Skip to content

In defense of the MLS (Sort of)

November 28, 2011

So, officially this was supposed to be a Point-Counterpoint type collaboration between me and Terry—he giving the argument for alternative paths towards a professional archives position, including the kind of introductory-level training that he describes, and me arguing for the traditional value of the MLS/MLIS/MARA as a professional qualification. Unfortunately, having read Terry’s excellent post, I am having a hard time disagreeing with his vision of an alternate path to professionalism. Awkward.

Perhaps some discussion of my career trajectory thus far can serve as a jumping-off point for discussion of the value of the MLS. I came to the archives field the way a lot of archivists end up finding their way here—I had been planning to pursue a Ph.D. in History, but was fortunate enough to learn from my undergraduate advisor about the dismal prospects in History academia BEFORE I spent the 6+ years working on a dissertation which would be read by 4 people, and so decided to change course a bit. Another person might have been left adrift, but I was fortunate to be working at about the same time at an archival internship at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, and even more fortunate to discover that I enjoyed the work immensely (seeing it as “basically history without the pesky “writing about what you’re researching” bit). I applied to a few archives programs, got into the University of Maryland History/Library Science dual degree program, and 3 years later had the great fortune of getting an archives/RM job that I actually like straight out of school. So there’s me, from High School to Archivist in 7 years. Not too shabby!

Now, backing up a bit into the library school experience itself, here’s a few thoughts about the value of the MLS from my own perspective as a straight-from-undergrad archivist (which, according to A*CENSUS, is a path less than 40% of archivists take to their first professional position):

  • I supplemented my formal archives education with a LOT of practical experience. Maryland’s program, at the time I attended, included a practicum component in the Intro to Archives class (there was also the option to write a paper if you didn’t have time for a 50-hour practicum), but beyond that I supplemented my income and experience with a number of jobs in archives and libraries around the DC area. Even after I got my teaching assistantship with the UMD History Department, I worked full-time during summers in archives/records management settings and tried to work at least a few hours a week in archives during the year so I would continue to develop professional experience. I am reasonably certain that the amount and quality of these opportunities was a major factor in my relatively quick employment after graduation. So there is certainly an argument to be made for positions performing more basic archives work early on.
  • I learned as much or more about archives from my work as I did from my classes. (Maybe.) For a while, I held as an article of faith the idea that my practical work was more useful than my library school coursework in terms of giving me the skills I needed to do the work of a professional archivist (I learned more about implementing MARC cataloging and performing records surveys during fieldwork than I ever did in the related classes, e.g.) Even with the benefit of hindsight, I think at least a few of the courses I took in library school were wastes of my time, and probably most people could name some courses about which they felt the same way. This too would seem to argue in favor of the more practical approach towards archival training. However, my view on this has changed somewhat since I have had to supervise students of my own as a professional. Some students we get are brand new to the archives field and require a lot of hand-holding to get their work to where it needs to be; students who are further along in the program are often more sophisticated in their thinking about issues of arrangement, description, lateral thinking about reference questions, etc., and so require less supervision. To be sure, some of these students have had experience elsewhere to draw upon, but I am still less certain than I was even 4 years ago that practicum vincit omnia. (Please excuse my Dog Latin.) Particularly in light of the next thing that I’ve noticed:
  • My student work, particularly my early student work, was laughably bad. There are still some finding aids I wrote as an undergraduate available for perusal online; I won’t provide the link because I’m pretty embarrassed about their quality. Yes, these were written 8 years ago, but I had no real idea what I was doing and it shows—there’s little integration with the overall description system, my appraisal of what is and is not important is just awful, and I emphasize all the wrong things in my scope/content note and other narrative description data. I wouldn’t expect any more from a fledgling archivist, and certainly a lot of these problems would fix themselves through experience, but the theoretical basis I obtained in my archives course has helped me to be more efficient and effective in a way that just dealing with the idiosyncrasies of particular institutions would not. And remember, my embarrassment is just at the relatively simple task of processing a collection; I shudder to think of the struggles I would have had had I been dropped into a situation where I had to do program or strategic planning.

