Hack Your Program: University of Southern California

If you are a librarian or librarian-aspirant, you are probably already familiar with the current most popular provider of online library and information science education. It’s not USC. However, this may be a good thing for students pursuing their Master of Management in Library and Information Sciences at the University of Southern California.

Before we go any further though, I think it’s a good idea to address the melephant in the post: If you’re thinking that I slipped an extra M in the linguistic equation that usually adds up to MLIS, you’re correct. The University of Southern California offers a Master of Management in LIS rather than a Master of LIS. The differentiation indicates that the program, housed within the Marshall School of Business, emphasizes what I have come to think of as entrepreneurial librarianship. Foregrounding leadership in library and information science, program coursework stresses the need for creative, thoughtful, measured risk-taking in the increasingly collaborative careers to which librarians and various other information professionals are called.

The more experienced readers of Hack Library School—the ones with enough experience to remember not only when our blog began but also when all blogs began—might recall the Master of Library Science degree offered by the University of Southern California from 1936 to 1986. Though the original program was shuttered due to declining funding, the university rebooted the former MLS as the current MMLIS in 2013. The program is therefore the beneficiary of both an established old heritage and an enthusiastic new beginning.

Doheny (small)

The Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Library at the University of Southern California (Wikimedia Commons)

I am in the fifth cohort of students to pursue the MMLIS. We are scheduled to finish our coursework this spring. Together with the cohort before, which finished in fall, and the cohort after, which finishes in summer, we will be the second graduating class to earn the new degree. As of this writing, the program is comprised of 54 students under the academic supervision of 11 faculty members. Despite the relative newness and the relative smallness of our program, I can only attest to my own experience. What follows are my insights from my experiences, and both the experiences and the insights are mine alone.


Let’s begin with some of the questions I remember wanting answered when I was choosing a program.

What will I study?

The MMLIS currently moves students through an established set of classes. No elective options are offered as of this writing due to the small size of the program. The course of study may vary in sequence from cohort to cohort and person to person, but essentially the program looks like this:

  • GSBA 502: Management Communication
  • LIM 500: Introduction to Librarianship
  • LIM 501: Introduction to Leadership in Librarianship
  • LIM 502: Collection Development
  • LIM 503: Cataloging
  • LIM 504: Research Methods
  • LIM 511: Instructional Design
  • LIM 552: Strategic Information and Competitive Analysis
  • LIM 562: Library and Information Science Technologies
  • LIM 591 A-E: Research and Professional Applications
  • LIM 598: Capstone Project

Nothing shocking, I think. I’ve found that it provides broad-base introduction to most areas of library and information science, albeit with an emphasis on librarianship. 

It’s worth noting that the LIM591 series is a sequenced set of Pass/Fail courses designed to build practical management skills over the duration of your time in the program. Early classes instruct in project management. Later classes require the implementation of earlier instruction: LIM 591D requires the development and execution of an independent study; LIM 591E offers the opportunity to intern. Also worth noting, LIM 598 is dedicated wholly to the construction of a digital portfolio, offering evidence that you’ve mastered established program goals aligned to industry competencies (read: “It’s better than a thesis.” Unless you like theses, I guess. I’m not a fan.). The list adds up to three courses per semester for five semesters, which is the usual plan.

How hard will it be?

If three courses at once sounds like a lot to manage to you, I’ll admit that at times it can be. Generally though, professors are accommodating when due dates conflict, and classes seem arranged to complement each other as much as possible, allowing sometimes for conveniently economical overlapping work on research projects. 

You’ll have to consider the demands of your life apart from the program. For those of us with flexible or part-time employment, coursework for the program has generally filled our off hours. For those of us with full-time jobs, coursework for the program has sometimes required the use of vacation days or sick days. For those of us with young children or other particularly time-consuming family obligations, it’s been a struggle.

Apart from the workload, the rigor of the program varies as it usually does: differing from class to class and from professor to professor. Some of us struggled through the presentation-heavy management classes. Some of us struggled through the statistics-heavy research methods class. Some of us struggled through cataloging (Oh, cataloging!). Again, however, the professors are reliably supportive. One of the virtues of being in a small program is that it’s not hard to get attention when you ask for it. 

What are the faculty like?

In a single word: helpful. I won’t pretend that personalities and instructional styles don’t vary, but the single theme that gets repeated most often is some version of: “I want you to succeed. Communicate with me, and I’ll work with you.”

What are the students like?

In a single word: diverse. That may be a stretch in some ways because, of course, we are all laboring in pursuit of the same degree and we are all able to marshal the intellectual and the financial resources necessary to do so. But I am continually struck by the variety of backgrounds and experiences and aspirations in my classmates. Gender, ethnicity, age, social class, geographic location, background: lots of variety, for sure. More striking, however, is how many different branches of library and information science are represented in our career goals. Despite what has seemed at times to be a fairly traditional curriculum, so many of us are planning to pursue careers using the information science portion of our degree that class conversations inevitably cover a spectrum of subjects. The diversity of perspectives has added infinitely to the quality of my educational experience. I can’t promise that every cohort will be as diverse, but there’s at least a possibility that the same demographic pattern (or lack thereof) may continue. 

How much will it cost?

A ton. A metric ton of money. Maybe a pound of flesh too. No, really just all the money—at least all the money that you can borrow from the federal government.  

The up side: as of this writing, the expense of the university is somewhat offset by the program’s provision of all your textbooks as well as an adorable little iPad to read them on. It’s not the cost of tuition, but it does help take the sting out of starting the semester. 

How hard will it be to get in?

