History of LIS Education

When we talk about LIS education, we’re talking about providing education for a professional career in libraries, with all the traits the word ‘profession’ implies: professionalism, prolonged training, and formal education. This type of education wasn’t always the case however; it developed as the librarian profession did. In fact, the creation of library schools had a direct impact on making librarianship a professional career in the first place.

The earliest American LIS students were trained under the British apprenticeship system popular in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. With the increasing industrialization of the 1800s, however, this very limited and highly specific method of training became inefficient to supply librarians for the many new libraries being founded across the US. A new system of training librarians had to be found.

Enter Melville Dewey, who was the most prominent early force in developing librarianship as a profession. After his development of the Dewey Decimal System during his tenure at Amherst College, Dewey founded and became the first president of the American Library Association (ALA). The creation of a professional organization for librarians prompted the creation of the first recognizable library schools. After Dewey was established as the head librarian at Columbia University, the first library school, the School of Library Economy, was opened in January 1887 with two men and seventeen women as its first class. Training took three months, with an internship that lasted up to two years.

The school was later transferred to the New York State Library in Albany after Columbia trustees disagreed with Dewey’s inclusion of women in his courses. There, Dewey’s vice director, Mary Salome Cutler, added theoretical and cultural aspects of librarianship to what had been a very business-focused curriculum.

The success of this program led to the creation of three additional library schools by 1900: Pratt Institute, Drexel University, and the Armour Institute (which became the Library School at the University of Illinois in 1897). Each school had its own early contribution to the field: Pratt established the first children’s librarianship specialization, Drexel’s director published the first major texts on reference materials and book selection, and the Armour Institute developed its program into a four-year bachelor degree instead of a certificate. By 1919, there were 15 library programs, most of which awarded a fifth-year bachelor’s of library science (BLS) degree after four years of a regular baccalaureate. The MLS was only awarded at Albany. Due to tensions between the ALA and the schools, the library schools formed their own association, the Association of American Library Schools, in 1916.

After the Carnegie Corporation conducted a review on its libraries and found that they had inadequate resources and training, the company commissioned a study on LIS education with particular focus on library schools. The 1923 Williamson Report (headed by C.C. Williamson) profoundly influenced the direction of LIS education. The report advocated librarian training as not simply training, but a professional degree best preceded by a college education. In 1926, the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago created the first doctoral program in ‘library science’ and by 1950, most library schools were offering the MLS. The first school to train African-Americans, the Hampton Institute Library School, was established in 1925. It produced some notable graduates, including Virginia Lacy Jones, but was closed due to the Depression’s impact on its resources in 1939. It reopened two years later at Atlanta University.

Concerned that LIS education was not theoretical enough, the ALA Board of Education for Librarianship issued standards that required the graduate master’s degree as the educational standard in 1951. It formed the ALA Committee on Accreditation in 1956, and these actions spelled the end of other forms of library education besides the graduate schools.

The 1950s-1960s were the heyday of LIS education. The baby boom and economic expansion, in addition to federal funding, created a need for more libraries and more professionally-trained librarians to staff them. By the 1970s, there were over seventy accredited programs in the US and Canada. These declined in the next few decades due to recessions, lack of alumni networks, and low campus profiles that resulted in funding shortages. By 1999, the number of programs had fallen to fifty-six.

Today, LIS curriculum is constantly under development, and the MLIS in its current form is not always agreed-upon as the standard for the profession. No doubt the educational standards for librarians will continue to evolve as the needs of the profession evolve.


Rubin, R.E. (2010). Foundations of library and information science. Third edition. New York: Neal-Schuman.


STE-5740Grace Butkowski has worked in all types of libraries since she was in high school.  It took six tries to get that first job, but it was worth it!  After studying history for her bachelor’s degree, she currently resides in St. Paul, MN, and works for the administrative office of the University of Minnesota Libraries.  As an online student with Kent State, Grace is interested in museums, archives, and has a newfound interest in digital librarianship.  Outside of professional pursuits, she’s a seamstress, knitter, and reader.  You can reach out to Grace through her LinkedIn or her Twitter, @gkbutkowski1.


Cover photo from Flickr Commons. Licensed under CC 2.0.

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