Q & A, part 1

I’ve been lucky to be able to correspond with several readers over the past few years that I’ve been blogging. Just this past month alone, I’ve communicated with prospective LIS students in person, through Skype, and quite a few via email.

I get similar questions, so today I thought I’d share my answers to them in the hopes that other readers may find them useful. Bear in mind that these are just the opinion of one library student out of a huge pool of us, so take my answers with a grain of salt. Feel free to ask for any clarification in the comments.

This post is already quite long so I’ll schedule the second half for next week. I hope it’s helpful!

How did you know what library program was the right one for you?

There were many factors that contributed to me choosing Indiana University over UW-Madison, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and the University of Michigan. You can read more about those in the article “Hack Your Library School Application” in the HLS Guide to Library School. In a nutshell, they are:

  • IU’s well known digital library program, digital humanities know-how, and dual MLS/MIS
  • Fell hard for lovely, wonderful Bloomington after visiting
  • Had a few connections from a mentor who was a previous IU ILS student
  • IU ILS offered me a small scholarship
  • Boyfriend got into the IU Jacobs School of Music (meaning that if we moved in together, we could get a cat!)
  • The competition fell short:

UIUC was by far the most disappointing program I looked at. I got terrible vibes from the program, namely that they didn’t feel the need to support students during the application period because they were ranked #1 by the questionable US World News Report so they knew they’d get applicants no matter what. I have no doubt that the program is great, but you’ve got to sell me a little bit when that’s what your competitors are doing…

UM was shiny and enticing but I couldn’t live with myself to go into that much debt for a degree.

UW-Madison was within my comfort zone. It was tempting because it would have been in-state tuition. I’m from a Madison suburb, so my parents even offered to let me live at home and commute to save even more money. Also, my sister was starting as a freshman at UW. I love Madison, my family, and the idea of saving money, but I knew I wanted more of an adventure.

Picking a library program is a very personal choice. Think about what is the most important to you. Maybe it’s funding, location, finding an institution that fits what your significant other is doing, curriculum, or faculty research areas… the list is endless. I do recommend visiting, if you can. When I visited IU, I knew.

I’m worried that my personal statement sucks. Any advice?

Again, there are a few brief thoughts about personal statements in the article “Hack Your Library School Application” in the HLS Guide to Library School.

I hear from a lot of people who are worried about not having library experience yet. I wouldn’t worry about it. Many applicants don’t. I had only an internship and a job as a museum docent on my resume when I applied.

Now, I’m saying this with the assumption that you’ve thought long and hard about why you want to go to library school–and that you’ve decided you will work your tail off so that it’s not a wasted investment. Not having experience when you start a program doesn’t doom you forever, but if you go to library school and don’t start working harder than you’ve ever worked it truly will. You will have a hard time working within the field. But as you’re writing your cover letter, don’t focus on this. Your job is to sell the application committee on your enthusiasm and promise within the field, so share what you want to do, not just what you have done.

Another thing to remember is that many LIS programs just aren’t that hard to get into. Some are competitive (UW-Madison springs to mind), but from my understanding IU certainly isn’t. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t try, of course, but you might not have to feel as worried.

Can you tell me more about Bloomington?

Yes! I relish the chance to talk about Bloomington. It’s definitely a college town and very IU-centric. At a population of around 100,000, it’s cozy. Pretty safe, amazing food, lots of live music, great weather, low cost of living. It’s an hour from Indianapolis, 3-4 from Chicago, 3 from Columbus, and 1-2 from Louisville, so road tripping is easy. Lots of nearby conferences, which has been incredible. I think if someone loved big cities they would maybe find Bloomington boring, but as someone who loves to be able to go hiking and run around outside AND have access to awesome cultural events, it’s amazing. I would love to come back here someday. It really is an oasis.

Can you tell me more about Indiana University’s library school?

ILS has comprised about 10% of my overall library school experience. I came to library school because that’s just the way this field works: I need an MLS to get a professional library job. I was told by a mentor when I first came to IU that the classes were easy, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because it allowed you to work a lot. And since practical library experience is really all that matters when you’re on the job hunt, I am okay with this. I’ve had some useful classes, but for the most part they have just been something to get through. The MLS core curriculum is very traditional and public services-oriented.

I’ve had great experiences with people in ILS and the IU Libraries. Formal advising through ILS doesn’t seem to work out to well; mainly it’s students who find mentors outside the program who feel like they are getting useful advice. This makes sense because most students want to be librarians or other professionals, not academics. Luckily, there are lots of librarians that are willing to mentor if you develop a relationship with them.

Overall, ILS is lovable but old-fashioned. I look at programs like the University of Michigan, Syracuse, and UIUC and I can clearly tell that we are falling behind. We have to be more innovative, especially when it comes to updating the curriculum.

So I don’t just repeat what I’ve written before, check out my thoughts on ILS (formerly SLIS) in my Hack Your Program post and this post.

Do you really dislike your program so much? (yes, I get this question a lot)

Ha. It might seem that way sometimes–I have been critical of the curriculum and the apathy I occasionally see in my peers. I have tried to be very reasonable in my criticisms; after all, I have wonderful relationships with so many people affiliated with ILS. However, I have to call it as I see it, and I wish I saw more practical skills, advice, and coursework coming from the program. I won’t back down from the fact that I see the cost of the degree hugely outweighing the benefits for many students.

