Thursday, March 24, 2016

What is a Librarian: An Unsolicited Rant

Yesterday I checked my phone in the morning to find that Book Riot posted an article on non-degreed librarians, and how they have value as humans.

As I read it, that’s what this article was about.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, at the number of negative comments that this article received.

I could write here the many arguments I’ve had when this topic comes up and the comment section explodes: about the process to become a brewmaster and how there are people who run breweries or make beer who are NOT brewmasters, technically (they are usually called head brewers). Or I could talk about the one time a child ran me down in a grocery store calling for her “library teacher” and how I said hi to her rather than explaining that my teacher certification lapsed years ago (and even then, I was never certified to teach in THAT state). Or even how people who are nurses for their entire careers have to take an updated test every few years to prove that they can still Be a Nurse Good; so please stop with “librarians are the doctors/para-professionals are the nurses” because last time I checked it was not a universal requirement for even librarians to keep up with certifications (I mean, it may be that April will arrive and I will have spent 5 years in libraries and I will be summoned to engage in a Hunger Games-style competition using only the Dublin Core, so stay tuned). But instead I want to hit a bit closer to home here, parking this officially in Unsolicited Rant territory.

This was not the only thing I saw shared on social media yesterday. Another widely shared link was to a Libraries Transform post. The supporting text, when shared by ALA, that accompanies this post is “Librarians are early literacy experts!” This was shared on Facebook, at the time of this writing, 496 times. That many shares tells me that a lot of librarians agree with it. And before I recognized the funny juxtaposition that inspired this post, I was kinda pissed.

Listen: being a librarian does not make you an early literacy expert.

Hell, I have a Master’s degree in Literacy, and I don’t even think that I’M an early literacy expert. And that’s because I’ve worked alongside actual literacy experts: people with PhDs in child development and curriculum vitae miles long who have worked tirelessly for years with and against the flow of educational trends to create reports and curricula that model best practices that people can use to help the children in their communities thrive. The members of the National Early Literacy Panel, whose report Every Child Ready to Read is based on, are early literacy experts. Dr. Susan Neuman, who worked to evaluate ECCR1 and develop ECRR2, is an early literacy expert.  Do you need to go to further schooling to become an early literacy expert? Well, that’s a start.

I sincerely hope that didn’t hurt your feelings. But if it did, and you are feeling as though you have to poke holes in the above paragraph rather than keep reading, I once again urge you to revisit this post later, because I truly wish our thinking would change. For our sanity.

Because: Here is what I believe. I am not at all purporting this as fact:
I believe that if you have your Masters of Library Science, you are a librarian.
I believe that if your job title is Librarian, you are a librarian.
I believe if you work in a library and people call you a librarian, you are a librarian.
This is because I believe your existence as a librarian should not impact my existence as a librarian.

The key word here is “should.” There is a very real fear that if we all admit non-degreed librarians have value then that could mean budget cuts and slashing the number of librarian jobs that require a degree, and degreed librarians will become irrelevant. And the worst part is, the reaction to posit degreed librarians as "better" than non-degreed ones inspires, rightly so, a defense of on-the-job training. It's the clashing we do, you see, that sinks our own ship: "I paid a ton of money-- degreed librarians are better!">"hey training happens on the job too">[insert 20+ rambling defenses of LIS programs that intentionally or not completely devalue anyone without a degree]>"library school is worthless oh and by the way all MLS's are pretentious A-holes". We do it to ourselves.

But this reaction, from my perspective, is assuming that all librarians are the same. And we aren’t. We all have something to offer, certainly. But we are not the same.

Librarians aren’t early literacy experts. Their expertise lies in taking the National Early Literacy Panel findings and the ECRR curriculum and using it in the most community-responsive way in their libraries. If early literacy experts want to implement their curricula directly, they will have to learn or re-learn skills to work with families on the front line. “How to get along with children” is not taught in literacy school.

We often talk about “things they didn’t teach us in library school.” Mulling this post over in my brain, I thought about what I learned in library school that I would not have learned, or learned in such an in-depth way, had I learned it through experience (not in comparison to non-degreed librarians in general, but in comparison to my non-degreed self). I thought about strategic planning and marketing for non-profits. I was surprised that my library interviews didn’t ask about SWOT analysis, for how much time I spent on it in school. I posed this question to other library staff and got similar answers: lots of theory, patron behavior patterns, policy writing, how to craft a library from scratch. I realized that in library school, we were not studying to work in libraries. We were studying to be experts in “libraries” as a concept. Non-degreed librarians have spent their careers working in libraries, something we are not trained in until we work in a library ourselves (except for those who work in a library before or through grad school, of course).In these conversations, people with an MLS, who have dedicated time and money and god knows what else to become experts in "library"--we had the capacity/ability/support/resources to get this degree. And we don't serve ourselves well by isolating and devaluing people. That's pretty ugly.

