Response to "The Master's Degree Misperception"

It is exceptionally rare that I get offended enough by a librar* blog post to respond to it with more than pulling a coworker over and saying, "Get a load of this," but Andy Woodworth's The Master's Degree Misperception at Agnostic, Maybe, got--as we used to say in high school--on my tits. Read it, but here are two excerpts:

On any given day, I can be standing at the circulation desk side-by-side with a support staff member doing the same thing that they are doing. So long as this arrangement exists, the perception that librarianship does not require an advanced degree will continue to taint the image of the profession.


It is a disservice to the education, to the degree, and to the profession when the bulk of a librarian’s daily tasks could be performed by someone with a GED...[H]ow can we separate the MLS from the paraprofessional? Should the profession insist on a greater separation of duties? Should we surrender the reference desk over to the paraprofessional and adopt “research hours” where we can sit down with people who have actual reference questions? What needs to change in how we approach the job in the context of the library?

While I do like the idea of "research hours," I'm afraid I'm fairly sure my paraprofessional self could handle them as well as many--though certainly not all--professional librarians.

I've worked in libraries on and off, mostly on, for 16 years, in both circulation and reference. I've worked in two academic and three public library systems (my personal preference is for public, because of the greater diversity of tasks and of patrons served, but I'll admit that at my last academic job I made twice what I do at my current public job). I have consciously, actively chosen not to obtain a master's degree in library and information science for the following reasons:

1) I want to work in public libraries, and librarians in public libraries don't make much unless they're in management,

2)I never want to be in management, and

therefore, 3)I can't bear the thought of the expense of the degree in comparison to how much I am likely to make after obtaining it. I don't want to be paying for my MLIS for years to come, especially as I have a high school junior and a seventh grader who want to attend college. If I truly, deeply thought that I would be learning things that would make me far, far better at my non-management, non-cataloguing job, I might go for my MLIS. But folks: I can read professional journals, I can read blog posts and professional presentations, I can engage in seminar-like discussions with professional and paraprofessional library staff in the blogosphere--I--anyone--can learn so much on my own online and in conversation with colleagues, that I really don't feel that not attending school limits my acquisition of knowledge about the work I do. I learned about Ranganathan's Laws by Googling them after seeing them mentioned in a blog post, and they were the same five laws you learned about in library school.

I love school. If someone handed me a full scholarship to library school, I'd happily go. I don't think library school is a joke or a waste of time. But I'm disgusted with tuition hikes in this country, the turning of learning into little more than a business, and will not go into hock for a degree.

If it's important to you that people outside libraryland understand why your work requires an advanced degree, and you don't think that working the public library floor contributes to the perception that it does, I suggest working in academic or corporate libraries, being in management in public libraries, or--as I prefer to, degreed or not--giving such awesome and knowledgeable service on the public desk that people are dazzled by the depth and breadth of what you can show them. This last does not require an advanced degree. It requires a hungry and dedicated mind and attitude, and a constant willingness to search out new ways to meet your patrons' needs. These days, I'd argue that it means you need to know about tools like superscreenshot.com, zamzar.com, and fillanypdf.com--little things that make your patrons' lives and work much easier once you've demonstrated them. It means keeping your eye out for the good stuff.

More on Woodworth's "someone with a GED" remark and college-as-business: in case you haven't noticed, most service staff have undergraduate degrees now, at least in my town. What's more, several service staff folks working in my county have master's degrees in library science. The jobs aren't there, people. And frankly, again because of the "businessification" of college, degrees hardly mean shit any more. It doesn't say much about your intellect, these days, if you have managed to complete a master's degree. Sure, you worked hard, you learned some stuff, fine--but the degree was ultimately a purchase. One could say "an investment," but if we're looking at the financial picture for most public librarians, it's an investment without much of a payoff.

One of my favorite library-related quotes is from Frank Zappa: "If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library." Now--I realize Zappa's talking about undergrad here; I'm not suggesting one goes to library school to get laid. BUT the point is: you can learn a lot in a library. And one extension of the point is, when you work in a library, you learn a lot. The library's original raison d'ĂȘtre--or one of them--is to make opportunities to learn available to folks who might not otherwise be able to afford to learn. So it seems especially ridiculous when library staff, like Woodworth in this case, assume greater intellect and ability on the part of folks who have been professionally educated and that it's best for autodidacts to stick to telling patrons where the bathroom is. If ANY profession should value the self-taught, it's this one.

