Evaluating the MLIS Degree
18/06/2013 § 11 Comments
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Matthew Gunby.
Recently an editorial was published in Library Journal titled “Can We Talk About the MLS?” As a recent graduate from Syracuse University, I wanted to reflect upon my education in an honest manner. On one hand, I have had some of the greatest experiences of my life while at Syracuse, but on the other hand I have been searching unsuccessfully for a job for over five months. I think the mistake of this article is that it assumes a zero sum game, as do many who have responded to it: either an MLIS is valuable or it is not.
If these are the options then I absolutely believe it has value, but at what cost? I recognize that the costs of a degree vary extensively from institution to institution, and while I know Syracuse ranks fairly high in its cost, it is sufficient to say that its cost is generally on the same per credit cost scale as degrees that generally lead to jobs that pay far more. It may ultimately also cost the same as a humanities focused degree that may lead to far less. The point is not that our degree is uniquely overpriced, but instead that it is a relevant question to ask if we should be paying so much.
I am also conflicted about the social learning aspects of my program. I could not have had the great experiences I had with professors, peers, and professionals outside of Syracuse University’s iSchool. However, while my experiences with professors were generally positive, they were not all that numerous in part because to remain current and to heighten the prestige of the program they are as involved (if not more so) in research as they are in instruction. As part of an active student community we were able to supplement our learning by teaching each other and by reaching out to professionals. Again, these opportunities would not have been available if we were not students, but the funds do not go to fellow students or professionals, they go to maintaining the institution. Is this the only way for this sort of community to be sustained? At the moment, it seems like the answer is yes, but particularly with many forward-looking views of what a library space could be, I think it is worth asking whether this should be the case.
The MLIS being a prerequisite for becoming a librarian should also be reconsidered. First, this undermines all of the great works of professionals who lack this degree. Second, it creates the problem of less engaged students seeking to garner recognition for work they have already done. Third, it creates economic barriers for entry into our profession. I find the idea of a degree mill reprehensible as a librarian, as a former student, and as a moral person. If the MLIS value proposition is that we exclude all but the initiated then we are fast approaching our deserved demise. I do not hold this opinion, but I recognize that many do, and there are valid reasons for this viewpoint.
So what is the call to action? In short, I am asking MLIS programs to do what libraries across the country have been tasked with: do more for less. First, library and information science programs need to be more transparent. They need to internally and with their students discuss the costs associated with a program with real percentages and dollar amounts. We also need to discuss how classes are organized. As R. David Lankes, MLIS professor at Syracuse University, said at a recent conference more generally focused on education: we need to break the tyranny of three credit courses. As students we often discuss what courses to take in tandem because each has different work loads, but all give three credits and cost the same per credit. Some are more intensive, others have greater value and still others are taken because they are required.
Next, incorporate more flexibility into the curriculum. Academic, school, public and special libraries all require different skill sets, and while theory and being able to translate skills are essential to librarianship, different backgrounds and different sets of goals may require different coursework. This may mean more independent studies, more internships, more WISE courses, and fewer required courses. The ALA requisites for a successful librarian should still be assessed, but not necessarily by lodging their core competencies within a given class. Use the accreditation process to make the program better, not to meet a standard.
All of this seems unfair and expensive, but there is good news: students, alumni, professionals, and faculty are generally willing to help. If we create a participatory culture in education, where students are not viewed as receptacles to be filled, but rather as active shapers of the library ecosystem, great things become possible. Students can create dynamic websites as part of their class and then future classes can use and expand upon these resources. Grants to expand student opportunities can be written in grant-writing classes and successful ones applied. The summative assessment for an instruction class can be teaching a session the following semester. Libraries near MLIS programs should be constantly engaged in collaborative activities, and with web applications further institutions can also be brought in for mutual benefit. Supplement professor’s lectures with conversations with professionals in the field. Leverage alumni relations to get unique internship opportunities. Much of this is already happening, but we need to do more so that library schools can have a long and fruitful future, and future librarians can receive the nurturing and maturation they need.
I would love to get feedback from others with an MLIS, pursuing one, considering pursuing one, or those who have taken a different path. I would also be appreciative of professors sharing what they are doing to meet the challenges of the future of librarianship. Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me by email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MatthewGunby.