“Why do you need a master’s degree to be a librarian?”

by Alexis Waide, former Head Editor, INALJ Minnesota

“Why do you need a master’s degree to be a librarian?”
Crowdsourcing an answer for an irritating question

alexissRecently, I went to a party attended largely by librarians and/or friends from library school.  Several of us were discussing the minor annoyances of our respective jobs and one friend asked what everyone’s response is when we get that dreaded question: “Why do you need a master’s degree to be a librarian?”  (This often goes hand in hand with that other cringe-worthy exchange, “You’re going to school to be a librarian?  So what do you do?  Learn how to alphabetize?”)  Sadly, all of us stood there, scratching our heads, hemming and hawing.  No one seemed to have a ready answer.  Oh, we all had the sarcastic answers: “Because we made it that way,” “Honestly, you don’t, but it means we can get paid more,” etc. but obviously nothing that really validates our education and our position.

The further we got into discussion, several great points were brought up but we didn’t arrive at the solid, concise, and brief response to give to those doubters we might be faced with.  I’m currently working on formulating my own answer but below are some ideas that came out of this conversation:


“Librarians find information and get information to their patrons, yes, but they also have to do things like write budgets!  And balance them!” 

If you haven’t figured this out already, and as cliche as it may be, librarians wear many hats, some of their own design and choosing, but many that are foisted upon them by a boss or board or circumstance.  Sure, many of us are serious specialists, dealing with one small aspect of librarianship, but I’d say a vast many more wind up doing a couple of things, often things that don’t overlap.  In my own job I am responsible for ILL, reference, supervising students, creating LibGuides, cataloging, other random projects as they come up, and more.  Did getting my MLIS help prepare me to take on these varied duties?  You bet.  With the exception of ILL, I had at least one class that covered some aspect of what I’m doing now.

I haven’t even hit upon non-library information professionals and how the varied education one receives with an MLIS opens many doors beyond the library world.  Tech classes pave the way for information architects and user experience specialists, information organization classes develop taxonomists and indexers, database courses to resource managers, and so on.


“We have to understand our past to know how to proceed in the future.”

Most MLIS programs cover the history of the field, if not comprehensively, at least in bits and pieces in the classes dealing with sub-fields.  You’ll hear names like Ranganathan, Cutter, Gorman, Dana, and more.  You’ll learn about theories that shaped the work we do and how some continue to do so, and ideas and processes that were once commonplace that may now be collecting dust.  These names and ideas are important in the choices we make today, since we recognize they will impact the future.  Need further proof?  Look at how technology has impacted our profession over time, not only in the types of materials we have in our collections, but also the operational technology.  Looking back at previous technologies helps us see how new technologies might impact our daily work.


“This is a FIELD, not just a job.”

This is what it all boils down to for me – the fact that this is a professional field and not just a job. It isn’t the type of work that someone can just walk in off the street and perform well, with or without basic knowledge of how libraries work.  Specialized training is necessary to succeed or indeed even to excel in a position, and a master’s degree is conferred on someone who has studied both deeply and broadly in his or her chosen field.  That’s what an MLIS/MLS program is supposed to give us – the depth and breadth of the library and information sciences discipline.

Does anyone else get asked this question, either because you’re in school now and people don’t get it, or you work in a library and people don’t get it?  How do you respond?  What should we tell the naysayers?  Feel free to tweet me your thoughts: @alexismarlena.


If you need more ideas for your own response, check out these excellent articles and blogs:

What People Don’t Get About Working in a Library by Derek Thompson (The Atlantic Monthly)

Why does a Librarian need a masters degree? (From Librarian to Cybrarian)

“You need a master’s degree for that?”  In defense of the MLS. (Librarified)


previously published 6/6/13 under her former name, Alexis Stapp, and on 6/21/14

  16 comments for ““Why do you need a master’s degree to be a librarian?”

  1. Beth B.
    July 17, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    Opened more doors. You may have had the experience but without the degree it gave potential employers a reason not to carry you over to the next round.

