Choose Your Own Adventure: Maryland’s Individualized Program Plan

Each semester, every MLIS class I take begins the same way. “All right, class. Let’s say your name, your specialization…” If you’re like me, you may not have an easy shorthand in your program’s specialization lingo for indicating where your professional interests lie.

The University of Maryland, where I’ve been studying for nearly two years, has several specializations, among them Archives and Digital Curation (popular), Diversity and Inclusion (unique), and School Libraries (focused). “I’m Anne, and I’m in the Archives specialization;” or, “I’m Diana, also on the Archives track.” My turn comes: “I’m Nancy, and I’m in the Individualized Program Plan.” Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

I’d describe the Individualized Program Plan, or IPP, to be the specialization for the LIS student who can’t decide what to specialize in, has interests that don’t quite fit any one specialization, or simply dislikes being told which classes to take. It’s a catch-all, imminently flexible to be customized for your own professional interests; a ‘choose your own adventure, library school edition’ if you will. For example, I’m keen to learn all I can about information literacy instruction, academic libraries, and research. If an academic libraries specialization existed, I’d have chosen it. The UMD iSchool does not, but there is the IPP. With the exception of the four classes required of all MLIS students, I’ve been able to choose the courses which most appealed to me and fed my curiosity. This also means I’ve sampled courses across specializations and gained more holistic insight into our diverse profession. By this semester, my last, I ought to stop being surprised at how seemingly disparate courses overlap and complement each other.

My experience with the IPP specialization has largely been excellent. However, as with anything, there are challenges.

What’s been valuable:

  1. The flexibility to choose classes as I’m interested. I’ve taken Digital Curation; Diverse Populations, Inclusion, and Information; Information and Universal Usability; worked on starting an online peer-reviewed journal as an independent study; and now I’m in Digital Studies through the English department. Some courses overlap or build off each other, or I’m able to apply knowledge/skills from one course directly in another (e.g. I learned XML in my metadata class, practiced it in Digital Curation, and am now the XML expert in my Digital Studies class full of non-LIS graduate students).
  2. Building an MLIS experience that relates to my professional interests. As I said, UMD does not have an academic libraries specialization. I’ve had no problems with finding electives that support my professional goals. In Information and Universal Usability, I’m learning to make my teaching accessible. Digital humanities/studies require technology skills; I’ve some of the skills but want to learn new ways of applying them in research contexts.
  3. Freedom in developing my semester schedule. Since I’m not following a prescribed list of electives, I’m free to select classes based on the time they’re offered. I learned in my first semester that I did not enjoy Wednesday night classes due to my work schedule. Since then, I’ve deliberately registered for classes not scheduled for Wednesday nights.
  4. Meeting a lot of classmates. Many of my classmates in other specializations usually share classes with the same group of students. By taking courses across specializations, I’ve met more classmates than I would have otherwise. I know archivists, digital LIS professionals, academic librarians, public librarians, school librarians, etc. Hearing their perspectives and experience on LIS issues has broadened my understanding. Best of all? I know people to call in the future when I encounter questions in their expertise.

What’s challenging:

  1. Freedom in developing my semester schedule. With few guidelines, creating a schedule posed a challenge for a couple of semesters. Once, I wasn’t finding enough classes I really wanted to take; that’s when I did the independent study. Other times, I’ve been keen for more classes than I could take. For this, I’ve taken advantage of the add/drop period at the beginning of term. I register for more classes than a full load, and then attend the first lecture for each in the first week of the semester. For online classes, I do the first week’s coursework. Once I have better information, I drop the extra class I’ve decided against taking with no financial penalty.
  2. Building a customized MLIS experience. I’ve benefitted from great mentors through the UMD Libraries Research & Teaching Fellowship who’ve helped me discern which courses and experience would set me up for success. However, it would’ve been difficult to do so without this guidance. To counter the difficulty, the iSchool encourages IPP students to meet with academic advisors early in the program and offers Knowledge Areas targeted to assist IPP students in designing their program plan.
  3. Lack of shorthand in the specialization lingo. My semester introductions often extend several words past my classmates’. “Hi, I’m Nancy. I’m in the IPP focusing on instruction and academic libraries.”

This is great, you say. But what steps should I take if I want to do the IPP or my program’s equivalent? First, go read some great Hack Library School posts: “To Specialize or Not to Specialize”; “Making Your Program Your Own”; “Choosing a Specialization”. Second, follow their advice! Talk to people, read job ads in your area of interest to identify skills you could gain from classes or experience, study your library school’s curriculum to find classes that sound interesting. Third, keep an open mind. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed my LIS management course! Fourth, start doing. Choose your own library school adventure, fellow hackers. Who knows what’s round the bend?

“When I [started library school] my future seemed to stretch out before me like a straight road. I thought I could see along it for many a milestone. Now there is a bend in it. I don’t know what lies around the bend, but I’m going to believe that the best does.”

Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery (slightly edited)

About the Author

Nancy Lovas is in her second (and final) year of the MLIS program at the University of Maryland. She works in the University Libraries as a Research & Teaching Fellow and is the treasurer for iDiversity. Her professional interests range from information literacy instruction to interdisciplinary collaboration to issues of information and inclusivity. After graduating in May, she plans to resume pleasure reading with a marathon read-through of all the Anne books.

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