Library school with an English MA: should I even bother?
March 31, 2009 4:56 PM   Subscribe

Library school with an English M.A.: should I even try?

Reading the recent MILS question, and doing a search through other MILS questions, I was struck by the recurring remark "at least you're not an English major" or "you'll be competing with people who have history or English degrees, so you'll have a leg up." I *do* have an English degree, and have been admitted to an online MILS program. Am I doomed?

Background: I am dropping out at the M.A. level of a Ph.D. program, and have been considering academic library work instead. I'm not giving up on it because of worries about competence or people skills, but because I don't like the competitive environment, or care about the kinds of criticism you do as an academic in English. Both tend to exhaust my faculties to the point where I can't work on my own writing.

I'm not doing this as a fallback. I sincerely want to be a librarian. I've been considering the field casually since I worked as a page in high school, and I recently completed a library practicum (related to the documentation and preservation of our semi-abandoned 16mm film collection) which was very encouraging and exciting.

I know there are many people with my story. This is my question:

1. Are there *too* many people with my story to make this a good risk?

2. What specializations could I undertake to make me anything other than a faceless ex-English major? I'm interested in Special Collections; will focusing on that help or limit me? I know that any tech stuff will help me, but will it do that if I have no other tech background?

3. I understand that libraries, from a hiring standpoint, do not tend to care where you got your degree. That said, can I do better financially than a relatively cheap distance degree at full price? (I'm in Oregon, where there are no schools; moving is a possibility but not an immediate one.) Are there actually fellowships somewhere?

I hope this works out, both because I want it and because I really don't know what else I can do.
posted by thesmallmachine to Education (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
1. Yes, there are too many people with history or English degrees going into librarianship. Always has been. That said, you're not doomed, because...

2. This is the Big Thing. I had an English degree, but even worse -- a B.A., and in Creative Writing besides. But I got a job right out of school. Why? Specialization. I'm a systems librarian, and it's hard to find good systems people. If you can do something that makes you stand out (I don't think focusing on Spec in school will help -- in my experience, it's actual *work* you did that makes you stand out, or experience you have otherwise. Nobody really cares what you did in school. Internships would help though) it will help immeasurably.

3. Yes, nobody cares where you got your degree. Only that the degree is ALA accredited. I haven't heard of too many library fellowships, and I'd be very surprised if you could get one distance.

And if you want it to work out, it will. You will find some way to make it work. But this is probably the worst time in recent history to go looking for a library job. Of course, it's one of the worst times in history to go looking for any job, isn't it?
posted by the dief at 5:15 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

1. Are there *too* many people with my story to make this a good risk?
IMO, yes. Especially in the academic librarianship field.

2. What specializations could I undertake to make me anything other than a faceless ex-English major? I'm interested in Special Collections; will focusing on that help or limit me? I know that any tech stuff will help me, but will it do that if I have no other tech background?

Special Collections, or anything archives related will help you get a job that pays $9 an hour, but that's about it. Focus on technology instead - the more knowledge you can gain in this area, the more transferrable your MLIS will be to environments other than academic libraries.

3. I understand that libraries, from a hiring standpoint, do not tend to care where you got your degree. That said, can I do better financially than a relatively cheap distance degree at full price?
Not always true. In the public library interviews I've gone on, I've been grilled about my choice to get an online degree. But then, I live in an area where there are two library schools, one online and one not. This may not matter in other locations.

The back story: I'm a history undergrad/incomplete history MA/MLIS in California. The only reason I have a job at all (and it's not in a library, but at a web company) is my technology skills. After I graduated in 2006, I found that unless I was willing to leave the West Coast, almost all available jobs were for children's librarian positions in public libraries. Other jobs are extremely competitive and hard to come by, at least in my experience. And the Northwest - where I'd like to be - has a glut of librarians, thanks to the great MLIS program at UW. People come for grad school, see how fantastic the Northwest is, and never leave! Oregon, sadly, seems to be the exception to the "states without library schools need librarians" rule.
posted by chez shoes at 5:19 PM on March 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with chez shoes: A Special Collections focus will severely limit you. But if you really want to go in that direction, you could specialize in digital projects. Then get all the tech experience you can, both library-oriented (creating metadata and digital collections) and general (HTML/CSS, and some basic PHP/MySQL programming). Most digital projects librarians I know are (like most special collections librarians I know) technologically retarded, so the more you can pick up before job hunting, the better off you'll be.

Don't worry about being an English major. This will probably keep you from becoming an Engineering Librarian, but isn't going to hurt you in many other non-subject-focused areas as long as you have the skill and experience that fits the position.

I'm also one of those MLIS-holders who has a (good-paying, fairly secure) job thanks to my tech background.

