Back when I was a book nerd in high school (as opposed to now, where I am a book nerd in my mid-twenties) and was researching career fields and different degrees in anticipation of attending college, I looked up what degree was needed to be a librarian. After all, working surrounded by books sounded absolutely ideal.
So when I looked up what degree you got to become a librarian, I was shocked to see you needed a Masters Degree in Library Science (MLS). This is sometimes also called a Masters in Library and Information Science (MLIS) or a Masters in Information Science (MIS).
This MLS requirement seemed like a lot for a job I wasn’t sure I wanted. I went to college and got my undergraduate degree in creative writing. My first job out a college was part time at a public library. I now work full time as a librarian. I do not have a MLS.
So, what gives? Do you need a MLS to be a librarian, or not?
The answer: yes and no.
Let me explain.
Types of Librarians
First off, most people who ask this question are probably thinking of only two different types of librarians, the ones they have mostly likely have run into. Public librarians, who work in public libraries, and school media specialists/school librarians, who work in K-12 schools.
But also consider that there are academic librarians who work in university libraries, law librarians who work in law libraries, medical librarians who work in hospitals and research centers, museum librarians, archivists, librarians who work behind the scenes in metadata and collection development. This is not a comprehensive list.
Many of these positions require specialized knowledge: in law, in medicine, in research, in metadata, and so on.
So when you say ‘librarian’ there is a larger career field than you are probably thinking of off the top of your head. In many of those positions, you will not be fully prepared and capable without MLS.
Let’s focus on the public library, which is probably what you meant and was definitely what I meant when I researched this question. Also, as a public librarian, it is the only area I can speak with authority.
Not Everyone Who Works In a Library is a Librarian
‘But why do librarians need a masters degree?’ is the follow up question. ‘All they do is put books on shelves. It seems easy.’
Here is where I take a calming breath, then say: “Not everyone who works in a library is a librarian.” This is a common misunderstanding from the public’s viewpoint. Even taking out the obvious (custodial staff, security, volunteers), not everyone who sits behind a desk as a library is a librarian.
So please, differentiate in your head: do you want to work in a library, or do you want to be a librarian? While not mutually exclusive, these are different things.
Now let me explain some job positions within a public library.
(Please note that the job positions I explain below vary depending on what exact library you work at and it’s policies, its size, the number of staff, etc.)
Shelvers/Pages - This is the position I started in. It is usually part time. This position is mainly concerned with shelving books, straightening shelves, and other busy work activities that help keep the library collection orderly. High school students, retirees, volunteers, and ‘get-your-foot-in-the-door’ peeps all do this job. Yes, someone higher ranked, like a librarian, may and will do shelving when needed, but it is not their primary job concern.
Circulation - I moved from being a shelver to being a circulation staff member. Circulation staff deals with checking in and checking out materials. They usually have a desk or counter right near the front doors to handle these transactions. They are also primarily concerned with library card sign ups, negotiating fines, and other ‘account management’ questions. You do not need a MLS for this position and the only way I can see a masters degree of any variety being useful in this position is if you’re trying to move up in management, and even there sometimes job experience is more useful and important.
Librarian - So if librarians main job concern is not shelving books or checking out books, what do they do? Librarians handle programming (book discussions, storytimes, craft night, summer reading etc.). Librarians handle reference questions (What’s the wingspan of a sparrow?). Librarians handle reader’s advisory (the library term for book recommendations). Librarians help people with using computers for various things (job applications, homework, research). Librarians manage the collection of library materials (withdrawing out-of-date items, requesting new materials). Librarians work on outreach and developing partnerships within their communities.
Library Associate - Someone who is doing the job of a library but they don't have a master degree.
How To Become a Librarian without a MLS Degree
As you may’ve picked up by this point, I worked my way up to being a librarian.
If you want to work as a librarian, and not just work in a library in another position, without a master’s degree, you need library work experience to make up the deficit. You will be competing with people with Masters in Library Science for the job. I went from part time shelver to part time circulation to part time librarian to full time librarian. It took several years, changing library branches, changing library systems, many applications, and many job interviews, many of which were unsuccessful. I also have the advantage of living in a densely populated area with lots of libraries and lots of options.
Keep in mind, the official job title for librarians without an MLS may not be ‘Librarian.’ It may be, for a prominent example ‘Library Associate.’ So when it comes to using job search engines, don’t just stick with the word ‘librarian,’ as you may be missing out on job postings.
Why You May Want That Master’s Eventually
While you can become a librarian/library associate without a MLS, the amount you can advance in your career is stymied without the degree. Like being a teacher, the master’s degree also bumps up your salary. Additionally, it opens up other career paths within the various librarian fields I talked about early, because some of them do require a MLS.
I’m generally a proponent of not going directly from undergrad to grad unless you have a very good reason for it. (It’s a delineated educational-career path that requires it like for being a doctor or lawyer, you get into one of those 5 year programs where you can earn both degrees, for example.) However, there is not really a right or wrong path, with pros and cons for each method. My caution is just because you love books may not mean you like working in a library. That’s where job experience in a library becomes invaluable.
I am now enrolled in a part time grad school program to get a MLS four years after starting working in a library. One benefit of waiting to get a MLA until employed as a librarian is that some libraries (like mine) will help fund your education through tuition reimbursement or scholarships. Another benefit is that they may give you time on the job to coursework. (This is allowed because, like teachers, librarians are often required to perform continuing education training and courses.)
Hope this blog helped to clarify the issue. Leave additional questions in the comments, and I will try to answer what I can!
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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