Thursday, March 27, 2008

To MLS or not? That is the question

The Liminal Librarian recently wrote a post called "If it quacks like a librarian..." that disagrees with the common opinion of MLS librarians that those without an MLS should not be called librarians and should not be included in the Library Journal's list of movers and shakers. I have no problem with them being called "movers and shakers," I strongly believe talented paraprofessionals and those who work for vendors can drive changes in the field of libraries.

However, I'm not sure if they should be called "librarians." Do they do reference with thought to reference interviews? Do they teach bibliographic instruction? Do they keep up with technology and library trends? Do they coordinate major assessments? Do they set budgets, decide which books to buy, review databases to buy or get rid of? Do they take their work home when it's too much to fit into an 8-hour work day?

I don't think being defensive of the word "librarian" means we don't value the paraprofessionals' work. We have excellent people at our library and I would hate for them to think I look down on them. I am often running to them for help and explanations. I believe they should get a 25% raise in pay (and I should get a 10% one) and would get very defensive if a student spoke lowly of them.

But a community person called ahead to ask if we had Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, which she wanted to use for an online class assignment. The person said "oh yes, of course we have that database." So the woman drove about 30 minutes to get here, only to find out we only have Reader's Guide Retrospective. I could only tell her none of the librarians would have told her that. In this particular case, it was most likely a student worker who answered the phone and didn't know to pass it on, so it may be a weak illustration. But I think most of our technicians would have looked it up and said we did, not realizing there are multiple parts to the Reader's Guide suite of databases.

Just as I can't be trained and expected to keep up with what they do, they can't be expected to keep up with what I do. We all have our specialties, and most paraprofessionals do not have the training to do what professional librarians do. I don't know if "paraprofessional" adequately describes the respect I have for the people I work with, but it's probably better than "technician" or "assistant" which seems inadequate to me.

The bigger picture is the world does not value those with an MLS and think anyone can be a librarian (like the note I got on my Shelfari account). That is what we should be defending against. You've got these stories such as the shakeup of Memphis's public libraries and the mayor appointing a business man and a former body-guard to run the public libraries, kicking out a long-time director who had turned the libraries around and won national awards.

Sure, there are people with MLS degrees that are not librarians at heart. They drove me crazy in grad school, bringing down group projects and giving very half-hearted presentations. I don't ever want to work with that type of person. An MLS doesn't automatically make you a true librarian, but...

Okay, I'm bringing in too many points here. An MLS is not the same as an M.D. or a J.D., and I grant it is one of the easier master's degrees... but not any easier than most masters degrees in education from my humble observation. No one would hire you to teach college French without a related master's degree at the least, and a Ph.D. for upper-level students. Could I teach French if I wanted to? I'm pretty sure I could. But no one would ask me to. So why isn't it the same with librarians?

I'm done ranting and raving. For the moment anyway.


Toni said...

I was just stopping by to leave the link to Rachel's post. Glad you've already commented on it.

While I still disagree with your opinion that the term "librarian" should only refer to degree-bearing staff, it was interesting to see that we're both thinking of librarian jobs compared to other higher ed jobs. I'd like to suggest a comparison to a literature or art professor: there are many, many respected authors and artists who are coveted faculty members but do not hold a degree higher than a BA or BS.

I agree with Rachel: if you are doing the work of a librarian, you are a librarian.

Anonymous said...

I'd also like to point out a flip side--there are "librarians" who do not work in libraries. I work in an art gallery; although "librarian" is not my job title, the job required a MLS degree.

supernumerarypa said...

One of my best friends from grad school works for Indiana University's press (I call it the "dark side" to tease her, but they seem to be ethical and she's happy). Her job doesn't require it, but I think it helps. I haven't heard of jobs outside of libraries requiring an MLS, but I know librarianship is only one of many things you can do with the degree.