Hack Your Program: University of Michigan School of Information

photo credit - Megan Thompson

Emily Thompson is a Montana native who spent a few years as a costume designer before moving to Taiwan and South Korea to teach English. When that got repetitive, she headed to the University of Michigan School of Information. Currently, she is in the middle of her job hunt, but is optimistic that she’s getting close!

*Disclaimer: I am writing this from my perspective and experience. These are my own opinions and not necessarily the opinions of any other students, faculty, or staff. Any criticisms are meant to be constructive. I entered the program in Fall 2009 and graduated with an MSI in LIS in Spring 2011. I chose UM because of its technology classes. It was a chance to marry my love of reading with finally learning how to bend computers to my whim.

We call it SI, and it’s a busy, hectic place full of interesting ideas and dynamic people. It’s worth the price, but knowing how to hack it can help you be ready.

SI is an I-school, so if you’re looking for a traditional Library School it’s not here. There are currently 11 specializations that earn a Master of Science in Information (MSI):

One of the buildings that houses SI.

  • Library and Information Services (LIS)
  • School Library Media (SLM)
  • Archives and Records Management (ARM)
  • Preservation of Information (PI)
  • Human Computer Interaction (HCI)
  • Community Infomatics
  • Information Analysis and Retrieval (IAR)
  • Information Economics for Management (IEM)
  • Information Policy (IPol)
  • Social Computing (SC)
  • Tailored

There’s a new joint program with the School of Public Health in Health Infomatics. It’s also possible to get a dual Masters with the School of Social Work, the Business School, the School of Public Policy, or the Law School. Be warned, this will take at least one extra semester and it’s really hard by all accounts.

Some of the specializations have more requirements than others, so it’s feasible to do two, but make sure you really want to. LIS and ARM overlap a bit, but it’s hard to do both well. PI and ARM overlap best of all. IPol fits pretty well with LIS. But if you don’t want two full specializations, it’s ok. You can take the classes anyway. Your specialization is not on your diploma. If you really want a weird combination of classes, go Tailored.

I’m going to focus on the LIS specialization, because that’s what I have.

Financial Aid:

Plan on loans and at least one job. I just keep reminding myself that I’m going into public service, and maybe some of my loans will be forgiven. Michigan is not known for its scholarships, and SI is no exception.

For a lucky few, there are the University Library Associate Fellowships. These people get experience in the UM Libraries, a tuition waiver, and a stipend. It’s a great deal, but there are only four or so each year. There are also some Public Library Associate positions at the Ann Arbor District Library, so keep your eyes peeled!

There are also Graduate Student Instructor positions to be had, but you have to look for them. There are a few in SI, but more outside of the department. Start with Communications, Screen Arts and English. They’re a pretty sweet deal: tuition, a stipend and some killer benefits.


SI takes 48 credit hours to graduate and nearly everyone does it in two years. That’s four classes a semester at 3 hours each. 8 of those credits have to be Practical Engagement Program (PEP) credits. These come from classes that work with real-world clients and internships.

Everyone has to take the three core classes: 500, 501 and 502.

 500: Information in Social Systems: Collections, Flows, and Processing. Call it a work in progress. At one time it was three separate classes, so it is trying to cover a lot of stuff. When I took it there were three different professors with two of them lecturing on any given day. Last semester it was information overload themed with all 300 students in a historic movie theater. Next year, who knows? Funny thing is, we actually learn something. In other classes someone would inevitably say, “You know it’s like, and I hate to say it, in 500 when we learned about _______.” *sigh* Best viewed as a necessary evil and a great way to meet all the people from the other specializations in your year.

 501: Contextual Inquiry and Project Management. One of the GSIs from last year called this class “the big group project one that’s really not that bad.” Another student said, “I don’t know if I learned anything useful for life, but I learned lots of things useful for SI.” At orientation you will be directed to a table with four other people. They will come from across the other specializations. They will have distinct personalities and varied skills. One of them might drive you crazy. They are your 501 team, and you get to work with them for the rest of the semester. It’s a machine clicking along at a breakneck pace. None of the work is hard, but there is a lot of it and getting 5 people on the same page can be trying. It will let you in on all of the department inside jokes, though. An affinity wall is only funny after you’ve done one.

