Monday, March 31, 2014

Credentialing and Devaluation: More on 'Who's a Librarian?'

If the Masters of Library and Information Science is in large part a credentialing regime that separates librarians from non-librarians, paraprofessionals, it is a regime based on time and money rather than on proficiency.

If you think the MLIS is primarily a credential for librarianship, and you think, as I do, that MLIS programs are "easy to get into, easy to get out of," then we should reexamine that role of the degree.

The barriers are cost and time, not expertise. I've yet to meet anyone who dropped out of an MLIS program because it was so challenging. If you know of anyone, please let me know (this post from Hack Library School, and its comments, comes close). My place of employment has more or less open enrollment, but it does not have open graduation. The same should be true of MLIS programs.

Rather, I know people who couldn't afford it, and/or couldn't make the time for it. Often, people in this category are paraprofessionals with many years of library experience, trying to level up, gaining access to more jobs in galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. Many of these paraprofessionals are also people of color.
The big tent version of librarianship I espouse does not devalue librarianship so much as it puts the MLIS in its proper context. After all, rare is the hiring manager who lauds MLIS holders with no library experience. The myriad interviews with Hiring Librarians bear this out. Feel free to ignore each of those data points, calling them anecdotal. At some point, a group of trees becomes a forest.

Instead, librarianship is devalued because of institutional sexism; it is viewed as "women's work" based on the history of the profession and current demographics.

It is devalued because of the roles of librarians in popular culture. Your Dewey Decimal System jokes? I've heard them all, please stop!

It is devalued because of the relative ease of MLIS programs.

It is devalued because at least one major political party in the United States, along with many corporate partners of both major parties, is afraid of knowledge, information, and the power of citizens.

It is devalued because of neoliberal policies and budgets that reflect antipathy towards public goods and the public good.

It is devalued because of book-centricity, presently embodied by the "little free libraries" trend, which are collections of books in public areas that are free to use. If I were to put a first aid kit on my corner, first come and first served, nobody would call it a "little free hospital" or even a "little free clinic," would they?

If your analogy is to compare librarianship to medicine, I wish you'd reconsider. Librarianship is not medical school. There is no legal need for a credentialing body. There is no library equivalent of malpractice insurance and there's (mercifully) comparatively little life and death in libraries. The people who leave library school aren't becoming whatever you think are the library version of dentists, podiatrists, nurses, and osteopathic doctors. Instead, they're remaining paraprofessionals.

Further, people's interactions with the health care system, speaking from a United States' perspective, often aren't with doctors. Much more face time for patients comes from nurses and technicians. For the far majority of people, a doctor, or a dentist, comes into a room for a brief period of time, compared to a much longer one with a non-doctor.

These non-doctors are as important to the health care system in the United States as the doctors. In some places more so. And so it is for paraprofessionals working in library and information science.

Again, the MLIS
is a "union card" for many jobs. 
socializes you into the discipline.   
offers you some theory that informs our practices.    
provides a cohort, which might prove useful in many ways.    
helps you get the word "librarian" into your job title.   
signals that you are very interested in librarianship, so interested that you might go into debt for it.  
gives you GLAM career options and helps you narrow them.

Elsewhere on this site, not linked above:
Making Masters of Library and Information Science Programs More Rigorous
Who's a Librarian?


  1. A good post...except for your repeated use of a term that devalues me and others like me who have devoted our life and expertise to libraries but happen not to have The Credential: "Paraprofessional."

    I may not be a professional librarian, but I am damn well a library professional, and it really is demeaning to prepend that with "para."

    Otherwise, as I say, a good piece.

    1. Walt, the term "paraprofessional" is a widely agreed upon term to refer to library staff who do not have an MLIS. However, as my last two posts indicate, I think of you as a librarian regardless of whether or not you have an MLIS.

      Thank you for reading, and commenting, and your professional work in libraries.



  2. I did find library school challenging. I made it through, but maybe I don't have the lobes I ought to.