librarian angst talking blues
August 9, 2012 6:35 AM   Subscribe

I'm on the edge of starting an online MLIS degree. I know that the conventional wisdom is that this is a bad idea, but I don't feel like I have any other options. Am I about to make a serious mistake, or could I be an exception? Were all of the dire warnings about becoming a librarian due, in part, to general economic malaise, or is the profession in trouble?

I'm approaching my third year of working as a paraprofessional in an academic library. I don't think I really want to be a librarian, but I'm in my mid-thirties and feel like I don't have any other realistic options. Continuing to work as a paraprofessional isn't sustainable in the long run, and I have had zero luck applying for other career-track jobs (aside from "admin assistant") with just my bachelor's degree.


1a. Library degrees are generally quicker and less expensive than other professional degrees, and I can continue working full-time if I enroll in an online program. This makes it much more attractive than, say, allied health degrees (the other options I've been looking at), which seem like they have the potential to quickly spiral into the $70,000-$100,000 range for tuition + living expenses while I'm in the program/not working.

1b. There are no post-baccalaureate requirements which I would need to fund with private loans, as would be the case with almost any allied health degree.

2. My employer may reimburse me for 6 credit hours per semester/$5000 per year. As far as I know this is a "submit a request for reimbursement after you've completed the credit" kind of deal so I'm initially on the hook for the whole amount, and it's not completely clear if these requests are approved as a matter of course. Reimbursed education expenses must be "for the betterment of [employer]," and my employer has in no way asked me to get an MLIS--in fact, the number of professional librarian positions at my library have been cut by since I was hired.

3. I work in an academic library with a STEM focus, and my undergraduate degree is in a related STEM field.


1. I'm ambivalent about librarianship as a career, both personally and in a "librarianship is being systematically deprofessionalized" kind of way. I'm not absolutely in love with working in a library, but I'm very much interested in working to live and not vice versa.

2. IBR payments have only covered the interest on my undergraduate loans, so whatever graduate school costs will be on top of the roughly $40,000 I racked up as an undergraduate. I'm concerned that I'll be in the same pickle as a librarian earning $40,000/year and making payments on $65,000 of loans that I am in now as a paraprofessional earning $27,000/year.

3. Most of the librarians I know are underemployed (two part-time jobs, non-professional/paraprofessional library positions, etc.), but they're generally not in the little corner of the library world that I occupy, and don't have a STEM undergraduate degree. I'm concerned that the assumption that my STEM degree will make me employable is wishful thinking. It also seems unlikely that my current employer will hire me as a professional librarian (none have been hired since I started, ~35% of the positions have been cut through layoffs and attrition).
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Find out about the tuition reimbursement before you invest any money in the degree. If they're willing to pay, awesome. I was working as a paraprofessional in a public library during part of my MLS and they paid for a few classes that were completely unrelated to what I was doing, just because they would reimburse for anything related to your job. So my courses in collection development or whatever didn't apply to my job, but were library-related, and I worked in a library. They probably wouldn't have paid for me to take a class in pottery or something.

Another thing to consider is what you can likely make once you're a professional vs. what you're making now. I graduated with my MLS in 2007 and the market was shit then, but I managed to get a part-time (which after a while turned into a full-time) professional job. My salary went from $25k as a para to $40k as a professional. My degree cost roughly $25k, so in 2 years the cost of the degree was covered and the rest was gravy. However I worked full-time and spent 3 years getting my degree, so I paid out of pocket and have never taken out a school loan. Is that an option for you?

If you decide to do it, I think your STEM background may be an asset, but it's all really a crapshoot depending on who's hiring, if you're willing to move, if you're willing to take a part-time professional job, etc. Not everyone who goes to library school is all rah-rah about librarianship. I started library school basically because I realized I was 23 years old and working in a dead-end low-paying job, and that nothing would change unless I went back to school for SOMETHING. I've actually turned out to be a pretty good librarian and am really well-suited for the job, but I still often think about going back to school for something totally unrelated. And MLS doesn't have to be the last degree you earn, but if your employer is offering you a free degree, I think you'd be a fool to turn it down.
posted by jabes at 6:57 AM on August 9, 2012

Speaking as a librarian who's been lucky enough to be employed since graduation, I'm not particularly optimistic. For academic libraries, tuition costs at universities are out of control, it's not a sustainable situation, and as bad as things are for academic libraries now, I don't see things getting better in the near future. (I think a STEM degree will help you, but maybe not as much as you think -- I think a lot of academic librarian positions will be able to demand someone who has a Master's degree in a relevant academic field. Even if that's not specified in the job ad, they'll get enough applications that they can afford to be choosy.)