 502: Networked Computing: Storage, Communication, and Processing. (Can be tested out of) Dr. Charles Severance (Dr. Chuck) says it’s his goal to have everyone know just enough programming to talk about it at parties. Everyone comes out of this class knowing Python and some basic HTML and CSS. Yes, even the people terrified of computers. I think the lowest grade I ever heard of was an A-. The entire point is to make computers not scary.

In addition to these three courses, everyone has to take a Management course and a Research Methods course. There’s a list, and most of them count towards a specialization as well.

Finally, everyone has to take a Cognate, a fancy word for a class in another department. This is important. The home department CANNOT be SI. For example, I took EDUC626/SI543 (Principles of Software Design for Learning). It has an SI number, but it’s from the Education school. With so many specializations, you can get tripped up. If it’s outside your specialization, it’s an elective not a cognate. Most people take grant writing over in the School of Social Work. I’ve heard raves about Barry Fischman’s Video Games and Learning class out of the Ed school. I loved 543. But hey, if you’ve always wanted to take an art history class on fashion, why not? Just make sure it’s graduate level.

LIS requires 15 credits from a list of  24 classes including SI647 (Reference). If you look here some of them are bolded as recommended.


If SI does one thing well, it’s internships. They LOVE internships. Every 60 hours of an internship earns you a PEP credit in addition to experience and something cool to put on your resume. There are internships all over the place, so basically all you have to do is ask. Once you’ve got one the Career Development Office will get you credit.

The easiest/best way to get the rest of your PEP credits is by doing a 6-credit (360-hour) internship over the summer. A 6 credit internship can be tacked on to your fall tuition, which saves some money. It’s up to you to set it up though. I spent my summer at the University of Guam. Other people worked at the AADL, went to Ireland, went to Egypt, or worked at libraries in their hometown. The sky is really the limit. All you have to do is prove that you learned something new and blog every couple of weeks.

 Student Involvement:

There are a good number of student groups at SI. In addition to the School of Information Student Association (SISA), almost every specialization has a group. They do vary in terms of activity, usually depending on the officers for that year. For example, last year’s ALA started OK, got really busy with other stuff and forgot to organize anything, and then finished really strongly with a great “Day in the Life” panel and a coffee hour with the faculty. The Society of American Archivists on the other hand had something going on almost every week. Meanwhile the Special Libraries Association organized a mini unconference and some fun joint happy hours. It’s all in the officers.

Last year was the very first SI Day of Service. About half the school spread out across the area to help out 826michigan, the Ypsilanti Historical Society, FoodGatherers and more. It was pretty amazing, and it’s set to happen again this year.

 Why SI?

#1 Techie stuff. Let’s face it, librarianship gets more technical every year. Being in a program like SI means you can take the programming and usability classes that make you into the kind of person libraries want.

#2 Alternative Spring Break. Want to work at NARA? How about the Library of Congress? The Folger Shakespeare Library? The New York Public Library? The Shedd Aquarium? That can be arranged. $25 (+food and entertainment) gets you a trip to New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, or Detroit and an internship for a week. It’s an amazing experience and everyone should go at least once!

#3 Support. Kelly Kowatch and Joanna Kroll run the Career Development Office for the express purpose of getting students hired. They are really great at their job. They will critique your resume, read your cover letters, and help you practice your presentations for that final interview. The CDO is an incredible resource, and by far worth the price of tuition.

#4 Xiao-Wen Zou. She’s the person to talk to about cognates, scholarships, and your schedule. She’s also very kind, helpful and good in a crisis.

#5 Awesome professors.

Kristin Fontichiaro, Karen Markey, Paul Conway,  and Dr. Chuck are a few of my favorites.


SI is going through some growing pains right now. Some of the higher ups keep saying things like “Specializations aren’t as important to the faculty as they are to the students.”  My impression is that there’s a vision of a specialization-less utopia where people from all the disciplines work together to bring information, technology and people together in more useful ways. That sounds awesome, but I worry that the LIS and ARM students are working toward very specifically named professions. I agree that we need to branch out. That’s why I took Databases, Design of Complex Websites and Usability. I think it’s important that librarians have those skills. However, we need the LIS and ARM attached to our degrees, and we need to have the traditional classes respected and encouraged.

 Hacking SI:

No one knows the names of any classes so learn the numbers. This is what the Student Lounge sounds like:  “501 is kicking my butt right now. It wouldn’t be so bad, but I have 665 on the same day!” “At least you’re not in 572 as well! I’m so glad to have 624 for a little piece of sanity!”

