Whole lot of quacking going on

Commenting on “If it quacks like a librarian,” Jess asks: “Just curious, but is this the longest running link of comments on the Liminal Librarian?” Why yes, yes it is — I think the previous longest comment run was under 10, and as of this writing that post is up to 63 comments and trackbacks.

Among those who disagree with the original premise, arguments seem to boil down to five main points:

  1. I spent a heck of a lot of time and money earning this degree, so everyone else should too, dammit.
  2. How can you say everyone who works in a library is a librarian? What, do you think my custodian is a librarian?
  3. Librarianship is a profession akin to medicine or law. You don’t see people without law degrees calling themselves lawyers; you don’t see people without MDs calling themselves doctors; people without the MLS shouldn’t be able to call themselves librarians.
  4. Working in a library provides only practical skills; library school gives you the theoretical underpinnings necessary to be a true member of this profession; it allows us to work from a joint understanding of who we are and where we are going.
  5. Calling people without degrees librarians leads to deprofessionalization. It lends credibility to the decisions of library boards and other entities that devalue the MLS and hire nonqualified individuals for less money, or give jobs to friends or relatives instead of to qualified librarians.

Let’s talk about each of these, just for kicks:

I spent a heck of a lot of time and money earning this degree, so everyone else should too, dammit.

I’m a mom, so I do spend a lot of time reiterating the “life isn’t fair” response. It isn’t fair that I spent ungodly sums on my MLS degree when others who were smart enough not to go to an overpriced little Catholic school didn’t, but that doesn’t make my degree better than yours (not by a long shot!). Nor does it mean that you should shell out more money so that you can spend on your degree what I spent on mine, all in the name of fairness.

We could also turn this around: “I spent 20 years working in libraries so anyone else who wants a department head position in this library should too, dammit. Why are you hiring someone right out of school with no library experience?”

Or, we could just say: This isn’t necessarily about you.

This argument also basically boils down to: “An MLS is the way we’ve always done it.” Well, if there were ever a time to question “the way we’ve always done it” in libraries, now is it.

How can you say everyone who works in a library is a librarian? What, do you think my custodian is a librarian?

Well, actually, I don’t say that. Here’s a hint — it’s in the part where I say: “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.”

No, I don’t think your custodian is a librarian. Nor do I think that the circulation clerk at my local large public library is a librarian. I do think that, say, David Rothman is a librarian, whether he chooses to call himself one or not. You run a hospital library? You cocreated LibWorm? Yes, you qualify. Tim Spalding, OK, not a librarian — but I’m darn pleased he’s on our side.

Librarianship is a profession akin to medicine or law. You don’t see people without law degrees calling themselves lawyers; you don’t see people without MDs calling themselves doctors; people without the MLS shouldn’t be able to call themselves librarians.

This comparison is ludicrous. Go ahead: compare your year or two of library school to law school + the bar, or medical school + a residency. Do it with a straight face. I’ll wait for you to compose yourself…

Working in a library provides only practical skills; library school gives you the theoretical underpinnings necessary to be a true member of this profession.

Most of the people making this argument seem to base it on some paraprofessional they knew once who did something godawful. Generalizing in this way gets us into trouble — tell me true: do you know a single degreed librarian who has perhaps on occasion acted contrary to what you perceive to be the theoretical underpinnings of this profession? Does this mean degreed librarians tend as a group to lack the moral and philosophical compass necessary to act as true professionals?

Further, as many folks have pointed out (and as is a topic for a whole other post!), library schools vary so wildly in quality and coursework that it’s difficult to say they provide graduates with the same base of either theory or practical skills. I’ll tell you something about my own program (which I do gather has changed considerably since the mid-90s): I was taught largely by professors on the verge of retirement, some of whom hadn’t changed their syllabi in 20 years, one of whom was fond of peppering lectures with racist and sexist remarks, and at least one of whom was fond of multiple choice tests. (Multiple. Choice. Tests. In graduate school!) Did I come out of that experience inculcated in the principles of our profession? No I did not. Perhaps your program was better — I do hope that it was — but I don’t think we can say either that library school consistently provides graduates with those underpinnings or those who lack the degree consistently lack the theory.

Calling people without degrees librarians leads to deprofessionalization. It lends credibility to the decisions of library boards and other entities that devalue the MLS and hire nonqualified individuals for less money, or give jobs to friends or relatives instead of to qualified librarians.