I am not an admissions officer, and I can’t really answer this question. But, if you’re concerned, I will note that when I applied, I wasn’t required to submit scores for the GRE. I was, however, required to submit a brief personal statement, and it has since become clear that they read it attentively. 

Would you choose this program again?

Yes. A thousand times, yes. I’m not quite finished with the program yet, so I haven’t converted this education into the career I hope it will become. All the same, my experience has been positive. I was not new to graduate-level education, so I have some grounds for comparison. The MMLIS at USC is not a perfect program, but that’s okay. I’m not sure any program is perfect. What I love most about this particular program is that the people in charge seem genuinely committed to my success, now and in the future. In my experience, that’s not always the case—and it’s worth trading off a lot of electives to get. 

Are you sad that it’s just an online program?

Truly, not even a little bit. I’ve taken traditional face-to-face classes, I’ve taken blended classes, and I’ve taken online classes. I’ve had good experiences in all three, and I’ve had bad experiences in all three. I am convinced that the techniques of the instructor and the characteristics of the students have more to do with the overall quality of the experience than does the location of the class meeting.

I’m not sure about other programs, but the MMLIS requires engagement in synchronous whole-class meetings (we call them LiveSessions) using Adobe Connect. Beyond that, collaborative groups meet semi-regularly for video chats using Google Hangouts. Presentations are either recorded or done using a live stream. And most of the groups I’ve worked with group-text on an almost daily basis with questions, guidance, and general trash-talk during class. It’s an online program, but the connections I’ve built with both my professors and my classmates are valid irl too. In fact, I’d bet that we recognize each other more easily at conferences than people who spend less time staring at each other’s faces (…and offices…and wayward pets) on webcams. 


Let’s end with my favorite perennial Hack Your Program series features:

Strengths of the MMLIS at USC

  1. It’s a very small program. 
  2. It’s genuinely collaborative in the most supportive way. 
  3. It has forward-looking momentum ballasted by backward-conscious stability. 

Weaknesses of the MMLIS at USC

  1. It’s a very small program. 
  2. Its accreditation is in progress. 
  3. It’s on the expensive side, and the university isn’t particularly helpful with that. 

Hack this library school by…

…thinking of it as a lot like an in-person program. Far and away the most surprising thing about this program was the frequency and the quality of contact between me and the staff, me and the faculty, me and the students—me and the whole outside world, it seemed. Coursework was online as expected, but I was totally unprepared for synchronous class meetings with audio and video enabled. Between video conferences, video recordings, group messages and more traditional phone conversations and e-mail messages, I felt immediately connected to a surprisingly broad community of people. My experience in the program has only improved as I’ve embraced that community. The step-by-step on this hack: 

  • Build relationships with the staff. 
  • Build relationships with the faculty. 
  • Build relationships with your cohort and with other cohorts. 
  • Get involved with student organizations. 

…living near the campus. Alright, this isn’t a hack so much as it is a tip, but: if you live near the Los Angeles, California campus of USC, you’re welcome there as a student in the MMLIS. Access to the libraries, meetings with the staff, conversations with the faculty: all are possible if you live in the area. If you want to make the trip while on vacation from wherever you live, you’re welcome on campus too. Classes are always all-online, but use of campus resources is permitted. 

…figuring out a strategy for time management right now. This hack probably holds true for every advanced course of study, but it bears repeating here. This is a serious program, and those first classes are particularly hard because there is so much new technology to master. It’s worth it in the end—I can videoconference like a pro!—but it’s challenging along the way. The orientation session with Alexis and Jessica provides great tips. If you don’t have a strategy in place by the time you start, I suggest you take careful notes. 

…planning for your portfolio from the start. The so-called capstone project is essentially just a digital portfolio constructed on a website template. I’m making it sound mundane on purpose—because it is. The hard part is how much work has to be collected to satisfy the numerous requirements of that mundane digital portfolio. If you can finagle a copy of the template out of Professor Golden early in the program, do it. Most of the instructions are on the template, and you can collect the necessary evidence as you complete your coursework. LIM 598 will be the easiest class you take if you can spread the work out. 

…planning for your internship during your fourth semester. The program is five semesters long. You can’t get credit for an internship until you’re in your final semester. But semesters are only fifteen weeks long, which isn’t much of a window for getting seated in the internship of your nerdy dreams. Get that position locked down sometime during your fourth semester and set a start date right near the beginning of your fifth semester. If you are in love with a summer internship opportunity somewhere but won’t be in your fifth semester during summer: let it go. Or do it on your own without getting credit. As of this writing, policy states that your internship must coincide with your fifth semester.  

…setting aside a huge amount of time for LIM 504. Holy heffalumps, that class took a lot of time. Watch every instructional video—twice. Then start your homework as early as you can. 

…taking seriously the work you do in GSBA 502. It totally sets up everything else. 


The MMLIS at the University of Southern California is a genuinely unique degree. Its relatively recent beginning and its relatively small size combine with its groundbreaking ties to entrepreneurial education to make it possible for me to say without exaggeration that no other library and information science education program is quite like it right now. For my money (All. The. Money.), the benefits of a small, nimble program make a compelling argument in favor of taking a risk on something new. Then again, you already knew that’s what I thought: I enrolled there. 

4 replies

  1. I am excited I found your article! I will be starting the program in the summer! I look forward to reading about your adventures post-USC! Are you able to share Professor Golden’s template? Thanks!!

    Like

  2. Thanks for your insightful article on the program. I just finished a few days ago and it pretty much sums it up. I think this guide will be very helpful for incoming students.

    Like

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