I’m writing this newsletter during a break at my public library. This is a library I love. I think it’s just the right size and has the right sort of folks working in it and running it, as well as a city that seems to actually support it. I’m not hedging against my bosses reading this piece, if only because my bosses are also my friends. It’s a genuinely good place to work. What I want is to be clear that this newsletter is a small missile against absurdity writ large, not against my own personal circumstances. In fact, my situation in regards to library-land couldn’t be better.
Anyone even slightly familiar with libraries always asks me the same question when they hear I’m a librarian, a “full” librarian as I sometimes clarify since most people you see working in a library are technically not librarians, however much they perform the tasks you grew up watching on TV and movies. The question is more or less, “Oh, did you have to get your library degree or whatever?” Strangers, friends, family, even other library workers (if not in so many words), they’ve all heard the rumor. Want to sit behind a desk all day and read? Get a two-year master’s first!
To be clear, librarians don’t sit around and read all day. That’s reserved for the true layabouts, like young children and academics.
And strangely, no, I don’t have my MLS or MLIS, which most people take in stride. They don’t really care about libraries or my degrees, and I at least half agree with them. Other librarians are often less sanguine, even when I make the joke, “It’s okay, I have two other master’s degrees that are even more useless.” And I make that joke every single time. I’ve probably made it to you, if we’ve met in person. I have an MA in English Lit and an MFA in Writing, which carries the faint echo of someone banging their head against a shelf. One English master’s, sure. But two? How much help does this guy need to read a book?
So I’m lucky. I’m one of the few librarians I know without my MLIS, and only because I work in a city and a system that gave me a chance to be a Librarian based on my success at the Library Associate level. They’ve given others the same chance, and I hope they always do so.
But the fact that this is an accomplishment worth honoring is utter hogwash. I’d use stronger language, but I hope other librarians actually read this, and I want them to keep reading. I don’t want any cheap outs based on me just blowing off steam, and some days I’m close to geysering. Because the idea that it’s exceptional to rise from a Library Associate to a Librarian without first getting a degree in something even easier than How to Read Old Books is not only harebrained, short-sighted, and laughable, it also cuts against the entire ethos of a public library.
My jibe about the easiness of a library degree isn’t meant merely as a throwaway line, either. Other librarians are impressed with my MA in English Lit. Many of them wanted to be an academic librarian, but they just couldn’t make themselves get the academic degree. (Academic librarians usually have an MLIS and a subject specific master’s, like my MA in English Lit, which I think is about right, to be honest.) Again, they’re impressed with my being so bad at English that I had to keep studying it, and yet they also believe only their degree can prepare someone for collection maintenance, programming, database research, or any of a dozen skills that a smart 22-year-old could learn with maybe a year on the job.
I’m not against formal education. Have I mentioned all the master’s I keep stepping on like a series of diploma-shaped rakes? Education: good. I’m not even against the MLIS as a way to further one’s understanding of libraries at a higher level, which would necessarily grant oneself an edge while applying for jobs, and so on and so forth. What’s asinine and foolish and—again, antithetical to the ethos of public libraries—is requiring the degree to have the job.
If you’re not familiar with this phenomenon, many states legally obligate you to have some kind of official certification or license in order to be a public librarian, and to get that certification, you almost always have to have an MLS or MLIS. Take North Carolina, not even the worst offender. Their state library certification page goes out of its way to clarify that “certificate courses, continuing education seminars, and field experiences will not be considered in lieu of graduate courses for certification.”
As far as I can tell, I’m not allowed to do the exact job I’m currently doing in Georgia, Michigan, New York, and too many others to track down. I tried writing out the whole list at one point, but it takes up too much space and time. Suffice it to say, the list isn’t insubstantial. I lived in Syracuse, NY, for three years and if I ever want to live there again, I’ll have to start an entirely different career. If I want to follow close friends and other sane people on their exodus out of the Colorado rat-race—say, to Asheville—I’ll have to get a third useless degree, even though my skillset, my interests, and my experience are all perfectly apt.
But this isn’t about me. Really. This is about the foolishness and selfishness of so many librarians who refuse to call out this unnecessary gatekeeping. The Library Science degree has become a homeowner’s association, a collection of NIMBYisms that cannot justify excluding a vast number of qualified workers with any sort of robust reasoning. The history of the degree may be a bulwark against harmful amateurs, but it’s congealed into a sort of reified anxiety. “Our skills aren’t soft. Look, it’s called a science! It requires secret and debt-crushing learning. You various clerks and associates and other professionals could learn the job, but then where would that leave us? How would we justify all this time in grad school?”
Again, the MLIS is fine, probably even necessary for some library and information-science positions. But a public library subsists partly from an ethos that damns formal hoop jumping. It’s learning for the demos, an insistence that you can teach yourself, that you can master without paying, that you can improve without conforming. Excuse my idealism. I don’t usually show it in public. And sure, free health clinics can’t exactly hire DIY doctors, but a library isn’t as technical as primary care. It’s often less technical than a mechanic’s shop or power-line operations. It’s not accounting and it’s not writing and it’s not teaching. It’s a hodgepodge of professional skills glued together by passion, and the idea that these skills can’t be obtained or paralleled through work experience alone, to say nothing of other advanced degrees, is bad, bonkers, and little more than elitist racketeering.
Okay, maybe that’s a little strong. But I’d like someone to take this seriously.
Everyone knows there’s a crisis of education in this country, and anyone paying attention knows it’s at least partly related to careers and class. Librarians are smack in the middle of this controversy and they should stop pretending to be only on the side of the angels. Keep the MLIS, let it catapult some public librarian applicants above others, but every year I meet another associate who’s the best damn librarian in the building, and they deserve the chance to be paid for it.