk of Judy Dark:

    [...] No comment here — basically because Rachel Singer Gordon already hit it squarely on the head. [...]

  35. Zach:

    Excellent post-please come speak at my place of employment

  36. Anne in AZ:

    The user doesn’t care if you have an MLS. All they care about is who they see when they come in the door.

  37. Faith:

    It’s a fine line between the knowledge that a paper degree acknowledges and the on the job experience. In every job ad it is quite obvious that the profession requires you to have a MLS degree of some sort. But then is there a way for the competent paraprofessionals to get “grandfathered” in? Can we ever get to this point? How do we do that? Can ALA make a recommendation that if you are a Paraprofessional for X number of years and have the knowledge that comes with a MLS degree, you should be considered for positions that previously only MLS degree-holders could get?Is there a test somewhere I missed?

  38. Episode 35 tonight | Uncontrolled Vocabulary:

    [...] If it quacks like a librarian… [...]

  39. JJ:

    Having an MLIS myself, I find it a bit peculiar to assume that any well intentioned person who happens to have a library job of sufficient responsibility is a librarian. I’m a librarian because I earned it, and I back it up every day with the specialized skills that my schooling and my professional experience give me. Saying that anybody who does the work has the professional degree is disingenuous. If I give you CPR, that doesn’t make me a doctor by virtue of the fact that I did something medical that I am proficient in. It’s simply not true. I fully appreciate my support staff. They are the backbone of what makes my library run. But I can’t pretend with a straight face that they are degreed professional librarians with all the rights and responsibilities thereof. They are a group of people who work damn hard at what they do, who love the library, and are trying to learn as much as they can to serve the people of our community the best they can. That doesn’t, however, make them a librarian. My housekeeping staff, by virtue of the fact they are cleaning the library every night, do not magically become librarians, either. I respect what they do, but let’s not go pretending that good intentions are the same as schooling.

  40. Tim:


    The situation is complicated by the fact that the Librarian=MLS formula is not universal around the world. There are a lot of “librarians” (or cognate words) who do not have the MLS. Librarians in the UK can do it during the course of a normal undergraduate degree, as I understand it.

    It is probably good to require all US librarians to have one, but denying the term absolutely to those without the degree is like claiming that people in Egypt can’t be called “drivers” until they get a US license.

    I’m also troubled by your black-and-white assertion that all librarians are utterly above and beyond the rest of humanity (ie., “my support staff”, “my housecleaning staff”) when it comes to librarianship.

    Leaving aside, imposters like Callimachus, Melville Dewey and Charles Ammi Cutter, you must face the fact that the “Librarian of Congress,” James Billington, does not have an MLS. Admitting this is terrible hubris on Dr. Billington’s part, and probably a union violation, I still feel that, after being ejected from the Thomas Jefferson building, there ought to be some library somewhere where he could do some good, at least until someone with a one-year, online-only MLS can be found.

  41. Jess:

    Just curious, but is this the longest running link of comments on the Liminal Librarian? I’ve been reading your blog for quite awhile now, Rachel, and I can’t remember there ever being this many comments on a blog post here. Kudos to you for getting the ball rolling…

    I’ve been following the comments on this post for a couple of days now, and I just want to chime in with some thoughts and comments. I think part of this part of this blog post may have been inspired by the recent situation in Marathon County, Wisconsin (although I realize this post may have been brewing for quite some time.)

    I agree that there are many non-degreed librarians in the workplace today who are truly innovating, and even more inspiring to the library profession. I also know that the first library job I ever had was before I even had an MLIS, and at the time I was keenly aware I could have gotten very far in the library world without making the commitment to library school. But I wanted to better myself, become a better librarian, and be the best asset I could be to whichever library I landed at in the future. As easy as it is to obtain an online library degree these days, I am always taken back by the number of people I meet who won’t even consider the MLS/MLIS, even if it might help make them a better librarian and their libraries better places for patrons to visit.

    I am a librarian in Wisconsin. Folks in Wisconsin also know I am extremely outspoken about deprofessionalization. As a MLS-librarian, I am about an hour’s driving distance away from a library school (we have two here in this state) but as an MLS-librarian I am also in the minority. The full-time entry-level MLS job are basically gone in my home state, and the future of librarianship itself is debatable; I spent weeks doing research on the future of librarianship last year.

    Folks paying attention to the recent WISPUBLIB discussion where Marathon County Library Director Phyllis Christensen answered criticism know she arguably dissed the credentials of her MLS staff in an email. For those of us paying attention, this was also the second disturbing incident (let’s call it a slam) of MLS-librarians in Wisconsin in the past year. In Wisconsin, the only librarians who are obligated by law to hold an MLS are those library directors employed in municipalities of 6,000 people and over (which is a Grade 1 certificate in Wisconsin.) Last year a Grade 1 library disregarded state law to hire a library director without an MLS, and when they were slapped with a monetary penalty for non-compliance, someone obviously very intimate with the situation wrote an editorial in to the local paper calling it a “burden” to have an MLS-librarian on staff and “silly.”

    While I will not argue that many people without library degrees are being treated very shabbily, disregarded, and undervalued…I offer you this perspective– it works both ways. I have seen numerous MLS-librarians in my seven + years working be disregarded and undervalued as well, and there is a growing population of people who willing (whether they even realize it or not) to nullify and discredit any significance the MLS/MLIS has.

  42. David:

    Tim, you rule.

    JJ, you wrongly suggested that Rachel was saying everyone who works in a library is a librarian. Read the post again. It says, in part:

    “I’m saying that people who are doing the work of a professional librarian, who contribute to our profession, who keep up with the profession, and who are committed to the principles of the field, deserve the title of librarian — regardless of their degree status.”

    By all means, disagree with Rachel- but try disagreeing with what she actually wrote, okay?

  43. Uncontrolled Vocabulary #35 - Pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes | Uncontrolled Vocabulary:

    [...] If it quacks like a librarian… (The Liminal [...]

  44. Jamie:

    Thank you! I have been a library technician at a mid-sized public library for almost 3 three years. There is almost no difference between my job description and that of a librarian. To the patrons I AM a librarian. I maintain collections, work the reference desk, run programs and troubleshoot computer problems. Having read through the comments, I can see this makes many people nervous. However, I learned how to do all of this from degreed librarians who have been in the profession for 20-30 years. Honestly, this seems like a more valuable way to impart historical continuity into the profession than my running off to attend i-school so that I can become a “made” librarian. Would we say that Borges was not a librarian because he did not attend an ALA accredited program? Should being a librarian really be just a matter of formality? Shouldn’t it be more about intellectual curiosity, concern for the needs of patrons and passion for delivering information?

