Should more LIS programs have a service-learning component?

Though the trademarks of the library profession like bridging the digital divide for children and adults, protecting freedom of information and promoting literacy, connect directly to service-learning, many LIS programs do not have a service-learning component.  Service-learning programs connect LIS students with schools, libraries and other social service agencies to provide volunteer services to the community. In addition to providing volunteer services, students are able to reflect on and evaluate their experiences and create personal best practices for future employment.  Students are usually able to earn school credit through service-learning projects, or can use it as a component of a LIS class. Here is another great explanation of service-learning. Service-learning was an important part of my undergraduate education and in many ways was something that gave me the experience to know I wanted to be a school librarian. Is service-learning something that should be a part of more Library and Information Science program curricula?

The pluses of service-learning for the community are obvious. It supports positive relationships between the school and its community. LIS students provide technology training, literacy programs or other necessary services for neighborhood agencies at no cost. Many organizations depend on volunteer work so service-learning programs encourage the bond between these organizations and dependable volunteers. For those of us in online programs, it gives community based organizations in the places where we live the opportunity to benefit from our skills.

In addition to helping the community, service-learning at its best is mutually beneficial for the participating students.  In my experience, service-learning projects usually give more freedom than an internship to create and implement projects of personal interest, in conjunction with the needs of the community organization. Service-learning also creates the opportunity to resume build and gives that all-important prior experience when applying for jobs. Because service-learning projects are not usually as formalized as an internship, it also makes it easier to experiment with different types of librarianship, especially for those of us who haven’t chosen what to specialize in yet. Evaluation and reflection are an important component of service-learning, which helps us develop real-world skills in assessing the impact of a program or service.

The biggest barrier to participating in service-learning programs seems to be time. Just thinking about trying to fit an on-going volunteer position into my already busy day makes me exhausted. With the option of an independent study that could be tailored toward service-learning, or the choice of where to do an internship, is a service-learning program necessary? Have any of your classes had a service-learning component? What was your experience? Is it something you would recommend for others?

In addition, here are some great resources that I found about service-learning in LIS programs and the connection between librarianship and social justice in general: Service Learning Librarian blog, The Social Justice Librarian blog and This Book is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson (especially the chapters titled How to Change the World and To the Ramparts!)

17 replies

  1. At WSU it’s ‘highly recommended’ that we do a practicum course. Although I understand that making time for them can be tough, I can’t imagine NOT doing one.
    I’m currently working with a professor to connect our Information Management students with a great program in Detroit that helps new technology businesses get off the ground. I’m excited at the prospect of being able to contribute to Detroit’s struggling economy in my own small way!


  2. Wonderful post, Celia! You perfectly articulated just how fantastic service-learning projects can be, for both you and the organization you are helping.

    I participated in service-learning in library school–my experience actually started out as a directed research/independent study (our professor started the program and recruited students), but then it led to a paid summer position, thanks to my professor’s grants for the project.

    I honestly think every lib student should strive to find a meaningful service-learning project in their area of interest; it was one of the best experiences I had in library school. I am so proud of the work everyone did on that project. UA SLIS students went out into the community and taught basic computer skills to people with intellectual disabilities (more here: That project no longer exists, but I believe there are still other professor-sponsored service learning projects at UA SLIS.

    While it’s great that professors are sponsoring these kind of projects at some schools, I don’t see how they could be required, unless the LIS school just has great, extensive, ongoing partnerships in its community (which it should! but maybe not enough to sustain a service learning partnership for each student). I do think professors should definitely integrate it into their classes if they can, and perhaps student groups could start a project or get involved with one. Basically, any way that it can be done, I support it.

    If a service-learning partnership doesn’t exist at your school, and you want to do it, don’t let that stop you. Talk to a professor and see if they’re interested in overseeing your directed research/independent study. Or start a project yourself (volunteer)! Yes, time is a definite constraint, but experience like this is invaluable. If you love what you’re doing, you won’t regret a second of it, and chances are it will lead to a lot of great future opportunities.


  3. To build a little on what Lauren said about schools having partnerships with the community, I know some library managers feel that schools aren’t creating MLIS students with the skills that are required. Service learning would be a great way for the school and local libraries to come to a better understanding about what students should take away.

