What courses should / shouldn’t I take in my MLS program? My experience…

I realize it has been a while since I have posted to this blog, but since it has been a little over a year since I finished library school and have been working in the field for a while, I wanted to reflect on my decisions to take certain courses while getting my MLIS.

If any current or prospective students are reading this, I am sure you are experiencing an overwhelming array of tempting course options. However, not all classes are created equal, and you might find there are better (and cheaper) alternatives. The goal is to maximize your coursework and your tuition money so that you are in the best position to get hired :).

Please note that what I will state below is my subjective experience, and that the classes I took at my MLIS program might be different from the curricula at other programs.  However, I will be listing some general course categories that I took (whether I felt they were useful or not), or classes that I wished I had taken.

I also point out that my focus in library science (digital content management), will be different from others, so my response will be somewhat tailored to this area. However, in talking to people in the field, and my experience on the job, proficiency with new tech is vital to getting hired, as Laura Krier bluntly puts it. She also lists some course ideas that are beneficial to digital content management.

Classes I did not regret taking:

1) Relational Databases and Data Modeling

Despite the fact that my course had less than 15 people enroll, which is pretty sad for a school that spits out the 2nd most MLIS’s per year, this was one of the most informative classes I ever took. Relational databases serve as the backbone to nearly all applications that librarians use, no matter what area of the field, so knowing how they work provides a huge understanding to troubleshooting application issues, finding information in databases, and even providing the foundational knowledge for writing your own programs. Since we librarians are always designing with the user in mind, being able to model and implement our own database applications is a real asset as the field becomes more technological.

2) Metadata / Electronic Information Retrieval

In addition to the mandatory cataloging class, knowing how to apply metadata fields in the right circumstances is  key to managing content (more of which will become electronic as time goes on). While cataloging classes often reiterated the importance of standard entry rules and validation rules for standard schemas like MARC, it does not really discuss issues such as how to export your data, how to incorporate your data in another system, and how to create metadata that will help preserve your data.

Since the growth of technology is not getting any slower, this is key knowledge if we want to be stewards of tomorrows information. After all, don’t forget that only 10 years ago, we were storing data on floppy disks. Now the only thing a floppy disk is good for is a coaster….those 1.44 MBs relics  cannot even hold one iTunes song, but they certainly keep my Coke Zero from sweating  ;).

3) A subject area reference course, preferably  in the sciences or business

Any library job you take will require the keen skill of extracting the information from your user and translating it into something you can use to find the answer, you don’t want to leave library school without having this down pat. Every library school on the planet offers some variant of Reference 101, but it won’t provide the opportunity to delve into a subject, and to really learn how to utilize the various databases and tackle more challenging questions.

Science/technology reference class are in higher demand, especially in medical libraries, pharmaceutical companies. Business research skills are also highly in demand, especially if you want to work for a law firm, corporation, or other special library. As the private sector picks up, these places are likely to hire  (hint, hint), assuming we don’t have a double-dip recession. And academic and public libraries will find this reference skill set useful as well.

Courses I wished I did not take

1) HTML/CSS (or any programming language)

Unless you have been living under a rock before considering library school, you know that knowing at least a little HTML is basically a requirement to get a job in this field. However, I would not recommend taking this course through your MLIS program. Not that the course is not useful, but that there are several other alternatives that are much cheaper and much better. Ed2Go offers an HTML class for less than $200,  and lynda.com offers unlimited tech tutorials for only $25 a month. Lynda.com not only offers HTML courses, but programming courses, software application courses, etc. as well (which will probably be more current than what you would take in class anyway).  The tuition cost for an HTML class in grad school is the same as 5 years or more of a membership to Lynda.com. And you can learn a lot in 5 years…. ;). Plus, don’t forget all the free stuff like MIT’s Open Courseware and Google Code University! 🙂

2) Library Management

In my experience, I felt that these classes were a waste of tuition dollars, even though they required very little work. While they are great for an easy “A’, you don’t really need an easy “A” in library school…since most of your classes are not particularly challenging (strongly depending on where you get your degree, of course). Any manager will tell you that management and leadership are learned on the job, and many of the theories you will learn in these classes fall apart in the real world. Becoming an advocate for your profession and your staff has to come from within;  no excessive knowledge or theory is going to magically give you the resolve to be a good leader.

For what is is worth, I took 2 management classes, and I found neither of them to be very beneficial…

Classes I wished I took

1) Collection Development / Acquisitions

I deal a lot with vendors in my job, and I deal a lot with questions regarding how much subscriptions cost, license agreements, etc. A lot of people do not realize that the acquisitions budget of a large company or university is likely in the 7-figure range (though many are getting slashed…). That’s some serious cash money!

License agreements are convoluted, and publishers can be ruthless about price increases. While I would say that, like the management courses, much of what is learned in acquisitions is learned on the job, I wished that I had at least had some background knowledge before being thrown in with the sharks without a life jacket.  If you know how to be economical with an acquisitions budget and to negotiate sweet deals, and that skill is better than sweet liquid gold and a titanium cherry on top :).

I hope that this information is helpful. Again, please realize that this reflects my experience, but I wanted to share my knowledge. I read a lot of people’s perspectives on what people should / should not take in library school, and I hope that this provides some unique information, especially for those interested in pursuing the digital track.