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My 'fix' for Librarians as Professionals

Since I do like to try and suggest solutions to problems, rather than just being critical (which is still a worthwhile task as its own endeavor).

Here is how I think that we can repair/fix library education and the profession of librarianship.

Many have said this already: the MLIS is useless. But the fact that it is useless is more damaging than people truly give it credit for. And in ways that some don’t quite grasp. There is truly nothing more dispiriting than finding out, the very moment you enter library school (or talk to an actual librarian) that your degree is useless. That you will spend two years, many hours in class, even more hours working on projects, all of which will amount to nothing. That even if you are the keenest, most engaged student, you will not actually learn anything valuable for your (not guaranteed) job.

I really do think that the pervasive bitterness/jadedness/dourness of librarians begins in that moment. That is the moment that any and all idealism you might have been holding onto begins to die its slow, painful, but inevitable death.

Because you are told, if you are lucky to be a Canadian attending a Canadian institution, that you are expected to pay at least 10K in tuition, and put in all this time and effort for…. the ability to (in the current job market) not always qualify for entry level positions.

A lot of the comments that I see about this state of affairs talk about how unprepared grads are for the job market and how they do not have the skills. Okay. Fair enough. But I think that this is more serious for how it means, from the beginning, that we are creating a general morale of apathetic librarians.

So. Solutions.

1) Make the minimal professional degree be a bachelors, not a master.

Why? Because it would give the opportunity for people to actually learn things. Like. It would be so much better, for example, to be able to take Cataloguing 101, Cataloguing 201, and so on. Where we could start with the general principles of bibliographic description, then move onto actual specifics, with enough time to actually learn how to catalogue. Essentially, we could still have generalist programs, but they would have graduates who could actually do things the day they graduate.

Also, (h/t to Myron for also pointing this out), this would likely reduce the barriers for many under-represented groups like people of colour, disabled people, poor people, and so on. School is expensive. And it is fairly hard to justify getting a bachelors + masters, neither of which will be relevant to your future job, to talented students who could get an engineering degree in four years and make significantly more money.

I know a lot of people like to decry this income/profession focused approach to higher education, and to a certain extent I agree, but I come from an immigrant Asian family. Most of my cousins have degrees in some engineering field or another. I realized the value of this when I was talking to my cousin, five or so years younger, and realized that he was making more as a summer student intern than I was for an entire year of graduate school during my MA.

Relatedly, this same cousin finished at 22, whereas I finally finished at 29. That is seven full years of earning an average $87,000/year in the province he lives in before I can look forward to my average of $59,000/year in the same province. If he had a student loan, it’s probably paid off by now. I might be 45 before I manage to pay mine off.

When you come from a poor, immigrant background this is a fairly compelling case against never choosing to be a librarian. And, I probably only did so because the prospects as a librarian are about a bajillion times better than as a philosopher.

I really do think that the graduate degrees should be for academics and researchers, or for those people who want to seek a specialization.1

2) Become an actual profession instead of a pseudo-profession

Um… This may get me a little hate, but librarianship isn’t a real profession2. Not in the same way that doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, etc. are. What we need, even if no one decides the above is worthwhile or plausible, is an actual professional organization that accredits individuals, as well as schools.

Especially in Canada. We need to stop using the ALA as a crutch. We need to (well, the CLA is probably beyond reform) create a functional professional body that regulates and licenses librarians to do our jobs. With actual and real professional ethics that, if violated, can be used to penalize or revoke licenses entirely. With requirements that we need to renew our license every so often and that renewal is contingent upon a set amount time spent on professional development and updating our skills.

And I think this is the solution that matters far, far more than any library school reform: since, establishing a proper regulatory professional organization will necessarily require that library schools adapt to ensure that their graduates can meet the licensing requirements.

I also don’t think that any statements that our profession is too wide and varied to be able to identify a core set of skills for a licensing scheme to actually work will hold much water. Doctors and lawyers have equally (if not more) complicated, diverse professions and they still manage to make it work.

The other problem with how things stand… is that many of us do understand how unnecessary a MLIS is to actually do our jobs. The problem with this is that it becomes easy to hire people who do not have an MLIS. Nothing functionally distinguishes a library school grad from a person with an English BA/MA, both will require an investment of time to train them with the skills they’ll need to perform their job.

Which of these do I think is more plausible? Well… reforming higher ed programs can be tough and it’d probably be tough for a lot of library schools to get the instructors necessary to offer a robust undergrad degree. Although, this would provide more jobs for a certain kind… or maybe it could mean that the librarians in academic libraries who do instruction could teach real classes instead of voluntary information literacy courses.2

While I think both are steps we should take, I think creating a viable, regulatory professional body is better/easier and would have the more immediate beneficial impact. And, we could – to get substantial buy in – simply ‘grandfather’ all the people currently working. Or, at worst, we could lobby the government to legislatively establish such a body and simply force the issue on everyone.

I truly think this is necessary because I firmly believe that the work we do is necessary and valuable. And because it is necessary, that we should get the respect, recognition, and compensation for our services to society.