What is a MLIS Degree?

Since the earliest days of humanity, our species has been obsessed with chronicling information. At first, everything passed through speech in the form of rich oral traditions, with bards making long campfire-lit evenings a little easier to bear. As time went on, humans learned to record their thoughts through crude marks in clay, then more refined hieroglyphics and alphabets.

Today, written language is a given. Similarly, the internet and books are a given … today, it feels as though we have always had and will always have knowledge recorded by the written word. And one of the groups most responsible for the stewarding of that knowledge are librarians.

If you’ve considered a librarian job before, but aren’t sure where to begin, you might be a good candidate for an MLIS degree. Before you commit, though, it’s smart to learn more about this degree, what you can do with it, and how you can get into the right program.

What Is an MLIS Degree?

The Master of Library and Information Science is a graduate-level degree, required for most librarian positions in the United States and Canada. It is similar to the Master of Library Science (MLS), or Master of Science in Library Science (MSLS) degrees, but differs in its focus on information. This distinction is important, because it embraces the great wealth of digital books and media available today – and acknowledges that they have value worth chronicling, the same way we catalogue and chronicle traditional books.

Exact curricula varies by school and program, of course, but most MLIS degrees teach such subjects as:

  • Reference work
  • Cataloguing and referencing
  • Developing collections
  • Archiving primary documents
  • Digital cataloguing
  • School libraries
  • Teaching and student management

Throughout the course of the program, you will learn about the theoretical components of librarianship – such as what constitutes a good collection and the types of books you need to stock in a library – as well as more hands-on subjects. Typically, an MLIS candidate will have a practicum or internship at a library as well as taking courses.

What Can You Do with the Degree?

The question of what to do with this degree is of significant concern to some students. It is common enough to hear the refrain that libraries are dead, to assume that all learning takes place in the digital space, and that there aren’t any jobs for people who have degrees in the library sciences. This panic fails to account for two basic realities:

First, this simply isn’t true, as indicated by studies that show that at least half of Americans do use the library. While these numbers may not be as high as a book lover might wish, they are nevertheless indicative of the great value of libraries. You should not, in your fear that libraries are disappearing, help to hasten the end by dismissing an MLIS degree.

Second, you don’t have to take a job as a librarian just because you have an MLIS degree. In fact, the degree can set you up for a range of careers having to do with books, documents and information management. Even if you can’t (or don’t want to) get a job as a librarian, you can still work in the following roles:

  • Archivist or preservationist, working to protect rare documents or primary source material
  • Curator at a museum, private collection or bookmobile, choosing books and documents to make available to the public for use or just for viewing
  • Project manager at an institution or university, helping to organize events or exhibits around written material
  • Writer or editor, using the skills you learned during your MLIS program to research academic papers, write publications or start your own business
  • Fact checker for professors, writers or academics
  • Records manager for a non-bookish institution, such as a medical facility or government office
  • Information broker or concierge, helping researchers find what they need to product reports, books or other types of documents

Keep in mind that any of these roles can incorporate the management of digital information, or even comprise it exclusively. In other words, there exists a wealth of opportunity for those who feel that library and information sciences is their calling.

Who Is the MLIS Degree Right For?

More specifically, the MLIS degree is right for people who:

  • Love books, pamphlets, illustrations, primary sources and digital material
  • Enjoy immersing themselves in knowledge and information
  • Like working to help other people find what they need in a milieu that seems overwhelming to many
  • Love organization, cataloguing and creating systems
  • Want the opportunity to make constant learning their job

If any of those sound like you, it’s probably time to apply for a program.

How Can You Enroll?

Master’s programs are harder to get into than bachelor’s programs, for the most part. You will need a decent academic record, as well as the correct application documents, in order to apply. Again, requirements vary by program, but for the most part they all require:

  • Official transcripts from all schools you have attended in past, even if they had nothing to do with library sciences
  • Standardized test scores, usually the GRE (though the GMAT counts too)
  • Letters of recommendation from professors or employers
  • A completed application
  • An essay (sometimes)

Be sure to check the deadlines for each school to which you want to apply very carefully. Universities are not forgiving of missed deadlines, and you will have to wait until the following year if you miss one.

More Resources for MLIS Applicants, Candidates and Graduates

Want to stay informed about library and information sciences for life? Here are some excellent resources for people who are considering joining an MLIS program, are already enrolled or who have graduated and want to keep sharp.

  • What Is Library and Information Science? Here’s a brief primer for those who are still learning about the field, or who want a handy source to send to friends and family that ask what you’re doing.
  • Library Terminology: Glossary of Library Terms: Never be lost for a definition again. Whether studying or helping a client/patron at a library, you can have the knowledge you need at your fingertips with this helpful and comprehensive glossary.
  • What Can I Do with an Information/Library Sciences Degree? Feeling nervous about graduation, or just want to comfort yourself about job prospects before applying? This page from the University of Tennessee Knoxville will help set your fears at rest with an array of potential careers.

Now that you know more about the MLIS degree, it’s time to put your interest in books and information to the test. Get in touch to ask questions or move forward today!


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Sarah J

Sarah J is Chief Editor and Founder at MastersinLibraryScience.net, formerly LibraryScienceList.com (LSL). Join us today and become a community curator. We can also be found on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook. Learn more about me on Google+