Monday, January 20, 2020

The Truth About Library School

library school, what is library school like, should I go to library school, the truth about library school

Thinking about library school?

I am a member of several library-related online groups, and I frequently see people posting questions about library school: What's it like? How hard is it? Should I go? Is it worth it? What school should I go to? Now, neither I nor anyone else can tell you whether you should go to library school or which school is best for you, but as a recent grad I can share my experiences and give a few tips.

But first let me tell you a little about me, so you can understand my perspective. I have always been a good student, enjoyed school, and craved intellectual stimulation. I have a prior graduate degree in another field, and thoroughly enjoyed that experience. My undergraduate degree included teacher certification, so I was also trained in teaching methods, philosophy, and ethics, and have teaching experience; therefore I have very high expectations of instructors, and very little tolerance for laziness, disorganization, and unprofessional behavior. As you might have guessed, I am interested in public librarianship, focusing on youth services, and I entered library school with a fairly good understanding of public library practice, theory, and ethics from prior work experience and self-education.

And one final note, let me preface everything with a disclaimer that this is all based on my experiences with my online program filtered through my expectations, and others may have vastly different opinions based on their own experiences and perspectives, and all are equally valid. I do hope some who went to traditional in-person, brick-and-mortar programs will chime in about how their experience compares, but this is my truth. 

Library school for me has been mostly a bunch of busywork. It is not difficult, but it is very time-consuming, and I found it extremely frustrating having to spend so much time doing busywork that I got little out of, but took my time away from other things that would be much more beneficial. Yes, there were a few decent projects, and I like writing research papers when I'm interested in the topic, but the weekly discussion posts were such a mind-numbing waste of time in most cases, and a couple of projects were so egregiously laborious and impractical that they were utterly soul-sucking.

I personally have found the online environment very unsatisfying (though convenient) and I think it tends to encourage complacency among the faculty. I had instructors who were absent from the course practically the whole semester, as though they had completely forgotten they were supposed to be teaching a class. Others weren't as bad, but might ghost for a week or two and generally be very slow about answering questions and getting grades back, or just seemed to have little interest in teaching. Some course content had not been updated in years so that we were reading 10-20 year old articles about technology and the "latest trends" that were completely outdated.

I think that online programs are more about making money for the school than anything, and the proliferation of them has not been a good thing for the field overall. However, one cannot dispute how incredibly convenient they are, particularly to working students and those who do not live near a school with an accredited program. And to be fair, I did have some good instructors who really seemed to care about the students and teaching, some decent classes, and a few projects I enjoyed. But to paraphrase Scarlett O'Hara, "As God is my witness, I'll never write a discussion post again!"

I won't say I learned nothing from library school, but I will say it was probably the most inefficient way possible to learn what I did, and I have learned so much more from working in the field and talking with other library people. I also feel like ALA's big push for the "professionalization" of librarians and requiring an expensive graduate degree for entry into a low-paying field with an over-saturated job market has resulted in a bunch of over-educated, under-employed, and indebted librarians who cannot find positions making a living wage. But that's a whole other discussion, and probably a moot point as it's not likely to change.

If you're thinking about library school, here are some things you should do and consider before making up your mind and selecting a program:
  1. DON'T go into debt for a library degree. In this job market it just isn't worth it, especially if you already have debt from your undergrad degree. Just don't do it. Most employers don't care where you went to school as long as it's ALA-accredited, and I find it hard to believe a $50,000 degree is really that much better than a $20,000 one, so look for one you can afford. Take one class at a time if necessary. Look for scholarships from your library, state associations, national associations, and the school. Find a job that offers tuition assistance.

  2. WORK in a library for a while first to see if that's really what you want to do before investing the time and expense of a graduate degree. I can't emphasize this enough; so many people go into librarianship without a realistic expectation of what it is like, particularly in public libraries. Also, many of the assignments in library school can be difficult to do if you don't already work in a library. As a bonus, you might get tuition assistance, especially if you get a job in an academic library.

  3. TALK to librarians in different positions in different types of libraries about what their job is really like, the program they went to, and the directions they see librarianship going. This can help you decide not only about the field in general, but also which direction you may want to go in. Academic? Special? Archives? Public? Youth Services? Wine? (Yes, there really is such a thing!)

  4. COMPARE different programs. Scour their websites, read the course offerings and syllabi, research the faculty, talk to current students and recent grads. Compare the required core courses for each. Look at which programs have more classes in your area of interest, and look for programs with faculty that have significant, real-world work experience in that area, preferably fairly recent. Many faculty are academics, with little to no experience in public libraries and can be very out of touch with public librarianship, especially youth services. Consider your learning style. If you are very disciplined, independent, and seldom need help, an online program may be great, but if you crave interaction, prefer real instruction, need structure, or like one-on-one assistance, an online program may not work for you.

  5. DON'T just consider tuition. While I most definitely do not recommend paying the ridiculously high tuition for supposedly top tier schools, I also would not recommend just going for the cheapest. It might be worth it to pay a *little* more for a school that is a better fit for the type of librarian you want to be, your learning style, schedule, or one that offers additional opportunities or benefits that others may not. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

  6. RESEARCH the job market. Spoiler Alert - It sucks! Between the proliferation of online library schools, people having to wait longer to retire, and the trend to eliminate those full-time professional positions when vacated and replace them with part-time positions, the market is over-saturated and extremely competitive, especially if you are geographically restricted. Those who are willing and able to relocate often have a less difficult time finding a job.

  7. CONSIDER that everyone has different perceptions based on their individual expectations, priorities, and experiences; even of the same program. I was very disappointed with mine, but other students loved it, or at least liked it. It is the least expensive, no GRE required, no tests, it is not particularly difficult, and most people get A's. Some students lucked into having better instructors and avoided the couple of really awful ones I had. Some were more accustomed to the online environment. Some may have had less library knowledge and experience going in so they feel like they learned a lot, and the program is better suited for academic librarianship than public. So, take everything with a grain of salt and probe a little more into WHY people feel the way they feel about their programs.

  8. BUT, also consider that people may be reluctant to say anything bad about the program in which they are enrolled or from which they received their degree for fear it will reflect badly on them if the program gets a negative reputation. Also, I think once people are done, they are so relieved it is behind them that hindsight is often through rose-colored lenses rather than 20/20, and if one is fortunate enough to get a job they love because of the degree, they are more likely to feel that it was all worth it. I hope to get to that point eventually!
As I said, everyone has a different experience and perspective, so I'm sure there will be differing opinions. And I really hope there are people who really had good experiences and learned a lot from library school, and that there are some really great programs and instructors out there. But for many, it ends up being a hoop to jump through to get the piece of paper, a means to an end.

Next, in "The Truth About Library School - Part 2" I'll give some tips for surviving and making the most out of your library school experience, and in Part 3 I'll discuss some things I think need to change in LIS education, especially online programs.


  1. Sorry to hear that you haven't been happy with your online MLIS program. I did an online MLIS, like you I was changing fields after getting a doctorate in another discipline, so I too have a long history of being a student! My online program, at Valdosta State University, was one I found to be very beneficial. All my professors were active every day, most of the projects and assignments were useful, readings were current. And even most of the weekly required discussion topics were meaningful. I was a bit surprised and impressed by how well I got to know my fellow students, personalities really emerged clearly, professors were quite distinct in their personalities and styles. And it one of the most economical programs out there, too. Good luck as you finish your degree!

    1. We must have been there at different times and/or had different instructors/classes, because unfortunately that was not my experience in many of my classes :(