Since the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in 2020, many jobs have changed in different ways, for various reasons. Some jobs that were in-person are now remote. Many jobs have been eliminated because of a lack of workers to fill them. Other jobs have changed their requirements to better meet the qualifications of available hires.
There has been a growing trend since before the pandemic of libraries hiring, promoting and advancing non-MLS-holding workers. Some library systems no longer require an MLS (Master of Library Science) or MLIS (Master of Library and Information Science) degree for entry-level librarian positions, and others do not require the MLS for any librarian positions. Minimum requirements for librarians vary by state, and some states still do require certification that is dependent upon having an MLS.
History of the MLS Requirement
The first library school in the United States, established by Melvil Dewey (who created the Dewey decimal system), began at Columbia University in 1887. Before that time, librarians in charge of academic collections were often scholars, or university professors who were particularly interested in the library. Dewey introduced specialized professional training for librarians, and more library schools soon followed worldwide.
Initially, library schools offered the Bachelor of Library Science (BLS) degree, until a Carnegie Corporation report in 1923 presented the idea of a more theoretical education for librarians. Then, library schools started offering the MLS and MLIS degrees. By 1951, almost all library programs in the United States offered degrees at the graduate level. This was about the time that the American Library Association’s (ALA) Board of Education for Librarianship declared an MLS to be the professional standard for librarians.
MLS Requirement Challenging the Goals of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
In her article, “We All Win – Training and Advancement for Non-MLS Library Workers,” Tamar Kirschner notes that getting a MLS requires being able to pay a hefty graduate tuition, which, despite the existence of some scholarships, often creates a barrier to those who are not middle-class. This produces a type of gatekeeping for the librarian profession, she says. “In a profession that is still overwhelmingly white, female, and middle-class, the focus is shifting to hiring librarians who have cultural competency and shared backgrounds with library patrons and the greater community,” Kirschner writes.
Just imagine the insights that non-MLS holders could bring to librarians, library patrons, and the greater community. Some argue that enforcing an MLS requirement for would-be librarians creates greater gaps in social equity and racial disparities among library staff. In order to make libraries more diverse, mimicking the communities surrounding them, libraries could, instead, open jobs up to people with different, yet compatible, skills and experience, who can serve the public in new and creative ways.
Many libraries are also encountering problems when they cannot promote from within; that is, they are not permitted to promote a library assistant who might have a bachelor’s degree to a librarian position, which requires an MLS. People who work as paraprofessionals in a library often have the necessary experience and skills to work as professional librarians, but are prevented from doing so due to not having a graduate degree. Some of these people cannot afford to go to graduate school to earn that degree, even with help from scholarships or the libraries in which they work.
Does the MLS Really Have Value?
What skills and education are truly necessary for librarians to perform well? Is the MLS or MLIS degree really giving newly-graduated librarians the necessary skills and competencies that those who have worked in libraries for years already have? Knowledge of the larger community in which a library is located is vital to success in the position. Even those holding a master’s degree in another field might bring new perspectives and talents to librarian positions, if they were only allowed to apply.
If some libraries can develop their own training programs for new staff and librarians, this could replace the need for the MLS degree. This training program could include skills like cataloging, as well as teach students library ethics such as user privacy and access to materials. Applied skills could be taught directly on the job, where people can learn by doing rather than by simply reading theories in a textbook.
The future of the MLS is uncertain. While some larger public and academic libraries will undoubtedly retain the MLS requirement for librarians, others may be rethinking that mandate. The fact that removing the MLS requirement could promote diversity, inclusion and equity among library staff, which are goals that most libraries hold dear, could help libraries forge a staff that better represents the communities in which they exist.