Big Picture / Education & Curriculum

Library School Mergers

I recently received an email via my library school’s student listserv explaining that our university Provost has asked the library school and the College of Media to explore “integrating their two units.” It is very early in the exploratory process, and certainly not a sure thing yet, but it got me thinking about the possibilities. I don’t know much about the merger idea, but it seemed OK to me: easier access to more classes and professors, additional networking contacts, and perhaps a stronger focus on writing/communication for library students? What’s not to like?

However, it seems my opinion is not shared by everyone. Another library student/employee responded (to everyone): “It will be a horrible disaster for all new graduates who want jobs and will definitely destroy GSLIS itself.” After some brief online searching I found an article in the local newspaper from a few years ago when the exact same merge was proposed. In it, our former dean explained that his main reason for opposing the merge was the possibility of our rankings “plummeting”: “The decision on our side was really about, ‘How would a different structure likely affect our competitiveness?’ It wasn’t a rejection of Media.”

(Image source)

What’s involved in a merger? Is it just a name change or something more? (CC licensed image from Flickr user Daquella manera)

I then started to wonder how other schools have handled mergers in the past. I had recently read about Indiana University’s merger of its School of Informatics and School of Library and Information Science into a single school called the IU School of Informatics and Computing, which seems to me like a success. While Indiana’s merger was recent (2012), still other schools were founded/re-arranged on mergers in the past. For instance, the School of Information Science & Learning Technologies (SISLT) at the University of Missouri was formed in 1997 with the merger of the School of Library and Informational Science and the Department of Educational Technologies.

All of this got me thinking: how does this kind of merger affect the admissions, public perception, and job prospects of a library school and its students? For those of you in merged schools, what effects of the merge do you see? Was your college decision influenced by such information? And for those in independent schools (aka just library science), would you be receptive to a potential merger like the one the University of Illinois library school is facing with our College of Media? In your opinion, how do you think mergers like this affect library education, positively or negatively?

15 thoughts on “Library School Mergers

  1. I’m going to go with negative. I graduated in May from the IU SLIS program a mere month away before the merger. Thank goodness. The merger sounds great in theory, more classes, professors, etc. But in reality, it’s not as easy as that. It’s still the exact same degree with the same classes, they haven’t really advertised taking classes in the other departments at all or added any new certificates. In fact, at the Indianapolis location (IU has two schools, Bloomington and Indy) they cut all the in person classes except for one a semester. It’s an online only degree now. It’s not even a school anymore, it’s a “department” of library science in a school that doesn’t even have library in the title (School of Informatics and Computing).

    I don’t blame any of the professors or anything like that, this merger was mandated by the president of the IU school system who has little to no respect for libraries (he said that libraries were like the horse and buggy, who needed that anymore now that there are cars?). He gave everyone two years to scramble and throw this merger together and the professors and advisors have done everything they can to make this as positive as possible.

    In conclusion, I think if there is years of planning between schools, then maybe there can be a good outcome. But it has to be a merger that everybody wants and everyone will benefit from. I feel I have a fantastic degree from IU’s program but I am damn happy I got it when I did. I wish their merger the best of luck and hope it really does somehow elevate the program.

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    • Hey Erin! You beat me to talking about IU :)

      The merger is interesting. There have been a lot of mixed feelings about it. Although it certainly was forced on ILS, I still think communication about the merger wasn’t really present (beyond empty words and a PR spin). It’s a shame. This could have been a really interesting moment for reflection on librarianship and its relationship with other disciplines.

      The merger hasn’t changed much in anybody’s day-to-day experience except that we are now a department. This is comforting to a lot of people but I also really hope that we gain new opportunities. We could combine the advanced tech skills in informatics with our rare book collections, for instance. Let’s connect those areas and excel.

      I’m interested in library technology, so for me the merger wasn’t alarming. However, I imagine that the students who are interested in public/school libraries might be feeling pretty isolated right now. Again–what an amazing opportunity to bring together the tech skills of informatics and brainstorm about new public library spaces and services! But I just don’t see that happening yet. I hope it will. I would love to see IU innovate and move beyond its comfort zone.

      The merger was going to happen no matter what. There was no avoiding it. But ILS needs to take responsibility for the MLS core classes, which in my mind are outdated and don’t prepare people for the diverse jobs within the field (just public services, if that). I still think that the quality of library jobs available at IU more than make up for the traditional curriculum, but I’m really jealous of places like U of I that have only two required classes.