    I am relieved to be entering “information” school this fall so that I can finally reconcile the guilt I feel when I write “librarian” on the occupation line on my taxes. Having been on the “them” side of an us vs. them argument for a while now, I also feel apprehensive about joining the degreed population. The condescension with which some people refer to those in my position is enough to make me feel ill. I joined publib for a few months last year and ended my subscription after I had a nightmare that degreed librarians were attacking a fellow technician and me while we hid in a car. The librarians smashed themselves up against the windows of the car, clawing at the glass to get at us.

    I do recognize that librarians feel threatened in the current climate of libraries and information. But if it’s possible to hire someone without a degree to do one’s job, what does that say? I agree that this presents a problem. But defensively demeaning other library workers only draws attention away from the matter at hand: what does it mean to be a librarian?

  45. michael:

    With the ALA as the “leading” library organization, is it any wonder that people don’t consider non-MLS folks “librarians”?

  46. JJ:

    David – Having re-examined her post in light of your suggestion, I will stand by what I originally wrote, but also add the following:

    I disagree wholeheartedly that keeping up with the field and doing the work and who are committed to seeing us do well makes you a librarian. It MAY, and probably does, make you someone who is so worth having in the profession that you SHOULD get your degree so you can be a librarian. Support staff, if they feel committed enough to the profession via their work experiences, should take the next step and back up all their on-the-job training with the theoretical and professional underpinnings so they can be twice a force to be reckoned with. These are the people who are the very candidates for being a librarian. But, I have to say it again… That doesn’t make you one. A person without an M.D. isn’t a medical doctor. Until you pass the bar and do all of the other related items to be (in essence) certified as a lawyer, you’re a well-intentioned person who blew a lot of money to go to law school.

    Why is it, then, that our profession should be allowed to call well-intentioned and hard-working substitues by an improper name? Why, pray tell, would I be OK with you confusing me with someone who doesn’t have my training? In the same way that the people who work at my local ASPCA are NOT vets (they’re well intentioned volunteers, in that case, who love animals and want to see the best for them)… support staff are not librarians… YET. I’d love, as I said, to see them make the leap. We need them to. If anything, they’re more appropriate candidates than some of the people that have been through the MLS machine already.

    As a quick response to Tim’s comment… I have indeed worked very hard to be better at what I do than the people around me. It’s why I’m in an administrative position. I, through lots of experience and schooling and research and understanding, have a big picture grasp of things.

  47. Laura:

    I’m in a (highly rated) MLS program right now and while some of my classes are good, some are not. I have been working in a librarian position in school and public libraries for four years and probably learned most of my skills on the job. I do think an MLS/MLIS can be helpful, but so far it seems like the biggest advantage will be a pay hike and job security. I’m really not learning as much as I thought I would. I completely agree that a librarian is someone that does the job, regardless of the degree. When I was a school librarian in a small rural community in the south with zero experience because otherwise the library would have been locked, I was the librarian. I co-taught research projects, ordered books and did my best to run the library. I’m sure there are plenty of others out there who do the same without an MLS.

  48. Dean:

    Jess, Laura and others,

    I think we need to write something about this topic. Write a paper or something. I think to be fair both sides need to sit down and talk about the root causes of all the anxiety and disappointment with the word “librarian”.

    I know I need to find more inclusive language and ‘librarian’ is laden with some negative stereotypes. It’s interesting that we cling to the word despite many ALA-accredited schools are dropping the “L” word from the names of their schools and their degrees.

    (not an alias)

  49. David:


    You keep saying that a librarian is a librarian because he/she has an MLS and then supporting the view by repeating it as it’s own justification.

    Did you know that Abe Lincoln didn’t have a J.D.? Somehow, he was still a pretyy good lawyer. Of course, at that time anyone who could pass the bar in his/her state could hang up a shingle and practice law. States have now passed laws that require one to get a J.D. first. As a result, it is (sometimes prohibitively) expensive to become a lawyer and the law schools make money. I think that model stinnks and that if one can pass the bar, one should be allowed to practice law.

    So let’s look again at library school. What is it that you learned in library school that could not have been learned on the job? Why put generations of people who want to be information professionals so badly in debt when they could learn as much on the job and prove what they’ve learned in a certifcation examination?

    You keep saying that a librarian is a librarian because he/she has an MLS…and never really supporting this assertion. What magical properties of the MLS give it this power when you know as well as anyone else reading this thread that there are some MLS-holders who have significantly less skill and responsibility than some paraprofessionals?

    An MD or a DVM needs the medical degree for liability purposes- is the MLS neccessary to protect the information seeker from information malpractice of some kind?

  50. Judy Tsujioka:

    Thanks for writing about this important issue. As someone with a college degree but not a MLS, I am not treated with the same degree of respect by other “true librarians” although I perform many of the same jobs.

  51. JJ:

    David – I’m a librarian because I’m good at it. The degree didn’t make me good at it. I worked hard at it and learned what I needed to know, and I continue to work hard to learn more.

    I have the right to be called a professional librarian because of my schooling. I’m not saying that getting the degree makes you good at what you do. Your personality and drive and how you synthesize information and help people are what makes you good at it.

    I went through a very specific process to acquire a very specific job set. Completing that ALA-accredited set of requirements gave me the right to be called a degreed librarian. People who did not go through that specific set of requirements (or a comparable set of requirements as governed by their place of residence, whatever), should not be called librarians. I get that because I earned it academically. I added an extra layer to “knowing how to do librarian stuff” by getting the schooling I did.

    You can have two equally skilled people who are performing the same tasks to the same proficiency. One has a professional degree, and one doesn’t. The one with the degree is a librarian, and the one without would be a fool not to get their degree, because they’ve certainly shown they have what it takes.

  52. JJ:

    And as for what I learned in library school… Understand that this is my personal experience, and may not be what everyone else took away from it:

    It gave me the big picture. It synthesized all the skills I knew into a coherent whole. It, in effect, immersed me in librarian culture, librarian ideals, librarian attitude. It made me from a smart researcher who could help people find stuff into a LIBRARIAN. It took the skills I had and tied them all together. THAT is why it’s so important to go to library school and get your degree. Without the theoretical framework, you don’t have all the synthesis you need to truly live up to your best potential as an information professional.

  53. Bob Watson:

    It’s a nice union card, one I’ve had now for 33 years. It does offer something in the way of quality control … a person with X years of relevent experiences with the degree is likely to be a more effective employee than one without the degree.

    However, as a public library director, I’ve been watching our “professional ecology” change for over 20 years. My concern is not so much that the MLS holding employee is or is not better than the non-MLS holding employee (and the literature, such as it is, is not kind to the MLS-holder) … it’s that what much of we’ve long done as “librarians” is becoming increasingly irrelevent in the operation of a library whether or not a person holds the degree.

