This morning I visited LISNews and found a post, “The future of libraries – no MLS needed?” written by Christopher Kiess, an Ohio hospital librarian. Kiess speculates whether the nature of library work, public library work in particular, has changed so significantly that the MLS degree won’t be seen as important for work in a library much longer.

Here’s his core argument:

The library is becoming less and less of an entity requiring an MLS degreed person to manage it. As cataloging becomes outsourced, clerks become prevalent and we see a variety of other disciplines working in a library, the MLS becomes devalued. I had a respected colleague suggest to me not too long ago that a public library requires an MBA more than an MLS. I would agree. What is at issue here is the skill set of the librarian and that is a central factor in whether we can save our profession.

Kiess says that as long as people in the Google era conceive of the major function of a librarian as helping people find books, CDs, or DVDs on the shelf – even if it’s the “right” book, or CD, or DVD – they’re not seeing us as much different from the non-MLS’ed clerks at Borders. The difference comes in the full variety of services we provide. Librarians who serve youth can make the argument that because libraries are about literacy, and that because we are trained in the ages and stages of literacy, we can offer advice and counseling to parents, teachers, and children that goes beyond what a bookstore clerk can provide.

In the 21st century, every child needs to know how to read well to be successful. The pressure on our schools to make all children literate will only grow as the years pass, and libraries play an essential supporting role, even when the Net seems to have stolen away much of our old “homework-support” function. We’re the ones leading the way in setting babies, toddlers, and preschoolers on that road, and we support kids’ reading through the summers. (And – see below – gaming may increase our future role with teens.) I think the argument will, in the long run, be tougher to prove for librarians working with adults.

That means, of course, that we all need to be making noise. We need to be offering programming that pulls literacy together with the materials in our collections. Youth librarians need to be offering “literacy counseling” to parents who come in and ask us questions about the best materials for their children. We need to be more than the greeters that some public libraries seem to be moving their staff toward.

Oh – and here’s a great piece of news that’s exactly the kind of thing that needs to happen. I’ve crabbed a bit in the past about why we’re doing so many gaming programs in libraries for teens, when the relationship between gaming and literacy isn’t – at least for my curmudgeonly self – clear. Here’s an ALA press release announcing that the Verizon Foundation has awarded ALA a $1 million (!) grant to develop best practices for gaming activities in libraries. Here’s what it says:

“Gaming is a magnet that attracts library users of all types and, beyond its entertainment value, has proven to be a powerful tool for literacy and learning,” said ALA President Loriene Roy. “Through the Verizon Foundation’s gift, ALA’s gaming for learning project will provide the library community with vital information and resources that will model and help sustain effective gaming programs and services.”

I hope we do get some good ideas and programs out of this grant. Anything that builds the link between literacy and libraries in the collective mind of the public is exactly what we need to demonstrate that librarians do essential, professional-level work.