Library Science
January 15, 2004 5:21 PM   Subscribe

I am preparing to choose a course of graduate study for Fall 2005 and have recently become very interested in the job possibilities available to those with a Masters Of Library Science degree. But I have several questions about the particulars [more inside]:

Currently, I hold a BFA in Art from Berkeley and have what basically amounts to two years of sysadmin assistant experience (i was a sysadmin for a *really* small company, basically just managed win2k servers and have some done some undergraduate computer science work).

Firstly, I'm wondering what exactly MLS coursework is like -- I've looked over some sample degree plans, but can't really divine from the course titles what exactly is being taught.

I'm also curious what sort of work someone with an MLS degree would do in a library itself (to be honest, I know zero about tasks at libraries that aren't visible to your average library patron). Along these lines, what sort of additional certification or licensing is necessary to work in a public library? What kind of salary can I expect? (I've noticed that the San Francisco Public Library seems to start at around 60-70k for jobs that require an MLS, but I'm not sure what kind of experience the candidates that would be considered for this position might have, and I'm sure cities with lower costs of living offer a far smaller starting salary).

What other sorts of positions hire people with an MLS?

I'd like to hear opinions about what MLS schools to attend. Right now, I'm really only looking at schools in NYC and SF, although I realize this greatly reduces my chances of getting into what might be the best program (but I'll take that tradeoff). At the present I'm really interested in the dual master program in Art History/MLS that is offered by the Pratt Institute; I haven't been able to get a good grasp on the relative graduate reputation of Pratt for these particular majors, though I did read a lot of undergraduate reviews (from art students) that basically denounced Pratt as being a school whose admissions are mostly based on a credit check. I'd also be interested in other schools where I might be able to do a similar program.

If any of you have pursued an art librarianship/curatorship with an MLS degree, I'd be really interested in hearing about it, as I think this would be my ideal position post-graduation. (This is why I'm interested in the dual Art History/MLS, because while it seems some positions only require a BFA and the MLS, there is a greater demand for individuals with Art History masters as well).

I don't have constant internet access right now, so I might not be able to check back in for awhile, but I appreciate any help you folks might be able to give. Thanks!
posted by fishfucker to Education (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I repeat my offer from here to you, good Mr. Fishfucker sir. I'll warn you: I sent Hildago a bitchin' long email, so if you want advice from me be prepared to read for a while.

I can't speak to the Art History aspect--I'm a Reference Librarian in a history museum--but I have worked in two major urban public libraries. The pay in public libraries is...okay. Not spectacular, usually, but it's steady and usually enough to live on comfortably (not true everywhere, esp. in more rural areas). The job market for librarians is better than many other fields, and will probably continue to improve as the current crop of older librarians retires in a few years. Some states require special certification to be a public librarian, but if your MLS program is accredited it shouldn't be an issue (check with the school or Most urban public libraries that have subject divisions (Music, Art, Science, etc) like librarians to have some background in that discipline, though many places are moving (unfortunately) towards a more generalist approach.

I can only speak for the University of Pittsburgh (where I got my MLIS), but the Carnegie Museum of Art is right down the street (and the Warhol Museum is in the city) and I knew of a few library school (archives track) students who interned there. (Actually both the Carnegie and the Warhol.)

I said it in that other thread, and I'll say it again: you may want to spend some time on the LIScareer page.

Email me if you want my mini-thesis regarding library school, librarianship, etc. I'd love to help in any way I can (I consider it a reference question!).

Jessamyn, we're converting 'em left and right!
posted by arco at 6:10 PM on January 15, 2004 [1 favorite]

(I really need to do something about my parentheses addiction.)
posted by arco at 6:12 PM on January 15, 2004

If you really, really want to work in a library (or maybe a museum), you'll need an MLS. If you want to work anywhere else at all, the degree is basically worthless.

I disagree about demand for librarians growing, particularly in public libraries where budgets are being slashed. Librarians are being laid off, and when the oldest remaining retire or die off, they'll be replaced by people on the recall list. Breaking in could take awhile.

Another future problem runs like this: lots of libraries, being run by librarians, require everyone (practically down to janitorial staff!) to have a Library Science degree. At some point, someone will realize that you can get the same level of service from people with a different degree--or no degree--and the value of the MLS within the "library field" will drop off as well.