    Youth services is fairly stable, right now, since it is still mostly book-centered, excepting the programatic aspects. Readers Advisory needs to pick up films (and games) in addition to books … and is doing so … but needs to work in the virtual environment since more and more of our readers are discovering their needs among online peers. Reference Services is now, much more than at any time in the past, about ideas rather than the media which houses them. This is a sea-change, I hope.


  54. David:

    JJ wrote:

    “I’m a librarian because I’m good at it. The degree didn’t make me good at it. I worked hard at it and learned what I needed to know, and I continue to work hard to learn more…I’m not saying that getting the degree makes you good at what you do. Your personality and drive and how you synthesize information and help people are what makes you good at it.”

    By this logic, someone else who worked hard at it and is good at it is also a librairan.

    “I have the right to be called a professional librarian because of my schooling.”

    So JJ is again saying that MLS=”librarian” because MLS=”librarian.” Isn’t this sort of begging the question?

    I have yet to meet a degreed librarian who believes he/she learned how to be a librarian at library school.

    This entire discussion has been about how non-degreed library information professionals should be regarded. Perhaps the effort spent on this might more usefully expended examining why library schools and MLS degrees continue to be the standard when the vast majority of degreed librarians will (at least privately) acknowledge that they’re not all that meaningful or useful.

    Thanks for taking up the topic and proving this forum, Rachel.

  55. JP:

    As a “paraprofessional” getting her degree part-time, I really find relief in reading this post. Finally, someone feels the same way I do.

    Most of my learning of libraries has come on the job. School has taught me theory, yes, but in the grand scheme of things, my skills came from praticing librarianship. There are valuable things to be learned in the MLS, but as others have said, the degree isn’t the most challenging graduate work out there. If anything, my undergraduate work was more rigorous than my current MLS work, which leads me to beleive anyone could attend library school and become a librarian — wihtout ever stepping foot in a technical or public services setting. There are actually many of my fellow students gaining an MLS who have never worked in a library, whereas I have done a variety of jobs since I was 15 years old. Who’s more qualified in the end? The person who graduated and never really worked in a library before, or someone like me who’s gone up a couple steps on the ladder, the last one being the MLS??

    In terms of treatment on the job, it is intimidating to be in this position, be specifically called an LTA because it’s blasphemous to call me a librarian (!) and not be valued for my ideas. Certain tasks aren’t given to me because I don’t have a degree, though I certainly could do them and have the time to do them. It’s unfair and I’m tired of these two spheres in the library world never crossing over. It does nothing for the profession as a whole. I’m not asking to be put on reference alone or anything, but simply to be respected for what I do despite my lack of a degree. Furthermore, I hate being reminded that I am “not there” yet. I’m doing the best I can, with the finances and time that I have.

  56. Synthia:

    Just wanted to let you all know that we in Southern Illinois area value or paraprofessional staff. As a matter of fact at this years Reaching Forward South ( a program for paraprofessionals) our theme is Library Support Staff A True Treasure. Read more about the RFS conference at Reachingforwardsouth.org

  57. Jeannine:

    The ALA, LJ, & any other organizations that are supposed to be supporting librarianship & librarians are the ones undervaluing those of us with an MLS by intermixing paraprofessionals with degreed-librarians. The message these “corporations” are sending to me is that my 2 years of grueling work was for naught??!! If I would’ve known this sooner, then I would’ve tried for a librarian position before I dropped a ton of money on an MLS degree.

    I see nothing wrong with differentiating librarians from paraprofessionals. Even though I have an MLS, I feel some libraries get scared off by those applicants with an MLS because I feel when they see “MLS”, then they immediately think they’d have to pay a librarian with an MLS more money than one who doesn’t have an MLS. If I could get hired as a paraprofessional, I wouldn’t have a problem being called a paraprofessional since I have worked in a number of positions that would qualify as paraprofessional positions. I believe that those with an MLS do deserve respect; paraprofessionals can always go & earn the title “librarian” by studying for an MLS like the rest of us.

  58. TS:

    This topic has been much on my mind lately. I work in a system that serves mainly rural libraries, and few of our locations have degreed librarians. Our system provides degreed librarians as consultants to assist the local libraries in the provision of services. I don’t have an MLIS, but I’ve earned two undergraduate degrees, and have worked in the library field for over ten years, sometimes performing duties that would normally be done by degreed librarians due to staffing or organizational needs. I’ve presented at provincial and international conferences. Nonetheless, some of the degreed librarians I come into contact with exhibit an unwarranted elitist attitude towards people without the paper, to the point of saying in so many words “That’s a library thing – you wouldn’t understand.” (On a side note, the topic at hand was actually dealing with design issues coming out of interface design – what they called human factors when I took my psychology degree.)

    The attitude surrounding the term “librarian” bothers me on two fronts.

    First, the degreed librarians want to reserve the term “librarian” to only mean someone holding an MLIS. Given that library services in this area are provided primarily by non-degreed librarians, the insistence that people in charge of library services not be referred to by the correct title of their position as defined by their library boards (usually some variant of librarian) but rather by the term “library manager” is elitist. I believe that we’re in the business of cooperating in providing library services. Using semantics to segregate the people providing services, especially in a manner clearly intended to say “I’m better than you because I’ve got a degree” is counter-productive and divisive.

    Secondly, it’s a re-write of a definition. Take the “library manager” term mentioned above – What happens to that term when all the people that have taken management degrees insist that only people with management degrees can be called managers? We shouldn’t rely on rewriting the dictionary to make a point about a profession. The definition of a librarian has nothing to do with a degree, as opposed to the term doctor which is ties certain meanings to degrees or a license to practice specific healing arts.

    Ah, there’s the rub! It’s not about semantics, or elitism, or anything else. The whole question surrounding the word “librarian” revolves around the recognition of professional librarianship as a profession. Insisting that a term be reserved for a special group is much easier than educating people. Ask yourself this – when was the last time you walked into a library school professor’s office and asked for a prescription? We expect people to know the difference between a Ph.D. and an M.D. even though they both use the term “Doctor”. I’m also not confused by an entry in the phonebook for “The Drain Doctor” – I know it’s a plumber, not an M.D. or a Ph.D.!

    What’s the answer? Start acting like a profession.

    Whoa, put down the torches, pitchforks and flamethrowers and read a bit more!

    What are the earmarks of a profession? It mean different things to different people – check Wikipedia – but I see it as containing three major points:

    1) They have a professional knowledge base that is unique. Check that one off the list (but we’ll see it again later).