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      • I agree with Brianna that IU could potentially use the merger to shake things up a bit (something it sorely needs to do). They have plans to add some new certificates, but everything in academia takes a painstakingly long time. I hope IU gets up to snuff and makes some changes for the better, although I’m not sure that’s the direction it’ll go; I’ve already heard tell of some unfortunate initial side-effects like upping the required number of students for electives.

        The problem I see with merging library schools into others, no what the other school, is that there is at least the appearance of pigeon-holing the library curriculum. It’s a widely diverse field and to associate it so closely with Informatics & Computing, or Education, or Media doesn’t do library students any favors. As an aside, I only applied to schools that were Library schools, because I wasn’t interested in education or being overly techie. I probably should not have done that because it sees that those left with the L word are stuck on old definitions. I know getting students to apply is important, but it really shouldn’t be the main reason for or against a merger. It should be about what will most benefit the students and the field.

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  2. You may also want to take a look at the Catholic University of America. They are “integrating” their iSchool into the College of Arts and Sciences, effectively downgrading it to a major as opposed to its own school.

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  3. I can share feedback about CUA SLIS becoming a department within Arts and Sciences. It was also presented as a “let’s think about this” but by the time the students were told, it was essentially a done deal. (Not that they admitted this.)

    I was of two minds about the merger, thinking that there could be advantages to being part of a bigger school, but also concerned about the reasons that were posed for recommending the merger (the reasons, to me, demonstrated a lack of vision for and confidence in the program by the provost). Ultimately, those concerns won the day for me, and I became pretty upset with the idea of the merger.

    Of course, it did happen, and we’re now halfway through the first semester of being a department instead of a school. One positive has come since the merger, which is that the program moved from a falling apart building on the far side of campus to the much newer law school building… but that might have happened regardless of the merger (note that the move was to the law school building, not an arts and sciences building).

    This week the schedule of spring classes was posted, and this is where I wonder if negative arts and sciences influence played a part. In past semesters, there have been as many as five classes offered in off campus locations. This fall there were two, and this spring there is only one. Tuition is less for off campus classes. You can draw your own conclusion here, which may or may not be correct.

    Conclusion: not necessarily a bad thing, not necessarily a good thing.

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  4. Drexel University, where I am a graduate student, recently merged three entities into a new College of Computing & Informatics. This included the College of Information Science and Technology (which houses the MLIS program), the Department of Computer Science, and the Department of Computing/Security Technology.

    Since our MLIS program already operated within a broader information science context, I don’t really feel threatened by the change. Ultimately, it supports my existing commitment to digital coursework. I am also reassured to know that there are not any plans to change courses or degree requirements.

    I certainly don’t want to see library science subsumed into generic computer science programs, but I generally feel that library school students stand to benefit from these mergers. In Drexel’s case, the iSchool merged with departments that potentially increase the marketability of iSchool graduates. It is harder for me to see the benefit of merging with a media school, though.

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    • Hi Sam. I was just about to comment about Drexel’s recent merger (September 2013) since I graduated from Drexel’s iSchool last year. I feel a little torn between the merger but its not a “big” merger as IU since Drexel is just merging two departments into the LIS school to form a larger information school albeit focusing more on computing. In Drexel’s case, I think the merger will have a positive impact on current and future graduates. I haven’t heard/read any specific details as to any negatives with Drexel’s merger–which isn’t to say there aren’t any, I just haven’t seen it.

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  5. My worry with the GSLIS/CoM merger is having a library program housed in Media (as Sam commented). Although other mergers have happened and are successful (or on their way to be?) they have merged with Education, Business and Technology — all subjects I believe are already instilled within various aspects of LIS, albeit some more than others. What would it mean to partner with Media? Yes, libraries are transforming and media literacy is more important everyday… but what are the benefits of being tied to a school focusing on Journalism, Advertising, and Media and Cinema Studies (the latter being my undergrad degree)? How would this merger affect recruitment for students not interested in these areas? We have such a wide degree of student interests in GSLIS, I would hate to see those specializations and paths decrease or lose momentum with such a big change with quite a strong community feedback (mostly being negative or worried/concerned).

