Which path to a career in libraries: diploma or master's degree?
May 26, 2008 4:25 PM   Subscribe

Which path to a career in libraries: diploma or master's degree?

I'm contemplating pursuing a library career and weighing my options. On one hand I could do my master's in Library Sciences. But, to put it bluntly, I'm scared of higher education. I came out of my undergrad feeling unmotivated, insecure, and with a middling GPA. Because of my average grades, I'd have to go back to school to raise my GPA to acceptable admission levels, lengthening the amount of total schooling to at least three years. I have no guarantee that I'd be successful in university the second time around, which puts doubts into my ability to get accepted and then succeed at a master's. Boo hoo.

The second option is a library technician diploma at a college. I have more confidence (rightly or wrongly) in my ability to succeed here. I don't think I'd have any problems getting accepted and because of my bachelor's I can take an accelerated course which would only take one year vs. two.

So what are jobs like for library technicians? Is the work interesting, is the pay decent, am I going to be stuck working at the beck and call of a real librarian? Should I suck it up and go for the master's? Advise me, librarians of Metafilter!
posted by Rora to Work & Money (25 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have looked for a friend on the possibilities of a librarian job here in Oklahoma City: the difference in pay between a master degree and a college diploma in library science is only $1.25 per hour. Of course there might be differences in hiring practices.
I would go for the master degree: usually people regret not having done something.
posted by francesca too at 4:50 PM on May 26, 2008

Diploma jobs are pretty boring. I have a hard time believing that the difference in pay is that small.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 4:59 PM on May 26, 2008

Library school is not super difficult, BUT you can get into debt for a job that, as francesca too mentions, may not pay much more than a technician.

It's not that you'll be working for a "real" librarian as much as you may hit a wall with career advancement that might rankle. Tech jobs in libraries are varied and interesting, moreso if you have computer skills. In many cases, with the right combination of skills and personality and effort, you can get a tech/systems librarian job with no masters AND be earning a decent amount of cash.

I don't know terribly much about the tech services angle as far as what jobs would be like, but I'm sure the MeFiBrarian posse can come in and help with that.
posted by jessamyn at 5:02 PM on May 26, 2008

Anecdotally, a librarian friend of mine with a Masters is fighting for jobs against people with just a diploma - with the tightening budgets, libraries seem to want to spend less and just get a technician instead of a full-on MLIS.

And yes, the differences in pay can be very very meager - which is surprising to see libraries pinching pennies deciding between a Masters and a diploma.
posted by porpoise at 5:20 PM on May 26, 2008

In my system the difference in pay between librarians and PSAs (Public Service Assistants, with library tech degrees) is fairly substantial.

I had a hard time of my MLIS, most of which was, to be honest with you, pretty boring (and most of what I learned was out-of-date as soon as I graduated). But ultimately I'm glad I went through with it; my current job (reference desk in a public library) pays fairly well, with good benefit and pension plans, and (on good days) is fairly rewarding.

Don't ask me about the bad days...; )
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:24 PM on May 26, 2008

Seconding what porpoise said - I'm a relatively recent MLIS grad and until I found my current job (at a tech company) I was competing with people with just diplomas for technical services jobs.

If you're going to do it, do the master's. The coursework may be tedious, but it's not that hard. But don't go into debt for it, whatever you do, because chances are you'll emerge into an extremely competitive job market like I did, with little chance of ever paying off your loans!
posted by chez shoes at 5:26 PM on May 26, 2008

I don't regret getting my MLS, though I did have to go into crazy debt for it. It was a lot of work, but it wasn't hard work. I do feel that I learned way more interning in libraries rather than in class, so it did seem like an expensive formality.

I'd think that the MLS would be more versatile in the job market than a library technician certificate (I didn't even know there was such a thing, to be honest). I don't even work for a library, I work for a library database vendor. Other friends who have their MLS do human-computer interaction work or website interface design in the corporate sector.
posted by medeine at 5:42 PM on May 26, 2008

I came out of my undergrad feeling unmotivated, insecure, and with a middling GPA. Because of my average grades, I'd have to go back to school to raise my GPA to acceptable admission levels, lengthening the amount of total schooling to at least three years.

Are you sure? Average grades should get you into at least an average graduate program, especially if you get some work and/or volunteer experience and/or volunteer at a library now (which will allow you to write a more informed application and give you access to good recommendations).