    2) They have a method for certifying and policing the members of their profession beyond getting a degree. Lawyers, doctors, accountants, teachers, etc. all have a certification process that goes beyond the degree. Those certifications can be revoked if an individual falls below a certain standard. I personally don’t know of any instance where there’s a separate certification required for a professional librarian beyond the MLIS. A huge part of the issue deals with the perception and knowledge of differences in municipalities, library boards, corporations, etc. and a true certification process above and beyond the degree would drive the point home as well as serving as a means of quality control.

    3) Finally, there’s an expectation that members of the profession stay up-to-date with their knowledge base. I’m sorry to say it, but many of the professional librarians simply aren’t up-to-date with the basics of providing library services, especially in the technology end of things, and aren’t interested in getting there. It’s impossible for all librarians to know everything in the field, but I submit that a professional librarian should have a certain base level of knowledge across the fields, from acquisitions to storytelling to computers and electronic resources. Changes in the last 15 -20 years mean that a professional should know how to use a computer, know what a MARC record is and the basics of how it’s structured, and understand the differences between bibliographic and holdings records. Unfortunately, I know degreed librarians that don’t.

    What’s the answer? It’s clear to me that engaging in elitist language accomplishes nothing. This story isn’t going to be picked up by the New York Times or even the Poughkeepsie Press. It divides a group of people that should be working together towards a common goal. If you truly want to make a change, then degreed librarians need to demonstrate the value of the profession and educate both library users and funding organizations. Until that is accomplished, whatever words you attach to non-degreed and degreed librarians are relatively meaningless. (Even after it’s accomplished, I feel that it’s more appropriate to create a specific term to indicate the difference rather than attempting to rewrite an existing definition. There are accountants, and then there are Certified Public Accountants, for example.)

    As a post-script, I received notice this week that I’ve been accepted into an MLIS program for fall admission. I believe in the value of libraries, and recognize that there are parts of the knowledge base that are best learned in an academic setting. I also realize that the lack of credibility caused by the absence of the sheepskin would continue to hinder anything I try to accomplish even if I don’t learn one thing in library school.

  59. JJ:

    Non-degreed library professionals should be viewed as people who have 75% of what it takes, and who need to go to library school to get the rest, in a nutshell.

    I do have to say, being new to this forum, I enjoy all the active opinions here. I can’t say I agree with everyone, but I’m liking the fact that we all get to say our peace.

  60. Richard Moore:

    In the olden days, whenever I expressed an opinion in front of a “librarian,” I would be asked, “Where did you get your MLS?” This was code for, “Do you have permission to speak?” I would answer that I was a mere school librarian, so all I had were bachelor’s degrees in math and English, a teaching credential, and a library credential — all obtained in the early 1970s. When I got around to enrolling in the MLS program, in the 1990s, I discovered that my articles were on the required reading list. I asked the professor, “Is this guy any good?” After a few moments of praise, he paused (quick fellow) and asked, “What did you say your name was?” And then, “Why are you taking this class? You could teach it.” I replied that I was taking the class so that degreed folks would take me seriously.

  61. Bob Watson:

    Very nice, TS! This profession has been underserved by its professionals for many, many years.

  62. Dean C.:

    There are a couple of things working here behind everyone’s comments: public perceptions of people who work in libraries. If that person is well-liked by her community, she is referred to as a librarian. If that person is disliked or barely meets the minimum expectations of her job, she is referred to as a librarian.

    Now apply this to teachers, nurses, lawyers, doctors and dentists, social workers, etc. If they do a good job or a lousy job, they are what they are. Very few people confuse teachers with aides, nurses with aides, lawyers with paralegals, etc. The public generally calls anyone working at a desk in a library a librarian.

    So, if clericals or paraprofessionals or librarians perform poorly it reflects on librarians and vice-versa. Librarians don’t catch a break because the public thinks we check out books and read all day – must be a great job.

    However, if we don’t quit hammering on non-librarians and their roles in libraries they won’t WANT anyone to think they’re librarians!

  63. David:

    Dean C.-

    That’s a fair point, but to nitpick:

    It is common for patients in a hospital to refer to almost anyone who is not a doctor (or anyone who is female) as a “nurse.”

    Interestingly, nurses rarely seem (in my experience) to get bent out of shape over it.


  64. The Liminal Librarian » Blog Archive » Whole lot of quacking going on:

    [...] on “If it quacks like a librarian,” Jess asks: “Just curious, but is this the longest running link of comments on the [...]

  65. If it Quacks Like a Librarian… at Information Innovation Exchange:

    [...] Read the full article here [...]

  66. Quacking the duck | Information Wants To Be Free:

    [...] She has written two recent gems about the whole MLS vs. non-MLS debate. Definitely check out If it Quacks Like a Librarian (and the 60-something comments) as well as the follow-up Whole lot of quacking going on. The whole [...]

  67. a northern librarian:

    Why can’t both librarians with MLS degrees and library workers without the degree both be treated with respect while remaining different? I don’t think the two groups are the same and if I am in a minority, so be it.

    I work with two people who don’t have the degrees and some of the duties overlap with mine, but others don’t. And that is as it should be. They don’t have many of the skills (research, writing, finding/evaluating information, searching in databases, teaching/training – you all know the rest) that the real librarians (oh yes I said it) have. Nor did they work hard, as I did, to get the MLS degree, and nor do they work hard to keep up with changes in technology and trends in the profession. They don’t do library outreach, they don’t present at conferences (or even attend conferences), they don’t belong to or patricipate in professional organizations for librarians, they don’t do volunteer work in the library & info science field, they don’t teach info literacy at local colleges, they don’t offer advice to trainees and aspiring librarians and students, as I do. They don’t do collection development, they don’t contribute to library publications – I could go on and on.

    I work hard at my profession. Why should someone get the same credit, who hasn’t done the work and put in the same effort?

    I say respect both the non-MLS employees and respect the MLS employees, but don’t ask me to agree that there’s no difference. That’s insulting to me.

  68. Eric Knudsen:

    The simple truth is that the meaning of the term “librarian” has changed again and again. My trusty OED tells me it used to mean “bookseller”. It used to apply only to men (a woman librarian was a ‘librarianess’). It certainly didn’t always mean “someone with an MLS” since the MLS has only been around for a century or so. Like it or not, the general definition of “librarian” these days is “someone who works in a library”.

  69. Who is a Librarian? « The Searching Librarian:

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  70. Random Access Mazar » Blog Archive » Is Librarianship a Profession?:

    [...] Gordon’s excellent post on librarianship’s attitude toward library paraprofessionals here. I must bow to Dorothea, who breaks down the idea of “profession” and how librarianship [...]

