In the past, I’ve pointed to the blog called Agnostic, Maybe, and the fact that this blog draws a large number of comments shows that I’m not the only one. If a blog post garners 100 comments, however, it can be assumed that it has stirred a hornet’s next. Which was the case when the blog posed the critical question of whether an MLS is necessary for work in a library. For German readers of this blog: there is no bachelor’s degree in the US for librarians, only the possibility of adding a Master of Library Science to a bachelor degree in another subject. But all too often, according to the author of Agnostic, Maybe, MLS’s and library assistants perform the same tasks. What can be done to better distinguish the work done by librarians from that performed by library support staff?
The flood of commentary on this blog entry demonstrates (once again) the insecurity experienced by many librarians.
But perhaps the question should be reversed: Where would we be if libraries weren’t run by people with solid academic training? Presumably not where we are now. Those with a master’s degree (hopefully) learn not only what the current major databases and search tools are, but also, above all, acquire the knowledge to be able to recognize and use their future counterparts. A master’s course of study provides solid knowledge, of course, but primarily technical skills and a capacity for critical thinking. In contrast to many other courses of study in the social sciences, an MLS leads to a concrete profession. Students of German, history or philosophy, on completing their studies, must seek a profession that calls for knowledge in these areas. Most students of library science work in a library following graduation. “Technical” knowledge plays a stronger role in library science, naturally, than in philosophy, to which such a practical orientation doesn’t apply. Of course, there is library support staff that has acquired knowledge and skills through years of experience similar to that of librarians with an advanced degree.
There are those in every sphere who, despite inadequate specialized qualifications, trump the majority of their colleagues professionally. Among the comments was one that pointed out that Bill Gates doesn’t even have a B.A. But to draw from this that every young, dynamic library assistant can be put into a leadership position, in the hope that he or she will develop into the Bill Gates of library science, contains certain obvious risks. Employers rightly seek easily recognizable criteria to ensure that a person possesses the necessary qualifications for the job. And a solid education is always the best guarantee that a candidate can adequately fill the position.
Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of whether librarians need an MLS or not, especially – as is the case in Germany – when a bachelor’s will suffice.
On the other hand – where’s the problem? Libraries in the US are ranked highly by Americans and play an important role in the personal and professional development of many, they react quickly and positively to challenges in many areas, are flexible and adaptive. Perhaps the higher academic degree of American librarians pays off? Where does the assumption come from that library science would be better off if less training were required? And that’s what this is all about: the consideration of what kind of education will offer the optimal qualifications, such that the libraries of the future will be able to assume a major dynamic function in our society. A continual improvement of training seems to me to offer a much more promising path than the increasing reduction of technical staff in libraries.