Hack Your Program: University of Maryland College of Information Studies

18/10/2011 § 17 Comments

Alexandra Carter is the Digital Imaging Librarian at the University of Maryland Libraries in College Park, Maryland, and previously worked in both public and academic libraries. Her current interests include the digital humanities and reference service in archives and special collections. When not busy with library things she reads and watches lots of sci-fi and fantasy, cooks delicious food, and plays board games with friends.

You can find her on her blog May Subdivide Geographically or on twitter: @alexscat .

Disclaimer: These are my impressions of the MLS program at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies, based on my own experiences, and are not meant to be representative of the opinions of all students, the college, or the university. I attended the iSchool, as it is informally known, beginning in Fall 2008, and I graduated in May 2010.

Hornbake Library, which houses the College of Information Studies

Maryland’s iSchool currently offers three degree programs: Masters in Library Science (MLS), Masters in Information Management (MIM), and PhD in Information Studies. As of this fall, a Masters in Human Computer Interaction (HCIM) will also be available. The iSchool enrolls over 500 graduate students each year across all degree programs — I recall being told by an admissions advisor several years ago that about 300 of those were MLS students.

The iSchool is located at the main University of Maryland campus in College Park, Maryland. MLS classes are also offered at the Universities at Shady Grove campus in Rockville, Maryland, and online. Starting this fall, it is now possible to complete the MLS program entirely online.

Specializations, Concentrations, and Dual Degree Programs

There are two MLS specializations — Archives, Records, and Information Management and School Library Media — and three concentrations — E-Government, Lifelong Access, and Information and Diverse Populations, with requirements of varying complexity for each. There is also one dual History and Library Science (HiLS) degree program. Though I did take several Archives course, I opted for what students loving refer to as “the general track.” If you’re interested in a specilization or concentration, it’s a good idea to start planning early to make sure you can complete all the required classes.

Program Requirements

There are both “core” and “required” classes at the iSchool. All are mandatory if you’d like to graduate, but there is a difference. Core classes are supposed to be completed within your first 18 credits (though I know anecdotally that this is more a guideline than a strict rule) while required classes may be taken any time during the program.

The core classes are: Information Access (aka “Reference”), Organization of Information, Information Technology, PLUS one of the following, depending on your concentration: Users and Information Context (aka “User Studies 101″), Archival Principles, Practices, and Programs (aka “Intro to Archives”), or Library Media Specialists as Information Professionals.

The required classes are: A management course (there’s a School Library Media specific version, and an “everybody else” version) and a 100 hour field study (after being an optional elective, the field study becomes a requirement for all newly admitted students in Fall 2011).

Students also have the option of writing a Masters thesis, but few actually do.

Program Strengths

One of the program’s biggest strengths is, undeniably, the location. Maryland’s College Park campus is located just outside Washington, D.C. in Prince George’s County, Maryland. As college towns go, College Park isn’t the greatest, but a 20-30 minute trip via campus shuttle and Metro gets you in to downtown D.C., which is chock full of things to do in your free time. More importantly for your professional aspirations, there are many libaries, archives, and other information centers in the D.C. Metro area.

If you’re looking to work, intern, or volunteer during school, you’re certain to find something. (It’s less certain whether it’ll be a paying gig. Sorry!) I personally worked part time on campus during my two years, but I knew others working at federal libraries, law firms, public libraries, local schools, and more. The National Archives and Records Administration is located in College Park—just a short walk, drive, bus, or bike trip away from campus—and many archives students obtain student positions there. Of course, all of this is just a quirk of geography, not a reflection of the program itself, but it’s too much of an asset to be overlooked.

As I noted before, there are a number of concentrations and specializations, many of which are well-regarded. (I don’t put too much stock in rankings, though. U.S. News recently reported that Maryland had a great program in Digital Libraries. There is no such program, or even any such class.) If you need a school media certification, want to be an archivist, or are otherwise intrigued by one of the specializations, the variety of choices is great.

Program Weaknesses

The fact that you’re reading a post on Hack Library School leads me to believe that you have at least a basic awareness of some of the common problems facing LIS education, for instance the theory/practice divide. Yes, that’s also an issue at Maryland. And, yes, course offering often don’t quite keep up with the most recent developments in the field.

One of the biggest obstacles that I and my fellow students encountered was the iSchool administration. Communication between the administration and students is generally not good. I experienced this first hand when I wanted to transfer credits from another university and received three conflicting sets of instructions: one from an iSchool administrator, one from the iSchool website, and one from the graduate school website. Be prepared for a sometimes frustrating level of misinformation and confusion.

The flip side of the variety offered at Maryland’s iSchool is that resources can be stretched pretty thin. Core and required classes have to be offered on a regular basis, which means that other classes sometimes fall to the wayside. Sadly, this means that some really interesting offerings only come around once every 2-3 years. Their appearances in the course schedules can also be dictated by the college’s ability to find adjunct instructors.

One thing that’s stood out to me over the past three years is the turnover in the iSchool faculty and staff, which stretches the resources of the school further. I’m not privy to any of the administrative politics that undoubtedly have contributed to this trend, but it doesn’t work to the benefit of the students. For instance, for some students this means having two or three different advisors over two years.

Student Involvement

iSchool students have established student chapters of several major professional organizations. They include ALA, SLA, ASIST, and SAA (the student chapter goes by Student Archivists at Maryland, or SAM). The activity level of the various organizations varies from year to year, depending on the interest level of the student leaders and the student body at large. The student groups organize a variety of events from chats with area professionals to library and archives tours to monthly happy hours.

Because most students at the iSchool are very busy, it can be difficult to connect with classmates. Students commute to campus from all over the region and most have at least one job or internship. Outside the initial core classes, students from different specializations and concentrations have little contact with each other, so I urge anyone who chooses Maryland to make an effort to meet people outside your niche area. It may involve a little extra effort on your part, but I know that the connections I’ve made here were well worth it!


There’s not a lot of funding to be had in the iSchool. There are Graduate Assistantships available in the college, either in the college office, research centers, or with individual faculty members, but compared to the total number of students, there really aren’t many. The University Libraries used to have about 40 Graduate Assistants, but do to funding cuts, there are now closer to 10. Assistantships typically include tuition remission, health insurance, and a stipend.

The federal government has student employment programs of its own. While these won’t pay your tuition directly, you should be able to earn a decent wage, and some student positions transition into regular positions when you graduate. The sheer number of federal agencies with offices in the D.C. Metro area makes these jobs well worth looking into, even if you’re not looking for a long term career with the federal government.

Maryland residents pay in-state tuition, which is significantly less than out-of-state tuition. Virginia residents are also eligible for in-state tuition through the Academic Common Market because there are no ALA-accredited LIS programs in Virginia. If you’re from out of state and would like to come to Maryland, I’d strongly recommend establishing residency first—I definitely wish I had. I had an assistantship for my second year, but took out loans to cover the first year of out of state tuition, which isn’t cheap. Also, keep in mind the high cost of living in the region! (I yearn Columbus, Ohio rents.)

The Bottom Line

I took a few great classes at Maryland, and other classes ranging from adequate to irritating. After talking to many librarians who attended programs around the country, I expect this is pretty normal. What I think makes the iSchool experience stand apart are the practical experiences available in the D.C. area for students.

Is it worth moving here from out of state to attend the iSchool? In my opinion, no. There are good things about the program, but it’s not so amazing different than any other that it’s worth taking on that much debt. If you are a local resident (or are willing to establish residency before enrolling) it’s a much better deal.

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