An Endangered Species?: The Decline of the MLS Degree

Why is the term “library” being dropped from so many ALA-approved programs? When I first considered getting a library degree in the late 1990s (yes, I’m that old), just about all academic programs that prepared students to become information professionals were called, unabashedly, “library schools;” they offered MLS degrees. Some programs were beginning to use the term MLIS, but for the most part MLS was still the standard. Twenty years later, you’d be hard-pressed to find any program that offers an MLS degree, and the way the winds are currently blowing, the MLIS degree may soon be on its way out. In its place, there is a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms akin to FDR’s New Deal programs: MSLS, MSIS, MIS, MSLIS, MSILS, et al. As of March 2019, of the 61 ALA accredited programs (listed at http://www.ala.org/cfapps/lisdir/lisdir_search.cfm) that still offer the traditional MLS degree are the following: East Carolina University, Emporia State University, Indiana University, North Carolina Central University, Queens College (CUNY), and Texas Woman’s University. That’s less than 10%. How long will that last, you might wonder? Interestingly, Indiana University also offers an MIS and is currently under review for ALA accreditation. Will Indiana continue to offer the MLS degree in the future, or will it simply be replaced by the MIS?

I can use my own institution as an example of the changes taking place. At the end of 2018, my department at the University at Buffalo (UB) changed its name from the Department of Library and Information Science to simply Information Science, claiming that libraries were just one place its graduates—information professionals—might find employment. While I agree in theory, I’m not sure it requires getting rid of the term library altogether—especially since most of my fellow classmates (including me) are in fact planning to work in libraries (or archives). UB had also recently changed its degree from MLS to MSILS. It can be rendered as MS ILS, MS-ILS, or MSILS. I prefer MSILS because it most closely resembles MLIS, which seems to be the term most commonly used today.

Why are so many programs making their degree names overly confusing and/or complicated? Is it because they feel that the MLS degree limits graduates to careers in libraries/archives? Don’t most graduates end up working in libraries or archives of some nature? Librarians work not only in academic, public, and school libraries, but also in corporations, not-for-profits, NGOs, and law firms. Personally, I take pride in the fact that I am earning a library degree (with an archival focus) and will soon be able to officially call myself a librarian/archivist.

There is something else going on here though. Library schools seem to be mortally afraid that technology is changing so fast in the Information Age that the very concept of the word “library” is changing. And no doubt it is. But does that mean libraries have lost their meaning? I don’t think so. Libraries must evolve and adapt as technology changes and, for the most part, they are. In fact, libraries are often on the cutting edge of technological change. Maybe it’s a problem of perception: many outside the profession see libraries as anachronistic when they are actually on the frontlines of change. Unfortunately, rather than try to change people’s perceptions of libraries, it seems like library schools are giving in to this misguided and largely false belief. I hope ischools understand that libraries, whether brick-and-mortar or digital, will continue to be the main source of employment for information professionals in the foreseeable future and will take a stand against those who treat the term library as if its only proper place is in a museum.

Advertisements

SNAP Profiles: Elena Colón-Marrero, Chair

1. How did you choose archiving as a career? Did you have a previous one, and how (if at all) has that influenced your archiving work?

My choice of an archival career was a bit petty. Before my senior year of high school I was required to go into our guidance office with my parents to discuss attending college. When I told the counselor that I wanted to major in history, she said I could only be a teacher or lawyer with that degree. I said I didn’t want to do either of those things and you could use a history degree for a number of jobs. She insisted that I was wrong and didn’t know anything and maybe I should consider another major. She even convinced my parents that I had to consider law. This left me feeling extremely pissed off and I was determined to prove her wrong.

2. What was your first encounter with archives?

My first encounter is a mix of two different things that merged into the thought that maybe I could do this for a living.

Going into college I was determined to find something else to do with my history major. I had volunteered at my local library as a teenager and considered going into the library field. After much internet sleuthing and learning that maybe I didn’t want to be a librarian per se, I found this thing called archives. I went to the Society of American Archivists website and thought maybe this would be a cool thing. I looked into how to get into the field and found a program I wanted to get into. I pretty much worked to get my GPA to match that of the program’s requirements.

