Too Much Structure or Not Enough?

No librarian, me.

No librarian, me.

I confused some people when I said that I was going to library school, but that I wanted to be an archivist. I developed my passion for archives when I was an undergrad, and that was the specialization I was going to the pursue in library school. I’ll just come right out and say it- I had no interest in becoming a librarian. Man, that feels good to get off my chest.

This doesn’t mean that I’m entirely devoid of librarian skills. Maryland requires 12 credits of core classes (out of 36 total) for all MLS students, so there are plenty of opportunities to intermingle. It’s been fascinating to learn about the different approaches librarians and archivists take to similar issues such as long-term preservation, or the differences in user interactions.

After those 12 credits, though, it’s harder to get that useful cross-specialization interaction. Many of the specializations at Maryland are adding more required courses, and becoming more strictly prescribed. Online cohorts in the general and e-government tracks, as well as the school library track and the archives/digital curation double specialization, are completely or almost completely set programs, with no chance for electives. And there are signs that the other specializations will follow suit. There are fewer and fewer opportunities to take classes with students from other cohorts as you go through the program.

“That’s excellent,” I hear you say. “Having a plan ahead of time takes the stress out of course selection, and you know from day one the sort of topics you’ll be covering. I love it.”

Whoa, Skippy. Let’s stop and think about this for a second. An entirely structured graduate program might be great in a STEM field- a you must learn X, Y, Z in that order kind of thing. But an MLS degree is much more fluid.  What happens when you get into the workplace and have to work with say, an archivist, but you can’t understand why they’re more concerned about temperature controls than the serials budget?  The ability to work across fields is vital, but gets lost when the student doesn’t get the chance to choose to break down those barriers. Or on a more practical level, what happens when you decide to change specializations- say when you decide you don’t want to be a school librarian anymore and want to pursue the e-government track? Are you willing to start from scratch because you haven’t taken the courses in the prescribed order?

One of the courses I’m taking this semester is a computer programming class where I’m learning Javascript (I know! So cool!). I consider this important cross-training- I want to be able to not only do some of this stuff myself, but also to be able to speak the language of the people who I may collaborate with on building systems in the future. On the other hand, I had to think long and hard about using three of my nine precious elective credits on something that was completely outside of my field. In the end, I decided the new skill set was more important, and I think I made the right decision.

On the other end of the structure spectrum, I’ve talked with colleagues from University of Texas- Austin and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, programs that require just one or two core courses. They enjoyed the ability to shape their own curriculum while still learning their trade. In fact, in the course of writing this article, nearly every student I talked to treasured the idea of being able to shape their own curriculum. Why wouldn’t someone who wants to be a music librarian, for example,  want the space to take the courses in the music department that they think are relevant?

So where are these calls for greater standardization coming from? And who do they really benefit? These standardized programs may benefit the professional image of the field, but do they produce a better MLS candidate? Britt and Nicole have both touched on great ways to shape your own curriculum- but what happens when students don’t have that opportunity?

There are a thousand questions to think about in this area, and I could go on all day. But let’s hear from you- what are your experiences with structured curricula? Are you in favor, or would you rather have more choices of topics to pursue?

21 replies

  1. I think this is an issue across disciplines related to administrative and financial decisions. With university budget cuts, administrators are hesitant to offer courses that might only attract several students. Tracks and required sequences provide a guarantee that students will enroll in the offered classes (and bring in money, of course).


  2. When I attended Simmons, there was only one true elective for archives students. It was brutal, for the flexibility and networking reasons you talk about. I don’t understand a ton about true librarian work and I met maybe 2 librarians in my archives courses (bonus points to them for trying out the intro classes!), so I still feel like there’s so much I don’t know. But there’s lots of learn about archives, too, and after a year and a half in the workforce, I’ve used most/all of my forced classwork AT work.

