So You Wanna Go to Library School….

From the mailbag!  A reader asked me about library school programs.  This is my (paraphrased) answer.  People seem hesitant to write in to Boss of You, but maybe I’ll achieve my dream of becoming LibraryLand’s Agony Aunt yet!

Okay, first of all, before I can answer this question in good conscience, I have to ask: are you really sure you want to go to library school and be a librarian?  The job market is tight and being a librarian is nothing like what you see in popular media.   Look at job ads.  Read some library list-servs and blogs.  (But not New-Lib because those people are pathetic whiners.)  If you haven’t yet, try to work in a library for a semester or summer or AT THE VERY LEAST try to job shadow a librarian for a day in the type of library you want to work at.   Really realize what you’re getting yourself into before you invest your time and money in a degree.

There are far too many people in the biz who became librarians because it was a “safe choice” and/or they had no where else to go.  (I also see this  commonly with people who go to law school.)  Librarianship is far too important of a profession to be stuffed with people just phoning it in.  Librarians preserve and protect the worlds knowledge for future generations – yes, even “Fifty Shades of Grey” counts – and they defend the right of the current generation to access it.   It annoys the ever-loving shit out of me to see its ranks stuffed with people who really want to be a college professor or fiction author or who otherwise couldn’t hack it in “The Real World” use it as their landing place.  You wanna know why the outside world doesn’t respect librarians?  Because a lot of librarians don’t consider it to be a valuable profession either – it was just their fall back choice.  There’s nothing wrong with just doing a job for a paycheck, but stay the Hell out of my profession if you want to do it.

Sorry, got off on a little tangent there.

So, about library schools…in my opinion, the two main factors you should look at are (1) how much it’s going to cost you to get the degree and (2) how many opportunities for getting real world experience – either a paying job or internships – are you going to be able to get while there.   ALA accreditation is a given and I wouldn’t even look at schools without it.

Why are those my top two criteria?  Easy.  One, no matter what type of librarian you become, your salary will be laughably low for someone with a master’s degree.  Do the math.  If you’re shelling out 40 or 50 grand for tuition for a degree (on top of whatever you paid for your undergrad degree) that’s going to get you a 25 – 30K a year job…well, you’re gonna be in for a bad time.  Try to find a cheap option for you – either get your employer to pay for it, go to an in-state school or go where you can get a good scholarship.

Secondly, there are some practical skills and knowledge learned in library school, but for me, as a former public services librarian, the most important lessons on “How to Be a Librarian” were learned in the jobs I had in libraries while I was earning my MLS.     Granted, I haven’t looked at a library school text in a while, but I’m pretty sure skills like “How to give directions to the bathroom” “How to fix staplers” “How to say no to a yelling professor that really wants to take that extremely rare and fragile book to his office” “How to wake up a sleeping homeless person” and (everyone’s favorite) “How to approach someone that’s – ahem – enjoying some pornography at a public computer terminal” are not covered in books.  You have to learn by watching more experienced librarian doing it and by doing it yourself.  Future employers appreciate and look for practical experience as well.

On a secondary level, despite what’s written above, classes are important.  Look at the catalog to see what’s offered by the school.  MORE IMPORTANTLY, look at the past few semester’s recent course offerings to see how often they’re offered.  Sometimes it’s a “every other spring semester” sort of thing and given the shortness of an MLS program, you may miss out on the chance to take it.    And as far as professors go, personally I always preferred adjuncts or people that had actually worked in a library setting for a while before going full-time LIS professor.  Practical knowledge >>>>> theory.

I wouldn’t worry about the ranking of the program, unless you’re going for a highly specialized type of librarian gig.  For instance, in my sphere of librarianship, there are a couple of programs that are renown for their law librarianship programs. It would probably be worth shelling out the dough if it means that you are almost guaranteed a job and have a tight professional cohort for the rest of your career. *cough* UW Mafia *cough*

I hope that helps.  If anyone has any extra tips, feel free to drop a comment.

Photo Credit:  (Batgirl was a librarian, dontcha know?) 


  6 comments for “So You Wanna Go to Library School….

  1. Rich Leiter
    September 17, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    Two things: First, when you’re discussing the cost, you gotta keep in mind that many schools require not just a master’s in library/information science, but a JD, too! It’s practically a requirement for becoming a library director. Law schools are usually more expensive than library school degrees and it only adds to the debt….

    Second, many schools today offer distance learning options that are pretty good. The strength of adjunct faculty in some of these programs is occasionally weak, but, in general people I know who have earned degrees online from University of Missouri, for example, have been quite pleased with the education.

  2. September 18, 2012 at 7:07 am

    I’ve just started an MLIS and my fees for the year came to €5,900. I’m in a university in Ireland (the only one offering an MLIS, though some do offer PG Dips). I was wondering why quite so many of my classmates were American, but it all makes sense now! It’s an excellent, accredited course. Most of our professors have actually come from US universities offering MLIS degrees. If you really can’t afford the $30,000, move to Ireland for the year. Seriously.

  3. Michael Stephens
    September 18, 2012 at 2:52 pm
  4. October 1, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    As someone who works in, loves, and hires for public libraries, I would also suggest you ask yourself these three questions if you are considering joining our ranks:

    1. Do you like books? No, you don’t get to read them on the job. Yes, public libraries involve far more than just books. No, you probably won’t have a lot of time for extracurricular reading, either. But it’s helpful to have at least enough interest in books that when someone asks you for a recommendation, you can at least understand that reading is a thing people like to do. Still. In a variety of formats.

    2. Do you like computers? I mean LIKE them, not just tolerate them. Because you need to like them. You are going to work with them every day. You are going to work with people who need to use computers but don’t really understand how they work every day. You need to want to spend time with computers, not just be okay at troubleshooting them.

    3. Do you like people? This one really trumps both the other two and, frankly, almost everything else. You don’t need to be an extrovert (I’m not). You don’t need to be around people all the time. But if you don’t like people and you don’t like helping them, you will not be happy in a public library, and we will not be happy with you.

  5. Nikki
    October 2, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    I’m in the MLS program at IU (and being a librarian is all I’ve ever wanted to do) and my reference class has an “ethics” section that is, essentially, how my professor has dealt with all sorts of strange things in the Law Library (including solutions for the homeless population using the public access computers to look at porn).

    I picked my program based on price. $72,000 annually (that’s not a typo) at the University of Michigan? $30000+ annually at the University of Iowa? Or $8500 annually at IU? Um, yeah. IU.

  6. AxelDC
    February 17, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    There are lots of opportunities to make good money with a MLIS degree, but most of them are outside traditional roles. Jobs for public and public school librarians are vanishing with tough fiscal times. Academic librarians are in a tight market.

    Special librarians, however, can easily find good paying jobs. Here are some areas to concentrate in:

    1) Management
    2) Metadata
    3) Digitization
    4) Web development
    5) IT/Systems
    6) Knowledge Management
    7) Competitive Intelligence
    8) Database management
    9) Records management
    10) Government documents
    11) Copyright issues
    12) Business reference

    Note these are a lot different than 85% of the jobs librarians work in today. If you have a background in IT, business, law, economics, etc., you will have an easy time finding a job. If you want to be a manager, you will be well ahead of most librarians. If you want to sit at a general reference desk or catalogue books, then good luck to you!

    I’ve found 3 jobs in the past 6 years with my MLIS, even in this tough job market.

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