Is a Master of Library and Information Science Worth It?
May 20, 2022
In many states, a master's degree in library and information science (MLIS) is required for librarianship roles in schools, public libraries, and specialized law and medical libraries.
Many professionals reach a juncture in their career path at which they pause to consider pursuing a master's degree. After all, in many industries a master's can have a significant impact, boosting earnings and qualifying candidates for advanced positions in their field. For some, however, it can be a huge investment of time and money without much of a payoff.
Information professionals in entry-level librarianship positions (and those thinking about entering the field) may be wondering whether a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) is worth it? Several librarians responded to this question with a variety of perspectives in a Quora bulletin board.
One librarian who works as a teen and children's librarian answers that she was fortunate to be able to earn her bachelor's degree and two master's degrees over a decade without going into debt. She argues for attending library science programs: "It's called information science for a reason," she writes, noting that modern libraries are much more than book repositories. They have become clearinghouses for digital information via the internet. She adds: "You can find anything through, if not at, the library. Provided you know where to start looking. That's where I come in."
Another commenter who earned his Master in Library and Information Sciences from San Jose State University in 2001, notes that libraries especially value information technology and marketing skills. If these aren't among your current strengths, it may be helpful to develop them in a master's of library science program if you aspire to a career as a librarian.
Many of the commenters on this thread expressed repeatedly that library work experience—even as a volunteer—is extremely valuable and helpful in determining whether you want to pursue an MLIS and gain the skills and knowledge necessary for a successful librarianship career. And if you have your sights on a director of library position, know that experience is essential. As the director at the Saranac Public Library and the Clarksville Area Library in Michigan put it: "I believe that it can be extremely difficult for someone with their MLIS but with zero library experience to get a library director job." He compares it to a newbie trying to enter any business in an advanced position—"It really isn't the best situation."
Is a Master of Library and Information Science Worth It?
Educational requirements: position, state requirements, and library size
The first and most obvious question when determining whether to earn a master's degree in library and information science: is it necessary for you to achieve your career goals? The American Library Association (ALA) suggests that you consider the following:
- Type of position: Does the library position you're seeking require an MLIS? Entry-level jobs like pages and library assistant/associate/technicians don't typically need an MLIS. You can review the "types of jobs" section of the ALA website as a starting point for your research, though the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that most librarians and library directors—whether they're employed by a public, school, or specialized library—generally need a master's.
- State requirements: Each state has its own educational and certificate requirements for librarianship positions. Idaho has no education or certificate requirements for librarians, while in New York you need an MLIS from an ALA-accredited program or 6 graduate credits from an ALA-accredited MLIS program and a Conditional NY Public Librarian Certificate.
- Size of a library: Smaller libraries in small communities and rural areas sometimes have trouble filling positions, so they may hire people with other degrees or equivalent experience. As well, some city libraries need front-line librarian positions filled and may waive degree requirements for these less-senior roles.
Salary: location, location, location, and setting
Public libraries and school libraries rely on a locality's budget, so pay is based on a community's budget and fiscal priorities. Like most jobs, earnings vary greatly by locale. A librarian's average salary can range from a high of $58,607 in Massachusetts to a low of $42,424 in Florida. Where you live has a big impact on your salary (and, consequently, how long it may take to pay back student loans for your master's).
If you intend to work as a specialized librarian in a law or medical library, as an academic librarian in a private university, or in special collections as an archivist, you'll be required to have a library science degree. These roles tend to pay more than public or school librarians. The typical annual pay for a medical librarian in a university hospital or large medical center is around $94,000, while the average salary for a law librarian is $72,902.
Commitment to service
For many librarianship roles and in many states, you may not be required to earn an MLIS if you want to pursue this career. Even where the degree is not required, many librarians pursue an MLIS. It gives them a competitive edge in hiring and equips them with the training and skills to be as effective as possible in their vocation.
In a US News and World Report article titled "How to Become a Librarian," Maria Bonn, an associate professor at the University of Illinois' School of Information Sciences explain that most of her library science students are motivated to earn their master's by "a passionate commitment to service, learning, and community engagement." Bonn adds that librarianship is "a service and a leadership profession" where one can "both assist the community and its members by meeting information needs and shape and guide that community."
What is a master of library and information science degree?
A Master of Library and Information Science and its variants—Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS), Master of Library Science (MLS), and Master of Science in Library Science (MSLS)—are the graduate-level degrees required for many professional librarian positions in the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico.
The American Library Association (ALA) oversees these master's programs, so all ALA-accredited master's programs have met the ALA Committee on Accreditation's Standards for Accreditation of Master's Programs in Library and Information Studies.
How long does it take to earn a Master of Library and Information Science degree?
An MLIS degree usually takes two to three years of full-time study to complete, but that timeline isn't immutable. If you already have a bachelor's degree in library and information science, you may be able to complete your master's degree on an accelerated track in as little as 18 months. It is always helpful to speak to the admissions office about the opportunities offered in their graduate programs, and what the specific requirements and prerequisites are.
MLIS coursework typically covers topics ranging from information management, metadata, digital libraries, collection development, and informatics to more community-based content focusing on youth services and community outreach.
Fieldwork, practicum experiences, and capstone projects are additional components of the LIS graduate student experience. Elective courses will take up a certain number of credit hours alongside core coursework.
Specialization is program-specific, so that should be part of your grad school research. You'll find specializations in public libraries (youth and adult services); medical and academic libraries; archival studies; information literacy; library management; information law, policy, and ethics.
Top schools offering a master of library and information science degree
A number of highly-ranked programs offer MLIS degrees. These degree programs are offered both in-person and online to accommodate the work and time commitments of many graduate students. Choosing a school that fits your area of interest is important, so you'll need to do some program research to find the right school for your specialization.
The top schools for library and information science include:
- Rutgers University
- Syracuse University
- University of Illinois at Urbana
- University of Maryland
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- The University of Texas at Austin
- University of Washington
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