Our Non-MLS Director is Great! Compared to What?

One of the programs I attended at the ALA Conference in New Orleans was titled “Hiring Non-MLS Librarians: Trends and Training Implications.” The first panelist shared some research findings from a survey in which library directors were asked about the positions in their libraries that they believed did or did not require an MLS. The results were pretty much what you’d expect. Directors expected the MLS for positions related to reference, instruction, and metadata services – the more traditional librarian functions. For positions in human resources, IT, fundraising and instructional technology, not so much. The other three panelists addressed the pros and cons of hiring non-MLS holders (as they were called) for librarian positions in libraries. My impression is that all three panelists supported the notion of hiring non-MLS holders under certain conditions, but that if a MLS librarian was available at the right price and with the right skill set an MLS holder is preferred. But in each of their libraries, it appeared that hiring non-MLS holders for librarian positions is an accepted practice.

The comments that followed the presentations revealed the strong, mixed emotions about this topic. It’s definitely a hot button issue, and I commend the organizers for providing their perspectives on why we’d want to hire non-MLS holders for some professional positions in our libraries – and those conditions that make it a challenge to fill an opening with an MLS librarian. Given the topic I was surprised by the light turnout. Perhaps the 8:00 am, Sunday morning time slot had an impact. One commenter mentioned that the “MLS attitude” is more about individuals than the profession, and that the “Yes I am superior to you” mentality, while unfortunate, isn’t limited to MLS holders. The dean from an LIS program shared his concerns that we think it’s fine to replace MLS holders with non-MLS holders, and articulated some excellent thinking points for what LIS grads can bring to libraries in tangible and intangible ways. But it was the comment from the public library board trustee that most concerned me.

The trustee shared a story about the current library director. Apparently this person has no MLS. She has worked at this library for 40 years in different positions (we have no idea what the size of the library is or where it’s located). “She’s doing a bang-up job as our director” was the comment. I take that to mean you can be a great non-MLS library director – or librarian – with many years of on-the-job training/experience regardless of your educational background. My response to a statement like this one – which I suppose is often thrown out to justify non-MLS librarians – especially in administrative positions – is “compared to what?” Perhaps this person does do a great job, but according to what standard? What does this director deliver? Maintaining the status quo for all those years? Doing whatever the trustees want? Making sure the community doesn’t complain by keeping it all the same and giving them whatever they want? Is that what constitutes “bang-up” results? In comparison to similar libraries with MLS directors, what has the non-MLS director actually accomplished? Perhaps more and even better things, but without some sense of the outcomes achieved doing a “bang-up job” means little and is hardly a rationale in support of non-MLS holders in librarian positions.

What are we to make of the “anyone with on-the-job experience can do the MLS holder’s job” proposition, especially when it’s being spread in public forums? We all know there are non-MLS folks who do their jobs well, just as we know there are MLS holders who should practice another profession. But it’s not about just doing a job well, being proficient or keeping the masses happy. We need MLS librarians because their specialized education and commitment to professional development is about more – or should be about more – than just maintaining the status quo and being good enough. As I said to the LIS dean afterwards, we need LIS programs to educate professionals who will challenge the status quo at their institutions, who will do the research that leads to new discoveries, and who will the explore the mysteries that lead to new knowledge and innovation. In essence they will do more than just get the job done. They are motivated to advance the science and practice of librarianship. They are inspired to keep their knowledge current with the state-of-the-art, but are constantly motivated to learn new skills. They debate the issues of the day among one another. For MLS holders, librarianship is more than just a job; it is a driving passion.

None of this is to suggest that we should be insistent that all professional positions in academic libraries require the MLS degree. We need to accept that our future will require a mix of skilled professionals. As was discussed at the program, it is accepted and sometimes preferred to have non-MLS colleagues for specialized positions in human resources, information technology, instructional design or the business office. In academic libraries specifically, non-MLS PhD holders may be best suited for some highly specialized collection or archival areas. I do believe that the MLS is the preferred degree for academic librarians. It is advantageous and often necessary for research support, education and strategic operations.

If we desire to establish the validity of the claim that communities best benefit by being served by MLS holders, then it is our responsibility to show that our careers result in concrete improvements, substantial advancement and benefits that would not otherwise be possible. That requires a commitment from all those who earn the MLS and the right to qualify for ALA-accredited positions in academic libraries to demonstrate, with humility and respect for colleagues from any and all educational backgrounds, that there is more to being a professional librarian than just meeting expectations and maintaining the status quo. It requires a passion for exceeding those expectations and constantly questioning what we do and how we do it – and in what ways could we make our libraries even better for our communities. When those inevitable comparisons between non-MLS and MLS holders in librarian positions are made, the rationale for and value of the MLS should be an easy case to make.

7 thoughts on “Our Non-MLS Director is Great! Compared to What?”

