Guide / Overview

Academic Librarianship Degree Program Overview - 2024

by Staff

Updated: November 1st, 2023

Being an academic librarian is a wonderful, noble profession. No matter if the end goal is to indulge in a university library position’s research and classroom efforts, support the technical training within a vocational school’s library, assume the wide-ranging responsibilities of a community college librarian, or simultaneously foster student success and investor approval at a for-profit educational establishment, you have an amazing capacity to do good.

Serving your campus and community, protecting access to information, and assisting students in developing their interests and expertise, while growing your own — it’s all in a day’s work. And that’s admittedly very compelling for people. 

However, becoming an academic librarian isn’t something that’s achievable overnight. It takes a ton of time, commitment, and education. Getting an MLIS degree with a concentration in academic librarianship is a step many take to help them along this path, but is it for you?

The answer to that is undoubtedly complicated and individual. There’s no surefire way to determine if it ends up a “yes” or a “no,” although there are a few factors that can usually point you in the right direction. 

The most obvious yet important one is passion. Do you deeply care about education, about books, and fostering a love of learning? Are you excited about others’ excitement, and are you committed to helping people explore what fascinates them? Does working for the benefit of young adults, delving into research, and managing extensive collections of literature feel like your calling? 

If so, then an MLIS program may be precisely where you belong. Besides passion, prospective library and information science students also typically share certain personality traits and temperaments. 

They’re usually imaginative, adaptable, courteous, and open-minded, accepting of different perspectives and viewpoints even if they differ from their own. Strong research skills, social responsibility, and organizational know-how are cornerstones of the academic librarian profession. Should you possess these right off the starting block, you’ll likely fit right in and find yourself a great deal of success within this degree track.

What Should One Think About When Deciding On An Academic Librarianship Degree Program?

Regardless of whether you’ve had your eye on an MLIS degree for years or you’ve just recently taken a serious interest, there’s a lot to consider before settling on an academic librarianship program and applying to become a student. Some factors will matter more depending on your individual interests, specializations, career goals, and personal preference, yet there are a few that everyone should keep firmly in mind when exploring what academic librarianship program — if any — is right for you.

Depth and Quality of Program Curriculum

Education is undeniably essential, irrespective of one’s desired profession. Still, not all education is created equal, and that holds true for MLIS programs. This is why anyone interested in pursuing a degree should do their due diligence and delve into the curriculum of various programs to evaluate not only the depth of what’s being taught but also the quality. 

Exploring prospective school or university websites is an excellent place to start this process, as they usually contain a wealth of information on program goals, specializations, course descriptions, and learning opportunities. These sites will also typically list a number to call for additional information, giving you a chance to ask more specific questions, clarify curriculum scope and course choice, and potentially even get access to old syllabi to determine whether a program’s classes offer what you’re seeking. 

In a rush or want something that can quickly “weed out” contenders less suitable for a future in academic libraries? Check if potential programs are ALA accredited. Those that are will have the curriculum to support your goals, specifically made to fit the evolving needs and emerging roles of the academic librarian. 

Quality of Professors & Other Teachers

The influence of a good mentor cannot be overstated. Sometimes, just one professor can spell the difference between success and failure; thus, it’s critical for your school of choice to possess top-notch, understanding educators that you can equally learn from and lean on. 

Evaluating these professors and teachers before you meet them can prove a challenge, although you can at least usually find some basic info on departmental web pages like how long they’ve been at their current institution, where they got their education, how many years they’ve been teaching, and their specific field of study.

As you go about this search, just make sure you’re managing your expectations. Professors don’t have to meet every single one of your ideal criteria or look perfect on paper to be exceptional. 

The main factors you’ll want to focus on are whether or not their research is relevant to your career goals, what kind of reputation they hold amongst students and faculty, and the amount of experience they hold. If they’re known for being kind, have interests that align with your academic librarian career desires, and are readily available to render assistance, then you know they’re quality educators.

Availability of Student Resources 

It should go without saying that a school’s curriculum and professor roster matters. However, the availability of student resources is also incredibly meaningful and should be a major point of consideration for any up-and-coming academic librarian. 

After all, the depth of these resources has a direct impact on the overall educational experience. Because of this, don’t be afraid to email MLIS degree program coordinators or call the numbers offered to prospective students. 

