In most contexts that I deal with, saying librarian is a convenient shorthand for someone with an MLS/MIS who works in a library or similar place.
Despite that, I used to officially be a librarian. Kind of. Maybe.
In April of 2016 I changed jobs. Physically, I went up a floor and over about 15ft. Day-to-day, I'm doing much the same kind of work, with many of the same people, in service of the same organizations. My title is now…er…software something something something? I should probably check that out.
For the decade previous to that, though, I'd been classified as a librarian.
I don't have an MLS or MIS. Never done any cataloging, or held a reference interview, or even checked out a book for someone. I've basically never done anything you've ever seen a TV Show Librarian do (other than battle the forces of evil, but that's tangential and it can be argued that The Ripper wasn't primarily a librarian).
But day in and day out, I've worked with librarians. I've delved deep into the dirty underbelly of MARC records and the de facto cataloging practices of lots of libraries as reified over dozens of years, wrestled with the vagaries of LC Class Numbers, the sheer insanity of subject headings, and, not least of all, goddamn government documents.
I don't really know what the process of getting an MLS/MIS is like, because I haven't done it. But I've often been in the trenches with folks who have one., so I've seen a lot of what the people who receive those degrees do. I've done a lot of it myself.
Do you need an MLS to be a "real librarian?" Was I a Librarian? Or a "Librarian"? Or just someone who worked at a library?
I'm not sure. I'm sure it doesn't matter to me. At the institutions for whom I work -- the University Library and the HathiTrust -- no one cares. Folks would occasionally express surprise that the word "Librarian" was in my title, but it was a curiosity, nothing more.
If you had watched me work then, what would you have thought?
"What we do…"
In many fields, there's a strong tendency to define the limits of its professional sphere as follows:
- Accounting is not what we do.
- Everything else is what we do.
I saw it when I was a (failed) Ph.D. student in Instructional Design, which sometimes claims that any piece of hardware or software or a half-baked methodology should be classified as an "instructional technology" because someone somewhere could probably use it to teach something. I've seen it among programmers, who think that any part of a software project -- graphics, UI, needs analysis -- is something they're magically expert at because they can sling the code that instantiates it. And man, do I see it among librarians.
"Must have an MLS from an ALA-accredited program"
[Side note: I sometimes joke that it should read Must have an MLS from an ALA-accredited program or other evidence of willingness to be underpaid.]
Besides not getting a Ph.D. in Instructional Design, I've also (actually) got an MS in Computer Science, because I was in graduate school for roughly 120% of my life so far. I get a little bitter when I see people confuse "Computer Science" and "Programming," but I really get persnickety when I see things like this:
Required: ALA-accredited MLS or another graduate degree in information technology, computer science, or other technology field
So…an MLS/MIS is pretty much the same as an MS in Computer Science? Does that mean the reverse is true? And "other technology field" -- what's that, some sort of physics? Civil engineering? Other fields where you write six pages of Python code to complete the "programming track?"
I respect what librarians do. I see the things they do that I can't, and a much wider of things I could do, but would be terrible at. I think the special, targeted education they receive is unique and valuable, and I've written before about my respect for such specialized degrees.
So, I kind of know what a librarian is.
Mission: Draw a circle around the MLS
What is the MLS /MIS not?
A field that can't list subjects that are outside of its ken usually isn't really a properly-defined field. Usually it's a collection of things that happen at a place -- a school, or dare I say, a library.
What can you name that is outside the expertise/responsibility of accredited librarians? Of the whole library environment?
What happens at a library?
Imagine using a large piece of paper and writing down all the things that happen in a library.
All of them.
Reference interviews. Inventory management. Maintaining the physical collection. Instruction. Inter-library loan. Local delivery. Digitization. Maintaining the website. Writing and distributing marketing/development copy. Scheduling rooms. Shelving the books. Managing payments to other organizations.
Buying/Selecting. Weeding. Negotiating with database/electronic-journal vendors. Contracting with suppliers. Dealing with the OCLC. Cataloging. Loading externally-supplied metadata. Schlepping around boxes of books.
Software development. Software maintenance. Running the ILS. Taking care of public PCs/Macs. Dealing with the WiFi and the external network. UX work. Tracking outages from electronic vendors. Web and physical analytics. Research on how people are using the library and its materials. Scheduling workers.