  2. Justin
    May 31, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    I’m just a few weeks away from graduate with my MLIS degree and a Masters in Public Administration. I would like to see some changes in the industry. I think having a four year degree that leads to a reference services position would be great. It would allow people an entry point into the field without the heavy commitment of getting a masters. Then have the MLIS a requirement for specialized areas such as cataloging and for senior positions that have supervisory responsibility and to do other things such as collection development. As it is know my local library is reducing the number of librarians and the hours they work. The reference desk is now staffed by public service assistants. They accomplished the shift through attrition so they avoided the uproar over firing anyone.

    I think digging in our heals are refusing to look at new education models could lead to a large reduction in librarian positions. If we have librarian jobs being filled by non-librarians it gives the impression that we are not needed. Also lowering the barriers on entry into the field can help bring people into the profession from a wider range of backgrounds. This might inject some new thoughts into the field. There seems to be a large preference for hiring those who have been working in libraries as pages or other positions. I understand wanting experience, but this preference seems a bit insular. Perhaps I’m just pessimistic because I’m about to graduate and have sent out a dozen or so applications without any sign that anyone even looked at my resume.

    On a side note, my MLIS school didn’t do cover budgeting or management very well (and I’m at a top ten school). I was fortunate that because of my personal circumstances I could afford to go to school for another year and complete a second masters in Public Admin so that I would be able to develop a budget, write grants, conduct program evaluations using both quantitative and qualitative methods and a few other managerial skills.

  3. April 21, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    One thing that occurred to me is that we’re also one of the first interdisciplinary degrees to have happened. We “need the Master’s” because that’s part of being accepted as a professional field (much like Donnadara’s mention of Lawyer needing JD’s), but it also encompasses training in a bunch of different areas (interpersonal communications to business to social psychology to cataloging) and that’s something that’s easier done if you’ve already obtained a Bachelor’s (not that I’m denigrating para’s – I’m still a para, and I think that there are paraprofessional positions out there where a Bachelor’s helps immensely!)

  4. donnadara
    June 21, 2013 at 10:28 am

    “It’s a field, not a job.” That’s it right there. Why do lawyers need a degree, can’t paralegals do the same thing? We need to respect our own profession. No other profession acts like a high school diploma and some on the job training teaches you everything you need to know.

  5. June 19, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    I had some feedback on Twitter that that someone thought this article implied that non-MLS holders in libraries don’t have value or aren’t trained. It simply doesn’t. This is only focused on MLS holders and how they see their value (not negating the value of others) and how they see training. It can be a bear explaining that there is something we learn in school to those who never went through a program and I loved Alexis’s tips.

    As someone who has worked in libraries without the degree and with highly professional colleagues who were not MLS holders I don’t read this article that way at all. I was excited that this year’s Movers & Shakers also included Ben Bizzle and other non-librarians who add to our field. I welcome the diversity while also advocating for respect for my own education and growth within that context.

    You don’t need an MLS to be a valuable contributor to a library or information center at all levels.

    • Illinois to Missouri editors
      June 23, 2013 at 2:40 pm

      Thank you for clarifying that, Naomi. I realized after the fact that people might interpret this article that way – as me negating the work done by the non-degree holders and I want to stress that I do not think that the only people with value working in libraries or other information-centric institutions are those with MLSes. Everyone, master’s degree-holding or no, has something to contribute at all levels of an organization. I’ve seen “paras” with no master’s with more knowledge of the workings of their library than their higher-ups, so clearly a master’s does not always equate expertise.

      • June 23, 2013 at 7:36 pm

        I still think that was just them projecting 🙂 I don’t read it that way. I was a para for years and always respected that while I knew the machinations I was never going to be at the same level as the reference librarians until I got the education 🙂

        • Ernest
          May 16, 2014 at 10:36 am

          How about No education but 30 years experience in a major NYC law firm? i did a little research and discovered that i do not qualify to do a job that i have been doing for 30 years with out the education.

    • February 21, 2014 at 5:15 pm

      Your comment relieves me. I currently have a bachelors in Social Science and I have wanted to get my masters, but I would like a job i the field first. How do I get a job in a library full time without having a masters?

