Hack Your Program: Western University Faculty of Information and Media Studies

Disclaimer: This post represents my own perspectives and experiences. My opinions are not intended to be the opinions of any other student, faculty, or staff.

Quick Overview

I may be biased, but in my opinion, Western University’s MLIS program is one of the best in Canada. The program makes up the bulk of Western’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS), and is housed in a new building with its own faculty library. Based in London, Ontario, the school is ALA-accredited and can be completed in just one calendar year. The coursework is largely practical and does a pretty good job at preparing students for their future roles as librarians, and there are plenty of opportunities to build your experience, giving you an edge in that future job hunt.

Admissions

Unlike most programs in Canada, there is no deadline for admission to this program. Quite literally: as of March 31st 2019, the website stated that they were still accepting applications for a May 2019 start. Classes are offered during three semesters (fall, winter, and summer), and you can begin this program in any of those semesters. That said, it doesn’t hurt to apply well in advance to make sure you get a spot (not to mention, sort out housing!).

The admissions requirements are fairly typical. There is no interview, just the online application. The website states that it prefers academic references, but as I had been in the workforce already for a few years, I submitted several professional references instead, and it was fine. The application fee is $115.

Curriculum

To complete your MLIS at Western, you will need to complete fifteen courses: five core classes, and ten electives. Each class is taught in a weekly three-hour seminar.

Core Classes

The core classes need to be completed before you can take electives. That means that, for your first semester, you will have most of your classes with the rest of your cohort. That is a definite benefit to this program: seeing the same people all the time helps you get to know your peers and to build a support network. Join or create your cohort’s Facebook group, plus the FIMS MLIS general group!

Because this program takes a two-year degree and compresses it into three semesters, the workload is exceptionally heavy. This is most especially true during those first five core courses. If you take this program and find the first semester overwhelming, please don’t panic: it does get easier after those first five! The core courses cover professional trends in libraries and information; cataloguing and information organisation; reference and programming services; research methods (which I already wrote about here); and management. For me, these classes had varying degrees of practicality and interest. One insider tip: if you have the option, I recommend taking the cataloguing course (Information Organisation, Curation, and Access) with Dr. Grant Campbell. I’m sure the other profs who teach this course are all excellent, but Dr. Campbell was awesome!

Electives

After completing the core courses, you get to take electives. There are roughly twenty courses to choose from each semester, some of which are highly practical, and some of which are more theoretical. You are required to take courses in four of five different subject areas, but that is pretty easy to manage as many of the courses tick more than one box- just make sure to plan ahead a little. My personal recommendations are:

  • Reader’s Advisory, taught by Sharron Smith—Sharron is a recently retired librarian from a nearby system and is a total RA pro. I use what I learned in this class on a daily basis. If you’re interested in public libraries, take this course.
  • Collection Management—I took this course with Dr. Angela Pollack online and it was great. It probably varies a bit depending on who you take it with, but really, I think this should be a core course—it’s going to be valuable no matter what sort of library you end up in.
  • Special Libraries, with Robert Craig. It doesn’t matter if you are completely uninterested in Special Libraries—this course was incredibly valuable. Over the course of the semester, you work in a small group to build up a library from scratch, creating collection development policies, information needs assessments, space planning, budgets, and hiring requirements. It culminates in a pitch session, presenting your library to the board of directors. Take this class if you can!!
  • Some of my favourite courses were Children’s Materials (0-7 and 8-12, as two separate courses) with Dr. Lynne McKechnie. Lynne has recently retired, which is a huge loss to program!

Specialisations

There are no specialisations or majors in this program, but it is possible to tailor your studies to your professional interests. The majority of my coursework, for instance, focused on public librarianship. I also undertook a research project, assessing diversity in library picture book holdings.

Assessment

One more thing to note about the program is that a high degree of participation is required. It accounts for 10-15% of your grade in almost every class, including online classes. There are also presentations in nearly every course (again, including online classes), so be prepared for that.

Bonus good news: the premium on participation = no exams! One or two classes will have the occasional test, but the vast majority of the courses are entirely assignment-based.

Financial Matters

This is one of the most expensive programs in Canada, and unfortunately, there are no entrance scholarships. There are a handful of merit-based and application-based scholarships once you are already enrolled, but of course, you can’t rely on those in advance! Fortunately, given that you can complete this course in one year instead of two, you can save quite a bit of money in that your living costs are essentially halved. There are also quite a few libraries on-campus that regularly hire students, and it’s a big enough city that there are plenty of jobs out there!

Work Experience

There is no official job placement program at Western. There are, however, many ways to build your professional experience.

Volunteering

There are many opportunities to volunteer in library-related events. Notifications about these are generally sent out to all students from the FIMS office, so just keep an eye out! These include: volunteering at the Ontario Library Association Superconference in Toronto (by volunteering a four-hour shift, you have free admission to the conference, which is awesome!); volunteering at Festival of Trees, an annual event where best-selling children’s authors visit London for an award ceremony, author signings, and tons of library stations; volunteering for London Public Library, helping out with various events; and a myriad of other opportunities. For instance, I ran a few storytimes at the local Farmer’s Market in the summer of 2018.

Working

Western has seven official libraries, one special library (at FIMS), and four affiliated colleges with libraries of their own. Most, if not all, of these libraries hire student assistants. The exact work will vary; I have a friend who worked in one of the quieter libraries and could occasionally work on homework at the desk, while I personally worked in the FIMS Graduate Library, and was always busy with various project work even on quieter days. (My projects included creating a long-term display about the different faces of library work, and developing promotional library “swag” using our makerspace technology). Apply for these positions if you can, and build up your experience!

