MLS needed for entry?
May 8, 2007 8:53 AM   Subscribe

Librarians: Is the library the right place for me, and do I need an MLS to get there?

In my ongoing search for the right job, I've been thinking more and more about library work. Specifically, a position that combines:

1) Science background (PhD in neuroscience)

2) 12+ years pharma/biotech industry experience (running clinical trials)

3) A true skill and passion for using online research tools (Pubmed, Ovid, Google, etc.) for compiling information and answering questions.

From what I've read, this seems to be pointing me towards working in a special library. Unfortunatly, these positions usually require an MLS (or equivalent), and I have no library experience - except as a user!

While I'm not excited about the thought of going back to school at 42, I would if I had to. However, I'm wondering if real-world experience could be enough (or would I never get past HR)? Alternatively, anyplace else I might look?
posted by neurodoc to Work & Money (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
In smaller libraries you can get away without an MLS, in special libraries, usually, you need one. If you're not in a total hurry, you may want to join SLA and attend some of their local meetings and join their mailing list and get an idea of what sorts of backgrounds other folks have. I know it sounds a little silly to have a PhD in a science field and then need an MLS in a "soft science" field, but there are a bunch of skills that the library world requires that the medical/science world doesn't teach you, The good news is that you can get an MLS via distance learning in a year of you're motivated and it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. You could even take night classes and keep your day job.

If you worked as an in-house information specialist type, it's entirely possible that you don't need an MLS and I would suggest you apply for MLS type jobs anyhow even if you don't have one, but at least be prepared to show that you understand the principles of librarianship, know the tools and can work with librarians which is important in all but the smallest libraries. Also, jus a side note, 42 is not at all old for being in an MLS program, there are a lot of people who go back to school and have librarianship as a second career.

You might also want to consider being an independent researcher and doing contract work if you'rgood at [and have access to] a lot of specialized databases. It's a self-starter type of job, but the pay is often good and if you'd like tow ork for yourself you should look into that sort of thing. Definitely not for everyone, but another possible career path.
posted by jessamyn at 9:02 AM on May 8, 2007

Just seconding Jessamyn. A lot of people get an MLS later in their lives -- when I was in school in my late 20s, I was just about exactly in the middle of the class, age-wise.

But yeah, a job like you're thinking about in a library will almost certainly require an MLS. Fortunately, there are lots of distance ed programs around, though you probably should check for one in your state first, because librarian salaries never justifiy out-of-state tuition. If you're in the Bay Area, San Jose State is affordable and has distance ed. It's no great shakes school-wise, but it's accredited, and that's really what matters.
posted by the dief at 9:42 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Have you thought about medical writing? It's lucrative, interesting work, and you have the ideal background for it. Clinical trial experience and skill in research are pretty much required for a lot of medical writers. The most senior jobs always call for a PhD, which you have, so even without specific med writing experience you might be able to get a plum assignment. I recommend staying away from regulatory writing--unless that's your idea of a good time--but there are lots of other non-regulatory options out there. Good luck.
posted by acridrabbit at 9:43 AM on May 8, 2007

I'm a science librarian in a special library. One of our now-retired "librarians" was an incredible chemist who developed chemical sensitivities and could not be in the lab anymore, but the company didn't want to lose him. He was fantastic at reference interviews and searches involving chemical structures - but the day to day running of the library was left to the other librarians. So I wouldn't say "never-ever" about someone without an MLS getting a library job. It just will be harder to get your foot in the door.

Something to think about in a special library is that a lot of us support large numbers of patrons with little staff - so you're not just doing searching. You're often called to be a jack of all trades - just like in a public/academic library. Not having an MLS is one thing when you're only searching - but what if you're a solo librarian? Can you catalogue? Negotiate journal renewals? Design your library website? Market your services?

I'm very active in SLA, and I'll point out that the structure of SLA is one with both division (subject) and chapter (geographic) breakdowns. So seconding Jessamyn, if you're in a rush, look at your local chapter events - but also check out a division. Also, the annual conference is coming up in June, if you are ambitious enough to make the trip to Denver.

Something else to consider isn't the library end of things, but the vendor end of things. I can think of one of the products I use daily that specifically mentions one of their value ads is their scientists behind the scenes. I have several years of college chemistry under my belt, but it's still nice to know that if something really difficult comes up I've got an expert to call. If money isn't an issue, think about going to Denver and getting an exhibit pass - see which vendors are specific to your area of knowledge and network.
posted by librarianamy at 10:09 AM on May 8, 2007

I'm currently doing the distance program from Drexel. Most of my class mates seems to be in their late 30s to mid 40s and transitioning careers or finally getting their MLS after years of working in and around libraries. From what I've heard, this is a common trend around the library world. There are a lot of positions you could probably get without an MLS, and real world experience is extremely valuable. Some people think there is a push to de-professionalize the industry, but I haven't seen any conclusive proof that it's harming libraries over all. There's also only so far you can go in the information science world without and MLS, though it varies from organization to organization. (The head librarian at UC Berkeley doesn't have an MLS.)

Your background sounds like you'd be a good fit for a special library- perhaps a corporate one? I second checking out SLA. I joined last year, and it's been really insightful and I get a tuition reduction for being a member.

And San Jose State is getting better. (I should be going there, but some things came up.) Their new dean has really been shaking things up in a good way.
posted by kendrak at 10:11 AM on May 8, 2007

kendrak, good to hear about the new dean. I went to SJSU under the old dean and it, uh, left a little to be desired.
posted by the dief at 10:16 AM on May 8, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the great advice, and special thanks to Jessamyn for her thoughts (as a Quaker, I especially value your guidance, even if you're not *that* Jessamyn!)
posted by neurodoc at 11:01 AM on May 8, 2007

You might find exactly the position you seek in pharma/bio companies already. I have seen a few who have put science PhDs in literature researching positions (without necessarily having MLS degrees) in a sort of quasi-librarian role. In one case I'm thinking of the library, essentially, got wiped out as senior management felt that actual scientists could do this kind of research work better than librarians with no advanced science degrees. The jury's probably out on that one, but having a science background would absolutely give you an edge and you could pick up any necessary library degree via distance ed.

I see that you're in SF. The SFBay chapter of SLA is really great (I'm a member and on a committee for their counterpart down on the peninula - the San Andreas chapter) and going to any meetings there might give you some people to talk to about this. Feel free to email me if you have any questions or want any intros I might be able to make.
posted by marylynn at 11:25 AM on May 8, 2007

this also does sound like you would be a great candidate for a highly specified journo gig. you'd probably be able to look right through a lot of the industry smokescreens.

(I know this is not a good answer but I felt like mentioning it.)
posted by krautland at 1:32 PM on May 8, 2007

but the day to day running of the library was left to the other librarians. So I wouldn't say "never-ever" about someone without an MLS getting a library job. It just will be harder to get your foot in the door.

I have seen a few who have put science PhDs in literature researching positions (without necessarily having MLS degrees) in a sort of quasi-librarian role.

Seconding both of the above. In the literature/patent searching groups in large pharma or chemical companies I'm familiar with, it seems to be about 50/50 between those who have MLSs and those who don't. Position announcements often state "MLS strongly preferred" or something like that, but not absolutely required.

Since a lot of these positions involve patent searching (a beast different enough from ordinary literature searching that extensive experience in literature searching will not make you a good patent searcher on day one, although it definitely helps in getting up to speed), it's probably worthwhile to join the Patent Information User Group's mailing list - openings are posted there from time to time, and you need not be a member of PIUG to join the mailing list.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:01 AM on May 9, 2007

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