A Conversation on The Value of the LIS Degree

Editor’s note:  The following post was written by Professor Jill Hurst-Wahl and Matthew Gunby, recent graduate of the LIS degree program at the iSchool.

The current conversation around the value of a professional library and information science (LIS) degree recurs on a regular basis, no matter what is going on in our communities, in education, etc.  We recognize that this conversation has many sides to it, so to frame a potential dialogue on the topic, Jill Hurst-Wahl (current LIS faculty) and Matthew Gunby (recent MLIS graduate) have considered possible goals of the LIS degree.  We recognize this blog post is only the beginning of one conversation.  We hope that this conversation can move toward some degree of consensus on what these underlying goals are or we believe it will be difficult to move forward in this discussion.

 Jill’s Perspective:

 This conversation centers around “what’s in it for me”, because we are told to think of ourselves individually and our personal futures. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we hear, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” We have this professional degree because society needs library and information professionals. So what’s in it for our communities – no matter how those communities are identified or organized (e.g., towns, colleges, corporations, etc.)?

 For our communities, the goals of having someone trained in library and information science are:

 ● To create a safe space for inquiry.

● To use knowledge in information storage and access to aid community members in their information seeking activities.

● To store and preserve information (our history) for later use.

● To guide information resource acquisition so that the community’s resources are authoritative.

● To use ethical methods in obtaining and sharing information.

● To research how information is created and used, then propose new methods to improve current processes.

● To develop information tools and technologies that advance the information industry.

 You may look at that list and decide that someone with a master’s degree is not needed. In fact, some of our small communities don’t have library staff with a MLIS degree and they seem to do just fine. However, they are all in regions where there are degreed professionals. In other words, those without someone with a professional degree in their midst are still impacted by someone who does have that degree.

 What if no one – and I mean no one – had that professional degree? What would information access be like in the future? What information would even be available? Who would help the communities with their information needs? Would some information shaman come into existence with special powers, and eventually special training? Would they have invented what we have today – a librarian?

 As a former corporate librarian, I look at the goals above and see many of them in the work that I did. As a current LIS faculty member, I hope that my students see those goals – those needs – in whatever community they decide to serve. The impact of this degree must be on “the many” (our communities) or it has failed.

 Matthew’s Perspective:

 I am an advocate for putting the community good ahead of personal achievement, so it requires a move outside of my comfort zone to try and bring in the opposite perspective, but I believe it is essential to incorporate this.  To help, I will refer back to a philosophy class taught by a practitioner of transcendental meditation, and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It would be fair to say during my time in undergrad I had an overdeveloped martyr complex, so to hear a philosophy professor say that we need to focus our attention and effort on becoming the best possible individual was initially viewed by me as narcissistic.  When it is examined more closely, however, what is being said is that in order to have a meaningful impact on our world we need to be at our best.  

 ● The LIS degree infuses graduates with their voice and philosophy, allowing them to not only respond to needs in the profession, but to shape the future of librarianship.

 I would place most of Jill’s goals at the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Good librarians help their communities to self-actualize.  I realize some sociologists might take exception to having a personal psychological theory expanded to an entire community, but it is at least worthy of consideration.  Yet, to quote the Simply Psychology: “One must satisfy lower level basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs.”  This brings me to my final three goals.  First, the LIS program should respond to the need for safety, specifically employment.  

 ● The LIS program must assist students in obtaining future employment at institutions that help to develop the profession.

 Next, love and belonging must be considered.

 ● There must be a vibrant community between professors, students and professionals, where all parties find both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators to improve the experience.

 Finally, esteem.

 ● The LIS program creates opportunities for students to differentiate themselves in a meaningful and public way.

 If LIS programs can achieve these goals, I believe Jill’s goals for the future are also wholly possible.  It is not within the scope of this post to determine whether programs across the country have, or even how programs should be assessing the completion of this task.  Other questions to keep in mind: Are the goals we set out relevant to all forms of libraries? What goals did we miss?  We realize this post will not answer many fundamental questions, but we hope that it will promote meaningful debate.  We hope that readers will utilize the comments section, and record their own ideas and tweet them at us (@ischoolSU).  Education and the information field are rapidly changing and we all want it to be moving in a positive direction, but this is not inevitable.


Related Information Space blog post: Is a Master’s Degree in Library Science a Poor Investment? A Counter Perspective to Forbes Magazine

We invite you to share your thoughts below in the comments.



Kelly Lux

Kelly is the former Executive Editor of Information Space. Kelly currently teaches courses on Social Media, Online Community Management, and Content Strategy and Application, and she is currently the Assistant Director of the Communications@Syracuse program.

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  • David Lankes

    One of the values to me of professional preparation is looking beyond a single type of institution, and certainly providing guidance and support as the professional area evolves. Librarians need to be able to meet community needs (across the hierarchy) both within libraries and outside of them. If we don’t consider this, then the profession becomes little more than a guild fighting for employment.

    By focusing on librarians and their development within and outside of libraries, we can make a more responsive professional. We introduce new perspectives from other fields, and we continue to try and evolve new service models.

    • Matthew Gunby

      I agree, but i think we need to bring organizations that hire librarians (and I am happy to keep this as broad as possible) into this conversation as well. To some extent the future of an industry should be developed within the framework of student-faculty relations, but we leave the current professionals out of the conversation at our own peril. If current employers are asking what they can do with cheaper non-LIS staff and part-time staff, we need a value added proposition that can rigorously support why an MLIS graduate is the best choice. If they are not or the MLIS has evolved into something else, this is something we need to be very transparent about, and ask honest questions about the educational and economical underpinnings of this new model.

  • Erin Antes

    I agree with Matt in that if we don’t focus on ourselves first, we’ll never get to the point of accomplishing Jill’s goals. Having graduated in December and applied for 10+ paraprofessional positions vs. 1 full-time librarian position, I’m having a tough time seeing the value. In a field where there are employees still in high school AND employees with MLIS degrees, combined with our fantastic economy, I am not surprised in the least that parapros are being hired to do what we’ve been given a degree for.

    I’ve told several people this already, but I wanted to mention that the most recent part-time, parapro position I applied for, I was passed up for a woman who had just gotten TWO Master’s degrees.. MLIS and Children’s Studies. How can I compete with that? And even more alarming, why is this the only thing she has to apply for? I have always been of the opinion that this degree should be a Bachelor’s and I stand firmly behind that.

  • Circulating Ideas: The Librarian Interview Podcast recorded an episode on this topic entitled “The State of the MLS”, http://www.circulatingideas.com/2013/05/the-state-of-mls.html This is the first of a two-part podcast, with the second part being released on May 15 as a LitTech podcast at http://edreach.us/podcast/littech-80-do-you-really-need-a-masters-degree-to-be-a-librarian