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Becoming a Librarian, Step 1: The MLIS

This post is part of our series to inspire students at the Summer Session to consider continuing their studies.

When I tell people I’m getting a master’s degree to become a librarian, it’s often met with disbelief. Most people don’t know that most librarians need an ALA-accredited master’s degree focusing on library science and information studies. 

Librarians don’t just shelve, catalog, and curate dusty old books. We’re information specialists. We study information behavior, best search practices, and information literacy––AND our foundational values are all about freedom of speech, access, and democracy. We consider it our job to pass these skills along to our communities.

I’ve officially wiped my hands of finals and Canvas courses (at least for the foreseeable future). I’m a bonafide librarian rather than just a librarian in training. So what does it take to become a degreed, cardigan-wearing, shushing aficionado? 

Time, money, a robust support system, and––like all master’s programs––enough motivation to get you through roughly two years of undergrad on steroids.

From what I can tell, a master’s degree in library science isn’t a particularly “hard” degree. We’re not medical doctors; we aren’t solving math equations. I wouldn’t say a librarian’s labor is particularly difficult to perform. But it does require special skills, knowledge, patience, and a call to service. 

The experience of being a librarian varies widely. There are people in the Rutgers MI program who specialize in archival studies. They may work to preserve well-worn texts, to develop new and innovative cataloging methods, and preserve internet data. Even the experience of this one specialization varies greatly. On the other hand, I barely understand the Dewey Decimal system or the Library of Congress. Sure, if you gave me half an hour, I could figure it out. I could catalog several items; I might even develop my own (rudimentary) cataloging system, but my practice doesn’t require me to memorize which Dewey section is religion and which is sexuality. They’ve got dictionaries and databases for that. 

I chose the School Librarianship track at Rutgers. In many states, in addition to a Masters’s degree in library science, school librarians also need a separate certificate to work in K-12 education. Therefore, my experience at Rutgers included less on cataloging and preserving knowledge and more on K-12 pedagogy and library instruction. I got to play with presentation tools, videos, different eye-grabbing curation methods, and lesson plans. I also had to gain expertise in Children’s and YA literature and learn management skills. 

Another reason I wouldn’t classify my degree program as “hard” is because we librarians are pretty dedicated to equity and access. There’s no need to make the barrier to entry any more complicated than a money-sucking, time-consuming, and laborious master’s degree. Sure there’s a lot to learn, but no one wants to make that learning process difficult. 

I’d say this is especially true in the School Librarian track. As teacher librarians, we’re extra concerned with making learning accessible. Before entering the Rutgers MI program, I had a lot of internalized stigma about what it meant to be smart. I think I thought people who were quick to understand things, witty, and who only enjoyed consuming high-minded media were somehow more worthy of success and learning. I strived to be one of these people, but I never felt truly confident in my status as “smart.”

I left undergrad with dashed hopes of getting a master’s. I hadn’t been able to keep up my grades for the coveted 3.6 GPA that I knew would allow me the funds to complete a master’s program. I wasn’t smart enough; wasn’t able to take high-pressure academia.

My first semester at Rutgers helped melt that misconception. Librarianship’s focus on access led me to research what information access looks like for girls with ADHD (a disorder I’ve been diagnosed with five times but, due to our country’s stellar health care system, have never received consistent interventions or treatment for.) This research led me to a precursory study on disability, which led me to conclude that in addition to ADHD, I likely have some language disability and a significant number of dyslexic symptoms. Accepting my own disabilities helped me reframe my understanding of learning and what it means to be smart.

The School Librarianship program assisted with a heavy focus on Universal Design for Learning, which essentially states that making learning accessible for a minority of people helps the entire learning community, in the same way that captions assist people with a variety of disabilities and different learning styles. 

Even though I’ve started restructuring my definition of smart, being in a master’s program still means regularly questioning your self-worth, drive, and intelligence. It just comes along with the financial stress and 60-hour weeks. For this reason, it’s essential to have a support system. One of my mentors always says that it’s impossible to do this stuff (academia, or just any societal marker of success) alone. 

Though they don’t understand my field or passions, I have an incredibly loving and proud family who regularly affirm that I rise past their expectations. I have a remarkable partner who covered my half of the rent for 11 months, while I pursued my degree and put up with my extreme messiness whenever a project or finals rolled around; we also ate a ton of take-out whenever it was my turn to cook. I have lovely friends who helped me every time I needed to write an important email or send a cover letter and one friend, in particular, who looked over almost every major writing assignment. And, along my grad school journey, I picked up a ton of incredible mentors who were willing to build me up, patiently show me the ropes, and give me the autonomy and space to try new projects and ideas.

Lastly, life is too short to spend working this much if we don’t enjoy it (or aren’t getting paid private jet money). Sure, some people could go through the Rutgers MI program without being in love with librarianship, but those people are masochists, and I couldn’t. To work up the motivation I needed to complete a master’s, I needed to love my subject, and I do. It took me a while to figure out what sort of labor leaves me feeling more rewarded in the long term than exhausted and fed up. I’ve only been in this field for two years, but Rutgers has helped me find opportunities to work and do additional research in this discipline. I’ve been living and breathing librarianship nonstop, and I still want more. This is a field I find endlessly interesting and one I’m excited to work in. 

Getting a master’s is tough (and expensive) but worth it for that type of joy and certainty. Who knows? Maybe next I’ll go for the doctorate.

Read other posts by Harmony Birch.

You may also like the series “Reflections on a PhD in Literature”

See also the short speech at the Rutgers’ School of Graduate Studies Convocation by our author