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Career Strategies for Librarians
Earning an MLS at 40 & Beyond: A Snapshot of the Older Student
by Catherine Collins

When I began library school at the University at Buffalo, I was 34. Having worked in government for more
than a decade, I assumed that I would be significantly older than most of the other students, but
surprisingly, that was not the case. Many of my fellow students appeared to be my age or older. It also
seemed to me at the time that there were more of us embarking on second and third careers than there
were students who were entering the program straight from undergraduate studies. Our entering class
was a pretty diverse group that included former bureaucrats like me, as well as medical professionals,
educators, escapees from corporate America, musicians, retirees, and even a short-order cook. We
were an interesting mix, and class discussions were fun and often enlightening.

Flash forward six years: I received an email last fall from an acquaintance who was contemplating library
school. After working for several years as an attorney, she was looking to make a career change.
However, she had one concern: her age. Would she be the oldest student in her classes? How would
she find graduate school, particularly the technology-focused MLS, in her 40s? Should she attend full-
time or part-time, and would she be expected to work or be involved in extracurricular activities?

Help!

As a relatively new librarian, one of my most important resources has been NMRT-L, the electronic
discussion list hosted by the ALA New Members Round Table. I've turned to the list for interviewing tips,
publishing advice, and leadership opportunities. Now I was looking for advice for my friend, and NMRT-L
seemed like a great place to start.

I began by posting a message asking if there was anyone who had been 40 or older when they attended
library school and, if so, would they be willing to exchange emails with my friend regarding their
experiences. I had posted requests for help before and knew that it often took several days to receive any
feedback. However, within a day, I had several responses – and this was just from one discussion list.
Not only were these people willing to talk about their experiences, they had definite opinions and advice
that they very much wanted to share in hopes of helping someone else. I forwarded several of the emails
to my friend, thanked everyone who responded, posted a new message on NMRT-L that I had received
enough volunteers, and then promptly forgot about the entire thing.

The following week, I checked my email and was shocked to see that my in-box was filled with dozens of
emails from people throughout North America wanting to share their experiences as 40-plus library
school students. I learned that some of my fellow NMRT-L subscribers had forwarded my first posting on
to other lists in hopes of helping me, which led to the message appearing on several lists. I had no hope
of notifying these lists that I was no longer looking for respondents. That week, I spent a considerable
amount of time each evening just responding to emails. In addition to these individuals, I received
several emails from librarians who were unable to help my friend, but who were very interested in the
responses that I received. Rather than forward the dozens and dozens of emails, I decided to try to come
up with a way to standardize the responses so I could more efficiently analyze and report on them. Aha! A
survey.

Hit Me Baby, One More Time

The thought of a survey scared me a little. Surveys were scientific and dealt with samples, biases,
response rates – things I didn't want to address in my informal attempt to share a little information. I just
wanted to ask everyone the same set of questions in such a way that their responses would be easy to
summarize and share with others, so I decided that the term “questionnaire” would be less intimidating
for me.

I began crafting my questionnaire based on my friend's concerns, as well as the responses that she had
received. Soon, I had a list of about twenty or so questions, which I then pared down to ten in hopes of
improving the number and quality of responses. By using the site SurveyMonkey.com to host my
questionnaire, I was able to make use of the site's free service, which formats the survey, provides a
unique URL that would direct respondents to it, allows up to 100 responses, and organizes the
responses. I registered, entered and formatted my questionnaire, and tested it. I was ready for business
and began contacting potential respondents.

Obviously, the respondents from the initial posting were most likely to respond to this new
questionnaire, so I contacted those individuals first. The following day I also asked for respondents on
three electronic discussion lists (NMRT-L, NEWLIB-L, and UBMLS-L), with plans to post on additional
lists later that week. Just to see if anyone had responded, I checked in with SurveyMonkey the next
morning and learned that I had reached the maximum 100 responses in less than 12 hours after
posting my first messages. I quickly posted follow-up messages to all three lists explaining that I had
received all the responses that I needed. Nevertheless, I still received email messages from another
dozen people asking if they could participate, so I forwarded the questions to each of them, which
brought the total responses to 106. It was time to start analyzing those results.

If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words …

If it wasn't clear already, I am not reporting the findings of a scientific study. The information is purely
anecdotal, based only on the experiences of those individuals who responded to my questionnaire, and
provided here as a service. That said, there are several generalizations that can be made about my
respondents.

Age     According to the 2003 ALISE Library and Information Science Education Statistical Report, most of
the students seeking a master's degree from an ALA-accredited program in 2001 were between 25 and
29 years old. Approximately 35% of all library school students were 40 or older, and of those students,
68% were in their 40s and 32% were 50 or older. These numbers are similar to my results, which
indicated that 67% of my “40 and older” respondents were in their 40s when they attended library school.