Ask them about their funding for your desired MLIS degree track and the school at large. Question what sorts of academic support or tutoring are up for grabs. Reach out to see what sorts of amenities they offer. Do they have well-stocked media labs? What kind of equipment do they have on hand, and who can access it? Are they utilizing the latest technologies, and what software or programs can you expect to find in use? 

While making these inquiries, pay close attention to how they’re being received. Good schools worth your time and money will be happy to supply any information they can and will readily seek out someone who knows more should a question leave them stumped. Those that don’t extend the same care can quickly be crossed off the list. There are other, more accommodating, academic librarianship programs to explore.

Presence of Post-Graduate Support

Last but certainly not least, everyone thinking about getting an Academic Librarianship MLIS degree should always find out about schools’ post-graduate support. Think about it; just because one has graduated doesn’t mean it’s all going to be smooth sailing from there on out. 

Recent graduates can sometimes struggle with the transition into post-college life or finding employment that suits their needs. Going from a full-time student to a full-time worker can be tough for folks. Post-graduate support can ease this rocky period, but once again, the onus is on you to see what resources are within reach.

Academic advisors within the Information Science Department or alumni services are ideal go-tos for everything post-grad. They’re usually able to outline everything from further education to offered career resources (such as networking events, alum talks, etc.) to job searching tips, and beyond. Some can also connect you to academic libraries currently looking for employees or alumni mentors who can teach you more about life after college. They’re there to help - let them.

Standard Requirements for Admission

Academic librarianship MLIS programs have some distinct differences from other degree tracks. Still, they too have a number of standard requirements and prerequisites everybody must meet to be considered for admission. A few of the most common include:

  • Bachelor’s degree from an accredited university
  • Letters of recommendation (typically three or more)
  • Completion and submission of online/mailed application
  • Official undergraduate transcripts
  • Specified minimum overall GPA or GPA from the last 60 undergraduate credit hours
  • Successful TOEFL or IELTS exam (for international applicants)

This minimum GPA requirement is perhaps the one that unnerves prospective students the most, fearing that a rough spell in undergrad could be enough to totally stall their academic librarian dreams. Luckily, that’s typically far from the case. While there are certainly some universities and programs looking for the oft-illusive 4.0, the majority are generally just asking for a solid 3.0. So if this has inspired some anxiety as of late, please know that you can rest a little easier moving forward.

Courses/Learning Required in an Academic Librarianship Degree Program

Fulfilling the prerequisites for an Academic Librarianship MLIS program is an exciting and necessary step in the degree-seeker’s journey. For those who have made it this far: congratulations! However, there are still a few loose ends you need to take care of before enrollment day comes around, namely learning what kind of courses will be required within an academic librarianship program.

The majority of programs generally take 36-43 credits to complete, roughly falling somewhere between one and two years of degree work. You’ll be expected to take a series of required introductory MLIS courses before moving on to more advanced ones or those specific to your emphasis area and long-term career path. These can be split into multiple classes or differ slightly in name from institution to institution, though they’re largely the same in scale, content, direction, and learning outcomes.

Principles/Foundations of Information Science and Technology

Much as you’d expect for a foundational course, this first required class is designed to lay the groundwork for the entire discipline of informational sciences. It serves as an introduction to the roles libraries/librarians have historically filled in our society while also explaining how that has evolved and will continue to do so in the decades to come.

Students are expected to understand and articulate the “essence” of the academic librarian profession - how libraries relate to today’s ever-changing information infrastructure; the impact of information science and associated technologies in our cultural, political, and social spheres; what sort of new research is being conducted within the field; and some of the trends that are arising right now as LIS’ scope and context shifts. Ethics and standards are also typically stressed within the course, hoping to inform students how policy is crafted while instilling them with the professional values essential for all information specialists in our current climate. 

History, philosophy, sociology; all are deeply interwoven into the fabric of this early MLIS course. This provides academic librarian hopefuls a broad yet detailed overview of the information science and tech field as a whole. That knowledge will then follow students from the classroom to their careers, granting them insight that can help them better handle responsibilities and assist their communities, develop creative solutions to improve library and information services, and positively shape policy for a brighter, more informed future. 

Scholarly Communication

Where the Foundations of Information Science and Technology skew more towards explaining what lies behind the field’s figurative curtain, this course is much more concerned about the technical side of things, focused on the structure and inner workings of scholarly communications as it exists within various disciplines. 