    Saying that I do see potential and current issues with other mergers, especially when one program may overshadow the other (i.e. CS over Library Science). This has to be a slow transition with clear goals for every step as to discourage such a power imbalance. At this point I believe we have to trust those faculty members put in charge of discussing the issues and continue to spark community discussion by raising these questions in an open space. Some initial comments were quick to judge (as Nicole quoted in this post) and honestly I had similar initial thoughts. After thinking and speaking with others involved, though, I see the dedication to maintaining GSLIS as a credible institution and these discussions will help ensure the final decision will provide the best resources to maintaining that.

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  6. Current Mizzou student here. Unlike some of the other comments here, it does not seem like either part of the combined SISLT particularly overshadows the other. Instead, there is almost no interaction between the students in the two parts of the school (at least at the Masters level, I think the PhDs do a bit more). You almost never see an ed tech person in a library class, in-person or online, and only a couple ed tech classes get many library students (mostly the web development ones). A decade and a half later, and it still feels like two programs that were fused together not by their own choice and that aren’t sure what they actually have to offer each other. Which is a shame, since between the public educational mission of libraries and the ongoing effects technological change has had on both professions, you would think there would be an opportunity here.

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  7. My alma mater, the University at Buffalo, merged the School of Library and Information Studies with the Department of Communications to create the School of Informatics in the late 1990s. The thought was to also merge the Department of Computer Science and other “allied” disciplines into one school which would create “educational synergies” and a means to pool marketing, development, and research funds. Needless to say, it was a spectacular failure resulting in the dissolution of the School of Informatics and the placing of the MLS program on provisional accreditation by the ALA.

    The Department of Library and Information Studies was then merged into the Graduate School of Education. This has allowed the LIS program to rebuild, provided the program with alumni outreach and development support, and finally give the program a voice in the University. Although I was a skeptical alumnus at the time of the merger into the GSE, I see this as a very positive move for the LIS program and the University. The program has gotten stronger, with some more growth and change needed, but it is now housed in a more stable, well funded, unit in the University with the funding and support it needs to thrive.

    Mergers are not necessarily a bad thing, as long as there are benefits for all those involved. Let the University at Buffalo experience be a guide.

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  8. I was at GSLIS just after the last round of these merger discussions happened, and had a similar initial response. As a Master’s student who was interested in the intersections of libraries, media, and journalism, I too saw such a merger as a likely positive for students, which would give us more intersectional opportunities and inject some much-needed diversity into the LIS curriculum. As I got to talking to people over time, I became less certain, though still kind of curious about how it could turn out.

    I think it’s important to note that much of this is an inside-baseball academia thing, and that everyone has different and sometimes divergent interests here. Deans are concerned about administrative independence, reputation, and the continued ability to raise funds / justify the department’s existence. Faculty are looking out for their research, teaching, and funding independence, and in some cases policing disciplinary boundaries in the perceived service of those ends. Doctoral students need an environment in which their research is going to remain supported financially and intellectually long enough for them to finish. Administrators and support staff may have jobs or working conditions on the line. Sometimes those other interests align with those of Master’s students, but not always, and those other interests are generally more permanent and of a higher priority within an academic department. As a Master’s student this often annoyed me, but it is what it is, and it’s easier to deal with once you understand the reasons for it.

    Even from a purely student perspective though, there are big things that could go wrong in such a scenario. In the case of GSLIS, I could see our independent IT environment, and perhaps even the independence of ITD/LEEP (and its associated assistantships) being in danger in such a merger. Those are the kinds of “inefficiencies” that such mergers are often designed to address. There would also be big cultural problems with merging a humanities department with a professional school, and possibly financial ones too, which could erode things like career services and preprofessional opportunities. Finally, if you value the traditional public service library curriculum/research track (which is already a diminished priority and under even more threat in the future) such a merger probably isn’t going to do it any favors either, as the LIS identity gets even more blurred with informatics, media, etc. In an ideal world that would result in fruitful collaborations and exchange, but in the current zero-sum situation it’s more likely to result in further erosion of the libraries track in favor of sexier things that can bring in more money.

    I think that gives a pretty good summary of the issues as I understood them. I’m sure there’s a lot more I wasn’t privy to, but as you can see, it’s really complicated, and institutions are really under pressure and in flux right now, which has everyone really stressed out and worried for their futures. It’s worth trying to learn about though, both to be a more effective advocate for your own needs as a student, and as a good preparation for navigating the institutions we’ll be going out into as professionals.

