Literary Hub

Do You Really Need a Degree to Be a Librarian?

When I first started working in libraries, I began my illustrious career a library assistant. This was approximately 500 years ago (little known fact: I’ve got a painting in my attic that ages while I stay eternally young, eating snack cakes and drinking Steel Reserve). Plenty of people start out in libraries this way, actually. You learn the job from the ground up: checking out materials to grumpy patrons, shelving books from an overburdened cart that requires all your strength to push it even five feet, shelf reading until your eyes perpetually cross, and setting up chairs for programming that maybe three people will actually attend.

Something you quickly learn in this job is that you never transition out of doing that kind of work. Sure, you might move up to reference or department head or maybe you take on doing cataloging or acquisitions, but even library directors sometimes have to work the circ desk when they’re short-staffed. Library work means thinking about ridiculous budget issues, hiring staff, putting together statistics that prove your worth, but it also means cleaning up a big mess of yogurt when someone decides they wanna try for a free throw at the garbage can and inevitably miss.

So what does it really mean to get a library degree? Is it necessary to be a librarian?

The short answer: No

The longer answer: Well…

Don’t get me wrong, there are real reasons to get a library degree. There are important strategies you learn in these classes, especially when it comes to specialized work like cataloging, archiving, collection development, and maintaining databases. E-resources jobs are specifically very intense and require a variety of skillsets (bless you, everyone who works in technical services—you make all our lives easier and I’d give you all raises if I could). Speaking of cash dollars, a Masters also allows you to bump your pay (oftentimes doubling it), which helps, because nobody in libraries is ever making very much money. We’re doing it because it’s our passion, not because of a paycheck. But a gal’s still gotta eat, right? And by that I mean I need to buy Doritos.

“Library staff across the board know how crucial it is to perform your own job and everyone else’s, too.”

But we all know that libraries run efficiently because staff (comprised mostly of non-degree library workers) labor tirelessly to make sure that they know how to do five different jobs. That means someone who works in tech services can come up and sit the circulation desk, and the person who does Interlibrary Loan can likely help out with a Storytime event. Cross-training: it’s not just a weird form of exercise anymore! Library staff across the board know how crucial it is to perform your own job and everyone else’s, too. In fact, most libraries only have a handful of degree-holding librarians on staff—a majority of the time, the important work that gets done (the day-in day-out processes, the necessary functions that keep the library ship afloat) is all performed by staff.

So what other ways can you better yourself and get amped about library work? There are blogs and lists and columns (hi there, y’all). Even though I complain about them, webinars are a great way that many people choose to learn new and innovative concepts. Also a ton of them are FREE, which is always music to my cash-strapped ears. If you can’t afford to attend a conference or take time off work (and let’s face it, many of us absolutely cannot), there are hundreds of webinars online that can teach you about librarianship from the comfort of your own computer (as long as you can find someone willing to cover the desk for you while you watch it somewhere, good luck with that).

And to be perfectly honest, one of the best ways to learn library work is to shadow someone else who already knows the job. It’s a sort of an apprenticeship, but without all the glamour of blacksmithing. You learn cataloging best by having someone teach you, one-on-one, on your own cataloging system (because god knows they’re all fucking different). The same with reference, the same with Storytime—you learn the jobs by doing them. Libraries all have different communities and wildly different needs. Library school is a great place to learn the basics—but at the end of the day, the best way to learn library work is to work in a library. Staff, especially long-time staff, and the wealth of knowledge they carry with them about the community, the patrons, and the extremely wonky systems, are a godsend. You can’t learn that shit in library school.

But… there’s lots of stuff you can learn there that is completely worthwhile. No amount of webinars or shadowing can give you the help that comes from the intensive training you get from a program. There are ways to teach yourself about the work, to supplement, but the truth is that there are still areas of librarianship (coding, area-specific information) that require that expertise. For me, the information I learned in school about collection development helped me understand how to make informed choices for my patrons. Librarianship means digging in and getting your hands dirty—it means learning and relearning, and sometimes unlearning, constantly. Do you need a degree to work in a library? Absolutely not. Should you get one if you want to delve into deeper points of librarianship? This librarian says yes.

And thank you to all the people who’ve let me know over the years that their fines pay my salary. I’ll be using them to pay off my student loans for the next 500 years or so.

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