  71. Pedagogue:

    up until the 20th century one did not need a degree to enter the three traditional professions of doctor, lawyer or clergy. In fact one can still, in certain circumstances, read for Holy Orders in at least some mainline churches which are heirs of the Establishment, and never obtain a graduate theological degree, so long as one can pass the practical and written exam/certification process. Same with law in the 19th C, and I believe medicine too. All worked on a combination of apprenticeship and independent study.

    Think of what it takes to be a commissioned military officer, where the stakes are infinitely higher than those in libraries, the practical skills just as technical or more so, and the ethics even more important, yet….One might either get a BA/BS while enrolled in ROTC, *or* go to one of the five military academies, *or* get whatever BA you want and enlist and do OCS afterwards, *or* come up through the enlisted ranks while taking college courses at night and then go to OCS. 4 very different paths. Same stripes, pay grade, and risks and responsibilities regarding life and limb (yours and your subordinates and those of the civilians around you) at the end of each.

    IMNSHO the main reason why the MLIS as a bar to entry to the profession is not a good idea is that the degree is too often a piece of junk rather than a piece of valuable sheepskin. I have 19 hrs towards my MLIS. I also hold a professional degree and a paraprofesional certificate in other fields, as well as a bachelor’s from a well-regarded liberal arts college. The MLIS courses I have taken thus far were, with one and only one exception, a joke. They were much less challenging than my other professional master’s courses by several orders of magnitude (and those courses were in turn, often less challenging than my undergraduate ones had been). The level of teaching was appalling. I could have learned as much if someone had mailed me me a box of (often out of date) textbooks and asked me to write an outline or summary of 4 chapters from each. For 5 of the 6 classes I’ve taken, I could summarize what I learned beyond simple regurgitation of poorly-written textbook chapters on one side of one piece of paper. And that would be the gleanings from all 5 classes combined.

    I am working in libraries, and intend to complete my MLIS, because I love doing what librarians do, and I think I have the skills to do it, and do it well. The MLIS is obviously the union card required to earn a living wage and the respect accorded a salaried professional rather than an hourly technician while doing it, so I will get it. Most of those skills I have picked up on the job in the library or by my previous experience in very similar fields. I work w/ 3 ‘bona fide MLIS-holding Librarians and I believe they would consider my skills, and my dedication to the values and ethos of librarianship, equal to theirs. But I must say that next to none of those skills come from my MLIS courses, and the few that do (mainly how to read a MARC record and do basic cataloging) could have been learned in a few weeks of instruction and guided reading.

    Caveat: I know many of my colleagues graduated from rigorous MLIS programs which taught them a lot. I am jealous of them, frankly, and I am considering tossing most of the credits I do have and transferring to a better program, sunk costs and credits be darned. But the conventional wisdom I hear repeated over and over again is “It doesn’t matter where you get your degree, no one cares the quality of the school, just that you have it. So get the cheapest, fastest degree you can. Just make sure you do plenty of practical experience while you’re in school, b/c that’s where you’ll make connections and gain the experience which will land you your first job..” IOW, the degree is a hoop, a formality, of no substantial value. And the program I have experienced bears that advice out. Under the “MLISgrad=Librarian and Librarian=MLISgrad” system, the librarians who have followed this advice are just as much “librarians” as those who get their degrees from much more rigorous schools.

    IMNSHO the library profession needs to do one of two things:
    a) if they want the MLIS to be the sole entryway into the profession, step up the quality control immensely, in terms of academic rigor, practical components, and currency of materials and skills, as well as the admissions standards;
    b) if they don’t want to do that, then admit the degree is in many cases is tangential to doing the work, and instead determine a list of knowledge, skills and abilities which are in fact truly essential to being a librarian. Pass a practical and theoretical, written and applied, test which demonstrates those competencies, and you can call yourself a librarian and be paid as one. Charge no more to take the test than it truly costs to administer it. If the MLIS genuinely helps people meet those competencies and is the most effective way to do so, then people will *choose* to get it. If not, if they find OTJ experience and independent study to be sufficient, well……guess the MLIS providers will need to demonstrate their value aside from having a monopoly on printing union cards.

  72. Greg:

    None of the defenses of “librarian = MLS” is convincing. It may certainly be true that MLS holders have learned something in library school that others don’t get. But is library school the only place to get it? Seems like that’s more a matter of chance than anything else. The only things library school offers that on-the-job training doesn’t are a quicker route to the knowledge you’d gain eventually in the workplace, and the chance to test drive different areas to see how you like them.

  73. D'na:

    I have been on both sides of this as a paraprofessional for about 8 years (+ the time I spent working as a student previous to have an official paraprofessional title) and I am now a librarian. I was proud to correct people pre-MLS to let them know I was NOT a librarian (which I believe many would applaud here), but I am also pleased now when given the opportunity to educated people about the different levels of staffing in a library. I wonder if nurses sit around bitching about not being called doctors? A good employee is a good employee and it takes a dedicated staff with different charateristics, experience, and level of education to make a great library. Although I know there are non-MLS workers who are more skilled than MLS workers, the opposite is also true, I don’t believe we have to call everyone a librarian (or all great nurses doctors). Be proud to be a paraprofessional or go to library school and get yourself the title if it is that important to you.

  74. MRose:

    I’m a librarian! I’m the sole library employee who: advocates for the library and its budget; has sole control over spending, material selection,ordering new and/or replacement items, and collection development; teaches library and information literacy skills to over 400 children and staff; creates and presents workshops on library and resource use; conducts a weekly literature program for 400 students; performs readers’ advisory for staff and students; oversees and orders literacy skills tests; conducts inventory, book repair, computer instruction, shelving, original and copy cataloging, circulation (approx. 2,200 books in the 19 hours at $14.50 an hour), as needed. The school district, staff, students and their families call me a librarian. Are you saying I’m not? It’s what you do that defines your title, not your degree (I have a B.S. from UC Berkeley and a Library Tech Certificate from Palomar). An author is a writer of books; must they have a degree before they can call themselves an author? If they don’t have a Master’s in literature, should they use a different designation? Of course not! It’s what they do that defines their title. If you want to change the meaning of a word in common use, you need to get everyone to go along with your special definition. The public uses the word “librarian” to mean a person who works in the library. It is what it is! I’m not a half professional – I’m professional all the way, from my blue stockings to my tortoise shell glasses. Due to the insistence of “royal” titles by certain members of our profession, my “paraprofessional” position won’t ever be more than nineteen hours. Our district won’t hire a MLS librarian, BTW.

  75. What I Learned Today… » Blog Archive » The MLS Debate:

    [...] didn’t respond to Rachel Singer Gordon’s post about what makes a librarian – mostly because I’ve made it pretty clear what my opinion is in [...]