Public libraries are a little harder to build your experience in; London Public Library only has very occasional job openings. If you have a car, try your hand at one of the local county systems surrounding London. It will mean a bit of a drive, but the experience will be valuable!

Co-Op Program

This is one of the biggest strengths of the program. In essence, the co-op program is paid work experience. Employers hire students through the program for four or eight-month periods, and you’ll get paid a real wage for real librarian work. It’s not a program requirement, and placements aren’t guaranteed; instead, students apply for positions they are interested in, and have to interview for them, just as they would for a real job. I personally chose not to do a co-op, but in hindsight, I wish I had; it can be hard to get your foot in the door in academic libraries, for instance, and a co-op in an academic library can be a great way to put your name out there and get some valuable experience. Not to mention that co-op placements often turn into long-term jobs! The catch is that you must complete your co-op before your degree—you’ll have to have at least one class remaining at the end of your placement.

Extracurriculars

There are quite a few student organisations that you should definitely consider joining. These include the Special Library Association (SLA); Librarians Without Borders; Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians (CAPAL); Progressive Librarian’s Guild (PLG); and Student Librarian Association for Children and Youth Services (SLACYS). I belonged to SLACYS: we fundraised to purchase children’s books for various charities, as well as meeting with various children’s and teen librarians and learning about the sort of work they did and how they landed their jobs.

Living in London

It’s not London, England, that’s for sure. That said, it’s a big enough city that you’ll find all the shops and restaurants and cinemas you’ll need. The majority of Western students are undergrads, so there are plenty of bars downtown that are usually packed with 19 year olds. The bus system in London is kind of terrible—find a place that’s walking distance to campus if you can! Summers on campus are really nice and SO empty, but on the flip side, most of the on-campus restaurants and shops are closed or have reduced hours.

Strengths of the Program

Flexibility

As I mentioned above, you can completed this program in twelve months by taking five courses at a time, for three semesters. However, you can also take one course at a time for fifteen semesters. Or you can take five courses, then four, than five, then do a co-op, and complete your final course online. Or take five then four then three then two then one courses at a time. I know people who have done all of these options. The program is great because you can take on the workload that works for you!

Night classes

Night classes are regularly offered, which is helpful if you are working while studying (or are just a night owl). It’s another degree of flexibility that the program offers.

Online classes

Though this is an in-person program, a small number of online classes are available. You can only take one at a time as a general rule. They tend to be a little more work than in-person classes, but are still a great and flexible study option. I know a lot of people who have taken their last course, post-co-op, online, so they don’t need to move back to London for just one class per week.

No Textbooks

All course readings are either available electronically, or are found in course reserve textbooks held by the FIMS Graduate Library. No need to spend money on textbooks!

Practical Assignments

Some classes will be more theoretical than others, but the majority of my courses were almost entirely practical. We built and assessed collections in Collection Management, we designed websites in Web Design and Architecture, we analysed public library spaces and collections for Public Libraries, and we read picture books to the class for Children’s Materials (0-7). This program does a pretty good job of preparing you for work as a librarian!

New FIMS Building

It’s roughly two years old now, but that’s still pretty new. MLIS classes are located in the FIMS building, and there’s a faculty library and several computer suites. It’s a nice building with lots of natural light, plenty of spaces to sit, and a lovely terrace off the library.

Faculty and Staff

I’ve had some amazing professors, and some professors who seemed to be more interested in research than in teaching. The former made up for the latter, though! Many of the faculty put so much care and thought into their courses, and it shows. My research supervisor was completely amazing and made the process so easy. A number of professors were librarians and information professionals from the London community, and their insight into the realities of working in their fields was invaluable. And the support staff were also exceptional—to demonstrate, students voted in Brandi, the Graduate Student Services Manager, for the “Fantastic FIMS” award last summer.

Cost Effective (compared to US schools!)

Even as one of the most expensive schools in Canada, and even with international fees taken into account, this program is going to be cheaper than many programs in the US. It’s ALA accredited and is 100% usable in the US—many alumni are working in American libraries. Just something to think about!

Weaknesses

Tough Grading

Very, very tough grading for core courses. This eases up somewhat in the electives, but can still be tough depending on the class. Received As all through your undergrad? Adjust your expectations.

Cost

On a per-semester basis, this is one of the most expensive LIS programs in Canada, as mentioned above. Also, as mentioned above, there are no entrance scholarships.

Career Support

The one thing the program is lacking is a dedicated FIMS Graduate career counsellor. Advice from the main university career centre doesn’t always apply to libraries! Try to find a mentor within the field, to counterbalance that.

Participation

There is a high premium on participation in this program, which can be difficult for introverts. On the plus, you will likely reach a point where presentations no longer intimidate you. I’ve never minded performing for kids during storytimes, but the idea of presenting to adults used to have me a nervous wreck. But after the dozen or so presentations completed during my MLIS, it barely phases me.

Hack This Program By…

  • Building relationships with your professors, fellow students, and professionals in the field
  • Trying new things, getting involved, and looking everywhere for opportunities for experience
  • Being prepared to change your plan (for instance, you might want to do a co-op even if that wasn’t in your initial plan!)
  • Going to class—and doing the readings!!
  • Learn to work well with a team. It’s important for success in this program, just as it will most likely be important for success in your future career. Also, Google Drive is an important member of that team—don’t forget it.

Featured image by Shifre on Wikimedia Commons


Kait is a recent graduate of Western University’s Master of Library and Information Science program. She currently works for a large public library, managing collections and delivering programs and outreach to the community across six different branches (it keeps her busy). If you have any questions about Western University’s library school, feel free to leave a comment below, or message her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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