How does an MLIS transfer to the real world?

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“Seriously though. How many MLIS-learned skills do you feel like you’re actually applying in your jobs?”

I was recently reconnecting with a couple lovely MLIS (Master of Library and Information Sciences) grads. We were all talking about our shiny new jobs when one of them asked that question. My instinctual response was “Yes, of course I use MLIS skills every day!” but it’s definitely a valid question that I’m faced with on a daily basis, for three reasons: it is possible to have a career in a library without an MLIS. The nature of the MLIS is to develop many diverse skills, which may at times seem unrelated. And some of the core aspects of librarianship cannot be taught. While reflecting on this issue I realized the bigger question is: How does the MLIS degree transfer to the real world? How vital was it to my success as a librarian? Commence reflective personal essay:

MLIS Positions vs. Non-MLIS Positions

Many people work in public libraries without holding an MLIS degree, and many of these people do an extraordinary job. Library assistants keep circulation on track. They answer quick reference questions. The recommend books. Some create displays, and some run amazing programs. They make sure the right book gets on the right cart, and sometimes they’re the only people a patron comes into contact with on their visit. They are customer service wizards and they are vital to a functioning library system; without library assistants libraries would be chaotic, librarians would be totally lost, and our MLIS education really would be difficult to apply.

As an MLIS holder, however, I do get to apply my education in exciting ways. All the difficult or time consuming reference and readers’ advisory questions get sent to me. I get to plan programs and introduce speakers. I get to make decisions about selecting new materials, deleting old ones, and shifting the collection around. I create booklists and I write articles for the library website. I’m very glad for my MLIS, partly because I’ve always enjoyed leadership positions, partly because I know that it will open more doors for me in the future, and partly because I did chose the right classes to prepare me for this job.

MLIS Course Selection: Preparing for Everything

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The thing about the MLIS degree though, is that while you’re taking it, you don’t know where you’re going to end up. Public librarianship – adult or children? Academic librarianship – reference or information literacy teacher? Special librarianship, research specialist, database administrator, data analyst, event planning, copyright consultant, records manager, archivist…the list goes on and on. Many people began with an ideal career in mind – I certainly did – but all of us were afraid that no job openings would be available. So we prepared for the worst. We prepared for everything.

My innate interest in public libraries was obvious by my course selection during my MLIS. I took Collections Development, YA Materials, Reader’s Advisory, Information Retrieval and Search Strategies, Information Sources and Services, Children and Teen Programming,  Information Literacy, and yes, even a course called Public Libraries. The skills and theory I learned in these classes apply directly to my new career: when I assess the collection, conduct research on new materials, dream up a new teen program to run, design an inclusive display, conduct a reference interview, teach someone how to use a database, explain a controversial policy, create a complex search string to answer tricky reference questions, and when I turn to Novelist for readers’ advisory projects.

But I developed many other skills that I haven’t yet had an opportunity to directly apply. For example,  in Database Management Systems I learned how to create effective relational databases, how to use SQL coding, and how to host databases online. While I may never create a database at work, understanding what goes on behind the scenes when I create a new patron record or pull a list of circulation statistics is pretty cool. Similarly, in Thesaurus Construction and Subject Analysis I discovered a surprising love for indexing and the organization of concepts. I learned and practiced theories of subject analysis and I created a History thesaurus with hundreds of entries. While I probably won’t be asked to create a thesaurus of index terms, unless I end up at a small special library or an emerging research database, I bet my subject analysis skills and behind-the-scenes understanding of thesauri design will come in handy during research projects. Will I ever apply the knowledge I have about how to effectively design a floor plan for a long-term records storage facility or data mining? Probably not. But I enjoyed learning about it, and I’m glad for the flexible, well-rounded education I’ve received.

What MLIS Can’t Teach You

One important thing to note though, about librarianship, is that an MLIS can only prepare you so much. Like many other careers, an MLIS education can give you the tools to be a librarian, but your personality and life-long abilities are what will make you a good librarian. In my opinion, the best librarians are curious, genuine, book+movie+music lovers. They are kind-hearted and insightful. They’re good at reading people and they are active listeners. They are patient, non-judgmental, open-to-new-experiences, and they are life-long-learners. They are adaptive. They pursue their interests and they believe that everyone has the capability and the right to learn. They think outside the box. They are natural information seekers and enthusiastic information sharers. These are the most vital aspects to librarianship, and while you can foster these traits while in library school, you can’t grow them from scratch. You can’t be a good librarian without a compatible personality, but you can’t technically be a librarian at all without an MLIS.

So…Do you apply the skills or not?

In summary: yes, I developed valuable skills during my MLIS that I use every day. I learned the theories and practices necessary for effective collections development, and reference services. But just as importantly: I became immersed in library philosophy and culture, and I adopted a library mindset that prepared me to jump right into the workforce. One of the coolest things about the MLIS is that librarianship is a rapidly changing field. Library school today is drastically different than it was 15 years ago, and it will be drastically different 15 years from now. I learn new things every day on the job, and in order to stay relevant I will continue to learn new things for the rest of my career. I do feel like I’ve been preparing for this career my entire life: reading, learning, writing, describing, exploring, listening, experimenting, and helping people. But the MLIS was a necessary step to getting here – not just for the technical qualification, but for the mindset, the diverse skill set, the connections, and the theoretical background. Plus, it was fun and I met some super cool people.

What do you think? What MLIS skills and theory do you find most useful on the job? Which have you never thought of again?


One thought on “How does an MLIS transfer to the real world?

  1. This is a great post Karissa! Your blog is always so interesting — keep up the great work!

    I’m on co-op right now, and what I’ve heard, over and over, is that the best skill your MLIS can give you is the ability to jump in and learn anything — as you say, it’s about the mindset. It’s about always being willing to learn and try new things without being afraid.

    I’d also agree that another important aspect of the MLIS is the theoretical background. I find it really helpful to think about the library’s high level goals and to remember the way that things used to be done. I’m able to understand why the library does things the way they do, which means that I can explain it to patrons and think about new ways to accomplish the same task.

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