Running a data or document repository. Maintaining a "makerspace" or 3D printers. Offering instruction or help using various technologies. Hosting the giant poster printer. Setting up displays. And all the other stuff I'm forgetting or ignoring.
Now: draw four columns.
In the first, put the things that should clearly be done by an MLS (or MIS, or whatever) -- where putting a non-MLS type in that position would essentially be contrary to the ethical mission of librarianship.
In the second, put the things for which the education leading to an MLS is useful, but into which you could put a wide variety of people educated in tangential fields, give them a little training, and expect great results.
In the third, put things that have actual (non-librarian) professions associated with them, things that the world has looked at and said, "Yup. This has a unique skillset and deserves its own education track."
In the last, put "everything else" -- stuff that could pretty much be done by anyone, as well as stuff where the skillset is not obviously tied any particular academic track.
It goes in column one? Are you sure?
Column one is where you were supposed to put "things for which the education leading to an MLS is useful, but into which you could put a wide variety of other educated people and expect great results."
Now ask yourself, "Which things in column one could actually be moved into column two?"
Lots of non-librarian things in libraries are done by non-expert librarians who are smart, motivated, and interested. What things in column one could be handled by a smart, motivated, and interested non-librarian?
Now lie down on the couch and tell me how that makes you feel.
Look again at that third column
These are things that have standards of education and practice that are not specific to libraries.
How many of those positions/responsibilities are filled by those trained, specialized professionals, and how many are done by (generally interested and talented) librarians?
Another way to think about it: do you have a different reaction to librarians doing jobs in the third column than you do to _non_librarians doing things in the first column?
Look again at column 4
Does all that crap really belong in the library? Like, belong? I know some things get stuck in the library because no one else wants them, but is it really obvious that the library is best place to put, say, instruction on how to use the course management system? or the research data repository? Or running and maintaining public workstations? System administration, for god's sake?
What's best for the patrons?
So…where should you put your money and time? Hire librarians to cross-train? Hire non-librarians to cross train?
I don't know, of course. But I would encourage you to think about all the patrons -- the ones who never walk in the door but do things online, the ones who need access to things but not any instruction, the ones who just want to wander around or have a place to read/study.
Take into account the taxpayer/tuition dollars being spent on cross-training people outside their expertise.
Take into account the folks who need more specialized help, who could make much better use of the library if they had more support.
And take into account those patrons who can't even get access to something because you don't have the best possible person renting ebooks or negotiating electronic journal prices with Elsevier and Proquest.
Now, draw the line
Where is the line? What's inside the Librarian Circle. What's outside of it?
Are the right kinds of people in the right places? Are you getting good ROI for the money you spend on salaries? Are you getting the best possible ROI?
Maybe you'll look around at the people who work with you and think, "Yup. Given our budget, the number of things that need doing, and all sorts of other variables, we're doing pretty well in terms of who's doing what." Awesome.
Maybe you'll think, "Hmmm. Having two librarians doing something on the side of their normal duties probably makes less sense than having one full-time librarian and one full-time professional doing that other work. We should check that out."
Maybe you'll think something like, "We do a website revamp every four or five years. Why the hell do we have website programmers around full-time when we could contract it out twice a decade, have a couple folks act as subject-matter experts, and get a truly, truly professional job done?"
Maybe, somewhere not too far down in your heart, you're whispering, "But…but we're librarians. The best way to help libraries is to keep hiring librarians, even if they're not the best fit. When Marion the Librarian retires, am I really going to take that salary line and put a non-librarian in it? Am I really willing to reduce the librarian head-count in favor of some other professionals?"
Maybe, down around the spleen area, you're thinking, "Yeah, but we can get librarians for almost nothing, and those other folks cost real money." Which makes us all die a little bit inside, because we wouldn't do what we do if we didn't think it was worth doing, but it's certainly an argument many of us have heard at one time or another.
And maybe you'll look around and say, "We can get a kick-ass administrative assistant and free up the side-time of at least three librarians."
Conclusions? Hah! That's so cute!
I'm just encouraging everyone to think about when the MLS/MIS track is a difference that makes a difference, when a different degree or area of expertise makes that difference, and when it just doesn't matter that much.
The library has always needed expertise. These days it needs more varied expertise than perhaps it used to, and that makes for some tensions. But I've never met anyone who works in a library that I didn't trust absolutely to make decisions based on the good of the institutions and its patrons.
The library is a beautiful, fulfilling place to work. Make sure it's a big tent.