Play well with others. SI loves group projects. I had a semester-long group project every semester. My last semester I had two. This does not include the shorter group-projects that also pop up.

Get your share of the work done on time. You don’t want to be that person that everyone dreads having in their group. SI moves fast and everyone is busy. Even if your work is always awesome, people will get annoyed if they have to worry because you’re always late. Word will spread and you’ll have trouble finding a group for the next project.

Planning ahead is important. Everyone I know wishes they had more time to take all the classes they wanted to. By the end of your first semester, you really need to have a clear(ish) idea of what kind of librarian you want to be.

For your research methods, go for 622 (Usability). 623 (Outcome-Based Evaluation) is, um, disorganized? 622 on the other hand has proven incredibly useful. It’s taught by Mark Newman and/or Tom Finholt and both are pretty awesome.

Take advantage of office hours. Your professors are there to help when you get lost. Going to office hours has never been a waste of my time and always helped me get back on the right track.

Sign up for advising times early, they go fast. Since there are no assigned advisors, it’s up to you to figure out who you want to talk to. Sign up as soon as the notification goes out. Also watch for peer-advising by the student groups. It’s like Hack Your Program, but live!

For most students, the PEP credits work out like this: 501 (3 credits) + 360 hour internship over the summer (6 credits) = 9 PEP credits. For students doing SLM with a valid teaching certificate, they work out like this: 501 (3 credits) + 180 hours student teaching (3 credits) + 623 (1 credit) = 7 PEP credits. Note that this is one shy of the eight you need to graduate.

Start looking for a work-study job around July. My biggest regret is that I missed the boat on all the reference positions. It’s hard to get a job in the libraries as a second year because they want to train people who will be there for 1.5-2 years.

Send the si.all.open listserv go to it’s own special folder in your gmail. Unless you enjoy getting 87 emails a day about punctuation.

If your Python code isn’t working, you’re missing a colon somewhere.

Last but not least: Go to class. Do your homework. Get it in on time. While you’re in class, pay attention. The professors can tell when you’re on G-chat and they’ll like you better if they know you want to be there. Oh, and you’ll learn more.

10 replies

  1. Yay, thanks for your insight! I did my undergrad at UM and was very disappointed to not be granted in-state tuition for the iSchool, otherwise I absolutely would’ve gone. I love that there are so many specializations, but agree that they can get confusing and overlap–maybe if they reduced/combined some?

    I also think its a good idea to make programming mandatory. My best friend just graduated from UM and while she was initially terrified of programming, she said it ended up being very useful and she’s used it in a handful of jobs since.

    Also, another perk of the iSchool: ANN ARBOR. I love love love Ann Arbor (yes, you will get used to snow). Buhh, you’re making me jealous that I didn’t end up going!


  2. I was just wondering who was going to hack SI when your post popped into my reader! I think you hit the nail on the head with the five best things about the program and accurately highlighted the weaknesses in the program. Two things I would point out as big differences between SI and other schools offering library specializations are the number of credit hours to complete the degree and the lack of distance learning or online courses. I also loved that you talked about the Service Day. What I loved about the Service Day is that it shows how just a little bit of knowledge about information services and technology plus a few hours can make a big difference in a community.


  3. Awesome post Emily! I agree with you on most counts… the main draw for SI is the technology focus, by far. Thanks for writing this up… I was wondering who was going to do it!


  4. Hi Emily! I enjoyed your post and am already feeling a bit nostalgic for SI. (Sort of.) I think this will be really helpful for students considering or starting SI. 🙂


  5. A very informative post, Emily! I enjoyed reading your perspectives on the program. The SI Day of Service sounds like a great idea. I’d love to learn more about it.


  6. I’m going to make a couple of quick updates for 2015:

    You only need 6 PEP credits now and but you don’t get any for 501. So you can do all of your PEP credits with 360 hours of internships over the summer.

    Your specialization isn’t part of your degree. It’s the elevator speech to explain your degree. Everyone graduates with an MSI.

    Information Policy (IPol) is no longer offered.

    Alternative Spring Break- they do the fundraising a little differently each year. Last year you could donate $150 or fundraise $300, and this year everyone paid $164 after we fundraised a few thousand dollars. It will probably be different next year.

    Also, Xiao-Wen is gone, which is very sad. But Katie Dunn is there and she is awesome!

    The rest of this is still valid. UMSI is a great school, and as I wade into the job pool, I’m really glad I have the experiences that UMSI provides.


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