Then the big catalyst came during my sophomore year of college. I took a course on historiography and at the end of it the professor focused on different types of careers you could do with a history degree. We visited the archive of a local museum and chatted with one of the archivists there. The next year I started volunteering and the rest is history!

3. What is your educational background? Undergraduate major?

I have a bachelor’s of arts in History with a minor in Spanish. I also took a few American Studies courses. I got my MSI from the University of Michigan’s School of Information, where I specialized in Archives and Records Management and Preservation of Information.

4. What is your current position, and what makes it unique?

I’m currently the Digital Processing Archivist at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. There, I am responsible for processing, cataloging, and preserving the historic software collection and digital collection. The time I spend cataloguing and imaging software items has to be the most unique feature of my job. The museum collects published software items, as well as source code, and other home grown software. There’s quite a bit of work to be done with cataloging and determining what things can be made available online.

5. What is the most fascinating collection you’ve worked with, and why?

The most interesting items I worked with aren’t really items, but a place. I spent time at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Collection for two summers. I truly fell in love with the profession working there and it gave me insights on how small shops run. I was able to do a little bit of everything from shelf reading, transcription, digitization, presentations, building housing, to disaster planning.

6. Do you have any advice for brand-new archivists and archives students — about the job, professional development, networking?

Don’t make this profession your life. Set healthy boundaries early and stick to them. We only have so much in us to give and the organizations we work for aren’t always there for us. Learn how to say no.

7. What is a strange or interesting thing you’ve learned from your work?

No one has all the answers.

8. How do you see archives evolving over the course of the next decade?

This is a hard question for me to answer because I have a rather pessimistic view and don’t see archives organically evolving without a lot of work and intervention. Instead, I’ll share what I want to see evolve in the field over the next decade. Point blank, I want to see our profession dismantle oppression of all kinds: white supremacy, ableism, patriarchy, capitalism, and more.

SNAP Round Table Discussion 1: Work-Life Balance

Welcome to our new feature, monthly round table discussions – yes, they’re SNAP Roundtable round tables – on various aspects of new archival careers. The first month sees Isaac Fellman, Elena Colon-Marrero, and Brenna Edwards talking over work-life balance, from moving to healthcare issues to time off.

Isaac:

Hi, Brenna and Elena!

“Work-life balance” is a term that covers everything from “do I have time for yoga tonight?” to “can I have children?” to “can I afford to move to a new city for a new contract job?” The phrasing of the term implies something that we’re responsible for finding — after all, physical balance is something we manage from the moment we learn to walk — but whether we achieve it depends largely on the kindness of our workplace.

In this round table, I’d like us to talk about what work-life balance looks like for us, and what we’d like it to look like for archives as a whole. No one goes into archiving for the money, and no one goes into archiving as a compromise — this is something we do because we’re very personally invested in preserving information. This can make it difficult to leave work at work, even before you account for the unstable nature of archival labor, which often requires archivists to simultaneously work one job and work towards the next one.

Even as I introduce the topic, I’m realizing that I may be defining it too broadly. For some people, this question might just be about how they manage their day-to-day time. To me, things like the prospect of moving are matters of work-life balance. If we move for work, there are many forms of labor we have to do that are essentially work-related, as work is the reason we’re in this new place: paying for moving, making new friends, finding a new doctor to manage our health conditions if we have them, settling our kids in new schools if we have them…

Elena:

A broad definition is good because it encompasses multiple situations in which people can be in.

Isaac:

Right. Everyone has a pressing concern.

Elena:

Like, I don’t have children, and I happened to end up in a place with a partner that makes more than me so I could focus on paying back my loans without adding a second job or moving to a less expensive area of the country to live and work. There’s privilege there that not everyone has.