I may have blogged this before--I know I've thought it before--but, even when it comes to medicine and law, I would rather be treated or represented by an intellectually-engaged, enthusiastic paraprofessional than someone with a degree who's complacent and resting on his or her laurels. Degree ≠ competence. Degree ≠ good service. A degree simply means that you worked for and obtained a degree. It has nothing to do with whether you'll be a good or dedicated librarian in practice.

Woodworth concludes his post, "I’m not ignorant of the fact that this post will not apply to some libraries that have a smaller staff; nor that there will be times when there is a crossover of duties between librarians and paraprofessionals. I’m simply saying that this will continue to be an image problem so long as it is found [that paraprofessionals and librarians often do the same work] in the majority of public libraries around the country.

To my mind, the best way to solve an "image problem" is to provide patrons with knowledgeable, kick-ass, "I can't believe how much time you just saved me," "I can't believe you were able to find a book series that my reluctant reader devoured"-type service. And to have a good, helpful, I-want-to-make-your-day-easier attitude when, yes, telling folks where the bathroom is or helping them figure out how to make double-sided copies. Because they'll remember it, and when you seem friendly, they might (they often, in my experience) decide to ask you another question, a more, in Woodworth's words, "actual reference question" (that they may not previously have felt comfortable asking, or as if it was worth "disturbing" a librarian about) after they take their leak.

(please also see follow-up post)


AMac said...

What an awesome blog post! I can see myself in your words(I too have children the same age) and I LOVE my job but would never want to be a director!
Well said and I thank you. Sometimes you start feeling less because you do not have the MLS....

Andy W said...

My blog post was not meant as a slight or a hit piece on paraprofessional or support staff. I'm pretty lucky that the majority of people that I work with are dedicated individuals who are library supporters and give a damn. In fact, as I see it, it's a boost to these staff members.


I'm saying that because they can handle a range of tasks and duties that have been traditionally relegated to librarians, they should utilized to free up librarians to work on more macro level library works. Whether it's giving time to prepare another class for the public, more time to search & arrange for programs and events, more time to work with our own resources to learn the ins and outs, more time to engage in professional reading, and more time to figure out new ways to do old or current things. If having paraprofessionals taking over the reference desk means that I as a librarian can get one more class offered, one more program booked, one more resource examined, one more article online about something related to my job, then the community wins out in the long run.

(I for one do not believe that the reference desk is a sacred place. It is not Mount Olympus, it is not simply for the immortals, it is not the sacred burial ground of knowledge. It's a damn desk. It's a designated spot for people to go to ask questions. The idea that only librarians can staff it FOREVER AND EVER is ludicrous.)

I'm pretty certain there will be people who read this last passage and think about how I'm sounding like a giant weasel*. But I don't think that the flip side of the coin for my post is pushing down the paraprofessional; if anything, it's getting them to step into roles that librarians have traditionally filled. Why? Because the knowledge base for the paraprofessional has grown large enough that librarians should be relieving these spaces to work on some of the things I have listed above.

As to the librarian job market, well, that's a whole different ball game. I won't even begin to address that. It stinks. (If I could hire all the jobless MLS people to protest for library funding at their respective state capitals everyday, I would totally do it.)

*If you do use a giant weasel for the comic, then I will insist on having you call it Andy. Or at least I will refer to it by that name, even if it's only to myself.

kittent said...

Damn, Emily...you said just exactly what I wanted to say.

Personally, I think "para" professionals can be, and often are, as professional as "professional librarians." I know I certainly am. Of the current full time "para"s working in my library, 2 of us have MLS degrees, one has an undergrad degree (I think) and one has a GED. Of the two part timers, one has a PhD in Music and one has a high school diploma and trained as an electronics tech in the Air Force.

Normally I like Andy's stuff, but this time he got on my last nerve.

Jennifer said...

I spent five years as a paraprofessional before going to library school and then getting a management position. I am very much of the school of thought that it's your behavior that distinguishes a person as being "professional." Acting like something is beneath you is the fastest way to seem incompetent.

