On Being a Generalist Librarian & Not Having a 2nd Master’s

They let you work in an academic library without a second master's

After I started my first professional librarian position at an academic library in 2003, I had every good intention of getting my second master’s degree…in something.

In fact, it was required if I wanted to stay employed at my job. But then there was a lawsuit (or something to that effect) and the university – which had hired art professors with a terminal MFA and social work professors with a terminal MSW – found out that they were holding librarians to a higher standard: MLS + an additional graduate degree. The requirement was promptly dropped. So with that, coupled with no financial support from my institution to actually earn the degree, I let the second master’s slide off my radar.

You see, I’m one of those librarians who went directly from bachelor’s degree to MLS and then right to work.

And for librarians who told me a second master’s degree was essential (ABSOLUTELY essential!) to be an academic librarian? Well, I’ve never had any problems with just my MLS and I’ve been employed at four different academic libraries. Is it required at some institutions? Sure. Is it helpful for your resume? Of course it is. And for the jobs where it is required–say a subject specialist: Law Librarian, Asian Studies Librarian, etc… well, those jobs never interested me in the first place.

Why yes I am the expert

I’m a generalist librarian. A jack-of-all-trades. I know a little bit about a lot…and I’m completely OK with that. My focus has always been on reference and instruction. I love not knowing what I might get asked next. In a two-hour shift at the Reference Desk, it could be anything from Census records to British literature. Last week, I had a chat reference question about “natal homing in migratory fish.” And you know what? Even though science is not my strong suit, I did OK. Maybe I should try out for Jeopardy!.

I look at the information literacy sessions I have scheduled this semester: music, education, communication, political science, history, social work, psychology, biology, environmental science, English composition, Spanish. I don’t fear the range of subject areas. I embrace it.

That’s what I love about being a generalist librarian: the variety. From reference, to information literacy, embedding in online courses, working with non-traditional students, handling the library’s social media activities, participating in special studies with assessment and space planning: There’s always something different to do.

This has been my path. I’m not discounting subject specialists at all: We need those! We need librarians who are passionate about their subject speciality. And there’s definitely a need for subject specialists at research institutions. However, my experience has primarily been at undergraduate institutions where you wear a lot of different hats.

I no longer feel bad about not earning that second master’s degree. Priorities shift and you begin to assess what’s really important to you personally and professionally. I also like having my student loans all paid off. At this point, for me, it’s not financially prudent to sink money and time to earn an additional degree that likely wouldn’t make a hill of beans difference in the long run. Unlike others, I can put a price on education.

And then I think back to my original plan: What would my additional grad degree have been in? Certainly not history (which is my BA). Maybe an MBA or a master’s in educational technology would be helpful? Recently, a professor stopped me and asked, “So when are you getting your PhD?” I just laughed. A PhD to be a generalist librarian? No thanks.

13 thoughts on “On Being a Generalist Librarian & Not Having a 2nd Master’s

  1. I’m a little different. My MLIS will be my second master’s degree. This decision came after a change of heart on my first one and a desire to do something else entirely. So while I have a second, I’m not too interested in the topic anymore, and wouldn’t particularly like to be in charge of that section. For most purposes, I just ignore I have my other degree. I’m sure it will help in the future, but for now, I’m just pretending it isn’t there.

  2. Fantastic! Nice to hear someone come down on the generalist side. I worked in an academic library jack-of-all-trades situation and loved the variety. Each day was a new adventure.

  3. Business librarians discuss this topic periodically. Some advocate strongly for earning an MBA (although others politely suggest that a degree in Accounting or Finance is more useful, since that stuff is more technical and harder to learn on your own than management principles) but lots of really good business librarians do just fine serving their students and faculty without the second master’s degree. With the increased emphasis on functional skills v. more traditional subject skills (ex. the new ARL report on Transforming Liaison Roles in Research Libraries), this debate will continue. (Although yes, sometimes subject knowledge and functional skills feed off each other.) Thank you for thoughtful post!

    • Thanks…I just glanced at the ARL report. I’m also seeing a trend at some research libraries of hiring an “Information Specialist” – someone who possesses a PhD or subject masters without an MLS. Not sure how I feel about that. Yes, we need subject expertise for those types of positions, but feel it’s downgrading the role of librarian. I dunno.

  4. I don’t regret my undergraduate degree in English lit., then MLS immediately thereafter and librarian jobs shortly.

    Perhaps instead of focusing on 2nd Master’s, consider seriously the areas of: adult education, project management (latter to get PM certification), etc. And get yourself into projects that draw upon specialist courses.

    For any librarian, I would highly recommend several legal research and some law courses. When working in any subject discipline, there is often the element of regulatory requirements governing that industry/type of organization. Just doing loose research on the Internet without underpinning knowledge of statutes vs. regulations vs. executive orders vs. table of concordance, vs. law digests, etc., does not make one an effective, pinpoint researcher.

    • Hi Jean–I definitely agree with you. I’ve also sought out additional coursework or webinars here and there, but never a full fledged program. I’m also trying out a MOOC this semester…we’ll see how that goes.

    • Jean, that is good advice that I am going to have to file away in my brain somewhere! I actually have an MA already (art history) but came to libraries mid-career and am starting an MLIS course soon; I see myself as more of a generalist and hope to work up to being a public library director eventually. From what I’ve seen working with the director of our library system, your suggestions are spot on.

  5. Pingback: Future Plans: What Are the Options? | Tea and Thoughts

  6. Loved this blog post! Its nice to see an academic librarian who’s also an educational pragmatist! I’ve debated the 2nd masters degree and other than the obvious extra money/effort, I’ve had to look at a no. of factors and all seem to suggest that getting a 2nd masters is a toss-up I could earn it and potentially get a better paying job and pat myself on the back. On the other hand, I could earn a degree, not see much of a pay/working condition improvement and become eternally bitter. Hmm.

  7. Pingback: An MLIS Adventure

  8. Pingback: A Meandering Post About Starting My 2nd Masters | Mr. Library Dude

Comments are closed.