  76. Hear, Hear! « BiblioBabble:

    [...] If It Quacks Like A Librarian and the follow up A Whole Lot of Quacking Going On   [...]

  77. an illinois librarian:

    This thread, I’ll admit, makes me a bit uncomfortable. I have my MLIS, and I get treated better than many of my colleagues without one. My non MLS coworkers are sometimes better at what they do- this comes from their years of experience rather than a degree. However, TS pointed out that non-degree “librarians” need to know a few things ..
    “Changes in the last 15 -20 years mean that a professional should know how to use a computer, know what a MARC record is and the basics of how it’s structured, and understand the differences between bibliographic and holdings records.”
    I learned this stuff both from experience and some from library school. One of my coworkers insists almost daily that she is more skilled than an MLS librarian, and do anything we can do. However, she struggles hourly with the computer, has no idea what a MARC record is, and barely even knows how to place a hold. This woman is genuinely talented in her programming skills, has years of experience with children, but that doesn’t make her a librarian if she can’t even read her email or find information in our databases. She’s not alone. Many paraprofessionals i’ve met are completely unqualified (not just in their lack of degree).
    On the other hand, my other coworker is getting her LTA, and I have to say that her schoolwork is far more complex than most of what I had to do in library school. However, she made the decision to go for her LTA and not her MLS, and now she is crying because she could use the pay raise and subsequent career opportunities that an MLS would have provided, at least here in Illinois. Illinois seems to be a bit different. For now, the MLS is king.
    The point I am clumsily trying to make here is that every person is different. If a “paraprofessional” rightly deserves to be called a “librarian” because he or she has the skills and knowledge of an MLS, great! However, we can’t just lump everyone together.

  78. Eric Knudsen:

    Is there a difference between a four star general and a private? Of course there is, but they’re both still soldiers. Is a ship’s captain more qualified then the guy who swabs the deck? You bet, but they’re both still sailors. Who should run the library, the director or the circ assistant? The director, but they’re both still librarians.

  79. UK librarian:

    Tim said: “Librarians in the UK can do it during the course of a normal undergraduate degree, as I understand it.”

    Here in the UK, many of the public librarians I have met do not have any degrees. It is usually academic libraries that are more bothered about qualifications, and although there ARE undergraduate degrees in ‘Information Studies’ and the like, they tend to expect a master’s. Usually, you can’t take a library master’s here without at least 12 months of practical experience. I think this is a good thing, and it seems like something the US should look at. That said, I think our MA courses are highly theoretical and often teach few practical skills. We also have something called ‘chartership’, where you (or your employer) pays for a master’s-holding librarian to be assessed and ‘chartered’ by CILIP (our version of the ALA). You’re then supposed to pay to get accredited every year. You get letters after your name- which is cool- but patently unnecessary- we’re not doctors are we? The system is madness. Some job ads ask for experience, some for a masters, and some for chartership. Others dreamily hope for all three. Job titles vary widely. And, most users think works in a library= librarian, and would be amazed to learn a library masters existed, never mind chartership…

  80. David:

    an illinois librarian-

    I think that if we are to be honest, we must stop reflexively equating the posession of the MLS with specific skills. Anyone who has worked in a library knows that there are both highly-skilled libraryfolk who have not earned an MLS and degreed libraryfolk who seem to have none of the skills we might hope they would have gained in library school.

    I have encountered librarians, for instance, who hold both an MLS and *pride* for the fact that they have resisted gaining computer skills.

    I’m not disparaging those who hold the degree, just noting that the degree is not generally a reliable indicator of what skills the person might bring to the library.

  81. Lichen:

    @Tim Who’s your ‘main competitor? Just curious.

  82. a northern librarian:

    The fact that many people who know very little about libraries MAY think that anyone who works in a library is a librarian is no reason for those of us who DO know better to follow along with the ignorance. Frankly I am suprirsed that anyone would even float that as a reasonable argument. In other words, if the general public is ignorant, so automatically my master’s degree means nothing? That’s BS.

    And please don’t tell me again what the words for certain professions used to mean and what the educational requirements were 100 years ago or more. That is completely irrelevant here.

    Is everyone who works in a school a teacher? Is everyone who works in a hospital a doctor? BTW, there are security staff and maintentance staff who work in my library, and I doubt very much that most patrons think they are librarians. Not to mention those at the circulation desk checking out books – I think even the most umaware member of the general public would figure those are not likely to be librarians, except at a very small library.

  83. Eric Knudsen:

    I for one certainly believe a library degree counts for a great deal, but does it give one the exclusive right to be called a librarian? Certainly not for the majority of the history of the profession and certainly not in many libraries in this country and around the world.

    As for the maintenance and security staff, I look to the root of the word- librarius, from the Latin, meaning “concerned with books”. Are maintenance and security “concerned with books”? I think not. But circulation, for example, certainly is.

    Think of it this way- not everyone who works in a bar is a bartender, but if you tend the bar, you certainly are, whether or not you’ve been to bartending school.

  84. Bibliotecarios y Profesionales de la Información « Ágora…espacio comunitario:

    [...] y Profesionales de la Información Intersante por demás la entrada de Rachel Singer Gordon en torno a la situación de los bibliotecarios sin un título de MLS que trabajan en bibliotecas. [...]

  85. Edward M. Corrado:

    TS wrote: “I personally don’t know of any instance where there’s a separate certification required for a professional librarian beyond the MLIS.”

    This varies by state. Certainly many states require such a certification process for K-12 librarians. Also some states require a professional librarian certificate for public librarians. I am not sure if the professional librarian certificate in my state requires continuing education, but it may as some events I’ve been to I’ve seen librarians asking for continuing education credit certificates. So, yes, in more than a few cases more than only a MLS is required to be a “librarian” in a legal sense. What this has to do with non-MLS vs. MLS librarians, I don’t know.

  86. Library Attack » Blog Archive » Do I really need an MLIS?:

    [...] or not the masters degree makes one a librarian. Rachel Singer Gordon wrote a nice piece about how many people without masters are good librarians by virtue of their actions. Of course, to those with the degree it calls into question if the masters is required at all. The [...]

  87. Eric Knudsen:

    Thought this might interest some folks- Don Borchert, author of “Free For All” is listed in this ALA press release as a librarian. Don was employed as an LA in Southern California. He has never been to library school.


  88. Kristen:

    “They don’t have many of the skills (research, writing, finding/evaluating information, searching in databases, teaching/training – you all know the rest) that the real librarians (oh yes I said it) have. Nor did they work hard, as I did, to get the MLS degree, and nor do they work hard to keep up with changes in technology and trends in the profession. They don’t do library outreach, they don’t present at conferences (or even attend conferences), they don’t belong to or patricipate in professional organizations for librarians, they don’t do volunteer work in the library & info science field, they don’t teach info literacy at local colleges, they don’t offer advice to trainees and aspiring librarians and students, as I do. They don’t do collection development, they don’t contribute to library publications – I could go on and on.