I think it’s necessary to be vocal about the vast number of unprepared library school grads out there who will never work in the field. The job market is just so tight. When I see IU’s missed opportunities to help grads compete, I get frustrated.

I’m not sure whether I want to do a dual degree, or a degree with a specialization, or some other combination. Any advice?

This is tricky. Most people who ask me this are coming at it from the tech skills angle: How can I ensure that I get the oh-so-important tech skills out of library school? Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee–these options all differ significantly in different programs, so the best advice I can give is to try to find people in the programs you’re applying for and ask them. They can give you the real info that you need, not just the supposed benefits recited from the program website.

I wanted to do the dual MLS/MIS at IU because I knew I wanted a job in an academic library working with technology. I told myself that if I came to IU and found a way to get tuition remission, I would pursue the MIS side in earnest. I valued that it would give me an additional year to work, present, and build my library experience. I knew it would be useful if I ended up at a tenure-track institution.

As for the specialization, at IU you can either be a free agent and take a bunch of electives or you can sign up for a specialization and have those electives pre-packaged for you. There are benefits to each. With a specialization, you can benefit from the wisdom of the specialization adviser (and hopefully develop a strong relationship with them), picking classes is easy, and you get that extra little qualification stamped on your diploma. There are drawbacks, though. Specializations can eat up a lot of your free classes and some may not be that relevant to you. The digital libraries specialization was appealing to me because I liked the adviser, Dr. John Walsh, and the classes were more or less what I would have taken on my own. It has worked out well for me and I don’t regret it. However, I do know some people who thought they wanted to do archives when they came to ILS and started the specialization. By the time they realized they didn’t like archives at all they were halfway through and had a hard time pulling out of the time investment they already made.

One mistake I see people making is to burrow comfortably within their degree/specialization when they need to make sure to branch out and get other skills. THIS IS HUGE. You have to do your own research as to the skills you’ll need and make a plan to get them–do not expect a degree or specialization to erase this responsibility. To get a job, you need to stand out from the crowd, and to stand out from the crowd, you need to have skills that go beyond your area’s cookie-cutter specialization.

I don’t have tech skills and I know that I need them. But how do you know what type of technology skills to get? I’m overwhelmed and I don’t know where to focus my energy.

I understand this. It’s easy to be overwhelmed, but know that you can’t possibly tackle everything. As long as you’re working toward something, that’s all that matters. Don’t get paralyzed by the amount of stuff out there to know.

I had a few strategies to deal with this.

  • Job descriptions. This is the #1 place to look and prioritize. Find jobs in different areas you’re interested in and look at their required and preferred skills. You will most certainly find specific technologies (e.g., Drupal) or types of technologies (e.g., content management systems) noted there.
  • Resumes/CVs. I recommend trying to track down the resume/CV of a professional librarian in your field. Often a quick Google search will find what you need. Shamelessly peek at their document. This can give clues.
  • Free technology classes. When I started library school I took all of the free technology courses I could. IU has an exceptional technology education program that offers courses on all sorts of skills and software, including the Adobe Creative Suite, HTML and CSS, Microsoft Access and Excel, ArcGIS, and more. During my first semester I had a somewhat flexible schedule so I could fit a lot of these courses in. After taking the course, I would add the software/skill to the technology section of my resume and CV. People have different criteria for adding something to their professional documents; for me, as long I know that I have a solid understanding of a particular technology I will add it to my CV.
  • Library school classes. It’s possible that your classes might provide helpful leads on technology to learn–but it is also equally possible that your courses will be completely out of touch, unaware of technologies being used currently. As a new professional, you’ll be expected to know what’s going on in the library tech world. Do not trust that your courses are sharing everything you need to know. I found that my courses have accounted for an extremely small amount of my library tech knowledge.
  • Bamboo DIRT. An awesome website where you can explore digital tools that do all sorts of fun things!
  • Twitter. Twitter is an absolute gold mine when it comes to keeping up to date. I’m often overwhelmed by it but you can follow the best and brightest out there and often the info you’ll learn about will be new tech tools.

How to pull all of those technologies that you learn about together? I made a list; “Technology to learn” I think I called it. I added all the technologies I came across and looked for any opportunity to gain experience with them. As you explore technologies, you’ll get a better feel for what’s relevant to you. Some you’ll be able to learn on your own or through lynda.com; others would require working on large projects or through an internship. Once you have an idea of what you’re looking for, you can be more strategic.

Also, you’re a life-long learner in this field. Nobody knows everything. Familiarity of core concepts and the openness to keep improving is vital.


  1. Nice post. I found your blog via HackLibSchool and it’s funny: I considered the same four schools you did and I’m actually from Madison myself. (So I know what you’re saying about the “comfort zone.”)

    I ended up going to Illinois and it looks like we got different vibes during the application process. I definitely got more support from them than some other the others (Michigan, UW-Madison). But I suppose it was more with the Main Library at UIUC where I ended up working rather than the grad program itself, although they were good too. It’s interesting how some of these things differ from year to year or even application to application.

    And great resources at the end of the article! I’m checking out Bamboo Dirt now.

    1. Thanks for reading, Andrew! I’m glad to hear you had a good experience with UIUC. I’ve actually only ever driven through Urbana-Champaign. It’s surprising to me that IU and UIUC students don’t collaborate more–we’re so close! I know technically the schools are rivals but that would be neat. Oh and by the way, I’m super jealous of your data curation program!

      I love Bamboo Dirt, although when I look at all the tools I usually need to remind myself to take my own advice and not get overwhelmed :)

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