Yes, You Need a Degree for That

by Topher Lawton

Don’t let the flood of questions overwhelm you!

When I was starting library school, nobody warned me about the sheer number of questions I would receive, from family, friends, and random strangers. Most of them are variations on a single theme:

You need a Master’s for that?

While I’m still getting these questions, now that I’m more than halfway through my program, I think I have better answers…

You’re going to grad school for what, now?

Library and Information Science. Yes, it’s the degree I would need for some types of library work, but nowadays it’s so much more than that! Librarians exist to connect people to the information they need, and these days those connections are just as likely to be expressed by digital mean as by physical ones.

Library & Information Science has a human focus that’s stronger, in my mind, than some of the other information-driven degrees. I wanted my graduate degree to reflect my own values and interests, but while the MSLIS is a professional degree, it’s interdisciplinary, and I’m not bound to work in a library simply because the word “library” is in the degree name.

So you need a Master’s degree to alphabetize books?

No, but advanced training allows me to design entire systems for cataloging–alphabetizing might make sense for some collections, but others might do better with Library of Congress subject headings, the Dewey Decimal system, or something else entirely. Most systems–even the ones that are most common–have some glaring inconsistencies, and my degree will prepare me to help fix them, or design an entirely new solution for the collections I’m working with.

That said, organizing and sorting a collection is really the least of my worries. My degree is professional training that goes far beyond a single library collection. I’ll be an information scientist: A guide to the information-overload jungle, able to forge raw data into useful information, training others in the sorts of techniques required to be considered literate in the new big-data era.

Can’t a volunteer do your job?

It depends on the job, and on how much training the volunteer has. Think of an EMT–many Emergency Medical Services squads are entirely volunteer-run, but the implication that “anyone” could walk in off the street and save a trauma victim is misguided at best. Volunteer EMTs go through many dozens of hours of training before they ever go on a call, and EMTs have to keep up with a strict schedule of professional development and continuing education or they risk losing their ability to practice. While I’m not suggesting that information work is life-or-death, I would hope that volunteers planning to “replace” a librarian have an equivalent background of training and experience.

Bear with me: librarians do a great deal more than “library work.” While we should have the necessary training when we graduate to go work in a library, we also have the experience we need to be a force for good in our communities. We can help drive better business decisions by preparing white papers and environmental scans in brief. We can encourage people of all ages to be curious about their world. We could use our talents to serve only our own ends, but instead we provide perspective and insight to anyone who asks, and help them sort out some of the thorny problems they’re faced with. We are social workers, educators, businesspeople, scientists, and far more than that:

We are librarians.

Of course, the questions are evolving just as my answers do.

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