Why Not a Bachelor in Library Science? – Still Asking

Even though I haven’t written about this topic since April, thoughts on it are never too far from my mind, especially when I have comments on the post from readers who just discovered it. That’s what has happened recently, so I wanted to add some more discussion on this topic – Why not a bachelor’s degree in library science?

To date, no one has offered any good educational, managerial, career or workforce related reason why it is not a good idea.

My arguments have included my post from last December – Library Science Ranks #4 in Highest Unemployment, and the job market – as well as the economy – show no signs of improvement any time soon.

The old argument about library technicians do a more technical and specific job, while “Librarians” (meaning MLS degreed) are generalists and management candidates that can do everything DOES NOT HOLD WATER! It’s simply RHETORIC to justify the arbitrary distinctions between “professional” and “para-professional!” No one with only an MLS degree and no library experience is a qualified manager. Someone who has earned a BS in librarianship, worked in a library and then earned an MLIS has the prerequisite skills and experience to be a capable manager. That’s the way careers are built!

Everyone knows that there is virtually no authority (i.e., government, librarian union, etc.) that dictates who can and cannot do certain librarianship tasks within a library organization. THIS APPROACH – “OK, since you don’t have an MLS, you can only do these limited tasks within the library organization, and since you do have an MLS, you can do all the rest of the tasks that “Librarians” do.” – DOES NOT HAPPEN! All “librarians” do everything!

Why is the MLS entry level for this profession when recent college graduates can’t find jobs because they don’t have experience? Just read the over 40 comments to Annoyed Librarian at LibraryJournal.com, and you’ll see this current career system is broken!

History reveals what happened in the librarian profession as it transitioned through academy training to university certification to bachelor’s degree and then master’s, but the WHY is still elusive. Some speculate that it was an ALA effort to legitimize librarian as a true profession in the 1960s. However, as far back as 1923, a bachelor’s degree was still not the standard within the US. The Williamson Report, officially titled “Training for Library Service” A Report Prepared for The Carnegie Corporation of New York by Dr. Charles C. Williamson, (1923) contains disturbing similarity to today’s SLIS situation, as well as endorsement for the bachelor’s degree in library science as the standard.


Obviously there is no agreement among the schools as to the relative importance of the different subjects in the curriculum. The amount of time given to a subject seems to depend on the personal opinion or desires of the instructor or the principal. While considerable interest has been manifested in discussions as to what should constitute the minimum essential instruction in cataloguing, apparently no effort has been made by the Association of American Library Schools to arrive at minimum standards for the course in cataloguing. Complaint is common that the curriculum is overcrowded, while important new subjects are clamoring for admission. The school that succeeds in giving its students the essentials of cataloguing in thirty-five hours, while others require two or three times that length of time, can take up other subjects that may be more important for the general professional course.

There are many more similarities in the Williamson Report to conditions within the librarian profession in 1923 that have not noticeably changed by 2012, but those are resources for other discussions. On the matter of library science degrees, Williamson reported the following.

[Page 69] A considerable proportion of the fifty per cent of library school graduates who have the college degree did not take a four-year college course and then the library school course, but took both in four years, receiving college credit for the library courses. …
Graduates of any accredited library school may be permitted, in individual cases, to offer certain library courses for the bachelor’s degree; but college faculties are not always willing to give full academic credit, particularly for technical courses.

[Page 70] One of the fundamental viewpoints of this report is that professional library work requires a college education or its full equivalent. Three years of college study, however, are better than two, and two are better than none. … The joint course plan as described above, in which three years of college work are followed by one year devoted exclusively to library school study, is to be preferred to the Simmons College plan, in which the library courses are spread throughout the four years.

A committee of the Association of American Library Schools has recently considered the subject of professional degrees for library courses. In its report it is recommended that the B.L.S. degree be recognized as the professional degree to be conferred on the completion of a course of two years of professional and technical study, for admission to which a four-year college course is required.

Even though Williamson’s report indicates that the MLS was emerging as a status degree for the profession at the time, the BLS was considered the necessary “standard” for the profession.

According to John Richardson, Jr. of UCLA, History of American Library Science: Its Origins and Early Development Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, Ed. Mary N. Maack and Marcia Bates. Francis and Taylor, 2010., the MLS as the professional standard was adopted in 1951.

• 1930: First PhD in library science: Eleanor Upton at University of Chicago.

• 1949: Twenty-seven of the thirty-two accredited schools adopt the new MLS degree (or in process of doing so); ….

• 1951, July: ALA adopts new Standards of Accreditation making MLS entry level degree. ….

• 1966: ALA establishes Office for Library Education; …
1968: ALA’s COA establishes subcommittees on undergraduate and graduate standards for accreditation. ….

Which begs the question – If the MLS was the accredited “entry level degree” in 1951, why in 1968 was ALA still reviewing undergraduate standards for education? My speculation was that many library schools were still offering the undergraduate degree, and ALA felt the need to regulate those out of existence. Which also begs the question – Why?