So, I agree with your post, but I don't entirely disagree with the original post. I just think it boils down to letting the people with the skills handle the tasks. And I don't entirely see where the degree fits into that. No, I don't think that just anyone can cover the reference desk, but I think that anyone who can, should.

Sometimes titles and degrees can be good shorthand for talent and curiosity, but only sometimes.

Emily Lloyd said...

Thanks, all, for commenting.

Andy, I hear you, but let me tell you a little bit more about what I have done as a paraprofessional in the last two years:

*Taught 2-hour classes to seniors on "Internet Trends," "Advanced Email," and database usage

*curated the GLBTQ Voices booklists on Hennepin County Library's Bookspace

*Maintained our staff web's "diversity toolbox"

*presented programs on early literacy to incarcerated parents

*presented booktalks, on 3 occasions, to incarcerated youth

*Designed and presented a recurring program/class called "10 Sites in 10 Clicks," highlighting useful sites for the 55+ crowd

*Designed, marketed, and presented our popular Open Mic Poetry Night and Best of YouTube programs

*worked as a member of the library's Diversity Steering Committee

*taught classes in Scratch to teens

*presented storytimes

and I'm currently working on a library-wide training, "Serving Our GLBTQ Customers," by myself, to be presented to staff twice later this season: with no degreed librarian's help

by which I mean: you don't need to be a librarian to teach a class or work on a LibGuide, either.

I am PROFOUNDLY grateful that I work in a system that allows paraprofessionals to take on tasks like the above. I am also confident that I have and will continue to perform such tasks as competently and vibrantly as my degreed colleagues.

Andy W said...

I take your point entirely. When it comes to staff and capability, your mileage will vary. And with budget cuts, there is a blurring (and outright crossover) between the roles.

Perhaps the better conversation to have is "What the heck does an MLS degree mean anyway?" than one about creating separation of duties. In addition, I have a feeling that there are people who agree or disagree with us on the basis of their own current work situation rather than as an overarching issue for the profession.

SJA said...

And on the other hand, MLSs can be uninformed to the point of uselessness. With the exception of the LOC, in all of my adult life, the only question I've taken to a reference desk that was accurately and satisfactorily answered was "where are the tax forms."

When I was in library school and brought this up in class, the other students leapt to the defense of the folks at the desk: they probably weren't really librarians. I didn't have the heart to mention that one of these folks--the one who looked at me like I had two heads when I asked if they had an AACR2 or a logon to the cataloger's desktop--actually used the phrase "when I was in library school" in her rambling, bewildered response.

So I assert the education misconception goes both ways: there are people who can do the job without the letters after their names, and there are probably just as many people with letters after their names who can't do the job.

I would further assert that librarianship is by no means the only industry in which this is the case, either. It's practically universal.

Emily Lloyd said...

SJA: Agreed, and agreed.

Joi said...

Emily, Your post makes me want to come to Minneapolis and ask you a reference question right now.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, many libraries (such as the one I work at) have, ah, adjusted their job descriptions so if I want any chance at moving up from a clerk to a specialist or beyond position, I need to go into debt for an MLIS. And, of course, the jobs really aren't there. Luckily, the library's foundation also provides scholarship funds to help with that debt, and I've actually learned new things in my first couple of classes.

Although I am capable of tackling many reference questions, I am not "allowed" and must refer the patron to a librarian, who is often trying to prepare for a class or outreach program and now has to field a question I could've easily answered.

Karla Ivarson said...

And on another note--while at work in my library, Itried to access the screenshot.com program that you mentioned and got this message "Your organization's Internet use policy restricts access to this web page at this time." *sigh* Thanks though, for the tip about the PDF web site!

Flummox said...

I am a lowly paraprofessional in a public library. I teach computer classes on various topics and take care of the teen programming, but most of my duties are tech and design related. My official job title is "Special Projects Coordinator."

My husband is the director of two public libraries, and has been for nearly 10 years. Neither he nor my director have the MLS, but degrees in English. Somehow without that magical degree, both have been able to manage staff, catalog, and all of those things that it has been insinuated that one cannot do unless you have the MLS. And, they do it well. My director is on the state library association's executive board. My husband is on the state library association's reorganization committee, and has held other various offices. But, neither of them are "librarians." Somebody with the MLS that does nothing but shelve books is, though.