Library Love: A Matter of Degree - Is Library and Information Science Really The Worst Master’s Degree?

Forbes.com gave a tip o’ the nib to my field and advanced degree recently in its annual “Best and Worst Master's Degrees for Jobs” list. Coming in at number one worst master’s degree was library and information science.  Given that most people don’t think about librarians outside of (let’s be honest!) porn contexts, I was pleasantly surprised to have so many people suddenly interested in my field.  But still, I was a little sad. All I could think was, really? Library science is really worse than English? And how come theatre didn’t even make it on the list?

Mean and cruel, I know.

There are two tasks for us to handle here. The first is to act like a librarian and examine the source. Where did Forbes get this data, and is it reliable? Does this article represent the whole picture? Second, it’s worth taking some time to examine the field of library science. If there is some truth to the Forbes article, then it is critical that people interested in the field really know what it takes to get a job as a librarian and the type of work we do. Sitting at a desk reading books and shushing patrons isn’t it.

Data, Report to the Bridge

In her article, Jacquelyn Smith at Forbes refers to two data sets: the first from Payscale.com, and the second from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Payscale is a commercial database. Visitors create a free account and then build a career profile, inputting details like education, title, experience, and salary. The site then generates a report comparing your salary to that of other users with similar profiles. Payscale makes its money by selling this aggregate data to employers, which they use to set wages. How do we know if the data is accurate? Since users are basically anonymous, we can’t know if they’re honest when creating their profiles. One could argue that if the purpose of creating an account is to see what other people with similar jobs are making, then it is in one’s best interest to be honest. True, but the site will generate a report for you no matter what data you plug in, and there is no penalty for inaccurate representation. As a librarian, I always tell my patrons to be wary of commercial sites, since their motive is money, not accuracy. Payscale claims to own “the largest database of online employee salary data in the world,” but there is no way to verify the numbers. And while Payscale data is used by many major news sites, I prefer my data to come from non-commercial sources. Like the government.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is a federal agency that has been compiling, analyzing, and disseminating data on employment, wages, and spending since the 1880’s. You may know this department because it is the official source of the national unemployment rate, which it releases in a monthly report.That report is then disseminated through the media. The BLS is an amazing source of information, and this is really the place to go for a full view of employment in the United States. Here we find the projected employment increase Smith gives for each degree - it comes from the BLS Employment by Occupation table. The projected employment increase she lists for library science is 8.5%, but if you consult the table, you see that her number includes curators and archivists, who typically have additional training above the MLIS. I'm sad to report that the job growth for librarians is actually 6.9%. Smith selectively reports in other fields as well. For example, computer science is her second best master’s degree, with a projected employment increase of 27%, but the BLS table shows that level of growth specifically for software developers of applications. Computer programmers (who also get master’s degrees in computer science) only have a 12% projected increase in employment.  On the salary front, Smith’s numbers must come from Payscale, since they don’t match the salaries given in the Occupational Handbook.

Scotty, Beam Me Up

What does it all mean? For one, the Forbes article is… spin. It doesn’t give you the whole picture. As the President of the American Library Association, Maureen Sullivan, notes, salary and projected job growth are not intrinsically tied to job satisfaction. It's very easy to see which professions earn the highest median pay in the United States - just consult the Highest Paying Occupations table. And if you want to know which fields are going to experience the biggest growth, visit the Fastest Growing Occupations table. But are either of these factors going to help you choose a career?

And that brings me back to library science, which is neither the highest paying nor the fastest growing field, but it is dear to my heart (and to the other 156,000 librarians working in the U.S.). Justifying librarianship is like making a case for school teachers or firefighters or college professors, so I’m not going to do that here. A democracy requires librarians, and we’re not going away. We and our libraries are, however, subject to budget cuts, and we see this happening everywhere from small public libraries to Harvard. Does that mean you shouldn’t consider the field? No, but it is competitive, so proceed with your eyes open.

Education and Specialization

Library science is such a cool field because it encompasses so much diversity. For the sake of simplicity, let’s divide the field into three categories: public services, technical services, and administration. Public services encompasses all aspects of interacting with the public, from helping patrons find books and articles to teaching classes on library resources to building collections to support the community’s needs. Technical services is the backbone of the library. Librarians in technical services provide access to materials and information. They ensure that the items in your library are searchable online, build digital collections and repositories, and support new technologies. Administrators build community partnerships and push libraries to keep pace with the needs of their users. They also fight for our budgets and spaces and galvanize community support in the face of closures and cutbacks.

The entry level degree for librarianship is a master of library and information science. By the time you graduate, you should be strongly oriented toward a specific branch of service. Within that branch, you can specialize further. For example, within public services, we find librarians who specialize in everything from digital libraries to young adult services to data. (It's true! A data librarian directed me to the Bureau of Labor Statistics tables.) This focus will then lead you to the next level of training or education necessary to get a job. For example, most academic librarians have a master’s degree in their area of specialization. Specialization tends to broaden your marketability. It gives you both expert and generalist status - e.g., a government documents librarian can also serve as a social sciences librarian, but the reverse tends not to be true. A good way to get a sense of the desired credentials for your ideal library job is to consult the American Library Association’s JobLIST.

Finally, if you're interested in librarianship, talk to a librarian! Someone who is doing the kind of work that interests you can give you a clear  picture of what it took to get there. Librarians have a strong culture of mentorship and we want our colleagues to succeed.

We really are here to help.

Image via Questionable Content

Stephanie Bonjack

Column by Stephanie Bonjack

Stephanie Bonjack is an academic librarian based in Boulder, Colorado. She teaches the relentless pursuit of information, and illuminates the path to discovery. She has presented at national and international library conferences, and is especially interested in how libraries evolve to serve the needs of 21st century patrons. When she’s not sleuthing in the stacks, she enjoys chasing her toddler across wide open spaces.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.

Comments

Michael J. Riser's picture
Michael J. Riser from El Cerrito, CA (originally), now Fort Worth, TX is reading The San Veneficio Canon - Michael Cisco, The Croning - Laird Barron, By the Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends - J. David Osborne July 17, 2012 - 8:29am

Thanks for this, very interesting. I've considered a library degree a number of times over the course of the years because it seemed like one of the few job-jobs I might actually be able to enjoy. I'm going back to school this year, starting with core curriculum, and haven't entirely decided upon a major yet. Likely English or English Lit, but the library science stuff always comes back to mind.

Kyniska's picture
Kyniska from Pepperland is reading Just Kids by Patti Smith July 18, 2012 - 2:03pm

Lovely article, provides a good grounding for those of us who read the Forbes piece. I work at a library and intend to get my MLS next year. I've been working here for almost six months and every day I feel so lucky to have gotten this job and to be in this field. I've tried other work, but nothing gave half the satisfaction that library science does. Even if Forbes were 100% right, I wouldn't want to do anything else.