  6. Jennifer
    June 10, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    It is difficult to respond to questions like the ones above. I have been dealing with those questions for the past two years. Originally, while I was in library school, I was working behind the scenes, part-time in academic libraries and working to my full potential. When I graduated, I hit a very bad time in the economy (2010) and after about a year of searching, I finally found a job through connections at a private high school! No connection whatsoever to what I had done previously, except for maybe some basic cataloging, I found myself in a position where I was completely undervalued. I was the only librarian at a school where the administration had no idea what librarians are capable of or what makes a good high school library. Although I came to love working with the teens, the administration did not care about my suggestions for the library and their preference was that I made sure to keep the kids quiet and studying. If I didn’t catalog the books at all, they probably would not have noticed. As I was fielding the same questions by the teens about library school, I began feeling like they were right in this case – Why in the world would a need a masters degree to do this? I’m just a glorified babysitter! Just last week, I found out that due to enrollment issues, the board has decided that they can no longer afford to have a librarian at all. At first I was pissed at being laid off, but then I figured, finally a way out! They were way overpaying for what they wanted, so they might as well hire a cheap babysitter. As for me, maybe now, with all these wonderful job posts on INALJ, I can finally find the library job that is right for me and my skills. Maybe next time it will be easy to answer that question.

  7. June 8, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    I agree with Jeannine. I earned by MLS in the late 1970s when the huge advance was the first OCLC terminal in the school. Because of the variety of positions, at times I was at the forefront of technology. But no longer…and I’m not sure how to catch up, especially when my current job doesn’t require it.

  8. Alexis
    June 7, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    That’s a a great way to get a perspective on what’s important and emerging in the field today – great tip. I also think those who have been in the profession a while get entrenched in their thinking, and even just attending one of those info sessions, if not doing the coursework, helps to see where our value will lie in the future.

  9. Julie
    June 7, 2013 at 9:17 am

    Many people think that shelvers and library clerks, who check out books, are librarians. Then they wonder why you need a master’s to do that. Much of the work that librarians do is invisible, i.e., the public doesn’t see them doing it: budgets, planning, collection development, staffing, training, etc. Reference and instruction, which are seen, are more likely to be understood as requiring a degree.

  10. Matt
    June 6, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    It’s especially funny when professional web designers and “social media consultants” warn us about the job market and Librarians. Yeah dude, cuz in ten years time no PR department will figure out that using HTML and making a Facebook page takes all of five minutes and you will TOTALLY not be relegated to the useless realm of Resume Writers.

  11. Torian
    June 6, 2013 at 9:57 pm

    Librarians are so proficient in what they do, individuals may think there is nothing to being a librarian. Librarians know the information needs of the various age groups and we service those needs via the library’s collection and programs. Librarians know how individuals learn so we teach information literacy skills for life-long learning. If you are a director of a public library, most likely you have become politically savvy in obtaining funding and approval to provide programs to support the community needs. As a librarian, I have also worked as an Information Specialist on Competitive Intelligence projects; provided research to attorneys in legal departments; created profiles on individuals being considered for board of directors positions; assisted Ph.D students in retrieving information for their dissertation in less than half the time it would have taken them to find the information on their own; tactfully assisted undergraduate and graduate students in revising their approach in obtaining information to support their research, when the information they are seeking just isn’t out there. In supporting our national security, librarians or Information Specialists, work for the FBI, the CIA, the White House, and Homeland Security. We are proficient in obtaining information that assists others in making critical decisions for our country. We are good at what we do but we don’t toot our horn enough.

  12. Jeannine
    June 6, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    I find that I am having a hard time convincing others that my educational background in library science is grossly outdated and I really need to learn the current technological trends but I continue to find myself surrounded by those people who aren’t even living in the late 20th century, let alone the early 21st century, especially where it concerns computer technology. What helped me (even a little bit) was attending an information session at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN to find out what current MILS students are learning through their Library Science program. Even that little bit of information made me feel better to know that the rest of “them” are the ones in the Dark Ages and I can go forward to pursue whatever coursework I would need so I would be employable in any library today.

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