Hack Your Program: University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign

23/09/2011 § 2 Comments

Eric Phetteplace is the Emerging Technologies Librarian at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills, Maryland. He reads philosophy, writes poetry, and is sort of obsessed with the differences between various web browsers. He graduated from GSLIS in May of 2011.

The University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. By Kalev Leetaru, used with permission.

Disclaimer

The opinions in this post are solely mine and do not represent my place of employment or the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. I did not take every course or talk to every professor, so I can only vouch for a small part of the school, but hopefully prospective students will find this snapshot useful in making their decision.

Programs

GSLIS offers an M.S. in Library and Information Science, as well as a Certificate of Advanced Studies, and a PhD. There are several concentrations and certificates available: Bioinformatics, Digital Libraries, Data Curation, Youth Librarianship, K-12 School Librarianship, Special Collections, and Community Informatics. There are about 570 M.S. students and a little over 50 apiece for the C.A.S. and PhD, though the majority of students are actually enrolled off-campus through theLEEPonlineeducationprogram.

The M.S. is 40 credit hours has only two required courses: LIS501 Information Organization and Access, and LIS502 Libraries, Information, and Society. Each concentration requires a handful of additional courses. There is a 2-hour practicum course which can be taken anywhere as long as you have an M.L.S. to supervise you. The recommended time for completion is two years but it is possible to finish in one. There is no mandatory final project or thesis for the M.S. but those who choose to stay on and receive a C.A.S. write a thesis.

Financial Aid

I came from out of state, which makes the program pretty expensive. If you have a graduateassistantship, in-state tuition ($6,109) and most fees are waived, you get a small stipend, but you still have to pay some if you are from out of state ($5,372). There are a few fellowships and scholarships available, such as theLAMPprogram. I was fortunate enough to receive ascholarshipforcommunitycollegelibrarianship (NB: no longer available) and a graduate assistantship with thecentralreferencedepartment of the library. The value for someone in-state is pretty good, especially with some of the aforementioned aid.

Student Involvement

There are several students clubs, ranging from professional ones like a great ALA Student Chapter to social ones like the boardgaming club. TheCommunityInformaticsClub is especially vibrant and frequently works on projects in the local community. Other student groups include ASIS&T, Beta Phi Mu, the GSLIS Chinese Group, the Progressive Librarians Guild, and the Society of American Archivists. There are numerous volunteering opportunities and I actually spent a lot of my time outside school at alocalindependentmediacenter fixing community members’ computers. Working outside of the library bubble, but in a related area, helped me gain perspective and see how library skills can fit into society at large.

Strengths

The breadth of course offerings and small number of required courses makes it easy to get the sort of education you want at GSLIS. I truly appreciated the ability to design my own course of study and never felt as if I was sitting through a course simply to fulfill an obscure requirement. If you are interested in traditional librarianship, you can take cataloging, collection development, reference, and never delve into Python programming. If you are more on the information science side of LIS, then you can study data curation, document modeling, and ontologies. The sheer size of the school, and the online courses which allow GSLIS to draw from a nationwide faculty pool, make the diverse programs all pretty strong.

The eastern entrance of the Main Library building

The eastern entrance of the Main Library building. Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Library.


It also helps that GSLIS is at a major research university with a world-class library. To me, the value of the library lies in the people, as Illinois has premier research librarians in every field, and not the twelve million plus volumes in the collection. Further, the two local public libraries are top-tier as well and students can volunteer at them, staffing reference desks or teaching adults basic computing. The university’s librarians are also GSLIS faculty. While many LIS programs lack practitioners, GSLIS courses are taught by highly-regarded librarians from both the university as well as the local public libraries. My reference class was taught by the Associate University Librarian for Services, a university cataloger taught cataloging, and an instruction librarian taught instruction. The GSLIS faculty tend to be more interested in research (naturally) and that compliments the practicing faculty nicely.

The university library also offers numerous graduate assistantships wherein students work alongside librarians in an academic environment. The nature of the assistantships varies from typical reference and instruction to helping run the online education program. The librarians make great mentors and often go out of their way to help students grow as professionals. Personally, I learned much more from working in the library than taking classes. And when I did develop a useful skill in class, I could immediately apply it in the context of my work, which was an amazing feeling after a somewhat abstract undergraduate career.

We were told that “assistantships are different at GSLIS” and I believe it. The value comes not only from working alongside excellent librarians but being treated as a colleague and given the freedom to make a difference. For instance, my analysis of reference statistics helped the library design a new “virtual reference” desk and adjust staffing patterns to match observed usage. I was given the freedom to design my own investigations and eventually collaborated on a research paper detailing the findings. I also presented a poster on the study at ACRL’s national conference, where I had an interview with my future employers. Without the chance to do substantive work in the library, I am certain I would have appeared less prepared and possibly not received the job offer. As it was, my assistantship made me an appealing candidate with pertinent experiences to draw upon. I was able to speak intelligently about how to assess services and implement IM/chat reference, but only because I had been in the trenches doing precisely that.

Weaknesses

As mentioned in the reviews of a few other LIS schools, the economics of online education has undercut on-campus course offerings a bit. For on-campus students, it is difficult to complete the degree without taking a LEEP course and many vital courses are available only online (on the other hand, LEEP students probably feel left out of some of the on-campus courses). This would not be so bad, but the quality of LEEP courses is highly variable: I took one excellent course and one decent one, but I have heard some horror stories that lead me to believe I was fairly lucky.

The graduate assistantships are increasingly difficult to obtain. Sometimes a single opening receives 50 or more applications, making them almost as competitive as the LIS job market. The University of Illinois has been in a serious financial predicament the last couple years and as a result some positions were eliminated while others were converted to graduate hourly (i.e. lacking a tuition waiver) appointments. It creates a kind of “haves and have-nots” situation in which students who lack assistantships pay more for their education, get less out of it, and miss out on the natural social circles that result from working in a small, closely-knit group.

Finally, just as I was graduating GSLIS, there was a serious outcry about race relations at the school. The student body is not very diverse, the faculty even less so, and the curriculum can also downplay the importance of race, all of which alienates minorities and fails to emphasize critical thinking. To its credit, the school held a town hall meeting on the subject and has formed a set of task forces that focus on recruiting diverse students and faculty as well as revamping the curriculum. Honestly, I was busy job searching at the time, so I was not as informed about the issues as I would have liked, but it needs to be mentioned.

Conclusion

GSLIS is a highly ranked library school for a reason. The faculty, libraries, assistantships, and other opportunities available to students are excellent. There are few other LIS programs situated alongside such a premier research library. I personally was elated to work with practitioners and develop the skills I will use throughout my career. LIS graduate school is largely what you put into it. Students must aggressively pursue chances to get real world experience, go to faculty office hours, and find a community of colleagues outside of class to get the most for their money. GSLIS, despite its shortcomings, is a wonderful place to be a librarian- or informaticist-in-training.

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