    I work hard at my profession. Why should someone get the same credit, who hasn’t done the work and put in the same effort?”

    1. We have paraprofessionals in our system performing most of the duties listed here. (And performing them brilliantly.) And we’re hardly alone in that. MRose is another vivid example.

    2. You do not work hard at your profession because you have an MLS. You work hard at your profession because you have a work ethic. Plenty of MLS librarians do not put in the work and effort post-degree (or even in getting the degree), so why should THEY get the same credit?

    3. My MLS makes me more qualified for my job than a brand new paraprofessional, yes. But there is a point where someone has equivalent expertise. I can’t give it an exact number, in terms of years of experience, but I’m perfectly comfortable with saying it exists. It is entirely possible to learn about bigger picture issues via professional literature and listservs and organizations. Just as it is entirely possible to let your MLS become stale to the point of worthless through not keeping up.

    Corporations recognize that an MBA from Harvard is totally different from an MBA from a fly-by-night local ‘business college.’ But every MLS is treated the same. That’s what devalues the thing. Recognizing motivated intelligent people for their accomplishments (and the original post was only talking about the truly exceptional, not every random library employee) does not.

  89. Andrea Segall:

    Look at Kurt Vonnegut’s wonderful comments about librarians and the fight against the Patriot Act in his book: A Man Without a Country. (page 87, and page 102-103) I’m certain that Mr. Vonnegut was not referring only to library workers with MLS degrees. Come on! I would proudly include our library’s administrative, maintenance, delivery and, of course, Circulation department workers as Librarians who contribute to our effort to give the public the great service they deserve. We’re Stronger Together!

    (By the way, 33 years ago, when I got my MLS degree, I went to ALA in SF looking for a job. The MLS librarians doing the interviewing there were none too welcoming to a new graduate. I finally landed a job by chatting with a couple of strangers in the snack bar. One turned out to be the newly appointed Library Director, Arthur Curley who as a progressive human being saw my passion to work in the field and took a copy of my short resume. Divisiveness and snobbery have no place in our profession, and do us discredit.)

  90. casey:

    I’m always very scrupulous to only call people librarians who have the degree, because it matters to people, and it deserves to be recognized. I don’t think there’s a problem with that.

    But there’s a huge problem when libraries make decisions based upon who has the degree or not. Regardless of my experience, I’m not qualified to work at the vast majority of library systems (including last employer), and I can think of many other talented people — people it sounds awfully weird to refer to as “paraprofessionals” — in the same boat. And everyone I know without the degree has had plenty of “shut up, the adults are talking” moments in their career, no matter how knowledgeable or experienced they are. This greatly hurts libraries, particularly in technical areas.

  91. Erin Moore:

    The comparison made between library school and medical or law school is totally appropriate in this case…or maybe a comparison between library science and law or medicine would be a better way to phrase.

    Anyhow, I have to ask then, what is the nature of a profession? What makes one profession stand out from another profession?? While skills and experience are definitely essential to the work of the librarian, wouldn’t knowledge also be just as essential?? I am just asking a question here. Ever since entering library school (I am now in my last semester), I have been infiltrated by people who are always trumpeting how practical they are. They point to skills again and again. They argue that most of the work we do in libraries can be learned simply by working in one. And if that is the case: why on earth are we going to library school?

    Don’t get mad at me just yet: I do agree that real-world, first-hand experience is crucial. I agree that we learn on the job. I totally agree that non-MLS people are just as passionate about working in libraries as people who just got their degree…maybe even more so. Maybe the folks who never earned their MLS are also among the many who stay abreast of current issues and trends, engage library issues, have dialogs with other librarians, and care about giving exemplary service to patrons.

    However: what about those of us who only have our technical and practical skill sets to hang on to? What about those of us for whom “profession” is reduced to a set of skills that can be acquired on the job? Again, I’m wondering again about the nature of a profession. What makes a profession….a profession? It isn’t the degree, per se. The degree enables the kind of work, thought, and critical engagement that is required of a profession.

    And now I am struck by statement I read in an article by Gary Ditchburn: “A profession that values skills and experience over knowledge ceases to be a profession.” This bold statement stands out for obvious reasons. It raises all of these critical questions that we have to ask, especially since librarianship–like law and medicine–is a profession. The people who practice it best have taken a vow to cultivate in-depth knowledge in addition to practical skills.

  92. Rene:

    I am a librarian/director in a small village. I took courses at a university but did graduate. I did however take my state’s Librarian Certification Exam and passed with flying colors. Because our village population is small, I am qualified to not only be a librarian but a director as well. I am the only employee at this small rural library. It is beautiful, organized and up to date on technology. I provide several children’s, young adult and adult programming. Computer classes, book talks, after school programs and summer reading programs.
    Until I came this village never had a library at all. I created it. I have respect for those who have their MLS but just want you all to know that you can succeed without it.

  93. Ross:

    a northern librarian, I think you may be confusing “degreed” and “non-degreed” with “this is my career” and “this my job”.

    What about a non-degreed person who works in a library that presents at and attends conferences? Publishes journal articles? Advances the goals of librarianship inside and outside the walls of the library? Such people exist. Should they prevented from speaking/publishing because their lack of MLS?

    Is this person getting credit even though they didn’t put in all the work you put in to get an ML(I)S?

    There’s an assumption here that only via library school will a person have a commitment to librarianship, those other slobs are just holding down this job until a better opportunity comes along.

  94. Janette Grice:

    We don’t refer to physician’s assistants as physicians and we don’t refer to legal assistants as lawyers so why are library staff that do not have an MLS degree referred to as librarians? The correct title for staff without an MLS is library assistant, library clerk, etc.

  95. Eric Knudsen:

    Yet a bartender who hasn’t been to bartending school is still a bartender. A writer who doesn’t have a creative writing degree is still a writer. And the Librarian of Congress, who doesn’t have an MLS, is still a librarian.

  96. Ross:

    Janette Grice:
    Maybe because the work the library professional is doing isn’t to “assist” any individual any more than the cataloger is “assisting” the reference librarian?

    If a non-MLS is setting policy, making strategic decisions for the organization or influencing the profession why would they be considered an “assistant”?

    Oh yes, it’s obviously because they can’t do the “real” work.