While I'm here, I'll respond to something else: I've served on quite a few academic librarian search committees. While we get dozens of applications for every job posting, finding 3 out of those dozens that are worth interviewing (based on their resume and cover letter) is usually extremely difficult. The vast majority of them have no real library experience, or are incapable of communicating effectively, or are way too focused on working the reference desk, or have zero tech background. I recommend setting up some informational interviews with real, working academic librarians before you start your job search to find out all the things you learned in library school that were B.S.
posted by coolguymichael at 6:11 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's not unhead of. I did it, and I know lots of people who have. Most reference, special collections, and liberal arts subject librarians I know come from a liberal arts background. For various reasons, I quit my job after a year and went back to teaching, but I had a Special Collections job at a good university (making substantially more than 9 buck an hour) before I was done with my MLIS program.

Yes, you will have a much easier time getting a job with technological skills. Anecdotally, my husband and I were both involved with tech services librarian job searches at our schools (private liberal arts college and community college, respectively) and we had very few applicants for either position.

That being said, there are not that many Special Collections job out there, and you would need to also have a subject PhD or MA for many of them. Getting a good job is not quite as competitive as landing a tenured English faculty position, but it's close. What helped me was a combination of job experience and networking (and I suppose being on the job market 8 years ago). When I was in library school, I interned at an excellent special collections library and met good contacts during my time there. To tell the truth, I learned very little in my library school classes. Doing librarian-type work in an actual library environment was immeasurably more informative and useful. And that would be my main concern with an online degree. If you don't get the chance to build up job experience and meet professionals in your field, I would think it would be even more difficult to get a job, especially in Special Collections, where everyone knows everyone else.

I was also willing to relocate. Had I been determined to stay in Austin, which was teeming with newly minted librarians, I would have had a much more difficult time.

On preview: I emphatically second coolguymichael's advice (and I suppose, by extension, chez shoes' as well).
posted by bibliowench at 6:41 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Followup, if you guys are still reading (and thanks so much for what you've already said): will unpaid experience help me get work in the same way as paid? I realize it would likely be a little bit of a cut in prestige (since I can't immediately prove that someone was already willing to give me money for my competence) but would it be competitive CV material? The library at the university where I'm getting my M.A. says there will always be projects for me on those terms, and I see the knowledge and experience as a reasonable exchange.
posted by thesmallmachine at 6:54 PM on March 31, 2009

I'm a special collections librarian, and I'm mystified by the notion that having an MA in English along with your MLS would be a hindrance. A subject master's is listed as required or at least desirable for the majority of such jobs, and even though most special collections libraries cover all sorts of subject areas, literature is still overwhelmingly regarded as the core focus. (Of course, the dief is correct that such jobs are very hard to come by right now.)

I would certainly agree that a grounding in technology would be highly desirable; the world of special collections is definitely a late adopter by library standards. Hell, I'm the cutting edge guy at my library, a risible notion to anybody who really knows me. (I will try, however, not to take coolguymichael's use of the word "retarded" too personally.)

I would disagree with the notion that your program doesn't matter, at least if you're going to concentrate on special collections. If the program you're looking at doesn't have a concentration in that area, or at least a place you can intern at, you should give some serious thought to a class or two at Rare Book School, and down the road think about applying for a scholarship to the RBMS preconference, which is your best bet for networking.

Feel free to Memail me if I can be of more help. (But FYI we're in a hiring freeze.)
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:56 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lord. I've just noticed that I wrote "MILS" throughout. I realize the acronym stands for "Master's in Library and INFORMATION Science," not "Master's IN library science..."

I swear I really was admitted to an accredited program...
posted by thesmallmachine at 6:57 PM on March 31, 2009

Will unpaid experience help me get work in the same way as paid?

I think so - if you have the opportunity to do internships, volunteerships, practica etc. while in school, by all means do so and list these on your CV. Library types seem pretty impressed with unpaid experience, as it shows interest, dedication, etc.
posted by chez shoes at 7:39 PM on March 31, 2009

In addition to unpaid work, join your local association chapters and get involved! This does help, believe me, with transferable skills like project management and teamwork, and especially with networking.

Cultivate a broad range of skills. I've had a few different roles from subject librarian (NOT in the area I studied), to eresearch, to web development. HTML/XML/CSS is something I learnt on the side in library school and I'm forever glad I did. That informal learning gave me skills I use daily but no one in libraries takes for granted (sad, but true, most still don't know it). If I had my time over I would have added more metadata stuff, especially crosswalking.

And I want to repeat - project management is highly sought after. That skillset been a major reason why I got my last three jobs. Any unpaid project work you can do or association projects will help with this.

Good luck!
posted by wingless_angel at 8:22 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, I was the person who said that the guy with the CS master's would have an advantage. He will. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't become a librarian! Besides, a master's degree in English (in anything) is a huge competitive advantage. How do I know? I have one too!

The best way to get a good job after library school:
1. Go to a highly ranked program. (Not necessary, but it doesn't hurt.)
2. Go to a school where most folks are full-time, in-person.
3. Go to a school where they offer you a fellowship/assistantship that includes working in the university library. (Look at UNC-Chapel Hill as an example.)
4. Work in an academic library during school.
5. Work a couple hours/week in another library during school. (It's always good to have more experience, and another set of recommenders.)
6. Form good relationships with those librarians and your classmates. Both will be important relationships now and done the road.

This worked for me, anyway. And just about everyone else I know from school.

