Hack Your Program: University of Washington – Information School

Mary Gates Hall - Seattle, WA

You may remember my post asking for help to Save the UW iSchool. Well, the all clear has sounded and the iSchool is safe for another year. Here’s my hack into the program itself rather than the politics that put it into jeopardy. As always, these are my views and opinions and I’d love to hear other UW students and alum’s experiences as UW iSchoolers.


The University of Washington iSchool is located on a beautiful campus in Seattle. It is housed on the third and fourth floors of Mary Gates Hall which is conveniently located near Suzzallo Library. The iSchool currently offers several degrees:

  1. Undergrad program – Informatics
  2. MLIS – Master of Library & Information Science (residential and online)
  3. MSIM – Master of Science in Information Management
  4. PhD in Information Science

There’s also a one-year Law MLIS program which accepts maybe 8 students every year. To be completely honest and open, I am going to focus on the MLIS residential degree because that was my niche in the iSchool. I wish I had more knowledge of the other programs, but I don’t (see Criticisms below).


The UW iSchool is on the quarter system, so we start in October and finish in the middle of June. A small number of classes are offered in the summers. Nine core requirement courses exist for the program – they are “organized around the lifecycle of information” (direct quote from the website and several instructors). Along with these core courses come some absolutely fantastic (according to me) electives like Marketing and Planning for Libraries and Advocacy in the Public Library and Adult Reader Services with Nancy Pearl or David Wright and Intellectual Freedom in Libraries. Ok. I’ll stop there, but here’s the link for all the other electives offered. They’re really wonderful!

These electives (and required courses) are offered online and residentially; however, it seems that more and more classes are being offered online more often than residentially and it is somewhat disappointing to have moved across the country and sit at my computer to listen/watch/interact with classmates who live nearby. My personal preference is to sit in a classroom and have a great discussion – I haven’t been able to do that online yet.

Along with the electives, there are opportunities to do independent studies as well as Directed Fieldwork – DFW – (essentially, and internship or practicum). Personally, I think the DFW should be a requirement and I would even go so far as to say that an MLIS student should be required to complete a DFW in a library setting as well as a non-library (yet still IS) setting.

Simultaneous (dual-degree?) programs exist at the iSchool, however, they are not “common”. A couple of people enter the iSchool and the Evans School of Public Affairs. Others work toward their MLIS and Museology degrees.

Last but not least, there is a Culminating Experience. This could take many forms including a thesis, capstone project (with a group or solo), professional portfolio, or research project. The capstone project is the newest option and the option I would have loved to choose had I not been graduating early. It requires you to not only design and plan project but also put it into motion, evaluate it and then present about it. In any event, I did the professional portfolio and this is mine.

Financial Aid

Along with the typical loans offered by FAFSA, the UW iSchool and UW itself have several Fellowships, Graduate Assistantships and Work Study positions available. These range in areas from sitting at the front desk to being a research assistant for a professor to teaching classes to undergrads at the library to maintaining the course web sites. Email are sent out to announce open positions and they’re a wonderful financial support and resume booster.


The people. My colleagues at the iSchool are absolutely amazing. When I shared the photo of the iSchool above, I really wanted to put this picture — this is the iSchool, folks. Where the classes, lectures, readings, etc., fall short, the discussions, informal study groups, Facebook posts, somewhat nerdy happy hours and coffee breaks make up for it. The passion I see in iSchoolers is second to none. They really are the best.

Close proximity to strong, well-supported (by the community) academic, special, corporate libraries and public libraries is an absolute boost to this program. With the UW Libraries employing many iSchoolers part-time, we have the opportunity to work with some of the best academic librarians around. And along with the academic library experience, many of us also find time to volunteer at special libraries (Seattle Art Museum) or the public libraries (such as Seattle Public Library or King County Library System).

And, for those who pursue their MLIS and decide working in a library might not be their best option, the school is in close proximity to IS institutions in Seattle. When I say “close” I mean – they’ve got the “connections” to get you in there for DFW opportunities and eventually jobs.


Because the University of Washington iSchool is an iSchool, it’s main focus is information. This has its strengths and weaknesses. I appreciated it because I had the opportunity to have conversations broader than Libraries, but when it was time to focus on something like (let’s say Library management), my instructor had never worked in a library! This is not the case all the time, but it does happen (and I know it happens in other schools).