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  9. What great thoughts on this complicated subject. This is particularly timely for me, actually, so am very interested in these experiences and insights. I am the Director of the University of South Florida, School of Information, where our Library and Information Science Graduate Program resides as well as a B.S. in Information Studies and a forthcoming M.S. in Information Studies with a focus on Strategy and Information Analytics. As it happens, I am also Interim Director of the School of Mass Communications which has a very large undergraduate degree with tracks in Advertising, Journalism and Telecommunications, and Public Relations. They also have a M.A. in Mass Comm. We are in the early stages of considering a merger into something like the School of Information and Media (no name has been agreed upon at this point).

    The above comments are a great representation of the kinds of thoughts I have been struggling with and have been discussing with my colleagues from each school. It is complex, and while there might be some great potential synergies and benefits, there is also the possibility of stagnation or failure [J. Dunn above is spot on with his assessment of the many different, and often competing interests] We could probably do a sort of administrative merger rather easily. We are in a large Arts and Sciences college and even there we would stand out in terms of student numbers at undergrad and grad levels and credit hours generated. That is a positive in tough economic times with looming cutbacks, sure, but it does not necessarily serve the success of our students or richness of programs we offer. At the undergraduate level, there is indeed a lot of excitement for the merger since the two undergrad programs can complement one another: the tech and IS foundation of the info studies program integrated with the media and content creation of the others. In fact, they are even looking at a potential new undergrad degree focused on visual communication and analytics. At the grad level, there have thus far been less discussions about shared courses, opportunities, or (the eventual goal) a joint Ph.D. program. The MLS is accredited, has clearly delineated student learning outcomes and students that are largely focused on a particular career. The MLS will be augmented/bolstered by the new M.S., to be sure, but that was designed that way and is in the same department. The M.A. in Mass Comm has a different emphasis, as it should. …

    Something that influences my thinking is that I was a graduate student at Mizzou when the SISLT change occurred. In fact, I was the first Ph.D. from the doctoral program that emerged from that reorganization (I was also an informatics fellow in the school of medicine when there were stronger ties between the two). This was right at the end of my MLS program at Mizzou…we were our own separate SLIS then, and I liked that very much and wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of merging. The Provost gave a rather short period of time for the SLIS admin to find a college to join, and I recall it was a rather unsettling time. The CoE was very accommodating, had great faculty and interesting students, and they had some big projects that some of us got involved with. Both SLIS and CoE faculty worked hard to make the SISLT work, and this was in the context of strong feelings from the professional librarians across the state about removing “library” from the name and the future of the program. I guess there have been ups and downs since then, and pros and cons for students and faculty alike… It was certainly something that I felt was positive for me, overall, but I assume others might have had different experiences.

    I hope our faculty and students are able to do more than an administrative merger, that we keep discussions open and honest, and that we evolve into something that stands out as unique and interesting without compromising core principles. A governance structure that builds on the strengths of the past and allows for future innovation will be something we will work hard at doing up front.

    I would love to hear from any of you if you have other perspectives as.
    Jim Andrews

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    • Dr. Andrews, thank you for such a thoughtful response. It’s both heartening and helpful to hear about this process from the other side of the classroom. Has your university made the final decision on the merger, or is it still in the “potential merger” stage? From my experience (and this is nothing new or earthshattering), communication with and LISTENING TO students about the decision-making process and reasons for/attitudes toward the merger is critical to making it successful. And not just after the decision has been made in all but formality.

      Again, these are things you’ve thought of already, but I think it will be helpful to be clear about what benefits a merger can have for the students as well as for the faculty. Think about WHY a merger. Is it just for administrative convenience or is there a broader vision? Sell that vision. Will there be collateral consequences such as technology conflicts (if each program requires students to have access to different, expensive software) that might require higher fees (or even higher tuition). Are there extra-curricular resources and organizations that students will have increased access to by virtue of a merger?

      I hope that your program maintains its success, whether there is a merger or not.

      Becky

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      • Becky,
        We are still in the preliminary stages. I have asked some of the more senior faculty from both schools to form an hoc advisory committee to help me consider issues that might have escaped me (some of which you outlined above). Also, there is another group looking at curricular implications, pros and cons, and I will encourage them to include student leaders in these talks. At USF, our faculty senate and senior administration have policies that must be followed for any restructuring. This is good because it means there has to be a full vetting process throughout the USF System, allowing feedback from faculty, admin, other institutions in our system, etc. Regarding the MLS program in particular, I will discuss this with our advisory board, alum, students, and other supporters of our program.

        thanks for the thoughts!!
        best to you, as well,
        jim

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