If you were really enthusiastic about being a librarian, I'd cheer you on. Warily. But it's not what you want to do.
posted by Jeanne at 6:59 AM on August 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Focus on data and data curation. That's where the jobs are in academic librarianship, if you look at listservs like Libjobs. I just finished up a data curation focused distance MSLIS, and I have had my choice of jobs both in and out of the library world. The same goes for my friends in the program, especially those who already had a science background. The school I went to is one of the most highly regarded in the country, which I do think matters. Other folks, with other specializations...are not fairing as well.

Also, you may have to be willing to move where the jobs are.

Distance library programs are highly, highly variable. Feel free to MeMail me with any questions.
posted by rockindata at 6:59 AM on August 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have my MSLIS from an online program and also work as a science librarian (the job market is generally better for science/med libs, especially if your people skills are good, and you're geographically flexible), and you're welcome to memail me with questions. Also, if you're not terribly excited about libraries, have you thought about a degree in statistics instead? If your work will pay for it, of course. My new dream is to be a data scientist or statistical consultant (to advise on methodologies/software related to data/GIS in an academic/library setting perhaps, I'm still thinking), but at any rate, a stats degree feels more useful to me now, than the library degree.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:13 AM on August 9, 2012

I don't know that much about being a librarian. I know a *lot* about having gotten a graduate degree in something because I thought it would lead to a better job despite not being excited about the work. I was miserable. I really, really wish I'd spent more time (well, and back in the day, had more resources available for the purposes of) researching what it was I really wanted to do with my life. The fact that you already work in a library and you're still not sure you want to be a librarian tells me that, in reality, you probably don't really want to be a librarian.

I would start doing the real digging into what field is going to be something that really pulls you. If there's literally nothing else on the planet, then after that, consider this. But don't assume that every other option is closed off to you. I know several people who got funding for graduate degrees in accounting (this was my field) who did not start off with business degrees; they had to take extra courses, but several of them still got their tuition completely covered and stipend for TAing. I can't believe that accounting is the only field where that's possible.
posted by gracedissolved at 7:17 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Unless you have a passion for what you're doing, don't do it.

Expecting a better job is a terrible reason to get a degree. You'll almost always be disappointed.

You dismiss Admin jobs, yet that is a great entry level job. Having a BS doesn't really qualify you for anything in particular. You get a foot in the door with an entry-level job, and then you gain skills and experience which qualify you for better jobs.

Try that first, before spending money and time to go into a profession you're not keen on, and there is no guarantee of being in any better position than you are today.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:33 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

As a passionate librarian, I'd also go with not getting the degree if you're not sure it's what you want to be doing for the rest of your life. You'll be competing for the jobs out there with people who do, and I'm relatively sure that recruiters will be able to tell. As will your coworkers - if you hate where you are, you'd have to be the most cheerful person ever for that not to spill over onto the people around you.

I think there's been a number of good options presented here, and I hope you get the chance to go for something you really enjoy! It's a wonderful experience to love where you work.
posted by harujion at 7:39 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Looked at objectively, I think your cons answer your question.
posted by scratch at 7:43 AM on August 9, 2012

Definitely look further into the reimbursement situation. That is going to make a big difference in whether it's worth it or not. If you can get the degree for next to nothing, it is not a bad idea, but if you would be adding $25K to your debt load, it IS a bad idea.

If you do decide to do it, the fact that you have library experience already will help you. Depending on your exact role within the library, this might help a little or a lot. I was also working as a paraprofessional in an academic library when I got my MLIS, and what I was doing was serials acquisitions. Almost NOBODY knows serials, and it's not something that they teach in library school, so I was easily able to get a job as a serials librarian when I graduated. It was in a public library, which is not what I was hoping for (I had always been in academic libraries, and it was what I thought I wanted to do) but I have since discovered that my public library both pays more and requires less work than academic libraries. Five years after getting my MLIS, I make $65K and never have to work more than 40 hours, and never have to worry about publishing or presenting at conferences. Also, being in technical services means I get to make my own schedule; as long as I put in 40 hours, it doesn't matter which 40 they are. In other words, it's great for a "work to live" type person.