On the face of it, this argument is the one I have the most sympathy for. I’d have more sympathy if I thought that library boards or other external decision-makers really cared about our internal professional arguments about who gets to be called what.

Again, where I’m dissenting is about where to draw the line in the sand. Let’s not draw it between MLS and non-MLS, let’s draw it between qualified and unqualified.

A couple of people brought up the recent situation in Marathon County. What’s interesting here is this: they didn’t replace MLS librarians with non-MLS hires; they changed the job titles and salaries and invited the MLS librarians to reapply for their own jobs. This is less a devaluing of the MLS per se than a devaluing of the work that librarians do — which I do think is where we should draw the line and work harder at demonstrating our value and organizations’ ROI in hiring qualified library personnel.

Last thoughts:

If I had one wish for what people would take away from this discussion, it’s that the way some MLS librarians treat those without the degree is downright shameful. When we use the lack of an MLS to automatically discredit someone’s opinions and abilities, we’re engaging in an unwarranted elitism that goes contrary to the principles of librarianship. We can’t talk about libraries as people’s universities and then denigrate those who are self-taught or who have learned on the job. We can’t espouse the principles of participatory management or Library 2.0 while on the other hand disallowing true collaboration or discounting people’s input due solely to their degree status. Reading comments like these makes me feel a little bit ashamed of our profession:

  • “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.” – Sarah Zoe
  • “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.” – Jamie
  • “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.” – Judy Tsujioka
  • “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.” – JP
  • “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.” – Richard Moore
  • “I was astounded when, a few months back, I discovered that I couldn’t get class credit for completing a real-life project at my own library because…. dum-de-DUM… my professor did not consider my director a real librarian. This instructor required all projects to be conducted with the partnership of an MLS-degreed librarian” – what’s in a name?

When MLS vs. non-MLS condescension drives people away from wanting to earn the degree, we have a problem. When we fail to credit valuable input because of its source, we have a problem. Librarianship is inherently an interdisciplinary profession — we overlap with so many other fields, and our strength lies in our ability to assimilate the best of each. Let’s extend that ability to the people that work in our libraries, as well.


  1. Jess:

    This gets my vote for library blog post of the month. While I have mixed feelings on the subject, it’s sparked more than a worthwhile conversation.

  2. Judith Siess:

    There is a relatively simple way to solve this issue—certification or licensing. My proposal:
    Grandfather in all practicing librarians (MLS or not) and newly-graduated librarians for a period of three years. Then, to renew one’s certificate or license, librarians would have to pass a test or participate in specific continuing education activities.
    To make this work, employers (probably starting with federal and then other governmental agencies, then hospitals—for their accreditation) would have to require a license or certificate for employment at “librarian” grade. Any other “librarians” would be called paraprofessionals and would receive lower salaries. Of course any paraprofessional could obtain certification and become a “librarian.”
    What other professions require certification or licensing? Taking one state (Washington) at random: appraisers, architects, auctioneers, bail bondsmen, cosmetologists, court reporters, engineers, funeral directors, geologist, land surveyors, landscape architects, notaries public, private investigators, real estate agents, security guards, travel agents, car dealers—and physicians. Now we certainly have something in common with some of these professions. After all, if a notary public, who just takes a one-day course and passes a test, can get a license, surely a practicing librarian—MLS or not—could do the same.

  3. walt crawford:

    What Jess says. Or, more seriously, this is an excellent summary of the situation. I’d stopped following the long list of comments after deciding not to be yet another library professional (but not professional librarian) arguing my case.

    I still don’t intend to call myself a “librarian.” But, as I noted in a semi-blind post on my own blog, I get irritable if someone starts using “para” or “sub” as a way to put me in my place.

    You know, there was a National Librarians Association, formed by MLS-holders within ALA who wanted their own MLS-only organization. Since I wasn’t eligible, I didn’t pay much attention. Neither, apparently, did most other people. (Boy, if ALA had been MLS-only, I would have saved a small fortune in dues…and a few thousand hours of unpaid time doing the work of the association.)

    I did love one comment on the post, the person who finally went to library school and found his articles being used in class. I know that, at least for one period, I could have taken classes using one or more of my books…specifically, the first one, which I wrote because no MLS-holder was willing to take it on.

  4. Michelene:

    I’m not a librarian, and the only library experience I have is by volunteering at two libraries, since no library has hired me. I am also an MLIS student, and I see the degree as the only way I have any chance of getting a library job. With my lack of experience, I know finding a job is going to be difficult. Obviously I do consider the degree important, since I am spending the time and money to get one. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect those without the degree who have years of experience.