I’m a huge advocate for big tent librarianship and big tent library school, and I want to be an advocate for iSchools, but there’s a disconnect between the programs in the UW iSchool. MSIM students don’t share classes with MLIS students and Informatics students do something else completely. If our passions all lie within the lifecycle of  information and its role in other people’s lives (whether we deal with that directly or indirectly doesn’t necessarily matter), shouldn’t we have some sort of unity? I’ve seen reason to hope the UW iSchool is moving in that direction, but I want to see more.

And with that, I leave it up to my colleagues (all of you) – what questions do you have? And hopefully my colleagues at the iSchool will give their perspective!

12 replies

  1. Is it really a requirement to be a knitter or an alcoholic for the program? Yeah, yeah, blame the weather…


    • Ha! No. Not a requirement to be a knitter or an alcoholic. Just a suggestion 😉 (KIDDING!) It’s true that we do form many events around alcohol because it’s convenient (tables, food, drink, music, etc.), but that’s not the main reason folks meet up.


  2. I second the point on the iSchool’s strength being the people there. Ya’ll are a great group of folks! The welcome I got from the iSchoolers as a colleague upon my return to Seattle was fantastic. It really helped may my spring break awesome!


  3. If I’m going to be honest, I have to say that my experience at UW’s iSchool has been a pretty even split between incredibly good and terrible not so good. This might have something to do with the fact that I’m an online student, but many of my classes (mostly the electives) have been amazing. Top-notch teaching, inspiring discussion, and well-worth my tuition dollars. I still get excited when I think about those experiences.

    Unfortunately, many of the classes have been awful. Unresponsive teachers who don’t seem to know much about what they’re teaching felt like a slap in the face. I expected to go to grad school and be intellectually stimulated by EVERY. SINGLE. INSTRUCTOR. I wouldn’t complain if there had been one or two disappointments. Those odds aren’t that bad. But I’m paying good money to this institution. Each class should be delivered with excellence in mind.

    So while I’d also like to see a lot more cohesion between the programs at the iSchool, even more I’d like to see a stronger dedication to providing top-tier instruction.

    I want to end by saying that I do LOVE this school, and I am so happy that I’ve gone through this program (2 more quarters left…). I wouldn’t choose differently had I to do it all over again. I would avoid certain classes, however.


  4. I’m a dMLIS grad (2006) who recently found this blog because I’ve recently started working again (part-time) after a few years’ hiatus to be a stay-at-home mom. Love the idea by the way. I hope you keep it up. I’m subscribing and have found the posts very interesting.

    The distance program had its ups and downs and I learned a lot about connecting with people remotely…the good and the bad. That experience really helped me later when I worked for a Los Angeles magazine while living in Washington, DC.

    Not every class was amazing, but there were no classes I didn’t like. (I didn’t especially connect with cataloging but that had nothing to do with the course, just my own interests.) Overall I found my experience as a distance student to be very rewarding in the sense that I shaped so much of my own practical experience in my own environment–at the time I was working full-time as an editor in Salt Lake City. Fortunately my boss was very flexible and let me complete a few different internships (DFW) for credit at nearby libraries.

    Not long after graduating I moved across the country (DC area). I graduated in June and had started looking for jobs in January. By the time I landed my librarian job in the DC area (collection development at a community college) I had spent about 9 months applying to a total of about 100 jobs–kept a color-coded spreadsheet record of all the rejections. That was a rough time.

    I think my online portfolio and directed fieldwork were by far the biggest factors in landing that first job. In particular, the collection development course assigned a mock collection project, which was part of my portfolio. Since then I have had 2 kids, taken a break from library work, and am back doing a little bit part-time this year.

    It’s my dream career and I wish sometimes I were better at juggling work and family, but that is neither here nor there. Overall I think the iSchool prepared me well for entering the field. I would have loved the opportunity to be a residential student and establish better relationships with my co-students and professors. Fortunately I have kept in touch with a couple of fellow students, though–very unfortunately–no professors. Since the overwhelming majority of my communication was e-mail, I just never established a real bond with any of them, not even the one who evaluated my portfolio.


  5. By the way, when I was there, the distance program had a “residency” (or whatever they called it…something like residency) at the beginning of each quarter. I assume they still do it. For a few days everyone came to Seattle, mingled with classmates, met as classes, got together for group projects, etc. That was an absolute necessity. If I had been doing group projects with people I had never met in person, it would have been so much less satisfying and less workable, I think. I really enjoyed getting to know those people and seeing them every couple of months over the 2 years I spent at UW. It was also nice to have the traditional classroom lecture/discussion experience at the beginning of the quarter even if only for a few days. I felt like I got a much better sense of the professor’s personality and approach by being there in person.