Reasons for Attending     The majority of respondents (57%) pursued librarianship as a career because
they love to read, enjoy research, or were attracted by the public service aspect. The least likely reason
that someone pursued librarianship? Very few were interested in the field because of the job's high-tech
aspect or a perceived demand for librarians. Almost none of the respondents enrolled in graduate
school simply because they were unemployed or because they were seeking job security.

Prior Careers     Of the respondents, 88% pursued another career prior to library school. Like my
classmates in Buffalo, respondents came from every walk of life. However, a large number of
respondents previously worked in one of three fields: education (21%), corporate America (18%), and
stay-at-home parent (10%). Surprisingly, for 12% of the respondents, all of whom were 40 or older,
librarianship was their first career.

Full-time vs. Part-time     Even though 88% of the respondents were working prior to library school, 60%
chose to attend full-time. 30% attended part-time, while only 10% attended full-time some semesters
and part-time others.

Professional Development     During my first semester in library school, I received the best advice from a
professor. She asked – demanded, really – that everyone in class find work in a library. It could be part-
time or full-time, paid or volunteer; she didn't care as long as it was in a library. If we didn't, she said, we
would regret it when job-hunting after graduation. At the time, I was working, but not in a library, so I took
a second job reshelving books on a very part-time basis. That work soon turned into something a little
more challenging, which led to a paid graduate assistantship the following year, which led to a paid
internship during the summer, which led to my first job as a professional librarian. Was I alone? No.
Most of my classmates who weren't already working in a library found something. Apparently, so did
most of the respondents to my questionnaire. Given that so many respondents attended school full-time,
it's interesting to note that 70% worked in a library and 29% volunteered in a library while earning their
MLS.

The second best piece of advice that I received while in library school? Network. That same professor
strongly recommended that we join at least one professional organization, get involved in a student
chapter, and subscribe to any electronic discussion lists that interested us. It appears that my
respondents received the same advice. 75% of respondents subscribed to electronic discussion lists.
Almost as many joined a professional organization: 71% joined ALA; 21% joined SLA; 56% joined
another. A significant number of those actively participated in an organization. Lastly, 48% of my
respondents took advantage of networking opportunities offered by their school or university.

Overall School Experience     An overwhelming number of respondents (93%) stated that their overall
experience in library school was positive. This question was one of three that allowed respondents to
expound on their answer if they chose to, which 25 respondents did. The comments were varied, but
many focused on the pluses and minuses of particular schools. These comments ranged from “an
excellent, engaging, and challenging MS program” to “very poor/absent advisement, classes which do
not reflect the reality of the library world, lots of guff from administrators for no good reason.” Several
respondents also commented on the support that they received from instructors, advisers, and fellow
students as being key to their enjoyment of the MLS experience.

Was It Worth It?     I consider this question to be the most important of the questionnaire. If people are
considering investing the time, money, and effort to earn an MLS, they want to know what others thought
of the experience. This is even truer for those who are considering a midlife career change. A majority of
respondents, 84%, said that knowing what they know now, they would definitely attend library school
again. 8% of respondents said that they were unsure whether or not they would attend. 8% would
definitely not attend.

On a related note, I asked respondents to share any advice that they might have for anyone considering
library school as an “older” student. These comments (edited for the sake of space) were particularly
interesting and I've included a few here.

“I don't see my age as a detriment in any way.”

“I would recommend working in a library while attending library school.”

“Be prepared for a lot of computer oriented work.”

“Make the most of the graduate school experience.”

“Know why you want to attend.”

“I really enjoyed my library school experience although it was difficult at times. I am glad to see there are
more distance learning opportunities for the MLS. If I had it to do over, that's what I would do.”

“I think that realistically, you must look at the benefits as other than financial, because ... it's going to be
difficult to recoup those costs with an increased salary.”

“Entry-level jobs have disappeared and many positions, like mine, have either been downgraded or filled
by paraprofessionals.”

I Can See Clearly Now

Based on the above information, a picture begins to emerge of older students. It can be safely said that
most of these “older” library school students are in their 40s and pursuing librarianship after a career in
education or business or after working as stay-at-home parents. These individuals attended library
school because of a love of reading, research, and public service. Most attended school full-time while
working in a library, and invested the time and energy in professional associations and online
discussion lists while attending school. Almost all considered library school to be a positive experience,
although not problem-free. Most importantly, the questionnaire results show that, for most of these
individuals, library school was worth the time, effort, and expense.

About the Author:

Catherine Collins holds an MLS from the University at Buffalo and an MPA from the University of North
Texas. She has worked in academic and special libraries, primarily as a reference and instruction
librarian, and her professional interests include intellectual freedom and career development.

Article published June 2005

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