I highly recommend that you call the library science program(s) you are considering and tell the person who answers the phone that you want to know the office hours of the faculty member who s/he thinks is most receptive to talking to a prospective student who's unsure whether s/he's well enough prepared to start a Master's program. If you get past the gatekeeper counselors you'll get much more solid advice, and someone to call if you think of another concern next week.

Also ask if there's a student paid to advise other students or prospective students. If there isn't, ask when the student association meets, or where they go for drinks on Friday, or however it is they congregate. Faculty may have a more narrowly accurate sense of how compelling your application would be if you applied now, but matriculated students are as eager as you are to share gossip about what works and what doesn't work to get into school, and what the degrees you are considering are worth on the market when they graduate.

I used to advise prospective students for a graduate program, and the people who did what I just suggested you do were dramatically more successful at getting in.
posted by gum at 5:55 PM on May 26, 2008 [3 favorites]

The difference in pay can be substantial. In my fairly typical academic library, starting pay for a classified position is half that of the positions requiring an MLS (low 20s vs mid 40s) for someone with little to no experience. Relatively speaking, jobs requiring an MLS are far, far more interesting than paraprofessional jobs, which often involve highly routinized work with little or no room for self-direction. There's also little room for advancement, as those without the degree cannot supervise those who have it, so there's really no way to become a department head or director of any type.

As far as getting into and succeeding in library school, check around. Not all programs are horribly selective, or horribly difficult. For a great many jobs, the place you got your MLS is far less important than you might think, so don't worry about picking a less prestigious program as long as it has accreditation.

Finally, all my comments apply to academic libraries. Public libraries could be completely different, so that may influence your decision.
posted by donnagirl at 5:58 PM on May 26, 2008

Coming from a slightly different perspective, if you later decide that libraries aren't your thing after all, the diploma will almost certainly be totally worthless but a master's is a master's. My mom has never used her MLS to work in an actual library, but whenever she looked for other jobs people would still see "oh, master's degree from Berkeley! Wow!" She also entered the pay ladder at a higher rung in her current job (public school teacher) because of her master's degree.
posted by crinklebat at 6:32 PM on May 26, 2008

Yep, at my public library in California, the difference in pay between a librarian and a library tech is substantial.
As you advance to higher levels of technician, you get paid more, but I think even Tech 4 doesn't get paid as much as Librarian 1. (This is unfair.)

We don't require a diploma for techs, and I don't even know of anyone who has one, so that might be something that's more common in other parts of the country (or other countries? yes, I see you are Canadian, so things probably work differently there.)
posted by exceptinsects at 7:12 PM on May 26, 2008

The library I once worked for payed librarians a great deal more than library techs. The library techs also didn't have much opportunity for advancement and they were relegated to perform fairly menial, monotonous tasks. That being said, many duties that were once only performed by MLS-ed librarians are now performed by techs and computer science people. It's difficult to find full time tech positions and it's even harder to find one with benefits.

I think a one year program to become a tech is basically a waste of time, but an MLIS is worth the effort. If you want to do something worthwhile in one year, take some computer science classes.

An MLIS also opens up many other doors, e.g., database management, academic libraries, corporate libraries, archives, public libraries, private collections, medical and legal libraries, research positions, etc. It's very versatile.

I found my MLIS program to be quite challenging and time consuming.

If you don't have perfect grades, you can almost surely get into San Jose State University in California. No GRE scores are required, no letters of recommendation are required, and you need a 3.0 GPA in the most recent 60 semester units. I know some people who went there and completely the program remotely.
posted by HotPatatta at 7:23 PM on May 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think it depends on where you live. I'm in New Jersey, and I have my MLS. In my library cooperative, non-MLS librarians are practically nonexistent, and those who are around were generally librarians for decades before the master's degree became standard. The state library association advocates minimum salaries for various library positions, and as a librarian with a master's, I should make about $22,000 above the recommended minimum salary for a library assistant (I make more than that, which is why it's totally worth it here to have your master's).

I really enjoyed my undergraduate experience, but I found library school to be deadly boring and almost completely useless in actual practice (I moved and ended up transferring midway, and I feel safe in my belief that it was library school, not the universities I attended, that I didn't enjoy). I'm on my third librarian position, and aside from a handful of interesting and genuinely educational classes, I could probably have provided the same consistently high level of public service using what I knew before I ever went to grad school. The huge difference in salary and greater potential for mobility (I can take this degree anywhere in the English-speaking world) that came with a master's has totally been worth it to me, but this might not be the case for you.