The informal and formal networks academics use to build data, publish research findings, work with others, and exchange/disseminate information are explored at length, building on foundational concepts to which students have already been exposed. Students’ knowledge is then stretched beyond the basics, and they’re increasingly introduced to some of academia’s most pressing matters. 

The failure of academic publishing’s traditional model, the benefits of (and push-back against) the open access/open source movement, the life cycle of scholarship, and our modern-day’s altering notions of authorship; these are just a few of the topics that comprise this MLIS course. But they happen to be deeply important ones for any future academic librarian. 

Without this basis of scholastic literacy, the fight for fair access to information would be lost, and the validity of scholarly publishing would likely start to fray once again, putting academic librarianship as a profession (not to mention everything it stands for) in serious jeopardy. As long as courses like Scholarly Communication are taught, though, the field can continue to grow and adequately rise to the challenges that plague it.

Cataloging, Data, and Metadata Management

When one imagines an academic librarian, they usually picture someone who spends all their days amongst the stacks, re-shelving scholarly literature and answering the stray questions that students might bring to them as they go about their organizational efforts. Yet, a considerable amount of what academic librarians deal with in a day isn’t physical but rather digital. 

The managing of metadata is an essential task, and this learning opportunity teaches students how to handle that. In Cataloging, Data, and Metadata Management, content centers around metadata creation, enhancement, and maintenance, providing a comprehensive understanding of how processes should be implemented and developed and how records should be kept for maximum efficiency. 

Aspiring academic librarians’ attention is split primarily between database maintenance, workflow integrations, and cataloging, engaging in activities related to the distribution of collection statistics, documentation of local policies and practices, creation of authority records, and oversight of library tools/special projects. 

You’ll receive hands-on instruction in the vast mix of daily systems-related responsibilities one will regularly encounter during an academic librarian career, building proficiency in everyday departmental cataloging and metadata management. But beyond your basic learning, you may also receive a few chances to participate in the professional service side of academic librarianship. 

Some MLIS program courses or professional development positions grant certain candidates access to advocational organizations and task forces, while others actively encourage students to participate in committees addressing some of the issues in metadata creation, database development, etc. 

Together, this real-world involvement and classroom course of study works wonders at increasing confidence in academics’ abilities in and out of the library, teaching students invaluable networking skills, industry awareness, and general informational science/technological competency that others may not gain until much later in their educational program. 

Managing the Organization of Information

MLIS degree-seekers - academic librarianship students included - must acquire a deep mastery in several different areas to excel at their chosen professional path. Regardless, the organization of information still has to be one of, if not the most, crucial skills for success in a library position, considering that all the information in the world remains useless if you can’t find it in the first place. 

This course, also frequently referred to as either Collection Management or Academic Library Management, stops this issue before it ever begins, introducing students to best practices for the storage, treatment, and placement of library materials. From dissertations to periodicals to prized, first-edition literature, all resources are taught to be given an intentional space to call their own.

While public libraries typically provide collections’ structure through the infamous Dewey Decimal System, academic and other research libraries traditionally opt for something else called the Library of Congress Classification. Managing the Organization of Information classes guide students through the full categorization method, breaking down how subjects are arranged from classes A through Z, what goes into the system’s call numbers, and how to physically present these now-organized collections within a library’s space for ideal advertisement and awareness. 

The primary mission of the course is to communicate the steps academic librarians must take when organizing current materials and processing new ones. Essentially a practical guide to maintaining an orderly, neat library, its message proves applicable in any academic library setting. Each time a graduate receives additions and suffers losses to their library’s collections, they’ll put their education to good use, ensuring information is readily available, and library guests have an easy, pleasant visit.

Introduction to Applied Technology

Academic libraries have always been spaces where ingenuity and progress flourish. The technology boom of recent years has demonstrated that right in front of our eyes, university libraries eagerly embracing the possibilities opened up by instructional software, cloud-based library management applications, electronic resources, and more. Yet even so, there’s little doubt that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. 