So, do these ramblings have a point? Surprisingly, yes!  I see my archival education experience as a sort of apprenticeship—I worked for little pay and for long hours on projects of limited scope—describing collections, say, or helping to create a database of photographs taken by campus photographic services—while at the same time getting at least some of the kind of theoretical knowledge I would need to take my skills to the next level and look holistically at an Archives program (figuring out how to set priorities, select and implement standards, develop outreach plans, etc.). At the end of said apprenticeship, I even get to call myself a Master!

(IMPORTANT NOTE: If your significant other is ABD and you try to insist upon this terminology, he/she will laugh at you. At some length. Trust me on this one.)

My guess is that a lot of the work that archives currently give to volunteers or students in MLIS programs probably could fit into the kind of graduated professional structure that Terry describes. Come to that, a lot of project archivist positions, where people are working on a particular collection or laying the groundwork for a specific program such as a CMS, would probably also fit into this niche. So I do think that Terry’s alternative plan of experience plus certification is a very viable one—provided that the experience is extensive enough, and the certification process is robust enough (though he does address both of those points).

As soon as you start to do the kind of broad-based, management-level work you find in posts like the one I wrote about last time, though, you really should have—and employers should require—an MLIS or equivalent. Sure, the degree can be, and often is, used as a gatekeeper requirement for a position, but ideally it is evidence that you have committed to the profession and to learning more about higher levels of administering that profession, and are capable of the kinds of responsibilities that you would expect to find at Master-level work. When you put someone with just a BA into a position like that, you devalue the professional degree, you run the very real risk of overwhelming your new employee, and you waste a lot of time, money, and energy on bringing said employee up to speed on the skills and theory he/she needs to not just do the job, but to do the job well.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. Here’s Arlene in the comments of my last post:

The reason you demand a masters degree in archival studies for an entry level position including those without a management component is so that you get pre-prepared employees who have already read the major texts in the field. So you don’t have to spend time explaining things like appraisal theory. And, if they’ve come out of a good school, they already have some hands-on experience through practicums or internships. I know of no bachelor’s degree that is offering archival education at a level that would suffice. I’d much rather spend my time training the new employee to do things my way than to have them spend three months reading Posner, Boles, Danielson, etc, just to get the concepts.

So, yeah, she just said in 100 words what took me 1400. Apparently just because I have an MLS doesn’t mean that I have a handle on the whole “Brevity” thing.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 28, 2011 4:02 pm

    I want to just leave a comment saying I agree 100% with everything you just said, but that would be infinitely lame. But I do. I’m one of those archivists-straight-from-school. I did an undergrad in Psychology (what the what?!), finishing in that despite the fact that about 3/4 of the way through I realized I didn’t want to go into counseling or clinical and instead wanted to do something library-ish. So I did. The winter before graduation I applied to a handful of MLIS programs, was accepted to all, and chose the most reasonable option. I worked at a state psychiatric hospital (and it was awesome) for a few months before moving home to become a starving graduate student.

    I can’t say that my career goals after finishing are the same as they were when I started, but I looked at my studies in much the same way that you did- as an apprenticeship of sorts. I had little practical experience in libraries before I began, so I volunteered like a maniac, did practicums, took internships, anything that would help me to gain experience. I looked at it not just as an education, but an opportunity to beef up my resume and to narrow my interests and goals. I’ll be honest, it felt kind of aimless at the time, but I’m so grateful that I did. Where many of my fellow students graduated with maybe one practicum under their belts (if that), I had been able to work in museums, libraries, and archives; I worked for the local university system, for a major federal agency, and for both privately and publicly funded institutions.

    So what’s the point of all my inane rambling? All that experience, in combination with courses I took (at a school without an archives emphasis where I had to basically create my own- after realizing that was what I wanted- and seek out my own opportunities) provided a solid practical and theoretical foundation for future archival work, one that couldn’t be gained just from either side (only school or only work) alone.