Distance degrees are fine, but if you want to commit fully to this, go to a regular, in-person program, work hard, be friendly, and build relationships. Also, make sure you are up to date on technology.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:36 PM on March 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

The opinion on distance MLS degrees is still pretty mixed - at least from my experience talking to academic librarians, I sense a gap between what they say and what they do in this respect. They did seem to care about where one got one's library degree, especially with regard to fresh library school graduates with no significant work experience, whether library-related or not. And where you went to school also matters in terms of networking.

The people I've seen for whom distance degrees worked out fine were people already working in a library, who just needed the MLS to get the librarian job title, or people who already had significant work experience. So these were people who already had desirable skills and work experience, and the MLS was just the icing on the cake.

For people not in this position, I have to concur with bluedaisy's advice above.
For example, you're more likely to get a fellowship or assistantship if you are at school full-time, in-person. UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, University of Michigan, are all programs that offer assistantships or fellowships that involve working in a university library. At schools where professors are good at getting outside grant money, there are also research assistantship opportunities working on a professor's funded project.

Lastly, there are some scholarships available through professional organizations such as the ALA, but these tend to be one-time awards that might be enough to pay for tuition or books for a semester.
posted by needled at 5:40 AM on April 1, 2009

1. Don't sweat your background. My BA is in English, and I don't have a second Master's degree. You can make the librarian thing happen, especially if you're willing to relocate. You'll probably want to emphasize something other than literature in your MLIS studies, but you should do that anyway. Focusing on a very specific specialty like special collections will both help and limit you,if that makes any sense. Inside special collections, it'll help; outside special collections, it won't. I generally don't recommend having a very strict idea of what your specialty will be going into an MLS--there are too many options and too many things you don't yet know you're going to care about.

2. A thorough understanding of technology will never hurt you in this field. I have gotten most of the jobs I have really wanted, but the ones that got away both got away because my tech skills at the time(s) were just very-good-for-a-librarian, and not unassailable. You might examine whether you're interested in Preservation/Conservation. A few library schools have separate, more rigorous P/C curricula, and there's a small but not negligible pool of jobs for them.
I'm from Oregon, so I know what you mean about MLS options. If I could do my MLS over again, I'd relocate to Seattle and go through the UW ischool (or, if relocation was impossible, look into their distance learning options), fwiw. In this field, you can relocate now or later (or, secret option C: not get a job unless you're very lucky). If you want to stay in the PacNW, I recommend going to school there and getting involved in PNLA. There's no substitute for (even tenuous) connections when it comes to job-finding time.

3. Ehh, this is true, but also overstated. I wish I didn't have the student loan debt I'm carrying 9 years out of a top-tier MLS program, but it has gotten me some interviews I might not otherwise have gotten (as an aside: you will not make a lot of money as a librarian. Reflect carefully on your current student loan debt--if you have any--and your potential student loan debt from library school). I couldn't tell you about fellowships; I certainly didn't find any.

Also: If you're turned off by the competitive, backbiting world of academia, I don't recommend just moving to an academic library.

I'm late for work, but I'll duck back into this thread later and see if anything else comes to mind.
posted by willpie at 5:46 AM on April 1, 2009

I agree with willpie that you should not incur a lot of debt to go to library school--but going to a top-tier program doesn't mean incurring a lot of debt. A good fellowship should cover tuition and some living expenses.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:20 AM on April 1, 2009

I should have said going to a top-tier program doesn't *necessarily* mean incurring a lot of debt.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:21 AM on April 1, 2009

I agree with bluedaisy that a top ranked school, with that lets you take a graduate assistantship is key. But also . . . think about this: PhD + MLS = academic career. Everyone I knew in library school who pursued or brought the PhD to combine with the MLS got a great job. As Desmond Dekker would say, "You can get it if you really want. But you must try . . . try, try . . .and try . . . you'll succeed at last!"
posted by deejay jaydee at 7:56 AM on April 1, 2009

Unpaid experience (via practicum, internship, volunteering, etc.) will not hurt you. It will help you sometimes, but not every time. In general, I'd recommend it.
posted by willpie at 9:50 AM on April 1, 2009

Unpaid experience won't be as valued as paid experience, but it's WAY better than no experience at all. If you go that route, I STRONGLY second getting involved in both local and national organizations, and PUBLISH while you're still in school! (The bar for librarians to publish in professional literature is shockingly low, so this isn't as hard as it sounds.)
posted by coolguymichael at 3:50 PM on April 1, 2009

Thank you for all your information, everyone. This has been an incredibly helpful resource and I will use it, once it's all sunk in, to make my long-term plans.

Willpie: I wanted to keep a foot in the academic world because I still want to be surrounded by people who valued knowledge, though the more I really think about that, the more I wonder about that chain of logic. The academy -at least in the humanities- *doesn't* generally value knowledge for its own sake, whereas most librarians I've met do, whether academic or public. (This is not to say that academics have their heads screwed on wrong, but that they tend to have a strong focus on what information can do for them and their research, whereas my interest is attuned towards endless acquisition and organization.)
posted by thesmallmachine at 1:36 AM on April 2, 2009

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