Also, there are online and in-person master's programs that take only a year; I know for sure that Rutgers' online program can be completed in two full semesters and two summer courses, and I'm sure there are other programs like this out there.
posted by LiliaNic at 7:46 PM on May 26, 2008

There has been a lot of great advice in this thread. I'm currently a couple of quarters away from getting my MLIS/MSIS from Drexel, and though I'm sick of school and work, it will be a good thing career wise.

I guess it could depend on what sort of library work you want to do. I know on the campus where I work, it's more likely that the technical services people don't necessarily have their masters, and in some ways it's easier to get a job without one. The pay is less though, and the non-degree route (Library Assistant) isn't really a good career path. For public services (mostly reference), a degree is required. I've been a Library Assistant for 3 years now, and I know that I could possibly make up to $40k a year in the next 10 years if I stay where I'm at. I'm alos starting to apply for real librarian positions, which have a base pay of $45k. Despite all my student debt from getting the master's, I think it's worth it. Also because I've sort of outgrown a lot of the tasks I've been doing (though I don't know if it's because I've been there too long or because I know more about library science from school). Of course the world of public libraries is different than the academic universe, so it depends on where you hope to end up.

Honestly, library school is more boring than anything. A lot of people with not so good GPAs get in. Many programs, online and in person, don't require GREs for admissions. I know a lot of my cohorts in library school who work in libraries find the material extremely tedious, but that's because they are familiar with the concepts. I guess it's because libraries require a certain amount of tedium. Despite how slow some classes drag on, it is making me more familiar with the profession beyond my campus and has given me a good foundation which I know the other Library Assistants on campus only get after decades of experience.
posted by kendrak at 8:14 PM on May 26, 2008

If you're looking at salary, here's how it is in my system.... for a paraprofessional position, you start just a dollar or two below the MLS - but you stop advancing on the salary grade you were hired at, and you will never move up. Ever. Unless you get the MLS.

If you have your MLS position, however, you can advance to management positions, or specialized areas that will get you a higher grade.

HOWEVER... there is always room for bargaining, correct? I started in the system in a position that required an MLS, and I only had one class towards my degree at the time. You have to bust your ass to impress theom and win them over, but there are exceptions to be made in the field. They have to really love you.

Salaries in the field aren't too bad, I suppose. I started 4 years ago at 31,000 ( Yes, this was a MLS level salary, sorry to say) and am now making 57,000. I live in the South, where the cost of living isn't so high, so it's not too bad ( I recently bought a 4 bedroom house in a decent neighborhood for 102,000, just as a reference.)

Good luck either way. It's a good job if you can get it.
posted by bradth27 at 8:18 PM on May 26, 2008

By the way - here's a link to labor statistics for each position -
library technician and librarian.
posted by bradth27 at 8:28 PM on May 26, 2008

I'd go for the MLS. I no longer work in a library (I work in Corporate America now), but many of my job tasks are the same I was doing in a library, and I truly think having the master's helped.

Good luck - and remember there are non-traditional jobs for people with librarian skills and mojo if you want to go that route. :)
posted by pointystick at 9:34 PM on May 26, 2008

First, I think you should be clear about what a "library tech" certificate qualifies you to do - there is a clear difference between a "library tech" and a "technical services librarian" - though neither requires the MLS (usually).

A "library tech" is someone who works circulation (checks books in and out), and usually picks up another task or two as their responsibility - pulling/shelving books, processing books (getting them ready to go on the shelves), repairing damaged books (kinda fun, IMO), perhaps assisting the children's librarian (story time, crafts), and general clerical duties. A "technical services librarian" often catalogs (or copy catalogs) books, does ordering (though not selection - usually) of books and supplies, perhaps handles inter-library loan, and is often the computer "trouble shooter" or even the web designer - especially if the MLS librarians are not tech-savvy.

As for pay - if you are a library tech doing circulation, you will make less than a tech services librarian - and a good tech services librarian may not make a whole bunch more than an MLS - initially. Just for real-world example: my library started MLS reference librarians at 15 and hour (sucky, but typical). After three+ years I was making 16.75. Library techs start at 8.75. Our technical services librarian was also our "computer person" and she made more than I did per hour - but she'd been there 15 years (but even still, starting pay SHOULD be higher for technical services vs. library tech).