Isaac:

Absolutely.  I’ve been similarly lucky to find a contract job in San Francisco, and being here — with supportive queer community, welcoming co-workers, and forward-thinking workplace laws — has helped me to start gender transitioning. The flipside is that I don’t know where I’ll be in a year, and the worry does offset the joy. Worry is work.

When folks decided to enter the profession, did we take the struggle for balance into account? I think I did, but I was also very eager to prove myself, so I don’t think I thought enough about the long haul.

Elena:

Temp labor just exacerbates everything.

After watching my parents struggle, even with government jobs, I think I realized that there’s no guarantees anywhere. I just wanted to do something I enjoyed, and archives is what I found first. There was always some thought that if I didn’t find a job right away, I could always move home and maybe land some low-level position at NARA, Smithsonian, or the Library of Congress.

Brenna:

Hear hear on that.

I would like to think I took balance into account, but looking back, I don’t think I really took it into consideration. I knew there would be high chances of me moving a lot to start out in, but didn’t think of how it would affect friendships, relationships, and life outside of work, which is more on my mind now that I’m starting to think about what’s next, since I’m almost halfway through my two-year contract.

My first supervisor before I even applied to grad school and was doing an internship was very upfront with me about the struggles in the archives job field (finding a non-contract job starting out, etc.), so I think I was lucky on that front. I’ve also always had the approach of “something will work out” in this field, even if I have to make it happen myself.

Isaac:

Your point about moving home is interesting, Elena — our parents are always a factor in our decisions, whether it’s “can I move in with them in a pinch?” or “how will I need to support them as they age?”

Another question: what can institutions do to help archivists find balance?

Elena:

Managers/supervisors need to lead by example. No after-work emails, providing flexibility with schedules if possible, making sure that your employees are doing okay. Allowing employees to set those boundaries early. My boss was pretty clear on that and always asks what I need or if I have concerns about anything going on within the institutions. She also allows for comp time. Like, say I don’t have a day off I can take, but I need to be out a day — I can work extra hours or come in on the weekend to make up that time.

Even if making up time is for something as silly and personal as taking a sewing workshop during the day.

Isaac:

Right — not being judgmental about whether a day off is really justified. Ideally, they wouldn’t even ask (unless you and the boss happen to be friends, and you happen to want to talk about your sewing workshop).

I think privacy at work is important. Everything we say about our outside time should be voluntary; if we happen to make friends with co-workers, that’s great, but it shouldn’t be the default to discuss each other’s personal lives, or to mistake the smallness and intimacy of library workplaces for automatic friendship. And I say this as a person who’s made genuine, close friends at work! I don’t object to the practice in theory, I’m just into boundaries.

Brenna:

Honestly, I agree with everything Elena said. I’m lucky to work somewhere where if you work weekends you get that as a comp day, and you can let them build up to be used whenever without an explanation. Same for vacation days – no explanation needed, just have to request them. Also agree with boundaries. I’ve been at my job for eight-ish months now and I’m just now offering up more insight to my life outside of work because I’ve established the trust with everyone (not that I didn’t offer up information before, just more open now).

Isaac:

The ephemeral nature of archives jobs encourages wobbly work-life balance, even when there’s no other reason. Last weekend I had a pretty bad fall, and hurt myself in several ways that prevented me from doing any archiving work for a few days. I made myself go in to work despite my injuries, even though I couldn’t handle my daily duties and was actually creating more work for people around me. The thing is that since I’m here on a contract and want to impress everyone, I felt very driven to prove I could still archive, even though I patently couldn’t! My co-workers had to talk me down and convince me to take a day off, which ended up being emotional labor for them.

Elena:

Oh no! Are you doing okay?

Brenna:

I second Elena’s statement!

Isaac:

I am okay!

It’s hard to see how archives can change from being contract-based, given how grants work, but I always marvel at the sheer amount of repercussions that come from this way of running things.

Elena:

We’ve had a few contract archivists in our job, and it’s always without health care coverage, and I worry about them pushing too hard to the detriment of their health (physical, mental, emotional). I hate that for some grants we don’t factor in healthcare benefits, but my concerns are dismissed.  I know some institutions work healthcare coverage into grants and I feel like that should be mandatory.

