Hack Your Program: University of Wisconsin, Madison (Update)

Disclaimer: This post is an update of Tomissa Porath’s 2011 “Hack Your Program” review of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s MA Program in Library and Information Studies with an emphasis on the school’s distance program. A lot has changed at UW-Madison over the last 5 years, and this post will attempt to speak to those changes. Opinions are not intended to be representative of the opinions of all students, faculty or staff.

Program Overview

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) offers an ALA-accredited MA in Library and Information Studies and a PhD Program. In September 2016, SLIS announced that it would change its name to either “The UW-Madison School of Information,” or “The Information School at UW-Madison.” The school already identifies as an “iSchool,” but the official name change is meant to appeal to people who don’t necessarily want to work in a library setting and show that SLIS grads have skills that are applicable in non-library settings. The change very is similar to the rebranding of other “library schools.”

Like many other library schools, SLIS offers its MA program in two formats – online and in-person. Online classes are primarily asynchronous, with occasional synchronous lectures and presentations. Online students are required to travel to Madison once at the beginning of their program for a week-long “bootcamp.” While in Madison, distance students meet their cohort and instructors and begin their first classes. It’s a lot of fun and is one of the highlights of SLIS’s online program. Not all schools offer such an extensive orientation.


Image courtesy of Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Curriculum (MA Program)

Remember how I said there have been a lot of recent changes at SLIS? One of the major ones was a curriculum revamp that took effect in Fall 2016. The MA program was 42 credits and now it is 39 credits, and the introductory courses have changed. When I began the program last year, I had to take an intro class called “Information Agencies & Their Environments,” an intro search/reference class called “Online Searching for Information Professionals,” and an intro cataloging class called “Organization of Information.” Here’s what the curriculum looks like now:

All students take the following three courses:

601: Information: Perspectives and Contexts (a replacement of the old intro course)
602: Information: Organization and Search (a combination of two formerly required courses)
603: Research and Assessment for Information Professionals (a new requirement)

All students complete at least one 3-credit management course.

654: Information Services Management
712: Public Library Administration
732: Strategic Information Services

All students must complete at least one 3-credit technology course.

500: Code and Power
640: Digital Humanities Toolbox
644: Digital Tools, Trends and Debates
652: XML, Document Structures and Metadata
751: Database Design and Management
855: Digital Curation
861: Information Architecture
879: Digital Libraries

Practicum: In addition to the courses listed above, students are required to complete a 120-hour practicum. Most students fulfill the practicum requirement by taking LIS 620, Field Placement in Library and Information Agencies.

E-Portfolio: Completion of the e-portfolio is a graduation requirement for all students.

Electives: All other courses needed to meet the 39-credit minimum for the MA program are considered electives. Students may take up to 9 credits of electives outside of SLIS. It is also possible to apply up to six credits completed at another school toward the SLIS MA degree. Elective courses include classes on archives, project management, children’s librarianship, pedagogy, collection development, metadata, and many more.

(Parts of the curriculum description are excerpted from the SLIS’s MA Program Requirements.)


SLIS areas of concentration include:

  • Librarianship
  • Archives in a Digital Age
  • Data/Information Management & Analytics
  • People and Information Technology
  • Information Organization

SLIS also offers two named certificate programs:

  • Innovation and Organizational Change Certificate
  • UW Madison Leadership Certificate

Financial Aid

Most students in SLIS’s MA program work either full-time or part-time to help pay for classes. Many distance students, myself included, work full-time in a job related to their area of interest in libraries or archives. In fact, current employment is the reason many people choose to do the distance program in the first place.

As far as scholarships go, SLIS is pretty good compared to other schools – about one-third of incoming students receive a scholarship. I had about half of my first year funded by SLIS and it was such a huge help to get that boost at the beginning. It helped set me on a good path financially.

Student Involvement

There are many active student groups at SLIS. Unfortunately, most of these cater to the on-campus students. I do keep apprised of what the SAA Student Chapter is up to, I know some of the members, and I feel welcomed by the group at conferences, but I’m not involved much beyond that. The student groups are definitely willing to involve online students whenever they can though. My advice for current or prospective SLIS distance students is to make friends with professionals and other students in your area (build up your support group) and take part in local professional organizations.


  • The people! The people at SLIS are fantastic – it’s one of the reasons I picked the school. Faculty and staff have always been responsive and helpful. They’re flexible with you when you’re trying to make your admission decision. They always answer questions and are open to suggestions. Your life as a student, particularly a distance student, is much easier when instructors and staff are responsive to you.
  • SLIS makes sure your studies are grounded in the real world and that is KEY for library school students. Every class I’ve taken has had hands-on projects. I often think, I learned how to do this and now I could probably make a stab at applying it in a library, archives, etc., setting! That was super important to me when I was trying to pick a school and SLIS has always delivered in this way. From my first class forwarded, I’ve learned how to write grants, how to do collection development, how to effectively search a database or catalog when doing reference, how to write HTML and CSS, how to conduct an information literacy session, how to create metadata for digital objects, how to plan a website redesign, and more – and I’ve only been in the program part-time for a year.
  • Also related to real world experiences is the practicum requirement. Every SLIS student completes a practicum at an institution of their choosing. This is not required at every school and I think it directly correlates with SLIS’s favorable job placement rate.
  • The distance student bootcamp is superb. It helped me form connections with my classmates that have carried over into nearly every class I’ve taken. I always know someone, and that can be extremely comforting since I don’t have many opportunities to build face-to-face connections with classmates.
  • SLIS is part of the WISE consortium. If you’re a distance student, I can’t emphasize how much value this adds to your education. I’ve taken multiple archives classes through WISE, one of which isn’t offered at all (not even on campus) at SLIS. It’s been great to expand my options in this way.


  • In my view, one of SLIS’s biggest weakness is its lack of specializations. I don’t feel they’ve ever been very clear, but they used to be more defined. Since the curriculum change and announcement of the new name, they’re not very clear at all. They’re too broad to be useful. I think we’re trying to fit too much under one degree, but I see this as a larger issue of the profession, not something totally unique to SLIS.
  • SLIS doesn’t offer as many of its class online as it should. Archives, digital humanities, and programming are offered almost exclusively to on-campus students. And, it’s not due to the fact the subject matter of the classes won’t allow for it because other schools across the U.S. are offering them online. It’s something that SLIS will need to work on over time if it wants to remain appealing to prospective distance students.

Happy school hunting/hacking!

Carissa Hansen is a second-year student in UW-Madison’s MA distance program. She is a Contributing Writer and the Community Manager at Hack Library School. Feel free to reach out to her if you have questions about UW-Madison or distance education.

2 replies


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