The journey of a non-ALA-accredited librarian in Canada

This is the story of my journey as a librarian from Iran who wanted to work in Canada with a degree not accredited by the American Library Association (ALA). In Iran, I spent four years working toward my Bachelor of Library and Information Science degree and two and a half years refining these skills through a Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) program. After achieving my MLIS I moved to Canada full of hope about my professional future. As a foreign graduate, my first step was to evaluate my credentials through International Credential Evaluation Services (ICES) to make sure that I was eligible to work in Canada. Armed with this evaluation and two diplomas from respected Iranian universities, I began the job hunt.

Shideh Taleban completed her MLIS degree in Iran before re-taking the degree in Canada.

How many times have you heard of a friend, colleague, or family member who is unable to work in his or her chosen field because their credentials are from another country? After nearly three years of applying for different librarian positions—even entry-level jobs that required an ALA-accredited degree or an ‘equivalent’ from another university—I had no luck getting any interviews.

At this point in my professional career, I was almost certain that I would not find a librarian position without first attaining an ALA-accredited MLIS. While working in a public library, I came to realize that there is no difference between the library skills I learned in my home country and the work that I want to do as a librarian in Canada; however, I did observe that I had some educational shortcomings in areas such as North American Children’s Literature, and in terms of my knowledge of some common North American reference resources.

I decided to fill the gap by going back to school: I signed up for the Community Library Training Program (CLTP) to take online courses in readers’ advisory and reference services. I found them informative and useful, but still it was not enough to change my status to ALA accredited. At first, I aimed to apply for the Certificate of Advanced Study (CAS) at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and visited an assistant professor there. Unfortunately, I came to realize that CAS, as a one-year program designed for accredited librarians, is not ALA accredited and not helpful for foreign-trained librarians like me.

After completing the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) I decided to re-do my MLIS.

Getting a (second) MLIS

As I was living in Vancouver, the School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies (SLAIS) at UBC was my first choice. The University of Alberta’s (U of A) online MLIS program was my second. However, I was surprised to learn that my first MLIS degree would hamper me from being accepted into a MLIS program in Canada. As I had graduated from a very well-known university in Iran, and my MLIS was accepted by academies here based on their existing policy, they were not going to accept a person with a previous MLIS because I was already overqualified. If universities such as UBC and U of A consider my degree equivalent to theirs, why could I not get an interview? What is the reason for this inconsistency between academia and the professional world?

I felt that my world had been turned upside down. My passion was truly with librarianship, and I did not want to leave Canada. I spent six and a half years of my youth training to be a librarian, yet I could not use my training in the country I had chosen as my home, and could not gain accreditation by retaking the MLIS program in Canada. Some family members suggested I pursue another profession, but how could I? The magic of librarianship is when you feel it with your heart. You cannot easily let it go.

At this point, I knew that I had to start fighting for what I wanted and I received lots of support and encouragement from others around me, especially librarians. I started a personal campaign by contacting a very well-known and active library leader, speaker, and advocate in Vancouver, who was sad to hear about my story. He made a post on his blog expressing his support for foreign librarians’ situations.

I decided to negotiate with UBC, and inquired as to their reasons for advising me not to apply. After a few months of negotiations, I was able to persuade SLAIS at UBC that I needed their admission to pursue librarianship in Canada. I accepted the fact that the school would not approve any of my previous courses and that I would have to complete the entire MLIS program over again.

I began my MLIS degree at UBC in January 2014 and graduated in December 2015. I found those two years emotionally difficult, yet rewarding at the same time. I had the chance to do practicums and co-op positions. I learned a lot at SLAIS; however, I feel this new knowledge could have been gained on the job without requiring a second MLIS. On the other hand, this degree helped me in terms of networking, rebuilding my confidence, and applying for positions. I am truly happy that I completed the program at SLAIS, but I wonder: Was it really necessary to repeat an entire Master’s degree?

What helped me?

There were many people who helped me on this journey, and their support meant volumes to me at the time. I became a member of the British Columbia Library Association (BCLA) and realized the value of volunteering in my field of study for networking, hands-on learning, and enhancing my resume. I have benefited a lot from my BCLA membership in terms of finding a helpful mentor through their mentorship program. My mentor helped me to get my foot in the door of a public library system. In December 2011, I started to work as a Library Clerk at Surrey Public Library (SPL) and was promoted to a Circulation Services Assistant after eight months. Anyone who heard my story at SPL was supportive of my situation. The librarians I met during this time provided me with invaluable insights, advice, and support.

Why am I sharing my story?

I hope that my story familiarizes other foreign librarians in a similar position with the steps it will take to successfully work in Canada. I would not assert that this is the only path, but I believe that my story might be useful for others. Also, it may help library professionals generate suggestions based on the path that is ahead of foreign librarians. We all know that not everyone has the option to go back to school; but I hope that the fact that I could get into an MLIS program here despite already possessing a MLIS degree will help pave the road for other people who choose to do so. I would say that the key to success is perseverance. People truly value this, and if any door in front of you is closed, there should be a key that unlocks it.

During my journey, I have learned that I am not the only person in this situation. Moreover, I have realized that even though it was difficult, foreign-trained librarians who moved to Canada 15 to 20 years ago were able to find librarian positions without any ALA-accredited degree. So what has happened? Which policies were changed? Which decisions were made?

What can be done to help others?

The issue of foreign-trained professionals is not limited to librarians. There are doctors, dentists, engineers, and other professionals in the same situation, but it seems that their professional associations are offering them options. They can take exams and get accredited without returning to school.

Some suggestions for dealing with this issue:

  • An international standard of credentialing
  • Setting up exams for foreign-trained librarians to pass and be credentialed to work
  • Trusting the evaluation of organizations such as ICE at the British Columbia Institute of Technology
  • Offering practicum or co-op opportunities to foreign-trained librarians so they can step into library systems and demonstrate their values and skills
  • Making specific programs for foreign-trained librarians in educational centres to let them choose in which fields of librarianship they want more education. For example, make programs such as the Certificate of Advanced Study at UBC ALA-accredited to serve these librarians
  • Make programs such as CLTP accessible and accredited for these librarians to give them a chance of obtaining an interview
  • Conducting more research on the reason(s) for workplaces not accepting foreign-trained librarians’ resumes to see how the issue can be fixed
  • Requesting foreign-trained librarians transcripts along with their resumes so as to have a better understanding of their previous education in order to determine their suitability for entrance into an ALA-accredited MLIS program

Shideh Taleban is a librarian and Persian cataloger, currently working as an auxiliary librarian in North Vancouver City Library, North Vancouver District Public Library, and West Vancouver Memorial Library.