    As far as how to survive in such a structured degree, one word: community. I was lucky to have a made a few strong friendships with librarians in core classes and at my campus job, and these continued outside the classroom/office. They don’t mind when I steer our casual dinner conversations towards their day-to-day work (or vice versa). I see fewer librarians at work, but I still try to make sure I understand at least the basics of their work and its overlap with archives. I’m a big believer in creating your own (LIS) community, because it has always paid off for me as long as I contribute back!

    Liked by 1 person

    • A thousand times yes to community! I think it’s critical to forge those relationships both inside and out of your specialty. And it works both ways! You can better understand their work, but they can also better understand yours — the simplest and most human form of advocacy for archives and archival training.


  3. I wish my school, Valdosta State University, had more tracks and specializations. Aside from my core classes (intro, reference, management, and cataloging – all courses that I think are relevant for archivists as well), I’m completely making up my own curriculum based on courses I’ve seen required at other schools that do have tracks that interest me. I’m taking courses from the “technology” track, “cataloging” track, and beyond. Of course, the real issue here is that limiting coursework also limits job possibilities and skills. It’s a tough economy out there and it’s best to be as well-rounded as possible while also having the necessary specific skills. If I had my way, I would end up as a museum librarian or registrar/collections manager, so traditional librarianship doesn’t necessarily apply to me. But, I should note that I’m likely going to end up taking a couple of courses beyond the required amount of electives “just because” I’m either interested or think they offer skills to qualify me for a range of jobs – cataloger, digital archivist, etc. However, I do think it’s what you make of it, and sometimes it’s up to you and your fellow classmates to forge those bonds.


  4. One of the reasons I chose Florida State University’s iSchool for my MLIS is the flexibility it offers. FSU folded its IT and LIS departments into one iSchool before I started here in summer 2013 (the university now offers an MLIS and an MSIT), and while I don’t know anything about the politics of the change, it seems to have benefited MLIS students by giving us a greater variety of technology-oriented electives from which to choose (without requiring us to choose any of them). Also, FSU requires “only” 12 credit hours of core coursework, with 24 hours of electives, giving students a lot of flexibility to specialize and room to breath. In contrast, Kent State University, where a good friend goes, requires six core courses and has fewer online electives/tracks. I’d say that LIS schools should be as flexible as possible, but with lots of guidance to help students choose coursework to match their needs and interests. I applaud Urbana’s and Austin’s approaches, and I’d be frustrated if I had to follow a set schedule.


  5. This posting intrigued me, and so I went to the Maryland iSchool’s website. I notice that they have essentially what amounts to a “grow your own program” (Individualized Program Plan – Other than the core + field study, it gives you up to 21 credits of anything you want – and that includes being to take some classes outside the iSchool, as well as some of the archives and digital curation classes (if you wanted to get some archival/curation skills). So if the concern is too much structure, why not simply take that route? Seems to me that there’s more flexibility in the program than this post might suggest.


    • Hi Jack- I didn’t mean to imply that the entire program has become inflexible. However, the specializations certainly have. As an example- the archives specialization has gone from 18/36 required credits when I entered the program last year, to 27/36 this year. That’s a pretty huge shift.

      And again, specializations are meant to be just that- specialized. And clearly it works for some people. But at the same time, that rigidity doesn’t work for everybody. That’s all I was trying to get at.


      • Hi Jack and Steve,

        I’m a few weeks into the online cohort that Steve mentions at UMaryland. I can’t speak to the individualized program plans (though they do sound wonderful), but I can say for certain that the online program is totally set. The only area that isn’t meticulously laid out is my internship in the final semester. As I understand it there aren’t enough of us to populate a wide variety of online-only classes.

        Steve is right that there is a certain amount of stress-relief in this, particularly as I’m doing this degree while working full time. But he’s also right that it feels constricting. My initial plan had been to take in-person classes and specialize a little more once I got my feet wet but life interfered with this plan. I was grateful I could turn to the online program as an alternative, and with all the insight of seven weeks of study I anticipate that this program will give me what I need to get hired in two years. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t slightly regret the lack of options.


