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The MLS Catch-22

by on January 2, 2018

In library-land we’re aware that the MLS is the key to professional achievements. It is rare that anyone can attain leadership positions within libraries if they don’t carry this key designation. Over the past few years however, a combination of student loan debt, low salaries, and the actual job requirements of these positions make pursuing an MLS a little less desirable. Is there a future for the profession if we begin to accept a Bachelor’s Degree in Library Science as sufficient training? Or perhaps rather than an MLS, we begin to require a Master’s of Public Administration for those pursuing a Public Library leadership position. Is our commitment to the MLS an example of an industry struggling to adapt to change?

In a study, Re-Envisioning the MLS, the University of Maryland iSchool’s MLS program in conjunction with the Information Policy and Access Center (iPAC) determined that libraries in the Maryland, D.C., and Virginia area were less likely to seek and hire professionals with an MLS due to funding uncertainties or the need for professionals with other skills and qualifications.[1] In my experience moving up the professional ladder, I have noticed an increased need for professionals in instructional design, community outreach, fundraising, marketing, and social work. I often feel frustrated that a very qualified employee cannot be included in succession planning without a degree that sometimes feels arbitrary for the realities of the position. Some raise concern that if we were to relax our grip on the MLS we’ll lose the professional status associated with libraries. I counter that we’re losing that already.

The need for innovation in libraries is no secret. Many libraries have the funding, enthusiasm, and cultural ethos to weave innovation throughout their ranks. Many do not. The huge disparities in access to innovation opportunities could potentially be mitigated if we were to look outside of our industry when hiring. The Harvard Business Review states,

“Bringing in ideas from analogous fields turns out to be a potential source of radical innovation. When you’re working on a problem and you pool insights from analogous areas, you’re likely to get significantly greater novelty in the proposed solutions, for two reasons: People versed in analogous fields can draw on different pools of knowledge, and they’re not mentally constrained by existing, “known” solutions to the problem in the target field. The greater the distance between the problem and the analogous field, the greater the novelty of the solutions.”[2]

Often it is not only the hiring manager who needs to be convinced of the need for cross-industry hiring, but also a Board of Directors. The more we talk about the need for changes to our MLS programs as well as reflect on the usefulness of professionals from other fields, the better equipped we’ll be to compete in our ever-changing environment. While Re-Envisioning the MLS concludes that there is a future for the MLS and posits many recommendations for its refinement, I don’t believe that is solely where our future lies.


[1] https://publiclibrariesonline.org/2016/01/re-envisioning-the-mls-the-future-of-librarian-education/

[2] https://hbr.org/2014/11/sometimes-the-best-ideas-come-from-outside-your-industry

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