Hopefully everything will heal up soon!

Isaac:

Oh yes, I really treasure that I get health insurance as a contractor here. Not only does it help me financially and cover my medical care, but it takes a big organizational burden off of me! Having to organize your own insurance is more work that you have to do outside of work.

Okay, everyone. I think we’ve had some good insights this month! Thank you very much for participating in our inaugural round table on work-life balance.

 

Year in the Life: Isaac R. Fellman, part 12

Thee cast of RENT famously asks us “how do you measure a year in the life,” and while they give a variety of answers, I have to reject most of them for archival reasons. “Daylights” and “sunsets” have no place in my world; “cups of coffee” do, but only on a special table. As for “inches” and “miles,” this is a linear feet shop only.

In all seriousness, though, thank you for reading my now-completed series, and I look forward to continuing to work on this blog for the rest of the year. The cast of RENT’s conclusion is that years are best measured in love, and I do love what I’m doing. In fact, in this final entry, I’d like to talk about how archivists’ working lives intertwine with the other things we love — our hobbies and obsessions – as well as our personal histories.

Next month, I’m doing a panel at FOGcon called Archives and Genre, which is about how archivists need to think like science fiction writers. This is something I’ve been harping on since I started my degree. I am a science fiction/fantasy writer as well as an archivist, and I find the two jobs startlingly similar. Both archivists and science fiction writers think every day about what will change in the next hundred years. How will politics and language evolve? What will the historians of the future think is important? How will climate change affect our daily lives, as well as our ability to maintain our history?

As people who routinely handle old documents and books, I think we’d be driven to ask those questions even if it weren’t part of our job. Watching our materials physically decay, their terminology become outmoded and offensive, their concerns grow irrelevant or snap into sudden relevance again, is a fascinating education in how history shifts along with present-day changes. In a way, I see this side of my work as thinking like a fantasy writer — exploring how people in the present imagine the past. Fantasy can be a lot of things, but it’s very common for it to have a sense of pastness if not an explicitly historical setting. Fantasy writers need to think responsibly about how our own biases and assumptions influence our image of history, and this, too, is a good archivist’s concern.

Being an archivist hasn’t obviously changed me as a writer. In fact, I’m surprised by how uninspired I’ve been to write about archivists; I’m still spending most of my time writing about academics, magicians, and nurses. But being a writer has influenced my archival thought, and I think this intertwining of concerns must be very common in my profession. I’m always very interested in hearing how other archivists’ past jobs — and I know archivists who have been professional musicians, newspaper workers, hairdressers, folklorists, and tech people — have changed the way they think. We, too, have a variety of pasts and a variety of futures, and we need to draw on each one to create a historical record that will mean something to our successors.

Year in the Life: Isaac R. Fellman, part 11

Alert readers will notice that this is a different name from the one on my previous Year in the Lives (Years in the Life?); I am gender transitioning. I’m very happy to say that I have been not only tolerated, but actively welcomed, at work and in the archival community. I’m out to my bosses, co-workers, contractors, and donors. The world really is very different from the early 2000s, when I came of age, and it gives me hope.

I won’t talk at length about my transition here, but I do want to talk about what it’s brought home to me: the instability of early archival careers, and its effect on our life choices. Unpredictable moves, unknown terms of work, and uncertain health insurance coincide to produce a field in which it is very difficult to have children, to organize two partners’ careers, to save for retirement, or to make major purchases like houses or new cars. Many archivists pursue archives as a second career — I know that’s true of me — which means that new professionals are often in our thirties or later. At a time when many of our friends are settling down, we’re being stirred up like fallen paper and scattered to the winds.

I find all this as exhilarating as it is depressing. I adore my job at the California Historical Society — it’s the best one I’ve ever had. I work with fascinating collections, I’m mentored by brilliant people, and I feel deeply connected to the institution’s mission. Knowing that this is a grant-funded project position, and that I face an unknown future at the end of this year, makes me appreciate each day here. I am glad and grateful to be exactly where I am.