Today BS programs ALREADY EXIST in Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine and North Carolina. Remember Maine’s Information and Library Service Program operating since 2004? Decades ago the Maine State Librarian went to UMA (which is not a graduate-degree granting institution), and asked about offering librarianship programs for their diverse library community, partly because UMA was exploring distance education. Maine has experienced an evolving recognition of a “career ladder” within the segments of their librarian profession that supports a BS as entry level and MILS for advancement, because students graduate with a confidence in their ability to be immediately effective in their first library position. The University of Maine, Augusta BS program is very much oriented toward the practical application of librarianship, compared to the theoretical perspective of an MLS program.

Also, the State of Kentucky has put forth excellent justification FOR a bachelor degree in librarianship.

1. In Kentucky there is a gap in education for library staff and future MLS librarians. A state law requires all public library employees to be certified. … There was a gap in education between the Associate degree and the Master of Library Science offered at the University of Kentucky.

2. We believe that librarians, especially public librarians, are called upon to do much more than their earlier counterparts. Skills in technology, management, marketing, and finance are needed for the 21st Century Librarian. Can all this be learned in the 36 credit hours of most Master’s programs?

3. Rural librarianship! In Kentucky, almost one-third of our rural library directors do not have an undergraduate degree. Salaries are low and it is almost impossible to recruit a MLS librarian to these areas.

Also, the prestigious University of North Carolina Chapel Hill SLIS Dual Bachelor’s – Master’s Program could be a model for every SLIS.

The BSIS and Master’s programs prepare students for careers in public, private, and governmental institutions of all kinds as information system analysts, designers and developers, data managers, web designers, librarians, archivists, and similar areas. The SILS curricula offer students a sound foundation of coursework, augmented by projects, internships (field experience), and research opportunities that contribute to making SILS graduates highly sought after by employers.

With this kind of horsepower behind a BS in library science, maybe we’ll see some movement in this direction – eventually.


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17 responses to “Why Not a Bachelor in Library Science? – Still Asking

  1. Frank

    Dr. Steve,
    Naturally as a student at the Univ. of Maine I am applauding your efforts on this topic and I agree with many of the key points you have offered.
    In observing job descriptions for just about any library job there is a standard requirement that the candidate have an “ALA accredited MLS or MLIS degree”. That in itself tells me of the ALA’s influence on the subject which of course you and everyone else already know that, but do the incoming students wanting to become library professionals. The key reason I love the U of Maine program is because they recognize there are other opportunities for employment other than being a library professional. Therefore a BS in ILS is beneficial in other areas and can lead to say maybe a MS in EDU. in Curriculum and Instructional Design which I see is popping up in library profession circles. If patrons are being taught to use an online OPAC to find sources and you see reference librarians at their stations doing the same is an MLS really required for finding sources, as a student in any curriculum I am required to find my own sources. Technology has changed things in a way where the patron will know how to find sources they want, and technology will give them the way of purchasing and or accessing it.
    Isn’t there another group in the library profession that can lead this topic, why just the ALA . I have looked at the hierachy, credentialism, and meritocracy opinions and with having to be in an ILS class with a library director who isn’t state certified or doesn’t have an MLS but has the job as Library Director you are correct in pointing out the system is broken. Please don’t tell me its a budget or money thing, its a credibility issue with the profession not the person wanting to be a rural Library Director and creates confusion with new students just now finding out you need an MLS to do entry level work. Thank you again for leading the charge on this, General !

    • Thank you Frank, you make some important points. Although, I recently watched “Out of Africa” again and noted where Karen says; “God made the world round so that we could not see too far down the road.” I only make that diversion because as someone with several decades behind me, careers usually never go according to a plan. Life is what happens while you’re making plans for something else.
      Having said all that, planning a future is always a good idea, and in order to do that LIS students should understand the profession they are getting into. My point in the Post is that ALA has been the regulator of the profession since the early 1900s. I suspect that it will always be the regulator of the profession, although as Williamson pointed out, the “profession” is seriously flawed.
      “Neither the American Library Association nor any of the other organizations
      of library workers, unless exception be made of the American Library
      Institute, are, strictly speaking, professional bodies, nor could they
      well be so long as there are no recognized standards of qualification for
      a professional librarian. The American Library Association admits to
      full membership every person, whether engaged in library work or not,
      who shows enough interest in it to pay the small annual dues. The same
      is true of the state library associations. Under these conditions it is
      obvious that library service as a profession is not only without standards,
      but lacks even the machinery for creating standards.” [Page 125]

      To get more to your issue, I’m not sure I can agree that simply because a rural library director has no MLS is evidence that the professional system is broken. You have to recognize that every community is an autonomous jurisdiction with the authority to hire the best candidate for library director they see fit from the pool of applicants they have. If the economics of a community are such that an MLS degreed librarian doesn’t want to work there or apply for the job, what recourse does a community have but to hire a capable person to run their library. Even more evidence that a BS is needed. At least it would provide a minimum level of competency in librarianship.

      At the same time, this local reality doesn’t detract from the career hierarchy issue that an entry level education should be truly entry level, like any other profession, with advanced education commensurate with advancement within the career progression. There is just no justification for entry level being an MLS. It was simply a power play and prestige move for librarians in 1951, driven as much by academia as by ALA. There was also some influence from the school and university librarian segment of the profession who were trying to keep up with their co-workers – certified teachers and advanced degreed researchers. But the one-size-fits-all approach to librarian education in the 21st Century is as archaic as card catalogs.

