The Independent Study: Making Your Own Course

never do independent study
image under creative commons license: flickr/quinn.anya

This article was originally published on March 19, 2012.

Ignore the graffiti above!

HackLibSchool is all about how to make the most of your library program and how to engage the library profession at large. A running series of posts, Hack Your Program, offers overviews of the curricula and cultures of various library school programs. What I’d like to bring up today is the independent study, a valuable option at many programs which allows you to customize your learning.


In an independent study, you essentially create your own course on a topic of your devising, working in concert with a faculty mentor. In format, the independent study is like the tutorial system used by some British universities for undergraduate education; you meet individually with the faculty member on a regular basis and discuss a set of readings as well as writing assignments.

You must bring a lot to the table with each meeting, but the benefits include one-on-one attention, more focused exploration of a topic that interests you, and more flexible scheduling. Some programs even allow two or three students to do an independent study together if you prefer.

Professors will differ in the way they conduct the meetings, but most faculty expect students to take the lead in discussions. They will ask questions in order to help students clarify what they are thinking and what kinds of issues they want to discuss. Don’t think of the situation as an exam where the professor has the knowledge and you are there to be tested on how much of it you have absorbed. Think of it, instead, as a chance to talk to a library researcher about a shared interest in librarianship. An independent study is also a great chance to learn differently than might be the established culture of teaching methods in your library school.

Ideally, an independent study supplements and complements what your program’s curriculum already offers. However, some schools also let you use an independent study to cover a topic that doesn’t fit your schedule timing-wise (some courses may only be offered every other year or even less frequently).


Start thinking early about what you might want to study. The scope of an independent study can be broad or deep, but the extent of your engagement with the topic should be of sufficient amount to equal a standard course. Consult with faculty and academic advisors about potential topics to make sure that what you want to study isn’t already covered by a course on the books.

You will want to start thinking at least a semester in advance so that you can find a suitable faculty mentor whose expertise matches your topic. You will generally have to write up a proposal, which can include the proposed study topic, a rationale for the focus, a preliminary reading list, and a description of the learning documents that you will produce. These documents have traditionally been informal and formal papers, but be creative! You might do a poster presentation to submit to an ALA conference. You might compile an annotated bibliography. You might create a service learning project with a local organization. You might create a website. You might make video tutorials for a library’s online resources.


As the name implies, an independent study puts much of the responsibility for learning on your shoulders. Don’t wait around for your faculty mentor to tell you what to do. Do seek her or his advice, though. If you find yourself lost in the material or at a loss for how to proceed, don’t be afraid to say so.

Make sure you have good rapport with your chosen faculty mentor. You don’t want to suffer through a semester of awkward or difficult meetings!

Ask around to see what independent studies your classmates might have done (on what topics and with which professors). The department office might also allow you to look at proposals others have submitted in the past.

Also be aware that your professors generally take on independent studies above and beyond their usual teaching, research, and service obligations, and they may or may not be compensated for the extra work.


You will get a chance to learn what you want to learn.

You can demonstrate your ability to work independently and proactively, something your future employers will surely love.

You can tackle in depth that really interesting topic you started thinking about for a previous class’s final research paper.

You can get a head start on exploring the literature for a topic you would like to write about for your master’s essay.

You can study something that is too new or too cutting-edge to have made it into your program’s curriculum. It takes time for courses to make their way through the bureaucracy of schools, and given the rapid pace of change in the field of librarianship, it is inevitable that there will be topics relevant in today’s libraries (and the libraries of tomorrow) that have yet to find expression in the offered courses.

Please share with us if you’ve done independent studies before. What was the topic of the study? Or, do you have ideas for topics you would like to study?

In the spirit of HackLibSchool, I’ll end with another suggestion: think about how you might use an independent study to sync your learning with a library student at another program. Perhaps you could develop an independent study together and incorporate conference calls with each other and faculty mentors as part of the semester’s meetings, or you could use a shared email listserv to carry on a discussion virtually across programs. (The Declassified series offers a look at how useful it is to think across programs in terms of particular classes.)

I’m beginning to think about an independent study for next year on librarianship as teaching. Anyone wanna join me?

Giles reads a book.
Giles reads a book.

Cover image from ISO Republic: 

16 replies

  1. Great post! If you’re flexible and creative with your scheduling, I think independent study options are an excellent way to squeeze the most out of your library school education. At IU-Bloomington, our independent study choices are divided into a directed readings option and a directed research option. I’m looking forward to taking an independent study in the future… I know it will likely be a lot more work, but the ability to fit meetings, research and/or readings into my own schedule is very appealing to me. In particular, I love that independent studies can be used to enrich or fill a gap in your resume. I would be interested in hearing about the experiences of others who have done an independent study and what they got out of it.


    • Hi Brianna! I noticed that some library programs offer both directed readings and directed research options. I like that idea of a choice between more reading-related study and more research-related (where producing original research at the end of the semester is the goal). There are some really great examples of independent studies that have resulted in interesting library projects. Here is an example of the few I came across: The Library as Incubator Project.


  2. My grad school Archives Department used the Independent Study course to facilitate a project of their own, which students were chosen to participate in. Recently the Dept Head took an active role in archiving the history of the college itself, a new community oral history project, and several related civil rights collections. Students are chosen to process, digitize, and solicit content for (when applicable) these collections. Although it may seem a bit like specialized labor, this is nearly always the first hands-on experience students have with a collection that is not just Archival theory from textbooks. A really valuable course that I wish more students could be a part of!


  3. I did three independent studies when I was in undergrad, but for some reason it never really crossed my mind to do one in library school — perhaps it’s because I feel like there are so many classes I wish I could take before graduating, but I have only a few slots left for electives.


  4. I may be taking an independent study this Fall if enough people don’t sign up for the course I want. It’s called Data Mining, Analytics, and Modeling. It’s a new course offered as a special topics course this Fall. The professor said she would take on a few students for independent study if it doesn’t make.


  5. I agree with Rose. I have done independent studies in the past, but I have so many required courses to fit in that it just hadn’t occurred to me. They can be such an amazing experience, though, and such a great way to get the knowledge that you want even if your school doesn’t offer it. I’ll definitely be passing this post on to my fellow WSU SLIS students!


  6. I’m in the process of getting an independent study approved in music librarianship for the fall. My top job choice is working in an academic music library, so doing some focused study is a must and my program doesn’t offer a Music Lib course. Working in the music library, which I do now, is helpful, but I’m really looking forward to working closely with the head music librarian and digging deeper into the topic. I’m lucky because I’ll also be taking part of the semester to work with the music cataloger and get some first-hand experience with cataloging music materials. It’s really exciting to have so much input on a course and get to tailor it exactly to what I want to learn about!


  7. This is a great idea! I’m interested in art librarianship but my school doesn’t offer that as an option. I’ve researched syllabi from other schools and I was thinking about creating my own class with reading assignments, etc., and following it through my blog. This would be great for accountability, however, and of course it would be ideal to receive credit!


  8. I have been considering doing a course with independent study next semester but I’ve been a little nervous. It sounds like it takes a lot of work and dedication, even that above normal classes. I’m excited though! I know that there are plenty of resources out in the world! Thanks for the tips!


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