Charleston Voices: The Relevance of the MLS Degree

by | Mar 9, 2018 | 0 comments

Charleston Voices is a new Against the Grain online series that will offer diverse perspectives on key issues of interest to the information professions. Whether you are a librarian, a publisher, or a vendor, Charleston Voices will address the topics that matter most to your professional life. 

Today’s discussion features Anja Smit (University Librarian Utrecht University, The Netherlands) and Dr. Brian W. Sturm, McColl Term Associate Professor, Coordinator of MSLS Program, Professional Storyteller, School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chapel Hill, NC. Anja and Brian offer their unique perspectives on the value of the Master’s in Library Science Degree.

(If you would like to write for Charleston Voices click to submit a proposal)

~ Matthew Ismail, Director of Collection Development, Central Michigan University

“I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences[i]The Evolving Educational Needs of Libraries.


Anja Smit

By Anja Smit (University Librarian Utrecht University, The Netherlands) [email protected]

In 1999 The Netherlands signed the Bologna Agreement, together with 28 other European countries. With this, the introduction of the three-cycle system (bachelor/master/doctorate) in Higher Education within Europe began. In my country, all universities and universities of applied science (former vocational schools) have converted to this system, which makes it easy to find out about available degrees. A quick search on MLS, MLIS or similar terms, however, does not return any hits. The master degree on Book Studies at the University of Amsterdam comes close, but its focus is much narrower than any ‘library education’. In the 1980s, there was a post-MA one-year programme to become a ‘research librarian’, and several library schools on a vocational level, one of those specialized in public libraries. These have all gone away or transformed in what John N. Berry III would call “iSchools”[1][ii]. Why?

Frankly, I’m not sure. In the 30 years that I have been active in the library world (mainly in academic libraries and library service organizations), I have of course noticed the changes, but not with great interest. Indeed, the term ‘information’ replaced ‘library’ and training in cataloguing became an ever-smaller part of the programme to the point where library schools only seem to deliver ‘ information managers’. Cataloguing training became training on the job. Still, whenever I was in the position of recruiting library staff over the last 20 years, it never was a major concern. And we never hired information managers. Why not?

Certainly until a few years ago, the majority of library staff members had a library degree, either on a vocational or Post-MA level. Whenever there was an opportunity to hire new people, which was rare for some time, we were desperately looking for additional skills, competences and expertise to those of the ‘traditional librarian’. The developing Information Society demanded IT skills, subject expertise, project management and strong advisory skills in our libraries. We looked beyond library schools for new hires to subject specialists, project managers, IT specialists, experienced managers, and so on. And I believe we are not unique in this, neither in our own country, nor in other areas of the world.[iii]

Today, in this digital age, I feel we are experiencing yet another phase. While the mission of libraries is still basically the same since literally thousands of years ago, the way we deliver our services changes dramatically. From being the designated gateway to knowledge in our collections, the academic library develops advisory services to support knowledge sharing in all stages of scholarly communication. The workflows of academic research and teaching have become digital, which enables new ways of creating, sharing and discovering knowledge in many and new formats.

This requires of libraries to adopt a global view as context for our services. And to develop services beyond the traditional and highly standardized formats and workflows of scholarly knowledge. To go out into the World Wide Web and deliver our services where our users are, instead of inviting them into the library. Libraries are also asked to support traditional services (discovery, access) to new formats such as research data and courseware, websites, and so on. In an age where the added value of local discovery of publications can be questioned, we find ourselves busy helping develop new catalogs for research data and courseware. Formats for which there are no standards available – yet?

Structured metadata, classification schemes and standardization in general still prove to be essential, also in the digital world. And although libraries might have abandoned the idea of cataloguing the complete internet, we do have unique and very useful expertise in these areas. Our new services are built on our traditional expertise, skills and competencies.

We develop new support services in close collaboration with other libraries, and together with other services departments within our HE institutions such as IT and Legal. We also explore new territory together with our patrons. In Utrecht, our experience is that collaboration is even essential. It does not make sense to our users to separate aspects from their new, digital and more open workflows into separate services areas for IT, library, etc. We need to work together.

The library plays an important and unique role in these integrated services: from a broad orchestrating role to specific expertise on structured metadata. IT might know best how to store research data, the library is needed to support discovery. So, we definitely need library staff with the more traditional skills, combined however with subject expertise (disciplinary and topics such as publishing licenses), technology skills, advisory skills, have a highly collaborative attitude and the ability to adopt to the fast-changing context. Library teams today consist of staff members with a variety of backgrounds and expertise. A library degree would not suffice. And in my experience, the added value of library staff is clearly visible and appreciated, also if they do not have an MLIS.

In our library we recently introduced a programme for new staff members, who all come in without a formal library degree. This programme includes information on some of the basic principles of librarianship, history of libraries and the history of our own library in the broader national and international library landscape. If minimal, we find that it is necessary to provide new staff members with some of the ‘basics’ of the profession and the local environment. It is not enough for them to familiarize themselves with the strategy of the library without any notion of the history of the library, libraries and the principles of the profession.

Does this then prove the usefulness of a formal library education and degree? I hesitate. It seems to me that we need a homo universalis in this way: people who understand the ‘eternal ‘principles of librarianship if you will, and have the necessary skills, expertise and competencies to deliver (very) fast changing, up-to-date services. The basic, more ‘eternal’ principles of the library profession are still relevant. Those can certainly be taught in a formal education model, on vocational and/or BA/MA levels. Maybe in some cases, a major or minor course would suffice for incoming staff.

The need to adopt library services to the fast-changing context (societal and in our case, scholarly communication workflows) needs constant, lifelong learning on the job. I am more inclined to think this is a more useful model then insisting on a formal library education of several years. As is true for other professions, some of the knowledge acquired in school is outdated too fast.

I am certainly not suggesting that I have the solution to what I am sure is a dilemma for many libraries worldwide. However, I suggest we don’t put a fence around library education. Let’s develop it to suit our evolving needs of libraries – who are still as relevant as ever. Please don’t fence us in.

[i] From the lyrics of the song Don’t fence me in. Music by Cole Porter and lyrics by Robert Fletcher and Cole Porter, 1934. Accessed on February 23, 2018,


[ii] [ii] John N. Berry III, “A Librarian Must Lead ALA: Be Sure You Vote in March | Blatant Berry”, The Library Journal February 1, 2018 issue


[iii] See for example Reggie Raju, From “life support” to collaborative partnership”, College & Research Libraries News, January 2018, p. 30-33, on the situation in South Africa.

The Master’s in Library Science Degree is Still Vital for Librarianship


Dr. Brian W. Sturm

By Dr. Brian W. Sturm, McColl Term Associate Professor,Coordinator of MSLS Program, Professional Storyteller School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chapel Hill, NC  27599-3360, Phone: 919-962-2460; Fax: 919-962-8071; https:/

In a world of valuation and accountability, we can – and should – ask the question, “Of what value is the Master’s degree in Library Science (MLS)?” Can a person without the degree, or with another degree, provide the same quality of service in libraries, or does the MLS provide a “secret sauce” unique to that degree? The debate over the value and content of the MLS degree is current, though not new, and it is important for the ongoing development of the field and the education of future librarians (Crumpton, 2015; Fraser-Arnott, 2016; Neal, 2006; Smith, 2012; “Training,” 1907).

The value of the degree is closely aligned with what it means to be a professional. Bowman (2013) claims, “Being a professional is not merely an intellectual exercise but, rather, involves a commitment to being something compelling and transformative in the workplace…living up to a set of ideals.” (p. 17, italics mine) Martin (2013) has a slightly different approach, saying, “Being a true professional requires more than simply doing one’s job in an accomplished and effective manner…[it] requires a blend of behaviour, [sic] skills and knowledge to achieve a defined standard….Putting these three pillars into practice in professional bodies involves qualifications, continued professional development and ethics and integrity.” (italics mine) She explains that obtaining the qualifications demonstrates a breadth and depth of knowledge and skills that acts as a “passport” across employers. The OED Online adds a further element, explaining that a professional is one who “has knowledge of the theoretical or scientific parts of a trade or organization.” (italics mine) The professional, then, is one who is committed to a high standard, has a thorough understanding of the theories undergirding their work, and acts as a change agent in transforming the communities in which they are embedded. While professionalization does include “the production of hierarchies infused with power and privilege” (Dabrinski, 1999) and can act as a “union card to get into a closed shop” (Berry 2003a), it also enables more efficient – and arguably more effective – communication and practice.