  2. JCH

    I am not an MLS but I work with one who also has about 20 years of experience. My expectations of a person holding an advanced library degree is that the librarian has a good grasp of the requirements necessary to run a library in the 21st. Not the case….it’s still all about the books. Programs, budgets and personnel are all secondary, at best, to the Dewey Decimal System. I hope that the focus for an MLS has evolved to business management and technology or we are all in trouble!

    • Thank you for your real-world assessment which makes an excellent point! Anyone should expect a person earning an advanced degree to be extremely well qualified for their job. Reality is, as you’ve pointed out, that is not the case among MLS degreed librarians. Because, many lack experience in the basics of librarianship, don’t really learn the technicalities of librarianship in an MLS program, and definitely do not learn management or leadership in library school. It’s a disingenuous profession (except for doctors and lawyers, etc.) that makes a master’s degree entry level.

  3. I am personally convinced that many traditionally “professional” tasks in libraries do not require a Masters. I am also convinced that the barrier that the Masters places to entry in terms of time and money may be limiting the pool of great librarians. Automated systems, cooperative cataloging, centralized reference services all make the learning curve for the actual work less steep.
    On the other hand a Bachelors level program could be designed to include the philosophical side (Every reader his book, every book his reader, Freedom to read, etc.) In many ways, it is that mind set of commitment to the free flow of information that sets contemporary librarians apart from many non-librarians.
    Some of the most talented librarians in Maine essentially learned the profession as apprentices. They may lack an accredited degree but they have worked for and with librarians who have shared the values as well as the skills of the profession.
    Yes, I have my fancy degree from my fancy University, but it would be worthless if I weren’t still learning and exploring what it means to be a librarian and changing my practices to meet the needs of library users.

  4. Frank

    Dr. Steve,
    Your reply is well taken so there should be nothing to be afraid of in offering a BS, things will just stay the way they are anyways. What are they afraid of. I don’t like the idea that credentialism is limiting job opportunities for those would use the BS in other fields of endeavor yet haven’t thought of it that way. If you were in charge I know you would do it in a heartbeat and nothing negative will happen. Those who require an MLS will still require it, why not use it to stimulate interest in other fields why does the argument have to be library profession related. Looking forward to getting my MS in ED.

    • Maybe the question we need to be asking Frank is; Why does it have to be a master’s degree or nothing?
      I agree with you wholeheartedly, there is more than enough justification in the profession in favor of a practical entry level bachelor’s degree.

  5. Hello Dr. Steve,
    As a side note I would like to add that in observing the entry level requirements for the jobs posted with the ALA I don’t see where a Masters Degree is needed, an Associates or Bachelors is just fine. Kind of like the cart leading the horse thinking I would say.

  6. Frank

    The Program Officer for Accreditation with the ALA requires a Bachelors Degree, Master’s preferred.


  7. I used to work in the Museum field where curators were also directors of the museum. This model too was “broken” in that they often did not understand the business/visitor service side of the organization, and the methods employed to “educate” the public was often didactic. However, they have been working to change that model since the 1980s. We would do well to take a look at how they’ve changed the model since then with blockbuster exhibitions, memberships, audio tours, and actually reflecting on how people learn.

    • Thank you for that observation. Obviously, IMLS agrees with you based on their 21st Century Skills website. I first became familiar with IMLS addressing this issue through their 2009 publication The Future of Museums and Libraries: A Discussion Guide:
      •Discussion Theme #1: Changing Definitions & Roles of Museums and Libraries
      •Discussion Theme #2: Shifts in Power & Authority
      •Discussion Theme #3: Museums & Libraries as the “Third Place”
      •Discussion Theme #4: Technology & Policy Development
      •Discussion Theme #5: 21st-Century Learning & Information Use
      •Discussion Theme #6: New Models & Structures for Collaboration
      •Discussion Theme #7: Planning for a Sustainable Future
      •Discussion Theme #8: Metrics for Evaluating Service & Impact
      •Discussion Theme #9: The 21st-Century Museum & Library Workforce
      •Summary and Conclusion: Where Do We Go from Here?

      You can see from the topics covered, IMLS really has a grasp on the issues, much more so than ALA. In August, 2010, I published a Post that discussed the needs for new ideas and methods – 21st Century Skills & The Future of Libraries, making the IMLS publication central to the solutions. Museums have done a much better job than libraries in recognizing and addressing the customer-centric nature of their business.

  8. I started my library career without the MLS. I managed a small library without one. I went on to work in a public library where non-MLS and MLS staff worked side by side on desks, did collection development and programming. I finally got an MLS, because I knew that it would be required if I wanted to advance.( I did gain the theoretical knowledge to inform the work in which I was already doing.) Personally, I think the MLS could be more valuable if it focused on management and leadership. Treat it like an MBA or an MPA. If we don’t move in this direction, I think that we will begin to see more administrative positions requiring these degrees in addition to the MLS.

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