    And on that note, one negative I can think of of the dMLIS format is that the online lectures could really be ridiculous. There were a few professors who were GREAT at them, utilizing slides while adding additional information. Then there were the ones who put up PowerPoint slides and read directly from them. Those were the lectures that didn’t get watched, because why spend an hour doing that when you can just download the lecture slides and read them yourself? I suppose that bad lecturing protocol is the same with residential programs–I certainly had a few profs like that in college–but the “read the slides out loud” method is especially dreary when you’re sitting alone in front of a computer with the audio piped in through tiny speakers. Much better to print out the slides and read them outside in the sunshine.


  6. My big complaint about the UW program is the size. To all the UW people reading this please don’t get me wrong – I am glad to have met all the people I have met in the program and wouldn’t give you up. But… I pictured graduate school as small classes and more personal attention from professors. The fact that we had classes with the entire cohort blew me away. A 74 person class in graduate school? That seems crazy to me. Even the 30-35 person classes we had seemed to big. Most of my undergrad classes at University of Oregon were smaller than that. 30 was a big class for me. Maybe that was because of the program I was in, but still, it was much better. That being said, we managed to have some great discussions despite the large size of the classes. These were the best part of the program for me.

    My next critique is more about library school in general. I feel like some of the stuff was bogus (theories of information behavior felt like a bunch of people trying desperately to be taken seriously), some of it was common sense, and some of it was better learned by doing. However, there were some classes I got a lot out of.

    Reader’s Advisory with Nancy Pearl was fantastic – it shifted how I think about recommending books.

    Information Structures through XML with Bob Boiko was one of my favorite classes and I recommend it to anyone going through this program. It will change how you think about the web and give you valuable insight into good web design and page structure.

    The History of Recorded Information with David Levy was fascinating, thoughtful, and fun. Everyone needs a fun class during library school and this one fits the bill. If you like geeking out over book history or learning about the way documents have changed over the course of time you’ll like this class. You also get a very open ended project to work on – you choose an object/collection/document/book that interests you (examples are those pressed pennies from tourist destinations, letters between a serviceman and his girlfriend/fiancee/wife, a photo collection, and artists’ book, a Quaker anti-slavery pamphlet, the two dollar bill) and study it and write about it.

    Also, I highly recommend you take classes outside the program. The Textual Studies program has a great class called Printed Texts. It’s a blend of book history and critical theory. (Notice a theme in the classes I took for “fun”?)

    And DXARTS 511, Digital Humanities is possibly the best class I took in graduate school. You learn how to apply digital tools to humanities research by picking a research topic that interests you and pursuing it over the course of the term. I chose to learn how to gather and analyze Twitter data using the programming language Processing. The freedom to pursue a topic of personal interest in any manner you choose is fantastic. And the instructor, Stacy Waters, is fantastic, supportive, and very knowledgable. I cannot recommend this course highly enough. Also, it was only five students, only two of us from LIS, so you get a close experience with people from a variety of disciplines (we had someone studying a 19th century Turkish novel, another at a travel diary, one working with glass lantern slides from the Seattle Municipal Archives, and one working on developing a web guide to podcasting for ESL students).

    My one warning is more general – seriously consider your career options before doing an MLIS. As I look for jobs it becomes more and more apparent that geographic mobility is very important to finding that first job and I’ve struggled with the decision of whether to stay somewhere I love and have a less than perfect (and probably non-library) job or move somewhere new to get my career started.


  7. Thanks for this awesome post! I live in Seattle but haven’t attended an MLIS info session yet but this has been so helpful in the meantime in giving me some perspective about the program. I’m applying for next Fall.


  8. Firstly – I am a different Poppy from the one who already commented – I didn’t realise there were two of us! I’m in the residential program and will graduate in Dec 2013

    I just wanted to update some of the info in this post:

    MSIM and MLIS do, in fact, share some classes: the INFX series is cross-program and encompasses the tech courses in databases, networks, XML etc MLIS students have to take at least one tech core class, so you can expect to be in a class with MSIM students at least once during your degree.

    Also, as of this year, the Capstone project is a requirement – no more portfolio or degree research projects.

    Capstone is another opportunity to work with MSIM students to create groups with a good broad base of skills to best address a real life project.


    • CORRECTION: Sorry, it is the thesis and professional portfolio options that are being phased out. I believe the options are now a Capstone project or a degree research project.


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