As tech becomes more effective and affordable, libraries will continue to adopt new devices and digital services, and it’s your job as a future academic librarian to know what to use plus the ideal ways in which to implement them. Introduction to Applied Technology assists students in both endeavors. The former is typically approached first, with professors reviewing the basics of software and systems academic librarians need to know, which include:

  • Bibliographic instruction software: Programs expressly designed to help academics and other library users gather, source, cite, evaluate, and organize research.
  • Instructional design products: Educational materials carefully created to improve information retention, recall, and learner outcomes. These products often rely heavily on interactivity, novelty, gamification, and strategic repetition. 
  • Classroom software applications: An umbrella term that encompasses any digital program meant to enhance educational efforts or serve an academic purpose. Bibliographic instruction software and many popular apps like Blackboard or Canvas fall under this categorization.
  • Apple and Microsoft systems: Competing technologies like Macs and PCs that run on two separate operating systems. Most academic libraries will have both present, so librarians must become comfortable navigating each. 
  • E-reserves management systems: An electronic module that libraries employ to share reserved materials. Students can access scanned books, articles, chapters, maps, and other documents through it that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible.
  • Serials management software: A web-based management solution designed to centralize and simplify the cataloging, inventory, maintenance, and circulation of serials. These add a layer of automation that makes the entire process run more smoothly.
  • Integrated search tools: Methodologies/strategies that draw on multiple sources when gathering users’ search results.
  • Intellectual property/copyright management systems: A type of software that gives libraries the ability to track trademarks, patents, etc., and otherwise manage IP databases. 

After students gain greater familiarity with the aforementioned tools, instructors focus on presenting models for how they can be meaningfully integrated into the teaching and learning process and examine their resulting impact on academic libraries, schools, and staff. 

Those who complete Introduction to Applied Technology should then be able to successfully recall/explain the potential benefits and constraints presented by increased technological involvement in the library setting, as well as discuss some of the topic’s key issues like short shelf-life systems or the role of automation versus humans. 

If you think that will only come in handy for fulfilling a couple of course objectives, though, you’d be sorely mistaken. Tech is now an integral aspect of academic librarianship. There’s no getting around it; any career in the field will have you interacting directly with countless applications and systems. This MLIS course prepares you for that eventuality and provides you with the language to add to the ongoing conversation surrounding technology’s increasing prevalence.

Advanced Digital Collections

Despite being lumped in with the MLIS degree’s core curriculum, Advanced Digital Collections is anything other than a beginner-level class. This course adds onto the foundations laid by other information science teachings, encouraging the formation of a set of standards for the end-to-end digital collecting process - aiming to improve acquisition plans to curation tactics and all the activities that happen in-between. 

Academic librarianship students and fellow MLIS scholars are challenged to move past the theoretical and actually design collections in real-world environments. Here, you’ll put your digital management systems’ and designing know-how to the test by: 

  • Crafting protocols for objects, metadata, file formats, and other digital collection factors
  • Digitizing objects (analog and computer-made)
  • Putting together and implementing plans for usability/accessibility
  • Appropriately categorizing the collections you have designed.
  • Collaborate with other entities to make certain that collections meet user needs and wants

The end result probably won’t be as neat or controlled as you’d hope and it’s likely you’ll have to step back and change up your approach several times along the way. However, this is precisely why Advanced Digital Collections is such a necessary course. It’s a faithful recreation of the collections’ building process, a preview for what it will genuinely be like when you’re outside the classroom and settling into a real academic librarian position. 

Upon completion, you won’t only understand how to map metadata schemes, develop policies that work for different digital content categories, or use a DAM, you’ll also know how trial and error fits into your workflow, how to bounce back from mistakes, and learn complex technologies on the spot. Those are vital skills that are impossible to teach and they’ll make infinitely more prepared for your future job.

Information Literacy Instruction

Academic librarians are always deeply involved in a number of projects. For many, collaboration with educators resides high on their to-dos, usually in the form of services aimed at helping students (or even the teachers themselves) improve critical thinking, learn how to find needed information, and choose more reliable sources. 

However, before these librarians could ever start passing these lessons down to others, they had to be taught how to do so, and that tends to take place in a class like Information Literacy Instruction. 

During their time in this essential MLIS course, scholars are acquainted with past/current trends in literacy instruction, published standards, updated information literacy texts, and major learning models, imparting them with the methods and teaching tools they’ll need to apply throughout their professions. 

The informed learning approach to information literacy is often given special attention due to its success at advancing student learning, though students are encouraged to take something away from a variety of other frameworks.

Following this stage of the course, some of the theoretical gets traded for the practical. Students are pushed to practice what they’ve learned thus far in instructional design assignments, hands-on information literacy lessons, and educational material creation. 

Allowed the space to discover what works for diverse learners and what doesn’t, more personal, effective teaching approaches begin to emerge and future academic librarians truly start to embody the collaborative, scholarly, contextual, and reflective aspects that make for great educational developers.