Do you want to go to library school, but don’t know how to find the best one for you? This list of factors to consider will guide you through the decision-making process.
#1: ALA Certification
First, and this is a must, make sure any school you’re considering is certified by the American Library Association. Library school is expensive and the job market is tight- you don’t want to waste your time and money on a degree that most workplaces won’t even look at. Maybe you know of someone who’s been successful without an ALA-certified degree- I know of two who have done very well for themselves in adjacent fields- but don’t let these exceptions lead you astray. Triple-check that list.
#2: Program Specialties and Features
Next, let’s narrow it down. Do you know what type of librarian you would like to be? Do you want to specialize in archives, law libraries, prison libraries, medical libraries? Are you interested in getting a dual master’s degree? Use this handy ALA page to see which schools provide the program you’re interested in.
Even if you’re not interested in specializing, or still undecided about it, you should consider features like whether you want to write a thesis or produce a capstone project. Some schools provide structure with a lot of required classes, while others give you the freedom to do pretty much whatever you want. Think carefully about your favorite and least favorite parts of school while you check out the different programs.
#3: Location, or In Person versus Online
Okay, do you want to move?
If you don’t want to move, but you’re not in commuting distance of a library school (or a library school you want to attend), there’s good news: online degrees are just as reputable these days as in person programs. You’ll need to make an extra effort to be sure you’re getting enough job experience and networking opportunities (start here for advice about distance learning), but it’s no longer necessary to uproot your whole life to get that degree.
If you do want to move, take into consideration the opportunities the locations of different schools offer. The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign is effectively just a giant campus in the middle of a multi-state cornfield, but there are plenty of library-related opportunities, especially for those interested in academic librarianship. Due to the size of the town and its relative isolation, there’s also a lot of stiff competition for the high-prestige jobs: for one position in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, for example, there were eighty applicants, sixty of whom were equally qualified, at least on paper. For contrast consider Simmons University, which is a much smaller institution located in Boston, a city so chock full of libraries, archives, and museums that I get misty-eyed just thinking about it. You’re practically guaranteed a fancy library internship there, but you’ll have to go out and look for it.
How much debt are you willing to take on? Librarianship doesn’t pay as well as engineering or medicine, so you’ll want to avoid six-figure debt loads. For a low cost of living area, your starting salary after grad school will be around $45,000, possibly much less. Calculate how much you spend in a month right now (how much you really spend, not how much you should spend), subtract that from $2500 (your approximate future take-home after taxes and deductions). If you have anything left over, that’s how much you can afford to pay in student loans a month. Here’s a useful calculator to help determine monthly payments.
The truth is that funding largely isn’t available for library science students. You might get some, sure, but for planning purposes it’s best to assume that a school’s listed sticker price is really what you’ll pay. Library schools are an easy way for universities to collect a lot of tuition without providing equivalent services, and you’ll need to remember that.
If you’re still debating between different programs, consider their respective reputations. I like US News & World Report’s rankings but there are other lists out there. My philosophy is that there’s probably not much difference between the number two school and the number three, but there’s a big difference between number five and number twenty-seven. If you have a specialty in mind, look at how well a school ranks in that specialty, instead of how impressive it is overall. Most of the top schools have a strong emphasis on technology and data science, for example, so if you’re interested in the preservation of rare books it’s better to look elsewhere. At the end of the day most employers don’t care where you got your degree, so don’t spend extra for a “name” school unless prestige is important to you.
Emily is in her second semester of library school at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She flip-flops between wanting to get a PhD in Information History and wanting to drop out of school and move to a commune in Albuquerque.