College & Research Libraries News

Humor and creativity: MLS envy

By J. C. Bennett

Assistant Professor of Library Science Eastern New Mexico University

In any field, subordinates who feel that they can capably perform the work of their superiors may create difficulties. In libraries, paraprofessionals cause severe logical dilemmas for professional librarians when they espouse this feeling, herein termed “MLS envy.” MLS envy is a stage of the paraprofessional’s development into a loyal, hardworking flunky. Avoiding it requires that paraprofessionals be made to feel more positive about their inability to rise above a trivial rank. Like all psychological phases, MLS envy must be resolved before paraprofessionals can be said to be fully mature. They must be willing to accept the second-class status their position entails.

MLS envy requires careful handling. It usually sets in between one and eight weeks after the new paraprofessional begins work. The complex proceeds gradually. At first, subjects foolishly believe that they have intentionally been given their department’s most monotonous tasks and that they have little hope of quickly moving on to more interesting assignments. Subjects may irrationally assume that older, more experienced paraprofessionals mustperform tasks only slightly less tedious than their own. MLS envy is well on its way when subjects feel that they are being treated unjustly by being paid half or less of the starting professional’s salary, even though the professionals in question may be younger than the nonprofessionals, hold fewer degrees, and have less employment experience. The complex is full blown when subjects become convinced that they could competently perform professional work without the benefit of an MLS degree.

The symptoms are generally easy to detect. In the early stages subjects are restless and uneasy, doubt the wisdom of superiors, and may feel disenchanted with their work. Such feelings become stronger as time passes, until the complex is truly visited on them. At that point, deep problems arise. Subjects may become bitter, insolent, lazy, and unmanageable; they may harbor thoughts of quitting without notice; they may be habitually absent or unbearably late with only poor excuses. Through all this they deserve sympathy and mercy, and a strong hand to guide and lead them along a path of reason and sense.

To move forward, resolution of the internal conflict is necessary. If subjects are to live happy, contented lives as paraprofessionals, they must believe in their supervisors and trust them to do what is best, no matter how painful it may be. If, after a grace period of several weeks after the onset of erroneous thoughts, subjects are unwilling or unable to submit completely, they are unlikely to progress very far, and will stay fixated at an irrational stage for the rest of their paraprofessional careers. Their superiors will then be wise to seriously consider terminating them with the merciful hope that they will prostrate themselves more readily in another field. If the superiors decide not to do so, they must be willing to work closely with subjects to resolve irrational feelings.

A male paraprofessional trying to move beyond MLS envy may be especially uneasy around a female professional librarian. After all, he does not have one, while she does. Despite their intention to accept inferiority, subjects may regard professionals as a threat to their intelligence and critical thought. If their supervisors are sensitive, they may hasten the resolution of the situation with wellchosen words and instructions. They must help the subjects to understand, accept, and be happy in their place in the library world. They must patiently explain as often as necessary that the MLS degree is absolutely essential for professional work, and that the subjects, competent as they may be at their own tasks, are unfit to assume such positions. If at any time subjects question them, citing studies which show that some paraprofessionals can adequately perform professional duties,1 their protests must be met with sympathetic but firm disapproval. They must be told to face up to their problems; supervisors must not debate them, for one must not “answer a fool according to his folly lest one be like him.”2

Properly managed, the resolution of MLS envy should take no more than six to eight weeks, although a longer period should be allowed for more educated subjects. Once satisfactorily resolved, behaviors characteristic of MLS envy will be abandoned. Subjects will then live confidently and quietly in their subservient roles. Guilt will disappear quickly when supervisors are understanding, and subjects will soon display the loyalty of a prodigal son, providing an exemplary, ne’er-say-negative atmosphere among the support staff. In exceptional cases they will be instrumental in helping others to pass through MLS envy with a minimum of discomfort.

There is another manner whereby MLS envy may be resolved, but it is difficult and usually undesirable. It involves a transsocial operation in an American Library Association-approved “clinic.” When one carefully compares the method of resolution where subjects emerge as well-adjusted paraprofessionals with this clinical alternative, one can scarcely choose the latter. Subjects must themselves earn the MLS, and bachelors’ degrees if they do not already hold them. While the resolution to remain a paraprofessional takes only a few weeks, the MLS requires one to two years of intense therapy. In most cases subjects must travel far from home to complete the degree; there are only about sixty approved “clinics” in which treatment may take place. All this costs a great deal, and little financial assistance other than loans is available.

It must be conceded that the prognosis for those MLS envy sufferers who take the MLS route is good. Once subjects have undergone this operation, they are unlikely to believe that paraprofessionals should compete for professional positions. However the same effect can be more easily and more quickly achieved by either 1) requiring paraprofessionals to resolve their MLS envy or 2) dismissing them to put them out of their misery. One should not call this “censorship” or “discrimination” but “sound personnel policy.” To allow persons without MLS degrees to become professional librarians would constitute censorship of library school professors who, without a large number of students, would be denied an ivory tower from which to praise the library profession. Also librarians have an image to maintain; to discount the MLS would be to invite public disrespect.

MLS envy and the dangers surrounding it cannot be given too much attention. Successful resolution of this complex is the key to good relations with paraprofessionals, harmonious operations everywhere in the library, and the eradication of ignorance. The last of these is, of course, the true mission of librarians. By dispelling MLS envy, librarians are educating and strengthening American society.


  1. Deborah Kirk, “Mission Possible: Elementary Library/Media Centers without Professionals,” Colorado Libraries, December 1986; John S. Goodell, A Case Study of Catalogers in Three University Libraries (Ann Arbor, Mich,: University Microfilms, 1971); Charles A. Bunge, Professional Education and Reference Efficiency (Springfield, 111.: Illinois State Library, 1967); John A. McCrossan, Library Science Education and Its Relationship to Competence in Adult Book Selection in Public Libraries (Springfield, 111.: Illinois State Library, 1967).
  2. Proverbs 26:4.
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