    You said: “Sure, the degree can be, and often is, used as a gatekeeper requirement for a position, but ideally it is evidence that you have committed to the profession and to learning more about higher levels of administering that profession, and are capable of the kinds of responsibilities that you would expect to find at Master-level work.”

    Yes, yes, and yes.

  2. Three Year Programs permalink
    November 28, 2011 4:39 pm

    Not only am I a fan of the master’s degree, I think the program should be three full years. The first year everyone should take general requirements so that all information professionals have a baseline of appreciation for the various flavors of the field. (Archives should be a requirement for everybody since it’s the most important LIS specialty, natch. 🙂 ) At the end of the second year, you would apply for a specialization. Based on grades and essay, you would be accepted or denied entry into a specialization. Years two and three would be spent taking classes in your specialization.

    Too many students come into LIS programs declaring the archives concentration without really even knowing what archives means now. Furthermore, I think there is a lot we can learn from allied fields–systems, cataloging, reference, etc.–and it would be good to have this as foundational knowledge before you proceed with a specialization, not as something you tack onto the end of your course of study.

    • Dejah permalink
      November 29, 2011 9:34 am

      Totally agree on the 3 year idea. We had basic classes the first semester at UMSI where we intermingled with the other specializations but after that experience most students went into courses in their chosen field with some cross-over in the required management and research classes. I also think I chose a double specialization a little too late (Archives & Preservation) and would have liked having another year to add additional courses like library cataloging, reference services, etc.

  3. Chris permalink
    November 28, 2011 4:58 pm

    “(IMPORTANT NOTE: If your significant other is ABD and you try to insist upon this terminology, he/she will laugh at you. At some length. Trust me on this one.)”

    What is “ABD”?

    • Brad H. permalink*
      November 28, 2011 5:02 pm

      “All But Dissertation.” Basically, it means that the person is going to have his/her Ph.D. as soon as the Dissertation is finished. Which in many cases is as far as the Ph.D. candidate goes, but my wife is basically the Terminator, where we are substituting “John Connor” for “the Dissertation.”

  4. November 29, 2011 2:51 pm

    Though this isn’t the case for the Drexel job posting, I would note that the federal job postings for archives technicians do not require a MLIS for one specific reason (aside from the cheaper factor) – leveling the playing field between military and civilian hires. People in the military can be assigned archives technician work and gain experience and training that way. If an MLIS is required and an applicant is military/military trained, they will be shut out of the process as they apply for higher grades of pay, though they may be qualified. Obviously you do get to a point where the degree is required, but this is part of why it’s not for technicians.

    If you can’t tell, I work as an archivist for the government (army) and I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to about federal hiring processes.

    Outside of the federal sphere, I generally do agree that the low paying (wait, aren’t they all?), ahem, that technician positions are designed to keep costs down while requiring the work of an archivist.

  5. PeterK permalink
    November 29, 2011 7:35 pm

    “I generally do agree that the low paying (wait, aren’t they all?), ahem, that technician positions are designed to keep costs down while requiring the work of an archivist.”

    sorry but the pay is based upon the law of supply and demand. The hiring institution advertises that a position is open and they are looking to hire. They sift through the applications, set up interviews then they make an offer. at any point in the process the applicant can ask what is the salary being offered or the salary range. If it is too low then they say thanks but no thanks. if when offered the position and the institution says here is what we are offering , the candidate then has 3 choices 1) accept the offer, 2) decline the offer or 3) counter the offer asking for a higher salary.. If they take the offer then the salary is appropriate for that position. You can’t complain that it is low because to at least one applicant it wasn’t. If no one accepts the salary offered then the institution should increase the salary level until someone accepts. For example In Williston North Dakota fast food restaurants are offering almost $20 an hour in order to attract workers.
    Look at it another way Terryx in his post here noted that there are 50,000 MLS degrees were awarded from 2000-2008 a little over 6,000 a year. lets say that at a minimum 1,000 of those degrees each year were awarded to aspiring archivists. How many open archives positions were there in each of those years? not many I suspect. The problem then is that there is an over supply of applicants for too few jobs. It is a buyer’s market

  6. sherryg permalink
    December 10, 2011 3:10 pm

    Hi Folks! I appreciate this topic and the discussion. I’m sitting right in the middle of this quandary as we speak. What to do, what to do?!