    A word of caution to those who have written on this topic in the blogosphere and have disparaged online degree programs: not all online programs are alike, and a program’s online status does not necessarily mean it isn’t challenging. I am in an online program at a respected library school. The program requires some time on campus each semester. The online students do all the same work as the traditional students. One could argue that we do more work, since we spend a great deal of time in discussion forums that go beyond traditional classroom time. In fact, our online status has a plus in today’s digital world: we are gaining technical and communication skills that traditional students might not have. Our program is what I would consider very challenging, and I have heard comments from students and alumni in the library field that what we are learning is very relevant to the latest trends in libraries. Yes, library school is not as challening as law school or medical school, but there are excellent programs out there, including online ones.

  5. Michelene:

    My typo (“challening”) might be considered evidence of my claims — I am bleary-eyed from research for a 3,000 word paper.

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

    [...] 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 MLS versus non MLS debate seems to get people much more riled up than do much more [...]

  7. Amara:

    As a long time lurker and law librarian, I am now compelled to comment. I went to law school and took the bar exam. I went to library school a few years later. Library school was a piece of cake compared to law school. I listened to my fellow library school students whine about puny homework assignments and ten minute class presentations and remembered when I had 300 pages to read a night. Library school was busy work compared to law school. If librarians truly want to be considered professionals at the same level as MD’s and lawyers, there needs to be a certification program that involves some sort of horrible, 2 day exam. And I’m not taking another one of those unless someone starts paying me a lot more money.

  8. Woeful:

    If we want the respect (and pay) we deserve we need to respect ourselves first. Librarianship is still in a transitional period. Those who have been working as librarians for years but who don’t hold degrees should be grandfathered in because they are indeed working librarians. However, the profession has changed enough in recent years to necessitate requiring Masters degrees. We need to either get behind the idea that we are white collar salaried professionals, or revert back to blue collar tradesman who apprentice, and are paid an hourly rate.

    In the end, what it boils down to is do we want to make more money? If we do we have to insist that there be some way to distinguish us from paraprofessionals. The MLS/MLIS is nothing more than a hoop to jump through much like the SAT, or GRE is a way to weed through applicants. Additionally, one thing that does distinguish those of us who hold degrees is the philosophical underpinning that a formal education provides. Philosophy is a VERY important aspect of what we do (equitable access, freedom to read, to view, of privacy, etc…) and is the primary reason why I believe in the importance of the MLS/MLIS. There is much more to what we do than just mechanics.

  9. Michelene:

    I hope my post wasn’t taken as whining, Amara; it wasn’t meant to be. I completely agree that library school is nothing compared to law or medical school. I have a background in music, and if I had a dollar for every piano teachers’ meeting I attended in which whining about how much doctors are paid compared to piano teachers was the topic of conversation, I could have paid for at least a textbook or two.

    I do hope that online education will be examined as fairly as traditional education, because there are some good online programs out there. I also think that the inherent training that comes via online education’s unique delivery methods is something important for librarians who will increasingly be called upon to communicate and serve patrons in the digital world.

  10. Dale Prince:

    I am one of the “theoretical underpinnings” people (and in fact, used those words exactly on a comment I wrote on another blog, so I feel fingers pointed my way). And my intention was never to undermine the work of non-mls professionals. To the contrary. I greatly admire one of the people who is a non-degreed M & S this year both as a library professional and as a person. I fully believe that David Rothman does more for our profession than half the people at MLS conferences. And he, in my experience, is not the only person who fits this description.

    My point wasn’t that this is what we get from library schools: theoretical underpinnings, but that this is what we should get; that the degree should be indicative of much more than it is. That we shouldn’t have to flounder when we are asked, “Is an MLS necessary?”

    My experience was very similar to Amara’s. I received an advanced degree in literature and later, in library school, was amazed by the wimpiness of both the MLS program and of the participants. There was almost no intellectual challenge, and the students complained about the three or four page papers they had to write. Moreover, I was astounded when I discovered that I would have to write no thesis nor take any comprehensive exam at the end of the program. And it was one of the library schools of note.

    And, frankly, I find this shameful.

    So, once again, I was not attacking the concept of the non-degreed librarian. To the contrary. I was, I think, more implicitly attacking the concept of the MLS degree as it is currently configured. And, I admit, the people who go through easy curricula like that of an MLS program, screaming as if they were being killed 1000 words at a time.

    My partner, also a librarian, disagrees with me in regard to the academic nature of the MLS. He think that the MLS is a professional degree akin to an MBA and should, for instance, be built around case-studies, etc. However, he agrees fully with me in that MLS programs fail in that regard, also.

  11. effinglibrarian:

    I bloggered this, but only in my way to argue against the librarians who use the MLS/MLIS as the defining point for being a librarian (effinglibrarian.blogspot.com/2008/03/moving-shaking.html)– yes, I want to make more money and I would hope my degree offers me that advantage. For business reasons, hell yeah, I support the degree. But I oppose any who devalue experience because of no degree, saying, “oh, she’s not a librarian.” That’s the attitude I fight against. I value the degree because I believe it helped me, and I hope I continue to show its value to others. But if I get the chance to call someone an ass and use some dirty words on my blog, I’m doing it. cheers.

  12. rachel:

    Dale – Not intending to point fingers at all — I didn’t honestly recall that you were the person who used the exact “theoretical underpinnings” phrase; a number of folks made a similar point about the purpose (or purported purpose) of LIS education. I certainly don’t see you as disparaging the contributions of non-MLS folks.

    (And, oy, you think this conversation got heated, the can of worms we could open up if we start talking about the quality and purpose of LIS programs…)

  13. Kerry:

    When I get cranky about deprofessionalization, it’s not because people without a MLS are working in the library. I was one myself, and I didn’t magically turn purple and get smarter when the degree came in the mail. I just hoped it would be easier for me to get jobs I’d enjoy and could make enough to live on. My crankiness is because I see a slippery slope to people without an information focus working in the library. And yeah, librarianship is interdisciplinary, many paths, yada yada yada. Heck, an interdisciplinary mind with no way to use it is 90% of why I’m a librarian.
    But when I worked in the children’s section of a public library, there were real differences (sometimes appalling) between the way I approached patrons and requests and the rest of the staff and the difference was–I had an information background and a MLS. I was the only one, including the department head. Everyone else was from a teaching background.
    When they say that librarianship is simple customer service skills, that no knowledge of the structure and organization of information is necessary to work in the field, and ignore concepts like collection balance–that’s where we’re should be drawing the line in the profession and arguing our value, not between MLS/non-MLS.

  14. Nikki:

    As a new graduate, I was given a choice to call my degree an MSLS or MSIS (exactly the same core courses and electives options, for some political reason the school can’t offer an MLIS) and I chose an MSIS in part because of the ‘You’re not a librarian unless you have an MLS’ hierarchical rhetoric I have seen both in older journal articles & online today. I want no part of that. The other part is much of my library school curriculum was rather easy, but PACS (Picture Archiving & Communication Systems, medical images) and other health informatics classes absolutely kicked my butt. I’m keeping an eye to the future and am not 100% certain mine will be in libraries for the long term, which is sad but realistic. I agree we have to get rid of the ‘We’ve never done things this way’ mindset regarding ROI and I’m happy to welcome all colleagues, degreed or not, on the path for our continued survival.

  15. Why? « BiblioBabble:

    [...] A Whole Lot of Quacking Going On   [...]

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

    [...] ‘paraprofessional’, I greatly enjoyed this post over at The Liminal Librarian (Update: a solid follow-up post rebutting many arguments advanced in opposition to her original post is now also available). One of [...]

  17. Charlotte:

    I have a personal connection to this debate because of my mother who ran the library at a small catholic elementary school. When I would tell people my mother was a librarian, they would say “where did she get her degree” and I would say she never got one, they would proceed to tell me that she was not a real librarian. However, she cataloged the books, taught information literacy sessions, purchased the books, ran the book fair, did story time, and maintained the overall collection. To the rest of the outside world she was considered a librarian except by other librarians. Now, don’t get me wrong I understand that people should have a degree, because there is an amount of respect that comes from it. Many people are afraid that institutions will not see the need for the degree, and respect for our work will be devalued. What we are facing is bigger than simply certain people are being called librarians with out the degree. What we are facing is the public not thinking we are important. When people do not see us as important, we are dead ducks. What this really boils down to is survival.

  18. Tim:

    >Tim Spalding, OK, not a librarian — but I’m darn pleased he’s on our side.

    Heh. Thanks. And I’m glad to be on librarians’ side.

    I think it might be worth considering that the “theoretical underpinnings” of Library Science are hardly the sole provinence of librarians. Sure, only librarians have to take a class called “Cataloging,” but most of that is practical not theoretical.

