Big libraries get all the attention. But in late September of 2013, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) issued an interesting report on small and rural libraries in the United States. While the report got a few media mentions (notably from Gary Price at InfoDocket), it went largely unnoticed, even though it is packed with gems about the small libraries that make up America’s public library system. A few things in the report jumped out at me.


First, it is not an exaggeration to describe small and rural libraries as the backbone of the American public library system. The country has 8,956 public libraries (administrative entities) and 80.5% can be described as either rural or small. Most (77.1%) can be categorized as small, with a service population of less than 25,000, and 46.8% were classified as rural.

Rural libraries target a population of about 37 million, about 12% percent of the library service population in the U.S., while small libraries target 46 million, or 15.4%. The categories overlap. Larger urban libraries target a population of 104 million. But in some states, the only libraries residents know are small or rural ones. In Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire, for example, just under 99% of the libraries are classified as small. In Alaska and North Dakota, more than 80% of the libraries are classified as rural.

It is safe to say that small and rural libraries are truly essential to many people across the country. And even as city libraries are experiencing a decline in usage on a per-capita basis, the usage of small and rural libraries is increasing, according to the IMLS.

This increase is similar to the spike in use one might see after a hurricane—when the power goes out, people flock to the local library for electricity. The storm, in this case, has been the miserable economy, which has so crimped social and education programs, that small and rural libraries across the country have stepped into the breach to provide power of a different sort.

Getting Wired

The words “rural” and “small” may conjure an image of unsophistication, but, in fact, small and rural libraries are outpacing their urban counterparts when it comes to digital resources, such as the level of publicly accessible computer terminals or e-books.

Sure, the big library systems have been making headlines with e-book pilots in recent years, but according to the IMLS, in 2011, small libraries offered 60.2% of all e-book holdings across the country—and they increased their e-book holdings 194% over the three-year period ending in 2011.

In the same period, the number of publicly accessible computer terminals increased 20.2% in rural libraries, and usage was up 6.7%. In city libraries, the use of terminals decreased 9.5%.

Meanwhile, the librarians who staff these public institutions are truly dedicated. The median staffing at a rural library is 1.5 full-time equivalents. At a small library, it is 2.5. There is little wiggle room for any reduction in human resources, even as these librarians struggle to provide a full gamut of professional services with a very small, often shrinking, amount of money.

Is the M.L.S. Necessary?

Amid all the numbers and statistics in the report, the one that really stood out to me concerns these librarians. In small libraries, some 60% of librarians lack a Masters in Library Science (M.L.S.) degree, and in rural libraries, two-thirds lack the credential.

Overall (including libraries large and small), roughly a third of public librarians do not have an American Library Association–accredited M.L.S. degree, according to the IMLS: of the 46,630 full-time equivalent (FTE) librarian positions in our public libraries, 31,524 hold an M.L.S.

As any librarians can tell you, a discussion has simmered for decades over the value of the M.L.S., and, for me, these numbers add fuel to that fire. That’s because many states require that library administrators have M.L.S. degrees—no matter how small the community, or how part-time or low-paid the position is. In fact, if you visit the career center at any major library conference, advertisements for even entry-level positions often note that the degree is required, as is experience.

But if more than 60% of the librarians staffing our small and rural libraries—those that make up the backbone of our public library system—don’t have the degree, doesn’t this suggest that it is time to rethink the M.L.S. requirement?

Tena Hansen, president of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL), calls the discussion around the M.L.S. requirement a “delightfully uncomfortable debate” within the profession.

“While I can’t offer an official position on behalf of ARSL, my personal opinion is that an M.L.S. is not necessary for all library administrators, and this is arguably especially true in small and rural communities,” said Hansen, who is also the director of the Estherville Public Library in Iowa.

Indeed, the “uncomfortable” debate Hansen speaks of is a long-standing one. Many non-M.L.S. “paraprofessionals” in libraries have for years provided the same customer service as M.L.S. librarians. But without the degree, these paraprofessionals are stuck in a lower salary range, and with few career options, unless they are willing to shell out or go deep into debt to obtain the M.L.S., even though much of the knowledge required to advance in their libraries could be learned on the job.

Certainly, there is an argument to be made for the value of learning on the job in the library profession. Whatever issues one may have with the M.L.S. itself (that’s another uncomfortable debate), at a time when libraries need to attract and retain the best and brightest talent to compete with commercial services like Amazon and Google, the M.L.S. requirement shouldn't stand as a barrier to entry to the library profession, especially in small and rural communities, or to advancement.

When I saw the IMLS numbers, I couldn’t help but think that despite the yeoman work of these noncredentialed public librarians, should they venture into the career center at an ALA conference with a desire to move from a small library to a larger urban library, their valuable experience and skills would probably not matter. Without an M.L.S., anyone looking to have a career in public libraries—even those with other advanced degrees, perhaps in education, business, or computers—is generally shut out from advancement.

The M.L.S. requirement is discouraging for those eager to join the profession—and it is equally frustrating for administrators who want to offer a career path to talented contributors to their libraries. “Unless a person is independently wealthy, it’s difficult to reason that one should pursue a costly degree in order to make part-time wages in a position where the real education will take place on-the-fly,” Hansen said.

Is it so hard to imagine an experienced publishing professional from New York changing careers and successfully leading a small library in rural upstate New York? Or a teacher coming aboard to transform a crucial library service? Or a computer whiz joining to help with tech services? Wouldn’t a library world be better off employing such a person immediately without obliging him or her to spend (or borrow) $20,000 or more to obtain an advanced degree?

At a time when we should be building a bridge between libraries and other professions—one that would allow for an easy transfer of skills in collection development, or technology, or customer service—the M.L.S. requirement shouldn’t block potential librarians from entering the field, and it shouldn’t force proven, successful librarians and paraprofessionals out.

“If the people are receiving good service, they tend not to be concerned about which letters follow your name,” Hansen says. “Communities, and library positions, are unique. The one-size-fits-all requirement of a specific degree is something that local library boards should consider thoughtfully, and not as a matter of course, when the opportunity to hire arises.”