MLIS specializations, are they worth it?

13 Mar

Recently a reader of my blog who wants to apply to do an MLIS emailed me with a question regarding the differences between MLIS programs at the different Canadian universities. I am assuming that she is not alone in having these questions so I thought that it might be useful if I posted my response to the Biblioblond blog. This reader was particularly interested in school librarianship and questioned me on the lack of specialization at McGill University for this field of librarianship. She asked whether I thought she should consider MLIS programs like at the University of British Columbia or at the University of Alberta that offer this specialization. Her thoughts and questions sound extremely similar to my own when I began library school two years ago. My ambition when entering library school was to find a job afterwards working for a school board. My previous job experience had allowed me to gain knowledge in children’s literature and I often travelled around Quebec presenting workshops to teachers and pedagogical counselors on the topic of how to integrate literature into their classrooms. Initially I was disappointed at the lack of focus on school librarianship in our MLIS classes at McGill. However, someone explained to me that an explanation of this lack of specialized courses on concepts unique to school librarianship was because the present situation for school librarians in Quebec and other Canadian provinces is currently very difficult. Most librarian positions in schools and at the school board level are for library technicians, this is combined with significant cut backs to school libraries budgets in the past few years. For further infomation, here is a slightly dated yet still discouraging article from the Quill and Quire. Although one wishes that this situation will improve with time, McGill’s program wants to focus on providing instruction that will be preparing students to find professional careers upon graduation.

For these reasons, I strongly encourage potential MLIS students to avoid limiting themselves by doing a specialization in school librarianship. In the case of any type of library, I think that it is better to have a more generalized education and then you can develop your specific interests through work experience and extra readings. The MLIS degree at McGill provides a theoretical foundation to become an information professional in any environment and it is up to the individual to decide where they want this education to take them.

Having said this, I took the class “Children and Youth Services” that is offered at McGill and I absolutely loved this class. It could be applied to both school libraries and children’s sections in public libraries. We discussed the developmental stages of children and youth as well as hot topics like including and defending controversial literature in a children’s collection. This class is usually taught by Leanne Bowler, a wonderful professor who worked as a Children’s librarian for over 15 years and is now a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Furthermore, I have been able to strengthen my knowledge regarding issues pertaining to school librarianship by tailoring various class assignments to meet the needs of high school students. For example, in my Information Literacy class, I developed a 6-week series of workshops on Information Literacy for secondary 4 students. I also designed the proposal for a high school library website in my Web Design class. There are always ways to further develop your interests during these types of assignments. I also have a subscription to School Library Journal

I have enjoyed my education at McGill. The first semester everyone becomes a bit disenchanted with the general required courses but like I said, it provides us with an important foundation on which we can develop our more specific interests. Also, it is important to emphasize that professors are accommodating and for almost all of our assignments we are encouraged to tailor them to the specialized environments in which we hope to find jobs. Sarah Severson, a librarian/archivist at CBC Radio recently told us that while she was at McGill she lamented that the program was too theoretical and that she wished there was more instruction of practical skills. I believe that this opinion is widely shared amongst MLIS students across North America. However, once Sarah began her career, she realized that practical skills were easy to pick on the job, and that she truly appreciated the theoretical background provided by her Masters that gave her a professional edge. I will start my job as a public library director in June, but in the future, I might still work in an academic library, a school library or a special library. I am extremely happy that I have not pigeon-holed myself into one specialization and that my general education will help me adapt to any field of librarianship.

I hope that this helps future MLIS students. Please feel free to add any comments including disagreements with what I’ve said.

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3 Responses to “MLIS specializations, are they worth it?”

  1. Melissa April 7, 2010 at 8:21 pm #

    Thanks for the information. Im just curious as to how not to pigeon hole myself into one specialization as Im starting the MLIS program at McGill in Sept. and they specifically ask you to specialize in one of three branches. Which did you do?

    • Amanda Halfpenny April 7, 2010 at 9:40 pm #

      That’s a great question. At McGill’s School of Information Studies, they offer three streams : Librarianship. Archives, and Knowledge Management. Since I knew I wanted to become a librarian, I considered it a no-brainer to chose the Librarianship stream. Some people were less certain about what stream they wanted to follow and complained that there wasn’t enough flexibility to take more classes from the different streams. I on the other hand was happy to take only one course outside my stream: Introduction to Knowledge Management. It was a good class, I learned a lot of the fundamental concepts and Prof Kim Dalkir who teaches the class is amazing but I had no desire to take other Knowledge Management classes afterward.

      When I was advising against pigeon-holing, I was referring to more specific specializations that are offered at other universities like Children’s Librarianship. Again, this is my opinion but I think that even if your sole desire in life is to become a Children’s Librarian then you should still take general theoretical courses that provide you with a framework to understand the “big picture”. There will be lots of opportunities to gain specific skills and knowledge once you are on the job. Anyways at McGill your first year, you will have required courses regardless of your stream, students find this annoying but its a way of structuring the program that makes sense. Good luck!

      • Melissa April 8, 2010 at 3:37 pm #

        I also chose Librarianship, yet I have great interest in Archives so I am still divided over it…

        Also on a side note, how many courses maximum could you take in one semester?

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