How does the MLS prepare “professionals”? First, the masters-level degree assumes a broad undergraduate education from which to springboard into an advanced, and more specific, body of knowledge particular to a field. In the best circumstances, the MLS offers students new to the field a broad understanding of the issues and struggles inherent in information interactions, while also allowing them to specialize more deeply in a particular area of highest interest. It also provides the theoretical background for students to understand why librarians do what they do, not just how to do it, and provides a broad perspective from which to approach novel situations. During a degree program, students have the luxury to invest the time to explore the philosophical questions behind access, democracy, organization, privacy, privilege, censorship, and the myriad other issues they will face as librarians. They will develop: 1) a shared professional vocabulary and cohort of future colleagues, 2) a knowledge of specialized information resources and information seeking strategies beyond internet search engines, 3) an evidence-based approach to service, including experience with research and assessment, and 4) engaged experience while still a student, when innovation and risk have lower penalties for failure.

The benefits to universities and library users are myriad.  For example, Flaherty (2016) points out the positive correlation between MLS level health librarians and the provision of authoritative health information due to their expertise in information seeking. Neal (2006) explains, “Libraries add value to the academic community in the form of information acquisition, synthesis, navigation, dissemination, interpretation, understanding, and archiving.” (p. 44) While he claims that the MLS may not be the best degree for such training and students outside the LIS discipline bring fresh perspectives, students educated within these areas should be more accomplished and more efficient at providing these services. In a Library Journal editorial, John Berry (2003a) claims that his MLS “was deeply educational, even transformative. Studying for the MLS changed my professional outlook, even my ideology.” (p. 8)  Berry (2003b) also discusses the issue of using PhDs in other fields for academic librarian positions with several colleagues, who stress the need for those outside the LIS field to be socialized in the values and philosophies of librarianship, which is what the MLS should accomplish.

I believe the deep value in the MLS degree is that through planned encounters with ideas, peers, practitioners, and faculty scholars, students develop a perspective on the world that is self-reflective and critical and that foregrounds issues of information access and organization for the benefit of individuals and society, while simultaneously showing them where their future librarian roles “fit” into the ongoing chronicle of librarianship.  The name of the international honor society in Library and Information Science, Beta Phi Mu, comes from the Greek meaning “librarians are the guardians of knowledge.”  While the “guardian” metaphor gives some pause, I believe that librarians educated with the best an MLS degree can offer can be the defenders of a knowledgeable public, and, hence, vital to the democratic ideal that undergirds universities and the academy.



Berry III, J. N. (2003a). Protect professionalism. Library Journal, 128(18), 8.


Berry III, J. N. (2003b). But don’t call’em “librarians”. Library Journal, 128(18), 34-36.


Bowman, R. (2013). Understanding what it means to be a professional. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 86(1), 17-20.


Crumpton, M. A. (2015). Determining the value of your library science degree. The Bottom Line, 28(4), 128-132.


Dabrinski, E. (2016). Valuing professionalism: discourse as professional practice. Library Trends, 64(3), 604-614.


Flaherty, M. G. (2016). Good value: health information and the MSLS librarian. The Bottom Line, 29(3), 173-179.


Fraser-Arnott, M. (2016). The value of the MLS or MLIS degree. The Bottom Line, 29(3), 129-141.


Martin, R. (2013). What it means to be a professional. Financial Adviser, Retrieved from


Neal, J. G. (2006). Raised by wolves. Library Journal, 131(3), 42-44.


Smith, J. (2012). The best and worst master’s degrees for jobs. Forbes, Retrieved from:


Training for librarianship: A. L. A. Committee on training. (1907). ALA Pub bd.





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