Physical conservation, restoring materials, etc. will always be a niche. But...taxpayers are going to refuse to pay big bucks for reference librarians when they have Google...or Ask Metafilter. Cataloging will be automated, outsourced, or both. Collection development (essentially, deciding which books and such to buy) will continue to be important, but any given library system doesn' t need many people doing it. Getting someone who will pass a background check to do children's storytime is probably as important as finding someone with a library degree. For all the talk of librarianship, most actual jobs in libraries are essentially retail service points, and eventually will be paid to that scale. Welcome to Wal-Mart.
posted by gimonca at 6:43 PM on January 15, 2004 [1 favorite]

For all the talk of librarianship, most actual jobs in libraries are essentially retail service points, and eventually will be paid to that scale. Welcome to Wal-Mart.

I have to repsectfully disagree with this, though there are definitely some libraries where this type of experience is the case, it really varies widely not only from state to state but system to system. I've gotten plenty of smallish/weird jobs where my MLS was really helpful. For example, Microsoft has non-library jobs doing indexing and abstracting and thesauri work where they appreciate an MLS or info architecture background but don't put you in a library. Jobs are harder to come by than they used to be, but they're still out there, they are just more likely not going to be where you want to live.

ff -- with your kind of experience you might be well cut out for being a systems librarian. This is a high falutin' word that basically means the librarian that knows how to run the computers. Sometimes these jobs pay really well, sometimes they're just mainstream librarian-paying jobs [which are NOT much for someone with a master's degree]. If you could get a job like this working in a larger university with an art library, you'd be doing well, I think.

My loose answers to your questions are:

* coursework varies to an insane degree but most people I know who have gone to MLS programs seem to have less work than law students or other people pursuing non-PhD graduate education. My school was downright easy. Feel free to email and I can give you more specific details that would bore most people here. [anything at librarian dot net]

* having an MLS is required in most big cities, though in smaller towns it doesn't matter so much. Already having a degree might make you a good academic librarian, like a libarian who does collection development for an art library or museum [though there are often museology classes that go with that choice]. Many if not most librarians in univiersities have double degrees.

* The American Library Association does a salary survey of librarians and library workers [note: NOT people with MLSes who do other things, generally] and you can find the salary survey here. Salaries vary like crazy. For example NYPL and Chicago PL are known for having low starting salaries, Vermont librarians tend to make more than New Hampshire librarians, and union jobs tend to pay better than non-union jobs but YMMV o' course.

I have a good friend from library school who had an art degree and then went to the UW Library school [now the iSchool lord help us] and did museology and library classes and is now living large as the head librarian for the Seattle Art Museum. A website of hers is here, I would recommend getting in touch with her [tell her I sent you] and asking her some of the same questions.
posted by jessamyn at 7:16 PM on January 15, 2004

Yes, listen to arco and jessamyn. Read jessamyn's web sites. Have arco forward you the e-mail he sent me, or I will with his permission, since we asked some of the same questions.
posted by Hildago at 7:43 PM on January 15, 2004

thanks so much guys, this really helps -- I really appreciate all the starting points. I'll check out the other thread as well.

i'm still really confused as to what the day-to-day work of an actual librarian (let's say for example, in a public library) would involve -- if anyone could describe this, that'd be extremely useful information for me.

my conception right now is that library work might be fairly steady pay, and not involve too many politics (i hope!) and definitely not involve any sort of sales at all. Also, it appears that MLSes can get work in the field they've studied, which is not the case for my friends with BFAs or Art History degrees (most of my friends who have those degrees are working in grocery stores -- the closest any of them have come to working in art is stretching canvas for trust-funders). I'm hoping, really, to use the MLS so I can accomplish the other work I'd like to get done in my free time while still being able to live decently in any major metropolian area that I decide to live in.. Decently -- for me -- would be living in a low-rent neighborhood and being able to pay for my (astronomical drinking) incidentials and still maybe having a few hundred dollars to sock away each month for outside projects.

again, thanks so much for the feedback. I really appreciate all the offers for email communiques -- i will definitely be contacting you when I get a little more internet time.
posted by fishfucker at 7:53 PM on January 15, 2004

I can lend a bit of help perhaps, as a good friend of mine just graduated from an MLS program and just a job at a library. She described the course work as pretty easy. Almost to the point of just going through the paces so that you can say you have the MLS. Of course, this was from a lesser known mid-western university, so that could vary. She now works as a reference librarian. What that means for day to day work, is basically she helps people find information they need. People call and people come in with questions about all sorts of things, and she helps them find the info they need by all means (library holdings, google, directing them to other places, etc.) I've talked to her a bit about it, and what it would mean to have an MLS along with a Master's degree in something else (something she had considered). One job that this opens you up for is working in collections dept. of a university library. Large university librarians need people who are experts in areas who can tell them which books to buy in that area. So, in your case, you could be in charge of Art History holdings for a university library.
posted by split atom at 8:19 PM on January 15, 2004

If you would not mind living near Dallas, the University of North Texas has a good reputation for art (studio and history) and their library program.