  1. Thanks for writing about this session, Steven. Yes, for me, at least, the early Sunday morning time was a problem: just too exhausted from Friday & Saturday to get there on time. [If I’d know I could finally meet you face-to-face, I’d have tried harder. :)]
    It’s a situation that I see happening; also of MLS holders being hired into non-tenure faculty positions which have historically been tenured slots.
    A lot of what *I* do could certainly be done by non-MLS holder, but I do it because in these years of cut-backs, there’s no other staff to do it.

  2. As a recent LIS graduate, this topic is one that has implications to my future. Have I invested in my degree to discover that it may have been a wasted effort?
    The dilemma of the necessity of qualified librarians speaks primarily to the lack of understanding of what libraries are and what the people who work there do. Indeed, it represents a lack of understanding of the potential that libraries have when exploited to the fullest extent…and this is where the need for a qualified workforce comes into play.
    I work in a small academic library, but our local public library is staffed by very hard working, well intentioned people who have years upon years of experience and on the job training, but not a single professional qualification between them. They are lionized by the community and the board of directors, but even with my little experience, I can see how the service might be improved, how the collection could be better managed, and how the resource that is the library could better meet the needs of the community. I don’t think that this situation is exclusive to public libraries; the academic faculty on the campus simply does not grasp what happens in the library, and yet, they have a great deal of influence in the “hiring and firing” of library staff.

  3. As someone who lost out to a non-MLS candidate for a public library directorship, it’s hard not to be bitter. Is it about $$$ savings or trust who you know? Unfortunately, it’s a trend that I believe will continue among public libraries.

  4. …”worked at this library for 40 years in different positions”…brings to mind the adage “40 years of experience, or one year of experience 40 times”. In my consulting work have observed trustees, boards, etc. who, perhaps unwittingly, see familiarity and maintenance of the status quo and translate that into “She’s doing a bang-up job as our director”.
    Certainly, with or without an MLS, over a 40 year career an individual may have taken advantage of opportunities to gain management, financial, and other skills necessary for doing a “bang-up” job as director. But I fear too often that is not what the trustees are looking at.
    It is incumbent upon us MLS holders to demonstrate that we are a necessary and effective part of the mix of skilled professionals that Steven refers to.

  5. What I find interesting in this session and in a number of discussions about the issue of hiring non-MLS librarians is that many academic libraries (perhaps more in Canada these days than the US) are governed by collective agreements, certified bargaining units, that dictate and protect the definition of a librarian and the complement. Within a collegial governance structure one would hope that the direction a library takes vis a vis eroding the bargaining unit in favour of other professional positions is taken with much consideration, thought and gravitas. In some quarters these developments would be called union busting.

  6. “For MLS holders, librarianship is more than just a job; it is a driving passion.”

    I really appreciated this line in your post. In one sentence you’ve managed to articulate what I often struggle to express when trying to defend the importance of an MLS. Although I know individuals who have entered library school without passion or fire for the profession, the vast majority of classmates and colleagues I have had over the years truly have a love of librarianship. They are eager to keep up with new trends, stay engaged in professional associations, and really put thought and effort into improving their professional practice. Although underemployed for the past few years, I have always considered myself a librarian, and I think I always will. Although I made due with part-time, non-professional jobs for a while, I tried to keep my skills and knowledge of librarianship current. Now that I am in a full-time librarian position again, I feel an even greater desire to really improve my professional practice.

    I understand the desire to want to hire individuals without an MLS for certain positions, but I think that any employee an organization hires should have passion for the work that he/she does, whether it be fundraising, IT, or librarianship. I think in the case of the latter, a person truly passionate about librarianship would be motivated to obtain an MLS degree.

  7. As one of those dreaded Librarians w/o an MLS (though we are currently called Public Services Associates at my Library) I find it frustrating that experience is being so very discounted.

    Class time spent learning today’s management theories and the flavor of that day as far as Librarianship cannot compete with a technologically curious, creative mind. Getting that MLS 20 years ago means nothing if learning did not continue, if there is no growth. And if the passion for educating, sharing and helping the public improve themselves is not there, the MLS is a pretty piece of paper.

    Too often I’ve taken over computer questions, word processing assistance and complicated internet searches from Librarians who have the paper, but haven’t kept up with the tools needed today.

    The position of Librarian w/o an MLS should be held to the same standards of performance as an MLS. That means that those hiring the Public Services Associate must not devalue that position because it does not require a degree.

    If this happens in any Library System it will be nearly impossible to turn around and the position and those holding the position will be seen as warm bodies, good enough to cover the desk while the Librarian is on vacation or at lunch, but not really a valued team member.

    So look at your PSA as someone who has translated their curiousity, their public service drive, their experience and their joy in knowledge, into a set of skills that are the cornerstone of Librarianship.

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