Yes, I also know a LOT of unemployed and underemployed librarians. Most of them are reference librarians, but I was recently on a hiring panel for a cataloger job at a neighboring library and the two best candidates had been looking for work for three years each. So, it is rough and it is not a sure thing. Figure out the tuition reimbursement. If you can continue to work while also getting your degree for next to nothing, absolutely do it. You can look for a new job while you still have your current job and you won't suffer much. But if you have $25K extra in debt and end up stuck in your $27K/year job for another three years, that will hurt.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:40 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Unless you're getting a scholarship, tuition reimbursement, or have someone to lean on financially, yes, getting an MLIS in this economic climate is a very bad idea. I loved being a librarian, but I jumped ship in 2010. IMO, it's just not worth it, even if you're passionate about it.
posted by Anima Mundi at 8:52 AM on August 9, 2012

It sounds like you're feeling kind of backed into a corner, and that you're considering a graduate degree to be your only way out (since you're weighing MLIS vs. allied health). I wonder if, instead of a graduate degree that is unlikely to help you either at your current employer or elsewhere, and that you are not passionate about, you might consider a few other options.

One thing that comes to mind is grant writing or grant administration. I'm not in that field, but I know a couple people who have been able to specialize up/away from "administrative assistant" by learning those skills. So, if you're not passionate about being a librarian, but do enjoy the subject area you're supporting, perhaps there's a lab/scientist/organization/department that could use your existing skills in an administrative role and train/mentor you to develop grant writing and/or administration skills. Again, this isn't my area of expertise, but it is something I've seen "work to live" people enjoy (and be successful at).
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:07 AM on August 9, 2012

I would say that you should only do this if you're willing to move, or if you're more or less guaranteed a job in the library you're working in now.

I started an MLIS program and would love to work in libraries and help the community. I dropped out after a semester. My emphasis was in public libraries, so it may be different for academic libraries.

I want to stay in my part of the country, which is a hit on my job prospects. I found out that one of the libraries in my area (which are probably in the top five in the nation in terms of concentration of libraries) advertised two positions and got 85 applications. My understanding is that there are record numbers of MLIS students graduating every semester. Several of the large local public library systems are laying off experienced librarians and are now only open four days per week. In at least one local library system, retiree positions are not being rehired.

What I see is library funding being cut everywhere, experienced librarians being laid off, essentially no new hiring, and a ton of new MLIS graduates. There is a large and growing supply of librarian labor and very little demand.

In one system, the local police chief suggested completely closing the library system rather than have the police (who I believe start near six figure salaries) agree to any salary concessions.

This is just the current situation. It doesn't touch on the significant process of evolution libraries must go through to continue as things stand today, let alone grow.

I have the utmost respect for the profession and would love to serve the community in that capacity. My experience is anecdotal and may have nothing to do with anyone else's experience. But I just couldn't justify the time and money investment into a profession where the current situation isn't good, labor is being stockpiled and the future prospects are hazy at best.

Most of this has to do with public libraries, and I don't know nearly as much about the market for academic librarians. I would say that if your heart's not in it and you have to enter a very uncertain job market, it may not be worthwhile. If you can convert directly to a full time librarian position, it may be worthwhile if you can change your perspective on the profession.
posted by cnc at 10:10 AM on August 9, 2012

I am not a librarian BUT i am a network Admin in a library. Our library is not replacing positions as our librarians are retiring.

Some depts like technical services are getting clerks hired to replace librarians (here in NY state in tech svs only 1 full time librarian is needed in the dept) All other depts if people are needed clerks are being hired or part time librarians.

I would stay away from public libraries if I were you. They are slowly being phazed out. Heck I am in a library in a village and all our patrons mainly use our computers /wifi/programs like zumba/ and bluray take out. That is why librarians are being replaced with clerks.

