“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

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