    If LS was like medicine, why are so many of the authors of LS books not “doctors”? Take Susan Leigh Star, co-author of _Classification and Its Consequences_ or David Weinberger, author of _Everything is Miscelleaneous_. Their degrees are in Sociology and Philosophy respectively. Clay Shirky has just a BA.

    Besides, in my experience, many professional librarians have neither interest nor aptitude for the theory, and understood their degree as career training, not academic preparation. This career preparation is quite real–and should give them an edge over people without it. But this isn’t a case of physicists and lab techs.

  19. Chiming in On the Biggies « The Other Librarian:

    [...] favorite call on this issue is coming from Dorothea Salo, but there are others by Rachel Singer Gordon and Meredith Farkas. I know great librarians of both the MLS and non-MLS variety.  I am one of [...]

  20. Greg Smith:

    Tim said: “Besides, in my experience, many professional librarians have neither interest nor aptitude for the theory, and understood their degree as career training, not academic preparation.”

    Indeed. None of the MLS (& MLIS, & MISt &c.) programs I’ve looked at have a mandatory thesis or major research paper requirment. At least in Canada, no “academic” masters’ program could (or wold want to) get away with that.

  21. Mikhail Koulikov:

    Librarian = job function, defined by the building and the task. Not too different, really, from ‘truck driver’, or ‘janitor’, or ‘office worker.’
    Information professional, or information broker = what an ML(I)S makes you.

    Ain’t nothing out there says you *have* to work in a library once you’ve got the degree. Hell, working in the neighborhood library, happily pulling $40K a year, might be the worst thing you could do!

    Look at all the ads for competitive intelligence positions, and the executive search positions, that are hiring MLS graduates. Hell, think of how useful the MLS would be to an investment banking analyst, or even to someone working in real estate.

    And, you want the actual academic degree, well, that’s also why there are library and information science phd programs.

  22. Professional Notes » Blog Archive » The Liminal Librarian » Blog Archive » Whole lot of quacking going on:

    [...] The Liminal Librarian » Blog Archive » Whole lot of quacking going on [...]

  23. 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 American MLS as [...]

  24. Gonzo Librarian:

    “Life aint fair”. Wow, that’s profound. The next time some joker gets hauled into court for shooting someone in the face he should trot out the “life aint fair” defense. One reason that life isn’t fair because we humans work so hard to keep it that way. To shrug our shoulders and perpetuate the condition is stupid. When you work hard you should see some kind of payback for that, especially in America. If people don’t want to put in the work or accept the expense to get the degree, then there’s always Wal-Mart.

    “People doing the work of our field deserve the title Librarian”. They deserve recognition, sure. But if they want to be considered a professional Librarian they should bite the bullet and go to library school. I mean, if it means so much to them, why wouldn’t they be willing to invest the time and expense in getting a degree? If they don’t want to do so, then I guess that is that. There are plenty of dedicated, knowledgeable medical professionals that aren’t doctors. Or lawyers. Or nurses. Or etc.

    As for your snide remarks about Library School . . . how else can I say this . . . screw off. I workerd hard to get out of dead-end industrial jobs and work my way through college and grad school and don’t appreciate that acheivement being denigrated by comparison. No, it isn’t medical school. It isn’t law school. But it’s certainly more comprehensive than other gatekeeper educational requirements, like basic teacher certification. Or maybe you prefer that your nurse or radiological technicians have only on the job training. Yes, Library School is pretty easy fare compared to medical school. But then we are discussing two different fields. And just because one field doesn’t have as steep a certification curve as another doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have one at all. That, also, is stupid.

    “Working in a library provides only practical skills; library school gives you the theoretical underpinnings necessary to be a true member of this profession.” True. Attack this all you want, but OJT does not a career professional make. When I took over the job I have now there was a lady who had worked in the library for years who had been running things in the interim until a new librarian could be found. She was smart and far more administratively competant than me. But the interlibrary loan system had lapsed because she didn’t really understand it. New book were being incorrectly catalogged because she was mimicking the work of the librarian before me and using the limited instructions that substituted for an understanding of what cataloging is and how it works. Gee whiz. What a waste of time all those “theoretical underpinnings” are.

    “Let’s draw the line between qualified and unqualified”. That’s what the MLS/MLIS does. And while you may not think that library boards care, I guarantee you that one way to ensure that they won’t is to devalue the degree within the profession ourselves. I worked hard for my degree and I don’t want to see this profession go the way of so many others in America.

    Nuff said.

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