    My own experience also tells me that service learning projects need not be overly time-consuming. My reference class required us to staff one shift for a text message reference service. We spent two hours, in the comfort of our own homes, using an online interface to answer patron questions.

    Finally, just to plug another relevant post about getting library experience, I asked several Hiring Librarians if they would consider hiring someone without library experience:


  4. I work in an outpatient mental health clinic which serves over 500 individuals. It would be fabulous to have an LIS volunteer work with our clients to increase their technology and literary skills. This would lead to increased success in their ability to navigate their environment outside hospital walls. What a wonderful opportunity for students and receipents alike!


  5. I’m beginning my MLIS in the summer, but I don’t think I would be headed this direction in life if it wasn’t for my experience with service-learning during my undergraduate years. My undergraduate university requires 80 service learning hours to be completed in order to graduate. My service experience didn’t pertain just to libraries, but it helped me learn what I did and didn’t enjoy. I plan to still give my time during my graduate years and after because it is important to be involved in our local communities. I really enjoyed what you had to say and about the benefits service learning can have, and I definitely think some minimum requirements should be in LIS programs.


  6. Very much yes. One of my professors at Simmons (where there are tons of dual degrees in the LIS program and other grad programs) thinks it’s crazy that the library program is housed in the same building as the social work program, and yet that’s not one of the dual degrees offered. I have to agree. I’m giving up the only elective I have in my program in order to do an internship or practicum, and not that that’s a terrible thing, but it would be nice if it were just part of the program rather than something extra that makes me have to sacrifice fun, extra learning in the classroom. I do volunteer work on my own time, but I really think programs should require some sort of service learning, especially for those whose focus in their LIS program is direct services. I think it’s crazy that I’m required to take core classes in management and evaluation but not in service learning when I’m focusing on youth services, for example.


    • Yes! A professor mentioned that some public libraries work with a social worker that helps patrons fill out medicare/medicaid and other government assistance forms online and refers services to homeless and mentally ill patrons, so a duel degree makes a lot of sense. I even read an article about how libraries provide valuable information and safe spaces for people in abusive relationships. Many connections between the two!


  7. At UBC, we have the option of doing what’s called a ‘professional experience’. It’s basically a part-time volunteer/intership working on a specific project, which you get academic credit for. While it means giving up an elective, you’re not really taking on more since you wouldn’t have to do a full load of courses with volunteering on top of that.

    Interestingly, they recently removed the practicum as a requirement of the program, but still give you the option to do it.

    I would not have gotten my current position if not for the various practical experience options offered by my program, so I’m a big supporter and think students really need it, if they don’t have prior experience.


  8. Great post, Celia! My Special Libraries course is project-based, so we have the option of completing a fieldwork project. I’m completing mine at the LGBT Center of Raleigh’s Library. So far, it’s been a wonderful experience for me and a great help to the Center. Since their library is run by a limited amount of volunteers there were many projects that the Librarian didn’t have the time or staffing to complete. For instance, I just finished a resource guide for parents of LGBT youth. Experiences like these are enriching both personally and professionally.

    Since I’m attending grad school full-time and working full-time, it has been rather taxing on me. I can’t imagine doing this every semester, but optional service learning modules would greatly enhance any MLS program.


  9. My program doesn’t have a service requirement, for which I’m grateful. If I’m paying for courses per credit, I’m not crazy about the idea of paying money to volunteer. I’ve been volunteering with a small archive for over three years now and have gotten a lot out of it, but many of my classmates struggle to balance work and school and family life and aren’t necessarily in a position to volunteer until after they’ve graduated.

    But, yes, volunteering is a great way to learn practical skills and distinguish yourself in a job search. I’m glad my school provides a clearinghouse for community service opportunities.


  10. I completely agree that finding the balance between a service-learning project and work,school and family responsibilities is extremely difficult. However, as far as paying money to volunteer, in that respect, it seems the same is expected of unpaid internships, something that is required for many LIS programs.


  11. Excellent post Celia! Though my program also doesn’t offer a service component, engaging in volunteer activities should be a fundamental component for those in library school who are interested in the service area of librarianship. TIME, is a big factor that’s a hurdle that I haven’t been able to overcome, but I’m looking forward to making time this summer and next semester to do volunteer work.


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