One of the librarians here could probably answer the different focuses of a MLS because I've known/worked with people who were Reference Librarians, worked the Catalog, and SysAdmin for the catalog DB. These were all university library workers and the MLS meant a difference of atleast 10k in salary.

I have worked in two university libraries (specialized positions not needing a MLS) and both used the same catalog system from Endeavor. With a grasp of perl, a healthy understanding of DBs, and a good understanding of the data from the catalog someone could be a very indispensable sysadmin. Both universities sysadmin and staff only had 2 of those 3 things and both hobble along painfully.
posted by sailormouth at 8:40 PM on January 15, 2004 [1 favorite]

Another future problem runs like this: lots of libraries, being run by librarians, require everyone (practically down to janitorial staff!) to have a Library Science degree. At some point, someone will realize that you can get the same level of service from people with a different degree--or no degree--and the value of the MLS within the "library field" will drop off as well.

This is happening already. This is why I refuse to spend (or, more accurately, borrow) obscene amounts of money for an MLS despite wanting to continue working in the field — on a librarian's salary I'd never pay it back.

And don't count on getting away from politics in the library field. The public services librarians think the catalogers are dysfunctional sociophobes with too much time on their hands, the catalogers think the public services librarians are glorified babysitters, and everybody thinks the systems librarian is out to render their skills obsolete, especially if he knows XML.

That having been said, it's a great field that's developing rapidly and where you can do cool stuff if you're lucky enough to land a job that lets you get creative.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:01 PM on January 15, 2004

an MLS student's research blog.
posted by scarabic at 9:27 PM on January 15, 2004

Several MLS jobs here, some more here. From what I've seen, most people in CRS have a MLS, and most (at least, most of the ones I've met) have extenisve IT backgrounds. Good pay, good benefits, good work environment, pretty high-profile, and you get to have a hand in driving the industry. Pretty cool place to work, I think.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:02 AM on January 16, 2004

If you're interested, the job pages of any library association can give you an idea of what's available in your state. Job pages that we use a lot in the library biz are: Lisjobs, the ALA jobs page [including LITA which is the Library and Technology folks and C&RL which is college and research].

I am a public librarian. I work half-time. I spend about 25% of my time doing reference work, 25% building and maintaining the website and 50% of my time doing outreach [which is my position title] which involves making people aware of the library, planning programs and services to bring people in to the library, and going outside of the library to do presentations, teach library-ish classes [how to use the databases, how to use the OPAC, how to log in from home, etc]. I also go to library trustee meetings sometimes and table at various community events. Things I don't do but that are part of most public library jobs are selecting and ordering materials [books, videos, periodicals, etc], planning programming in the library [storytime, presentations, library computer classes] and catalogging [getting new materials into the online catalog and getting them on the shelves]. If you have some time, I would strongly recommend attending a library conference if there is one in your area and you will get a good idea of the issues and topics that librarians are talking about. I just got back from the American Library Association midwinter conference, you might want to check out the website some. Politics are minimal at my job [there's 5 professional staff], but they are there. It helps that, at some level, we're all in it for the patrons, so if we can get together on that, there's not much competition among staff. My job pays well and has good benefits, as these jobs go, and pays insanely well considering it's in Central VT. I have a library blog at
posted by jessamyn at 7:46 AM on January 16, 2004

Here's an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education regarding people with PhDs who are going on to get an MLS to go into academic and research librarianship.
posted by arco at 8:33 AM on January 16, 2004

I don't have an MLS, but I've worked in libraries the past 15 years, I also have an Art History undergrad, and I have a JD (law degree.) I've worked in Public, University, Special Collection, and Law Libraries. I've always heard from librarians that the MLS coursework can be tedious, but is not especially difficult if you are dedicated to it. I am not trying to say it's an "easy" degree, only that few people flunk out of an MLS program.
Others have addressed the specific coursework better than I could, so I'll just post some of my practical experience impressions.

No one goes into Public Libraries for the money. I would be very surprised if those jobs are paying $60-$70K, even in San Francisco. I would imagine they're either administrators or require some addition expertise. Most entry-level public librarian jobs I've seen are more in the $35-$40K range - though that stuff is easy enough to research. Public libraries are city jobs, and are quite political like most civil service departments.