  97. Ross:

    Eric Knudsen:
    To pile on with this analogy, the same applies to teachers. While an advanced degree in education certainly helps in finding a job (and definitely pay and promotion) anybody standing in the front of a classroom is as much a “teacher” as anybody else standing in front of a classroom, whether they have a bachelor’s degree, a master’s, an EDS or an EDD.

  98. Eric Knudsen:

    Advanced degrees are great, and I fully support anyone who goes to school to further their understanding of their chosen profession. But I do not agree that MLS librarians (a class of librarian that has only existed for a century or so) have the exclusive right to a title that has existed for many hundreds of years. As much as the ALA would hate to admit it, there is no universally recognized standard of what constitutes a “librarian”. Every country, every state, and every library is free to define it their own way.

  99. Joeyanne Libraryanne » What makes a librarian a librarian?:

    [...] have recently been some very interesting posts about the difference between librarians who hold a qualification (mainly the [...]

  100. it’s as simple as one, two, three. « dOg•sheeP’s i•braRy bloG:

    [...] 8, 2008 · No Comments My 5 cents worth on the “guarding the borders” [...]

  101. Library News and Information « NY Librarian 2008:

    [...] If it Quacks like a Librarian…(Original Title) [...]

  102. Anthony:

    I’m in a rather odd position. I have a bachelor’s in English. While in school I worked for two years in the college library. I feel I have all the necessary skills to work in a library, since I experienced a little of everything while I was there, from database work to archival work. But I can’t get a job in a library unless I have an MLS. An MLS is like a union card, but one that it takes two extra years and tens of thousands of dollars of debt to get.

    If I went back to school for another two years I’d want to study something I could really sink my teeth into, like philosophy, or more history. I would not want to spend two years studying to gain practical knowledge of limited application which I either already have or could get very easily on the job.

  103. a southern paraprofessional:

    As a paraprofessional in her mid-forties I can attest to having a great amount of frustration and resentment toward the financial and professional divide between MLS and non-MLS library staff. I have attended graduate school in the sciences (opted not to finish due to discovering that a Ph.D spent most of his or her time administering a lab and politicking) and continue to take very technical courses to stay up with technology and hopefully get a better paying job. (programming and database design). But no matter how much I’d like to contribute to my library, I am prevented because I don’t have the union card. So both the library and I lose.

    The only way I can take the courses I do is due to the university tuition remission program for staff. At my age, it’s a ridiculous notion to think about going tens of thousands of dollars into debt to get a degree that, quite frankly, just isn’t that difficult. (as taught by many universities). Paraprofessional staff know this, and they resent being artificially walled off from career goals and monetary rewards based on a piece of paper that is only hard to get financially.

    Paraprofessional staff at our library literally don’t make enough money to pay all of their bills. Starting salaries are below a living wage. Even once you manage to move into another staff position that pays a living wage you’ve likely already gone into debt, and you’re still one illness or major car repair away from new debt you’ll never be able to get rid of. There’s no career ladder and you’ll never even make as much as an entry level librarian. One staffer who’s been there 40 years is still making 5K per year less than a baby librarian. Paraprofessional staff often end up teaching the new librarians how to do their day to day jobs! So of course we resent it. It is demoralizing to have library faculty and administration tell us patronizingly that we just need to manage our finances better (I’d like to see them manage to live on only 18K per year…it’s easy to say when you’re making 50K!). We watch them take each other out to eat at a nice restaurant for lunch right after they’ve talked with us and seen that someone is in tears because she can’t go to the dentist or replace a cracked windshield. They are aggressively refusing to see the misery in their very midst and at the same time heaping ridicule upon us to by calling us “just c a cataloger” or stating that trained monkeys could do staff work.

    In my library, staff do not do research, write papers or go to conferences, not because some don’t want to, but because we are not allowed. It conflicts with our mandate which in cataloging is production volume. We literally risk getting into trouble if we stop and talk to each other for what seems to be too long a time (as calculated by a librarian) even if it’s about work related issues. It would drop our production numbers.

    Nevertheless, I’ve managed attended a few local workshops and conferences for librarians and I’ve found them to be embarrassingly content-free. All I could think about was that these people were getting paid at a minimum of 2x my salary and often 4-5 times (if they’ve gone administrative). Yet they really weren’t that bright. The googles and amazons of the world are leaving our OPAC in the dust, yet these people other than sounding an alarm, aren’t doing a danged thing about it. They keep re-identifying the problem and talking about change, yet take no initiative to actually change a single thing.

    At this point, I’m so disgusted at the behavior of the librarians that I work with that I’m doing every thing in my power to leave this profession behind. I used to think that I’d love to program for cataloging, work with database vendors, do web design etc for a library…but not any more. Some people here may work at libraries that aren’t as bad as the one I’m in. But I guarantee you the same artificial divide this there in your library too and you have staff who resent you and who are being prevented from helping themselves and your library because they didn’t purchase the right degree. They also know that your degree isn’t a hard one to get, it’s just more expensive than they can afford. So that deepens the resentment.

    Now, library science isn’t the only profession with an artificial divide. When I left neuroscience many years ago, I was treated as if my IQ fell 50 points over night. I no longer had access to information, was no longer welcome at seminars and round tables, and could no longer write or attend conferences. So as the years rolled on, I *became* exactly the dumb tech they expected all technicians were. They *created* a much less adept individual.

    Education is a big economic engine. So these issues are as much economic as they are psychological. But society is losing when talented people are prevented from contributing to a profession (that I’ll stress once again isn’t complex like medicine or engineering), prevented from getting access to the larger picture, and growing their skills just because some MLS folks need to justify their degree or the money they spent to get it. I suggest that the MLS folks begin to work on overcoming the cognitive dissonance that is clouding their reasoning on this issue. (read “Mistakes were made, but not by me” for a great introduction to this natural human behavior)

    Bottom line: We are ALL losing by continuing this behavior.

  104. a southern paraprofessional:

    oops, typo! A phrase in the verbose “rant” above should say “just a copy cataloger”. Apparently in editing, I rather unnaturally truncated it. :-)

  105. LibChick:

    So Dean Giustini railed against the 2008 M&S list as a meaningless popularity contest (http://tinyurl.com/yv48pq)…but accepted the recognition in 2009? What are the LJ editors smoking? Also, are we sure that someone actually nominated Dean? This very blog showcased his previous sock-puppetry and it has been documented elsewhere.

  106. Looking Up, Looking Down | David Whelan:

    [...] [...]

  107. Looking Up, Looking Down « David Whelan:

    [...] [...]

  108. The Beached Librarian » Blog Archive » What makes a librarian?:

    [...] of Library (and Information) Science degree (MLS/MLIS) are the only “real” librarians: If it quacks like a librarian …. Her premise is that lots of people do library work and that the public doesn’t know (or [...]

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