Personally, I enjoyed library school. I didn't find it difficult, but I chose classes that I found interesting. And really? - the assignments may not be super-involved or exciting, but if YOU make the effort, you can create projects that satisfy the requirements and satisfy you. The program I attended was low on the computer skills (at the time), but I think that is changing across the board.

I'd go for the MLS - like a couple of people have said, even if libraries don't turn out to be your cup of tea, having a Master's is never a bad thing in terms of jobs opportunities and pay scale. But, if you are a "techie" AND you really don't want to do the full Master's, then tech the tech certificate course, and maybe an IT (computer technician) and/or web design class or two. That will really help towards becoming a tech services librarian who is valuable and may help land a better-paying gig.

Good Luck!
posted by coollibrarian at 6:03 AM on May 27, 2008

"and a good tech services librarian may not make a whole bunch more than an MLS - initially." - Ooops, I meant "a whole lot less."
posted by coollibrarian at 6:06 AM on May 27, 2008

I am a library technician working in a public library in Ontario. The choice between a diploma and MLIS strongly depends on what you want to do with it. If you want to work in an academic library than MLIS is the only option pretty much. School libraries are staffed by Library Techs (in my area, because they are only paid $20 an hour they usually do not have a diploma), Teachers or MLIS (rarely). Business and hospitals seem to hire more Techs than MLISs, and public libraries seem to hire more Techs than MLISs.

Right now I am working in a GTA public library and I earn about $30 an hour. This is about a dollar less than an MLIS and generally we do the same work (working the reference desk). In my system Library Techs are Branch Managers and upper Management (earning $70-80 thousand a year) as well as front-line staff. I worked at another system where Library Techs were fine for the reference desk but could not supervise anyone. And another large system I know of seems to have no MLISs that I have met (including managers). Actually, a friend of mine works the reference desk at a public library and he earns more than the MLISs that also work the same desk. I also know quite a few people that are working in public libraries with just BAs, no diploma necessary. Some then get their diploma part-time online through Mohawk college or their MLIS part-time online through a Scottish university (sorry, I can't remember the name but the CLA website had a page on them). I believe it is harder to get into the Masters programme in Canada than the States because have so fewer places offering it.

I think you should look at what job (OLA/FIS) you want to end up in in the area you want to live and tailor your education accordingly.

Personally, I love my job and I love working in libraries. Full-time jobs can be hard to find in public libraries; I prefer working part-time for $40,000 a year so I can be with my children. YMMV. Feel free to MefiMail for more specific GTA info. Good luck!
posted by saucysault at 6:07 AM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Looking at the other answers, the difference between American and Canadian Libraries is substantial, I don't think the Library Technician diploma is anywhere as near as common down there (does the US have community colleges in the Canadian sense?) Library Techs do NOT work the circulation desk, that job only pays $20-25/an hour in the GTA so it usually goes to high school graduates. In Canada, Library Techs do not "help out", they perform the same jobs as MLISs, but may hit a wall in career advancement depending on the workplace. MLIS generally equals management here, people that want to work front line generally choose the diploma.

A Technical services Librarian is someone completely different (might be a library technician but usually has a computer studies diploma or degree). Advice from US sources can be confusing when talking about Canadian libraries.
posted by saucysault at 6:23 AM on May 27, 2008

saucysault: are you seriously saying that a high school grad in Canada will make C$40-50k working circulation at a library, given that (according to other anecdotes here) a library master's graduate in the U.S. starts out in the low US$30k's? The word substantial does not do justice to that difference.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:22 AM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

In my area, yes, circ staff are high school grads, and earn $25/hour. Most work part-time, so they don't make $45,000 (but the full-timers do). Yes, there is a big difference between the value placed on libraries and their staff between America and Canada. There is a similar disparity between teachers salaries in the US and Canada (here they make $60-70 a year).
posted by saucysault at 7:52 AM on May 27, 2008

Thanks for the excellent advice, all. Much appreciated.
posted by Rora at 5:10 PM on May 27, 2008

I'm a library technician (in Canada) and, after seven years working in the public library system, have pretty much decided against getting my MLS at this point. The pay difference is not that much, and, aside from attending a lot of meetings (and getting benefits), there's not a whole lot that librarians do that I don't.

I work the reference desk and do inter-library loan. I have managed children's programs and worked circulation. I research, do catalogue purchasing, supervise pages, and so on. More and more the people you see in libraries - the people who are actually working with the public - are library technicians. The librarians are in the back room on the phone or in meetings, it seems to me.
posted by stinkycheese at 11:00 AM on May 28, 2008

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