  6. I went to Simmons with Stephanie and, in many ways, I echo her points. The major difference is that while I love information science I discovered that I did not want to work in either libraries or archives. The highly structured nature of Simmons GSLIS didn’t allow for any exploration outside the traditional boundaries of the field. So when I graduated in 2011 I was pretty much left to fend for myself. Working in the Ed-Tech world there are a dearth of information science individuals so I’m now operating in a world that’s the exact opposite of Simmons: unstructured and chaotic. I love it, but it’s a difficult transition to make and one that a highly structured education doesn’t necessarily help with since tracks are usually pretty good at producing one outcome, but not so helpful with variances from the norm.


  7. I like that library schools offer specializations…but I also like that they’re not mandatory. It’s beneficial for some library students to be become generalists, but it’s also good for other students to have more specific goals. The LIS community would be just as lost without its generalists as it would be without its specialists! It’s kind of like how in medical school, you can choose to be a general practitioner or to specialize. Different people, different goals.

    Moreover, though, I think specializations can also be very general. For instance, the classes I’m taking for my technology specialization often prepare me to answer patron questions about the hows and whys of computers. Also, these classes teach me the vocabulary I need to better communicate with the IT department. I chose to specialize because I think it actually broadens my understanding of the LIS field. Still, I would think twice about entering a program where specialization was required–what kind of librarian would I be if I weren’t an advocate for choices and freedom?


  8. Thanks so much for this post, Steve. It addresses a lot of what I’ve been wrestling with in my first ~2 months of “library school” (what a misnomer, eh?). When choosing an MLIS program, I knew that I wanted an archives specialization, but the curriculum itself took something of a backseat to my geographic and financial considerations. So I’ve found myself at an intersection of traditional archives, digital humanities, and academic libraries, in a program that almost entirely “silo”s its archives, library, and info sci students.

    The three broad areas have only 1 core course in common, which serves no one well in its attempt to cater to everyone. Beyond that, the archives track is highly structured with separate core requirements, leaving only 6 elective credits. Other tracks have varying degrees of structure and requirements; we also have an individualized study track where you can mix things up a bit, but then you don’t have the specialization listed on your transcript (side note: does anyone have anecdotal evidence about how important that actually is on the archives job market? The school sells it pretty hard).

    So, I’m learning a ton about how to be a very good archivist, but I’m scrambling to use those electives and my internship/volunteer/”spare” time to effectively learn everything about cataloging, metadata, scholarly communications, reference, museum informatics, copyright, and more. My gut instinct tells me that if we could get more out of those core courses, it would free up more time for us to reach across the aisle, be more well-rounded professionals, and prepare ourselves for positions that don’t always fall into tidy “library” or “archive” pigeonholes (HT @Alex_Berman647), all without sacrificing the solid foundation of our chosen specialty.


    • Your comment about “serving no one well in its attempt to cater to everyone” really rings true for my experience in the core courses at UT-Austin. I know UT is really grappling with how to integrate people’s (often) specialized interests into a coherent course, and also train students in what it considers that fundamentals of “information studies.” The trouble is finding common ground that isn’t so theoretical or vague that no one finds it useful. As an archives student turned academic librarian, I think there is a lot of overlap, but I don’t know how to make that cross-training more institutionalized (if it even needs to be).


  9. “I consider this important cross-training- I want to be able to not only do some of this stuff myself, but also to be able to speak the language of the people who I may collaborate with on building systems in the future.”

    That line says it all. As a librarian/archivist/information scientist/human, you will be working with multiple people in multiple fields with multiple skill sets. Structure is great to a point, but taking at least one cross-listed course (or one outside of your specialization) is invaluable “walk a mile in their shoe” experience. Also a great thing to keep in mind is outside-of-school experience. Feel like your program is too structured on traditional library roles? Volunteer as a tech helper! etc. etc. etc.

