Considering the MLS

The following was written by Baharak Yousefi, Ebony Magnus, Yoonhee Lee, and me. It was originally sent as a response to a list-serv discussion on the requirement of an MLS, MLIS, or similar degree for entry into the profession and the impacts of this requirement on “equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

Dear colleagues,

We are writing to express our concerns with the idea that academic librarianship in Canada should reconsider the Master’s degree in library studies (MLS) as a requirement for academic librarian positions because the MLS is perceived to be a uniquely exclusionary barrier to diversifying the profession.

We’ve heard this idea articulated in a few different forms: replace the MLS with other Master’s degrees, Doctorates, and/or equivalent work experience, or hire librarians conditionally and have them complete the MLS in the first few years of their employment.

Setting aside the question of whether diversity (and for that matter, equity and inclusion) represents an adequate framework for racial liberation, we acknowledge that the MLS represents a barrier. We see the ballooning of tuition and other fees. We see the increasing scarcity of housing, food, and other necessities of life. We see the structures of exploitation and dispossession that both lie at the root of such problems and constrain our communities’ capacity to navigate them.

We see also that MLS curricula and pedagogies are not, on the whole, designed for our liberation, nor even for our day-to-day well-being, that they are reflective rather of the world views of the dominant social order and the racially-animated violence it entails. We also see, however, that such problems are not unique to the MLS, that they are indeed dynamics common to higher education more broadly, that they are felt acutely by members of our communities across virtually all areas of study. As key sites of accreditation, the university-as-such operates largely to reinforce the barriers. This is nothing new.

We acknowledge also that too many traditional academic labour unions are dominated by voices that dismiss or minimize the centrality of racial oppression to the exploitation of academic workers. Even as we passionately support and indeed actively take on the work of our unions, so many of us do not feel fully and mutually supported in these spaces.

We, alongside you, imagine more just spaces, unions, universities, libraries, and futures.

But simply removing the MLS, without fundamental structural change, is not a path towards racial liberation. It is a path towards decredentialization and devaluation of our labour, which has hurt and continues to hurt our communities disproportionately. In articulating this position, we think not only of the context of the MLS and librarianship, but of other areas of work, whether it be the cost and relevance of a teaching degree, or the cost and relevance of taxi licenses. Deregulation does not lead to utopia.

We propose that all higher education is a barrier, and graduate degrees of all sorts feature barriers similar to those in MLS programs. There is no evidence that the MLS is uniquely exclusionary. In our context, when left to the hands of library administration, we believe that deregulation can only serve the interests of those who are keen to, in the long term, eliminate our positions from faculty unions, create increasingly more corporate library environments, and achieve a gradual lowering of wages, benefits, and autonomy for all librarians.

Our field has always been about freedom and power for certain populations and the unfreedom of others. This is the legacy we are all struggling to dismantle. Relinquishing even more powers of decision making to library administration to hire from a broader pool of graduate degree holders (including overrepresented and overserved populations), or creating a class of colleagues who are, albeit initially, conditionally employed, is not the way forward. Dignity and freedom for us all demands an intersectional, decolonial, and coalitional politics and approach.

In solidarity,

David James Hudson
Yoonhee Lee
Ebony Magnus
Baharak Yousefi