    I’ve completed two courses toward a MLIS, with an archives concentration (online program). I’m in my early 40s. I have a BA in History from a time long, long ago. After 15 years in the non-profit fundraising field (I’ve been consulting for the past 6 years and I am a Certified Fund Raising Executive “CFRE”), I’m returning to my love of history and my desire to work with archives. As a professional, I know the value of practical hands-on experience and thus am volunteering at a local historical site with a large (back log) of archives. They have an “Archivist” (who does not have a Masters, but does have over 15 years of experience in the field) whom I’m working under to learn, learn, learn.

    I’m frustrated with the fact the MLIS doesn’t have any archives specific training until I complete 5 core courses, and even then it really doesn’t seem like there is a great deal of it. So, I’m really beginning to wonder if the MLIS is what I need. Could I acquire the skills through workshops, readings, conferences, experience, etc., etc.? The “alternative path”.

    It seems to me that the important question is where do you want to work and actually do archival work? If my goal is to do archival work in small to medium sized organizations, historical sites, smaller museums, etc., is the MLIS really necessary? I’m in a somewhat rural area, rich area historically. These organization are not going to pay at a Master’s level. Do they really require a Master’s level person to get things in order and start to move them toward digital exhibits, etc.? Are the skills I’m going to acquire through the “alternative path” appropriate for these types of institutions? If I want to pursue this type of work on a consultant basis, does the Masters really add anything for these institutions?

    I’ve been looking at the new DAS Certification from SAA and wondering if that might be another aspect of the “alternative path” too. The Western Archives Institute 2-week training is very appealing too.

    I’d like to bounce these thoughts off this group. I’d love some insight, some comments, etc. So does the Masters requirement depend on where you want to work?


    • stasia permalink
      December 14, 2011 12:02 pm

      Based on what you describe, I’d be wary of continuing with your MLIS, especially one that does not seem to offer much archival training. If anything, the fact that you’ve started a program would show prospective employers your willingness to get one if necessary, but I think your best bet would be to learn the work any other way you can. My current intern, a recent MLIS grad, did not know (and still struggles with) basic arrangement, which really worries me. How can a school give someone a certificate in archival studies if they can’t process a collection?

    • Jessica permalink
      December 14, 2011 12:34 pm


      As I said in my first comment above, I was in a similar position to you. I decided to focus on archives after I had already started my MIS, and I was in a program that is rich technologically, but offers little in the way of archival education. My solution (and I recognize this isn’t feasible for everyone- I wasn’t working full time at the time so it was easier for me) was to volunteer and seek out practicums and internships. I learned more about arranging and actual processing and cataloging in my practical experiences than I ever did in my graduate classes. There is no better way to learn than to actually do the work, and if no one is hiring or willing to pay you, the only feasible option is to offer up your services as a volunteer (or to sneak in after hours and do processing on the sly…but I wouldn’t recommend it 🙂

  7. December 16, 2011 9:16 pm

    I love this blog – but feel the audience is looking for a boss to hate. I really hope I found SOMEONE the ideal job (to hate), although it may be off-topic. I’ve heard working at the Smithsonian can be…well…you decide.

    Knowledge of basic preservation techniques for photographic collections including rehousing, storage and proper environmental conditions. Knowledge of computer information systems and digital imaging technologies for cataloguing and digitization

    Smithsonian Institution
    Washington DC Metro Area,District of Columbia
    $51,630.00 to $67,114.00 / Per Year
    Open Period:
    Thursday, December 08, 2011 to Thursday, December 29, 2011


  1. » In defense of the MLS (Sort of) | You Ought to be Ashamed rosemary k. j. davis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: