Detemining the value of an MLIS in a post-IT career path.
September 13, 2011 2:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking about jumping ship from IT to library/archival science. Am I nuts?

I know this has been asked and answered in various ways previously on MetaFilter, so please bear with me as I try to be original.

After 10+ years in IT, I'm thinking about returning to school to study library and information science - i.e., get an MLIS. I've worked as a technical writer and de facto librarian in a corporate setting for much of my professional life, and spend most of my time working on knowledge management, metadata, programming and other activities that seem to feed right into a sort of tech-focused librarianship role that's emerging in the profession.

After some investigation, I hear repeatedly that library school is, well, kind of brainless, and its value mainly lies in ticking off a job placement requirement. If so, should I be placing a lot of emphasis on school selection, location, etc., or can I prioritize by completing an online degree (e.g., Drexel) and pursuing work experience and volunteer opportunities locally (I live in Washington, DC)? Secondly, is it better to be a specialist or a generalist? In my current career, I've done well by being a technical communicator in a very small industry (IT security), so I'm leaning towards finding a subject area and tailoring my work experience and study towards that.

I've had the good fortune to be able to attend the American Library Association conferences for the last four years, so I think I'm pretty well acquainted with the challenges facing new grads going into the profession and competing for academic and public librarian jobs. I live in the Washington, DC region, so I'm a little more optimistic about job opportunities than I might be in another location.

I'm particularly interested in digital archiving and preservation, and I think my background would prepare me for that. I have no interest in working in a traditional library setting, but that's not to say I don't enjoy working with people!

I've been trying to do my homework on the topic. I've been interviewing friends who have completed or are completing some variation on a library science degree, and reading various blogs, forums, etc. I know there have been several questions relating to this topic on AskMe - these were particularly helpful, for example: 1 2 3 and 4. Furthermore, the National Archives here in DC has a biannual two-week program called the Modern Archives Institute which acquaints participants with hands-on archival work, and I'm considering applying to it as I think I need some experience outside a corporate setting to judge if this is right for me.

As an aside, I believe I can pull off grad school without going into grotesque debt. My current job offers tuition assistance.

Any suggestions or perspectives you can offer would be a big help. I'm at the stage where I'm enthusiastic about the possibilities for study and work, but wary of the time/cost commitment when considering how difficult the post-MLIS experience has been for others.
posted by gyges to Education (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Library school can be anything from totally brainless to a real mindbending experience (in a good way) and this can sometimes be happening at the same school. If you've got tuition assistance and it's substantial, I'd consider going to a good school. You'll meet people who are a little more interesting and involved and may have a few more options available to you. It might be tough being someone who is good at IT because the library profession, and archivists specifically, are known to be more traditional and somewhat less cutting edge in terms of dealing with technology adoption. That said, this is changing and there are a lot of people in the profession who are doing exciting interesting things and this includes new grads and experienced professionals. Also there is money for digital preservation stuff lately and this requires a TON of smart back end people who can grok the needs and requirements of libraries even sometimes when the library staff aren't sure.

If you're in DC I can put you in touch with a few people who work at interesting libraries in that area [check your MeMail!] who you might want to talk to to get more of a feel for it. This blog is a good go-to on things going on and there are a bunch of intereting and involved people talking about archives stuff on twitter and this conference should be the next one on your todo list as well as Computers in Libraries which is, I believe, right near you in March. ALA has a nice group of people working for it and with it, but the serious techies I know are branching out to CiL or all the way out to SXSW which had a huge librarian presence this past year.
posted by jessamyn at 3:05 PM on September 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

The only criteria for school selection:

1) Is it accredited?

2) Can you afford it?

There is approximately a 0.000001% chance that any job you apply for will have someone on the other end going "Oh, well, gyges went to San Jose State*! Top of the pile for you!" What does matter is your experience. You'll do fine.

*note, when SJSU is invoked the chance actually drops to 0.00000000000000000000000000000001%**

**I graduated from SJSU.
posted by the dief at 3:08 PM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Drexel is rather expensive. Is there any possibility of attending the University of Maryland program part-time? Or just doing it full-time? Especially if you're interested in archives, I'd pick Maryland over Drexel.

My advice in general is that if you already have a library or archives job, or extensive experience, then go for whatever online accredited program you can afford. If you are a career changer, then attend a physical program, even if part-time.
posted by needled at 3:53 PM on September 13, 2011

I work IT in a library setting, and my fiancee is a librarian - can you afford to have your pay cut by a third to half? That's been my experience with IS/Librarian jobs vs IT gigs...
posted by stenseng at 4:05 PM on September 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

If I were you I'd schedule information interviews and talk to potential employers before going the MLIS route. Given your experience and the fact that you are not targeting traditional library environments, employers may well be interested in you without the degree, if you are willing to leverage your IT experience.
posted by Wordwoman at 7:33 PM on September 13, 2011

So are you seeing jobs that you want that you need an MLS for? I agree with Wordwoman that you might be able to do what you want without an MLS.
posted by mskyle at 7:34 PM on September 13, 2011

In all honesty an MLS isn't going to enhance your resume much - it would just be an overpriced piece of paper unless you're getting a full ride scholarship. Not a few librarians are jumping ship for IT jobs and would rather be in your shoes.
posted by Anima Mundi at 8:13 PM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think you can do what you want in digital preservation if you spend some time getting to know local players, and learn their specific systems, standards, and formats. Perhaps consider some continuing education rather than the degree.

If you're in DC, that means the Library of Congress and the World Digital Library are in town. As well as a number of organisations like National Geographic who have major digitisation programmes. I would suggest to contact some of them for an informational interview, and to start attending SLA events to get to know people locally.
posted by wingless_angel at 12:19 AM on September 14, 2011

I work in IT and have a MSIS degree. It was a great experience but I'm not sure that I really needed to get the degree to work in the web development space. I do use the knowledge from my systems design and user interface design classes pretty regularly, but that's about it.

If you have programming experience and are interested in digital archiving and preservation, have you considered doing some side projects related to open data? Or, trying to get involved with a metadata standards group?

You also might want to think about whether you are interested in a MS degree or a PhD (I know it sounds crazy to recommend a PhD to anyone given the job market). It seem like you have somewhat defined research interests and would be a good candidate for a Information Science doctoral program. I'd recommend going and talking to some professors at your local iSchool. They might also be able to recommend journal club that you can join.
posted by JuliaKM at 2:18 AM on September 14, 2011

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for all of the detailed responses and mails! I'll try to respond as best I can to everyone's comments, from the top:

I don't have prior experience in a library setting. I have several years experience managing and cataloging data in a corporate setting, which seems to overlap with the description of a corporate librarian well. That said, my career role is moving away from those activities towards a deadly dull existence as a middle manager with little to do 'hands on'.

UMD is another college I'd considered (I have family who earned their MS there in other subjects). I know some some of the staff there and have a to-do item to go visit the campus and pick up some literature on their programs.

I know that I won't make as much money doing anything library-related as I would in pure IT. That said, the respectable salary I've made in IT hasn't made me any happier with the industry or the typical career trajectory there, so I'm willing to live more cheaply if that's the price of satisfaction. I don't have a family or mortgage to worry about.

To the commenters who suggested skipping the MLIS route entirely - Well, I spent some time on, for example, and for almost everything matching 'library', 'archivist', or 'digital preservation', a degree from an ALA-accredited institution was a requirement. There were some that would accept sufficient skill instead, but I didn't get the impression that was the norm rather than the exception. Some places like the Internet Archive have awesome jobs that don't focus on the MLIS requirement, but I don't see many other work environments like that.

I should clarify that I don't necessarily want to spend all my time reapplying IT skills in a library setting - I would like to learn some new skills and not rely 100% on being a programmer, K/CMS builder, or A/V tech in whatever I move to. Part of the interest in an advanced degree would be working with folks not from an IT or business background, for variety's sake at least.

I definitely want to start going to as many events and conferences and volunteer/work experience activities as possible, so I can get a better feel for these subject areas and make a decision on education/job switching that's not entirely based on Internet speculation :) Thank you jessamyn, the dief, wingless_angel and others who sent me links to other resources and events - I will take a look at each of those. The sole volunteer experience I have so far are extremely modest contributions to (MetaFilter's own) jscott's Metadata and Archiveteam projects, but those projects spurred my interest (especially as I got involved right on the heels of the last ALA show.) (p.s. jscott if you see this I know I am late on electromechanical pinball machine metadata. It is forthcoming.)

Finally, JuliaKM - a PhD is not something I'd considered. I'll take your advice and look into some of our local universities, I might be overlooking some opportunities in Information Science specifically.

If there's anything else I can clarify, please let me know. All of your responses have been insightful and given me much to think about.
posted by gyges at 7:29 AM on September 14, 2011

I'd respectfully disagree with Jessamyn about Computers in Libraries. There was only one session I lasted more than 15 min. in last year. It seemed more focused towards developing buzzword compliance in managerial types than towards being useful to library geeks.

The Archives are doing some really interesting things with digital preservation here in DC. In the current budget climate, federal jobs will be hard to get.

Archivists make even less than public library librarians.

I am a system administrator for an ILS. While I went to library school, I didn't complete it. This has not been an issue for me, as my world is small enough that people know who I am. However, I see a lot of job descriptions that include an MLS as a requirement for no reason I can imagine (granted, I'm pretty anti-MLS). In some cases, you can get around that requirement.

However, people who can speak geek and speak librarian are fairly rare. Valued, even, although that does not translate in to salary.
posted by QIbHom at 11:05 AM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

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