MLS-degreed librarians and non-degreed librarians hold expertise in different, but important, aspects of libraries. And we need to be advocates for our continued existence. We need experts in the field of librarianship, and we also need experts in our community and its history, prepared to fight together for sustained and improved service and the necessary budget and work environments to do that with.

Because otherwise, we’re just gonna be a bunch of sneeches on a beach wondering what it would be like to live without the constant fear of getting fired.


  1. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your "rant." I truly hope that it starts a conversation among librarians of all sorts which might, in turn, makes our profession more diverse, strong, and dynamic.

  2. Michelle Anne SchinglerMarch 24, 2016 at 9:27 AM

    Thank you, Bryce, for this wonderful response to the piece. It was never---ever, ever---my intention to insult MLSes, though I did know some would take it that way. I think it's probably regrettable that I have no sense of the theory that you get in library school. (Starting out at 28, with two other masters degrees in other subjects, I just didn't have the time or money to pursue an MLS, though I love the field.)

    I think that those who happen into the career, and stay for love of it, are sometimes undervalued, and I'd love to see that change. You articulated that perfectly; your paragraph on privilege is what I was trying to do. Thanks for doing that work so beautifully!

    And cheers to everyone who works in libraries---here's to finding the common ground.

    1. Thank you for your article, Michelle. Much appreciated. And thanks to Bryce for this post. My heroes are librarians. I don't care what letters they have after their names. The librarians who impacted my life the most didn't have library degrees.

    2. Thank you so much for replying, Michelle, it means so much. I ended up deleting the language of privilege bease it sounded problematic to me, but hopefully the spirit is still conveyed without that loaded and very specific language. You've really started a conversation here!!

    3. Michelle Anne SchinglerMarch 24, 2016 at 3:53 PM

      Casle--TY! Really cool of Bryce to link to it. I love this discussion!

      Bryce--cool Rioter brought it to my attention! Understand what you mean regarding language; everything definitely still conveyed here.

      I'm glad people are talking about this; hope it works out well for both sides of the aisle. Cheers!

  3. I hate the "librarians are early literacy experts" line almost as much as I hate the "we prepare kids for kindergarten" one. Totally agree that the whole discussion of the value of the MLS is too divisive. It's all very fraught and you seldom see honest discussions on how we get more people with passion and talent for the mission of the library into positions to advance the field. (And even fewer discussions on how we get more diverse workers.) I think we all need to evaluate things from the perspective of what's best for libraries instead of what's best for us and that's difficult for a lot of people. Ugh, I have a lot of thoughts on how we're doing it all wrong and... just thank you for sharing your take on it.

    1. I really want to know more about your thoughts on this!

    2. I think that "we prepare kind for kindergarten" can be a goal; but really: we provide info to caregivers so they can prepare kids for kindergarten. Don't get me wrong, my preschool storytimes are jam-packed with kindergarten readiness skills; but I see those kids for 30 minutes once a week. I can't replace quality preschool. I can't make sure that the grown-ups in their lives are teaching them how to hold a pencil and tell upper-case from lower-case letters.

  4. I worked with a Teacher Librarian who told me, "I wanted to be a librarian so I didn't have to work so hard." And she didn't. But I did. Unfortunately she made my job harder because she'd never worked one day in a library, but because she was a teacher she always knew better than me.

    1. It sucks to have your work devalued no matter who is doing it! And awesome on you for having the resilience to keep on truckin.
      Also will I meet you at OLA?!

  5. I completely understand the panic people feel when they see articles like this - the worry that employers will start thinking, "hey, if I can get a perfectly good librarian without a degree for a heck of a lot cheaper, why bother paying more for one with a degree?" When just finding a job can be a Herculean struggle, and you're carrying around a load of student debt from your apparently unnecessary Masters degree, it can make people a little grumpy, to be sure. But I know that the most important knowledge I gained about being a children's librarian came on the job, when I was actually doing the job, learning from my mistakes, and being surrounded by skilled and passionate library staff. So, there's more to the job than letters or titles, to be sure.

  6. I have worked in various capacities in libraries for about 15 years. I'm currently in my first year of graduate school for my MLIS. I can't advance further in my system without the degree. When I began, it was only to get that piece of paper so I could make more money. I am learning so much in school, both from the professors and my classmates. I've also discovered surprising things about myself and changed my career goals. I'm beginning to value this degree just as much as my job experience, for very different reasons.

  7. Oh my! I am so happy to have found this "rant".