Is it stressful to plan my life around project work? Yes, absolutely. Was I able to throw myself into the archival profession partly because I’m a divorcee who has never wanted children? Yes. Should the privilege of unattachment determine whether a person can become an archivist? Absolutely not. Is it a bit surprising that this unattachment ended up having a greater effect on my career than changing my pronouns did? Honestly, yes — and I very much wish that all archivists felt stable enough in the world to make the changes that we need.

This is obviously a much bigger question than one Year in the Life post can hold. It touches on every major aspect of how archives are funded and staffed. I don’t have answers; what I do have is a lot of joy mixed with anxiety. I can’t imagine entering another profession, and every day I’m glad that I chose to take this risk, just as I’m glad I chose to start asking people to call me Isaac. But as archivists, we can only describe the past. Our future is always unwritten.

January 9th at 8 PM (ET): #snaprt Twitter Chat on “2019 Archives Resolutions”

Please join the SAA Students and New Archives Professionals Section for the next #snaprt Twitter chat on your 2019 Archives Resolutions on Wednesday, January 9, at 8 pm ET. Join us to share your aspirations and goals for 2019 and to reflect back on 2018 – missteps, successes, and lessons learned.

 

We welcome everyone to join or keep up with our chat using the #snaprt hashtag on Twitter. The SNAP Roundtable Twitter account will pose questions such as:

  • What was your biggest archives success in 2018?
  • What is one misstep you made in 2018? What did you learn from that mistake?
  • What is one behavior you plan to discontinue/continue in 2019?
  • Do you have an archives bucket list? Is there anything on it that you hope to accomplish in 2019?
  • What resolutions do you have for 2019 related to your coursework? Career? Professional advocacy? Professional development?
  • What do you think is the biggest challenge facing students and new archives professionals in 2019? Suggestions for facing/overcoming that challenge?

 

If you would like to have a discussion topic included in this chat, please send it to @SNAP_Section on Twitter, submit it through the anonymous form on the SNAP chat webpage or e-mail the SNAP Senior Social Media Coordinator at coletw@jmu.edu.

 

There are no additional resources related to the upcoming chat.

Year in the Life: Rachel Fellman, part 10

A lot of changes are coming to the blog next year. Soon, we’ll be introducing our new team, which has already been discussing better ways to make this blog a plusher welcome mat for the archival profession. We’ll be introducing some features, cutting back others (controlaccess will become a rarer but more substantial post), and brainstorming some dream projects (it’s quite possible that nobody’s going to stop us from doing an advice column).

As for my Year in the Life post, I’ve been reading over my older entries, and I’m astonished by how little they have to do with my life now. Am I still wrestling with Greene and Meissner? No; on the contrary, I’ve become my department’s frothiest minimal processing advocate (though I still don’t like anything about the actual arguments and assumptions behind “More Product, Less Process”). What do I think about oral history technique? Still many of the same things, but I’m going to a training in March, and I look forward to having much more informed opinions! Is it a bit dangerous for an archivist to know their storeroom too well, risking a situation where too much of the catalogue is kept in a person’s head? The question is meaningless except in a very young facility, and I didn’t even realize it because I worked in one!

Part of growing up — personally, creatively, or professionally — is recognizing the times when you were asking the wrong questions. I feel that I’ve spent much of this year doing just that, and I wasn’t a new archivist when I started; I’ve been doing this kind of work since 2016. It’s not that these were the very wrongest questions (“Can I wear this costume from our collection for Halloween?”). They were useful at the time, and they had productive answers. But it takes time to recognize what’s really important: paying more than lipservice to diverse archival storytelling, having an avid intellectual engagement with the collections, making materials available on time without hurting anyone, striking a balance between laissez-faire and excessive mediation. These are the questions I’ll be living with in 2019.

Happy New Year (2018 January 1 – 2018 December 31)!