If you like libraries and know computers I suggest becoming a network admin . As librarians are not being repalced my job is getting busier because the patrons use the pc's more.
posted by majortom1981 at 10:24 AM on August 9, 2012

Downsizing is happening all over the library business. Lots and lots of experienced MLS/MLIS librarians are unemployed or underemployed. Unless you really want to be a librarian, it makes no sense to invest in a degree at this point.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:01 AM on August 9, 2012

Including in science and technology.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:02 AM on August 9, 2012

With a STEM degree, you should definitely be looking into special libraries, especially corporate libraries in research-heavy industries, and to the companies that provide information services to them (more and more of the industries are outsourcing that sort of work, but that still means someone is doing that sort of work).
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:54 PM on August 9, 2012

I was a paraprofessional until I got an MLS and then I was moved into a professional position at my library. This is (unfortunately) a very rare path to take. I know lots of very talented and enthusiastic people who worked in libraries for a while, got their MLS, and can't move into a professional position without leaving their place of work. Librarians are retiring, and their positions aren't being filled more often than not. Unless your place of work is really supporting your degree beyond the basic tuition reimbursement, you should just plan on leaving. (Seriously. I know too many people who still work in parapro positions and are upset their position isn't just automatically made professional when they graduate. I've yet to hear about a system that worked that way.)

So the question really is do you want to be a librarian? (Whatever that means.) Just reading your question, it doesn't seem like you're really sold on the idea. I've worked with lots of people who like working in libraries because they're pretty safe and OK places to work. It's pleasant and not too odious, and you can have a comfortable existence. I can't fault them for wanting that, but in my head that seems like a really bad idea for a career. If you like the environment and the stability, you might be able to get a similar position on campus or at another library without going through the time and hassle of the degree and be just as happy.

Having a STEM degree will make you somewhat more employable, but it's not a guarantee. I'm a STEM librarian with a humanities background, but I also have really hustled and work hard for my users, which hasn't held me back at all.

Special libraries (corporate, government, etc.) are great avenues to look for work. Some LIS schools have deals on tuition if you're a member of SLA. (I saved a lot of money that way.)

If you feel like it's time to do something career wise, take some time to figure out what you really want. Not just the dream, but short term practical things. It's scary to leave your job with the economy the way it is, but unless your position is growing with you, it might be time to move on.
posted by kendrak at 1:38 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Forbes has an answer.
posted by Margalo Epps at 3:00 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

At the company I work for, college graduates - including lawyers - start out as temps. I don't think I've ever seen anyone get hired to full time by virtue of their degree, unless they did a summer internship with us and made a very good impression. However, I've seen lots of people get their feet in the door through temping, with and without degrees. And I've done it myself at various companies. In one instance a temp admin posting led to a permanent position in my field which was basically created for me because I'd worked hard and made a good impression.

So the admin jobs you are dismissing could be an overlooked opportunity. Given that library work is not your passion, it might be worth your while to take a second look.
posted by bunderful at 3:43 PM on August 9, 2012

I'd focus on the Information Science side of things. And a program with excellent placement records and internships. Also research #alt-Ac and digital humanities programs (those links are just examples - lots of other info out there!) Figure out the end goal and work backwards - grad school is the answer to SOME questions but it's not the universal solution. And especially not a generalist online MLIS degree.
posted by barnone at 7:00 PM on August 9, 2012

The folks I'm seeing get jobs with MLIS/MSIM degrees are in the areas of meta/data, online content management, and information architecture/user experience. I'm a hiring manager in my field (content and metadata management) and for a single opening, it's pretty common to get easily over 50 applications from all over, including outside of the US. Competition is much higher within libraries proper.

Think hard about the cost of the degree and how much you'll be making when you graduate, too. It's not an inconsequential cost as you already recognize, and if you aren't pretty into what you end up doing with it, the resentment just adds to the pile of everything else.

Special libraries can be a lot of fun though, especially if you can make a connection with one in your area of expertise in STEM. Hiring is harder to gauge for them though, as they are less visible to most people typically.

I had a general sense of knowing what I wanted to do and what I liked about it and that's why I did it. It has been rewarding and I have been very lucky in my trajectory. A good portion of my friends have also been lucky, but I know my friends in public and academic libraries spend a lot more time holding their breath than I do.

Best of luck regardless of which path you take.
posted by susanbeeswax at 7:03 PM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

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