It sounds like you are interested in Academic Libraries. These jobs tend to pay better than Public Libraries - but be warned - they usually require an additional graduate degree besides the MLS. For instance, if you want to work in an Art Library, you'll need an MFA (and decent French & German language skills.) A biology library will require a biology degree, a law library a law degree, etc. As a corporate law librarian I made in the $60K range at a tech company (before being laid off, natch.) But that is on the high end for most librarian jobs. I was also lucky in that this particular company didn't require an MLS (they were foreign-owned - most other countries a library degree and a law degree are undergrads, etc . . .)

For corporate libraries, you usually need the MLS, but not the additional graduate degree. So unfortunately I'm generally screwed in applying at most American companies and law firms. The pay in corporate libraries is usually more than Public and less than Academic. If you like research and can deal with lawyers, a law firm job can pay fairly well.

As jessamyn said, a Systems Librarian can be a great gig and have really good pay. I've tried to steer my career this way, integrating it with Knowledge Management. A lot of librarians don't like the Knowledge Management label - there is an ongoing feud because some of them feels like it steps on their turf, and it is still an undefined area - but it is a growing field.

Overall I've really enjoyed the work. Now for the bad news:
despite what others have said, I don't see the demand increasing for Librarians. Many universities have closed their MLS programs altogether or combined them with another school. Monster usually lists about 3 law librarian openings nationwide. Of course, most positions are not advertised, or are listed with professional associations - but that does give you some idea of how dismal the market can be. At one time I considered going and getting an MLS to work in an Art Library (Academic or Museum.) There were like 4 openings a year nationwide listed in the professional journals.

Public libraries were shrinking fast several years ago, and I doubt the situation has improved. Branches stay open only because closing libraries is politically unpopular. So instead, they have had their budgets slashed and try to make up for it by staying open half-days, employing a lot of part-timers, closing on weekends, and doing away with reference staff. The main supporters of public libraries are parents of young children and the elderly. There is usually some demand for Children's Librarians - the free storytime being the bread-and-butter - but of course that job is not for many of us. It is a reality that most public libraries have become repositories mainly for Children's titles and large-print editions of whatever is on the bestseller lists. Reference, periodicals, classics, nonfiction . . . they've all become victims of underfunded infrastructure. In most cities, you are lucky if a branch has 1 full-time professional librarian with an MLS on staff.

The job requires a certain tolerance of eccentric co-workers. I always considered that a plus :) Librarians, as a group, can be a little odd. Overall there are a lot of politically liberal, civil rights-minded people in the field. A higher-than-average number of gays and lesbians and quirky activist-minded people. Coming from an Art History background, that is not really anything new to you - just a personal observation. My friend Michael is a Liberian and really seems to love both his job and talking about his field. I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you sent him an email with any questions you might have.
posted by sixdifferentways at 3:14 AM on January 20, 2004

Actually, I'm not a "Liberian." (= But yes, I do love my job. I've been working with books since 1988, and in libraries since 1992.

I've only ever been interested in libraries. I've never considered the possibilities of using my MLS outside of the library industry. For me, and people like me, coursework seems to be getting thinner and thinner. More and more library schools are dropping the word "library" from their program names. I am lucky to have graduated from UT before they did this. I can say I am a graduate of a "library" school and not the ambiguous "information" school.

I chose coursework that was specific to the daily operation of a facility where people come for information, namely a library. This included reference courses that focused on the types of tools available for research (encyclopedias, almanacs, databases, etc.). I also took two intensive cataloging courses which focused on the organization of materials. I am a cataloger today, and I can't see myself doing anything other than this. Cataloging is, I think, the most creative of all library responsibilities because it requires not only a thorough investigation of the material coming into the library, but also a firm understanding of the structure of information. It's fun trying to classify books, especially when they defy classification.

I also took courses on management, not just for library services but also for personnel. You gotta have people helping the patrons, and understanding how to manage them is important. Finally I took some "fun" courses - database management and network development. I used those two courses to build my own integrated library system using Filemaker Pro, php and html. (I only use it for my own library.) I also took some courses that dealt with the supplier side of information, namely the publishing industry.

But like I said, I approached all this as one who wanted to work in an actual library, and so I really wouldn't have the first clue how you might approach this kind of study with the intention of working independently or for a non-library entity. As for salary info - do we really get paid? Don't get into this business for the money.
posted by michaelbrown at 1:33 PM on January 22, 2004

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