    Personally I do not handle a lot of structure well and picked UIUC mainly because of its flexible curriculum. Specializing in one area is great and extremely useful if you are planning on going a certain route (i.e. archiving), but what someone does with that specialization can also vary person-to-person. At UIUC I am specializing in Community Informatics, but am interested in public libraries and youth services. My interests mainly grew over my time in GSLIS, but I am still able to apply seemingly unrelated courses (Community Informatics) to my volunteer work (elementary school library) and my paid work (patron services at a performing arts center) that will progress to a career (youth services librarian!). So far I have not met another CI student interested in working with youth (correct me if I am wrong!), but my program also allows me to take electives like Media Literacy for Youth and Social Justice in Youth Lit so my degree can better match my interests. But again… this may not be best for everyone!


  10. I haven’t had any concerns, personally, over the amount of structure (or lack thereof) at CUA, though I have had the problem (which I very much did not have in law school) of there being “too many” classes that I want to take. CUA has four core classes, and the law librarianship specialty is another three. That leaves five pure electives, which for the most part seems reasonable. (In my case, because I have an advanced degree already, I need to take only 10 classes total, and only two of the three law librarianship classes.)

    In general, I’m trying to view my library school experience entirely as cross-training, though I feel like I’m failing mightily at that attempt. I went into library school assuming that I would become an academic law librarian. Take the core classes, take the law library classes, take instruction, and then… whatever it turns out I would need to take. Instead, I’ve begun envisioning myself as a one-woman information show, with a need to learn about archives and record management and database design and reference and government documents and, and, and. Having four electives is good, but maybe not good enough.

    (Sorry, was this just me rambling on about myself and not really responding to your post?)


    • Anthony, I consider LIS an interdisciplinary field that blends education, research, social work, management, IT, and other areas. Certainly some LIS specialities are more STEM-y (not a word) than others, but I would hesitate to lump a public reference librarian or a school media specialist in with a physicist or engineer. My brother is an engineer, and there is no way any librarian of my acquaintance (even IT) could do what he does daily. At the same time, I recognize that many LIS folks work in IT or web development. So there’s a lot of overlap, and my interpretation’s debatable, but overall I would consider librarianship to be an interdisciplinary social science that becomes what individual practitioners make of it. The flexibility is part of why I love the field.


      • It is not my designation, the National Science Foundation has classified information science as a STEM field. While I agree that our work is very interdisciplinary, I would strongly object to a statement that implies other STEM fields are not interdisciplinary.

        I think the test of whether a librarian could do engineering work is a weak test. As a biologist would likely be equally ill equipped to do what your brother does.

        I think the reason we are a STEM field are manifold. First, our organizational architecture (cataloging) is a science. Secondly, many public librarians (especially children’s librarians) teach STEM through various programs (i.e. Makerspaces & learning labs). Third, we often forget that books are a technology (just not a fancy high tech one), and we have mastered that technology.

        On the other hand, I think an equally valid case can be made that LIS is a liberal arts. My point wasn’t to debate whether we are a STEM field or not, but to point out that STEM experts consider us to be. Which is probably a good thing, and certainly opens the door for libraries of all types to apply for STEM funding (which there is a lot of).

        We, at St. Catherine’s have 18 required hours (36 hour degree) covering a wide range of LIS. The remainder of the courses are at the discretion of the student, with the exception of media specialists who have to fulfill state requirements.


  11. Interesting post! I recently (as of 2 years) graduated from an MLIS program. During my studies, I had no idea which avenue of librarianship I wanted to pursue, and so I appreciated having the basic core classes. Our program was structured so that you had to take 5 core classes, and the rest were electives.

    Working part-time now in a school library, I have a better understanding of the skills and working knowledge that are needed in the field–and the courses that (in retrospect) I wished I could have taken for this and future jobs.

    So I’m for a balance: I like having a select set of mandatory classes that focus on the traditional/core library services (reference services & sources, collection development, management, introduction to cataloguing, etc.), with a choice of electives to follow.


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