Q&A: Should I get the MLIS?

Q&A: Should I get the MLIS?

Posted by Ellen Mehling

Q: I am 44 years old and live in New Jersey. I have decided to change careers and want to pursue my lifelong dream of working in a library, preferably as a librarian. The only licensing/degree requirements in our state at this time is for librarians (MLIS) and not any college, nor certification/licensing, for library support staff. I have started to volunteer at my local library and also began online classes for a library technician certificate, then associate program offered in another state. I am enjoying the classes so much that I plan to get the degree regardless of the fact that it is not required in my state in order to obtain a support staff position. My home library is encouraging me to pursue becoming a librarian, which is wonderful. However, I am concerned that at this junction in my life, investing 50K into college (I am starting from ground zero, so A.A.+ BA + MLIS) and graduating at 50 years of age, would be foolish with the library job prospects for the future being so competitive and that most likely positions obtained may be a part-time position…all this is making me question my sanity, let alone that will not allow me to pay off my college debt before retiring. Do you have any advice for someone like me, new to the library world, but has the utmost passion and desire to be a part of it and is keen to climb any mountain to do it?

A: When someone says “Being a librarian is my dream job” I think, “You need to learn more about what it is really like to work in this field”. What I would do now is research: take a thorough look at the profession to make the decision that is right for you. There are real challenges in information work and you’ll want to begin your studies with eyes open.

It is good that you are thinking about this well in advance of starting work on a Master’s degree. It is also beneficial that you are volunteering in a library; that will give you valuable experience, networking opportunities and an understanding of how that type of library works. So you’ve got a strong starting point. Here’s what I recommend:

  • Do some informational interviews. Talk to a number of info pros, as many as possible and from diverse backgrounds, experience, years in the profession, levels of responsibility, types of jobs, locations, etc. In the interviews, include questions about how interviewees got their first jobs, typical daily duties, biggest challenges and frustrations, what they wish they knew when they started, how things have changed, what they like best and least, and the trajectory of their careers and whether they are happy where they are now. Ask about the biggest surprises and misconceptions of library work. Ask about their worst day on the job. Ask if they have any reservations about recommending this profession. Listen to all of it, positive and negative. Take notes and read and re-read them later. Give extra consideration to any opinion or piece of advice you hear from more than one person. Start with your colleagues at your home library; they may suggest others you can talk to.
  • Join info-pro listservs, LinkedIn groups, Facebook groups and – if possible – professional organizations (local, regional, national); learn about current and emerging trends and issues in the field, join discussions, connect with others. Immerse yourself in the field as much as you can.
  • Think about how you want to brand yourself and make your decisions with your goal in mind. Is there a certain type of library work you know you want to do? Focus on that in your information gathering but try to be open minded as you hear and read about other types of work.
  • Consider moving to another part of the country after graduation, if your situation allows. This can expand your options re: employment once you graduate. Find out about the job market, salaries, experience and other job requirements and cost of living in the area in which you plan to live. Think about how you might use the degree outside of libraries. If you have your heart set on having the title of “librarian” as opposed to doing information work in a setting that is not a library and with another title, understand that your job search may be longer and more difficult. (INALJ has a list of keywords on its home page that include non-traditional titles.) Understand too, that even with the Master’s degree, marketable skills, and enthusiasm, the job search may take months and months and that networking (which takes time) is crucial when job hunting.
  • Regarding your age, there are many info pros who come to librarianship as a second career, and make good use of previously-acquired skills and experience in their new profession, so I wouldn’t let that one variable factor strongly into your decision.

(The Associate’s degree, unfortunately, is not going to help you to get into grad school or land a job after getting the Master’s. You’ll need a Bachelor’s to get into library school, and work experience in a library will help to make you a stronger job candidate, but the Associate’s won’t give you any advantage.)

Finally, pay attention to your gut reaction as you read and hear more about librarianship and be honest with yourself. You know that the MLS is a big investment of time, effort and money. It would be an awful thing to get halfway through and quit (and either have spent money for something uncompleted, or have loans that will still need to be paid off), or force yourself to finish just because you started, without enthusiasm or excitement about your goal.

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or just unmoved about what you’re learning about the field, you may want to choose another path. But if you feel exhilarated and energized by your examination of librarianship, this may just be the right profession for you. (And you can write back to us and ask how to choose a grad school!)

Good luck!


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