Guidelines for Choosing a Master's Program in Library and Information Studies

These guidelines are designed to help prospective students select the program that best meets their individual needs. In choosing a program, prospective students should consider several factors, including future career plans, specialization options, geographic mobility, distance-learning opportunities, and financial aid resources.

Choosing an ALA-accredited program

The vast majority of employers require an ALA-accredited master’s degree for professional positions in the field of library and information science; therefore, graduating from an ALA-accredited program enhances your career mobility and provides greater flexibility in the types of jobs for which you qualify. In addition, some states require an ALA-accredited degree to work as a professional librarian in public or school libraries.

ALA-accredited master’s programs can be found at colleges and universities in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. These programs offer degrees with names such as Master of Library Science (MLS), Master of Arts, Master of Librarianship, Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS), and Master of Science.

ALA accreditation indicates that the program has undergone an external review and meets the ALA Committee on Accreditation’s Standards for Accreditation of Master’s Programs in Library and Information Studies . These standards evaluate a program’s mission, goals, and objectives; their curriculum, faculty, and students; their administration and financial support; and their physical resources and facilities.

For a school library career (K through 12), a master’s degree with a specialty in school librarianship from an ALA/AASL Nationally Recognized program in an educational unit accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP, formerly NCATE) is also appropriate. ALA policy states: "[T]he master's degree in librarianship from a program accredited by the American Library Association or a master's degree with a specialty in school librarianship from an ALA/AASL Nationally Recognized program in an educational unit accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation is the appropriate first professional degree for school librarians" (ALA Policy B.9.2.2, formerly Policy 54.2.2).

Sources of further information:

Gathering basic information

Although all ALA-accredited programs meet the standards discussed above, there is considerable diversity among programs. To help in your decision, we suggest that you begin by reviewing an individual program’s website. Talking to the faculty, students, and alumni of prospective programs is also very helpful, as is asking your local librarians about your specific interests and concerns.

School visits are another good way to help select the program that best meets your needs. If you notify a program of your intention to visit, meetings can be arranged with administrators, faculty members, and/or students. During your visit, be sure to investigate the general campus environment; university facilities, such as computer and library resources; availability of affordable on-campus housing or housing near the university; child care facilities; and opportunities for extra-curricular activities.

Sources of further information:

Choosing a specialization

Some students enter a master’s program knowing the career path they wish to take, while others are not sure or see their interests shift once they are exposed to the wide variety of types and settings in which librarians and information professionals work.

All ALA-accredited programs require courses that provide general preparation to practice in the profession; however, some programs also offer specialized tracks or courses that permit or encourage concentration in a specific area of library and information studies (e.g., school librarianship, art librarianship, health science librarianship, database design, or archival studies). The opportunity to specialize depends on the availability of relevant courses, on focused class project/paper opportunities, and the availability of practica or student employment options.

Your program of study should be based on an assessment of your past experiences, education, personal strengths and interests, geographic mobility, intended career path, and future plans. Although you should be aware of job market opportunities, you should not necessarily let them dictate your choice to specialize. Faculty advisors can help in the process of developing a program of study that fits your needs.

Program admission requirements

Admission requirements vary from program to program, but here is a general outline of what you can expect:

  • Programs typically require a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution and a minimum grade point average of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale (or equivalent, i.e., a B average).
  • Many require Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores; a few accept the Miller Analogies Test; and some have no test requirements.
  • Most request that students provide several letters of recommendation and a statement of educational and professional objectives.
  • Some may require a personal interview.
  • Some require entering students to demonstrate computer skills or successful completion of remedial computer courses early in the program.
  • Students from outside the United States may be required to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

Program curricula

Considerable variation exists in curricula offered by programs, including the number and types of required courses. The number of academic credit hours required for a master’s degree varies from 36 semester hours to 72 quarter hours.

Some programs emphasize full-time studies, while others have a larger percentage of part-time students; however, most have a time limit for completing a degree. While some programs can be completed in one calendar year with full-time attendance, many require two academic years to complete. In addition, programs requiring a thesis or practicum may require more time to complete. Course availability for a chosen area of specialization or career pathway may also impact the length of time to complete the degree.

Flexibility and distance learning

Flexibility in fulfilling course requirements may be important to students who work or live away from a campus or in an area that does not have an ALA-accredited program. Most MLIS programs offer independent study and some accept courses taken in other schools, graduate departments, or universities.

Many ALA-accredited programs provide distance-learning opportunities for students through a variety of delivery methods (e.g. online courses). In some cases, students can complete the entire program at a distance; in other cases, some on-campus courses or regional residency may be required. Because these offerings change frequently, prospective students should contact the program directly for the latest information on distance learning options.

Source of further information:

  • Searchable directory of ALA-accredited programs – to search for distance learning opportunities, check the appropriate box under “Search options” (e.g. “100% online,” “Primarily online with some face-to-face courses required,” etc.)

Financial aid opportunities

Financial aid includes scholarships, teaching or research assistantships, grants, work-study programs, loans, and tuition assistance. Some programs may administer some financial aid opportunities, while other opportunities are administered through the university financial aid office. Also, there may be reciprocal tuition agreements between states that can reduce tuition or provide tuition waivers. Prospective students should contact the institution and program to obtain information on financial aid and scholarships. Be aware that scholarship application deadlines vary and may be as early as a year in advance of the term of enrollment.

Along with work-study options through the college or university, part-time positions may be available at local area libraries or information settings. Working in an information setting not only helps finance your education—it also provides valuable experience. Some employers provide tuition assistance as a fringe benefit to employees.

Sources of further information:

Placement services

The job market for library and information professionals is cyclical and varies by type of institution, job function, and geographical area. The availability of positions may be dependent on available funding resources and replacement needs. Taking advantage of job placement services, either through your program or the ALA Office for Human Resource Development and Recruitment, can greatly increase your chance of finding a job that best reflects your interests and abilities.

Most master’s programs offer some type of job placement service for both current students and alumni. Some have a designated placement officer, while others use faculty for job-search advising. Most programs receive job listings from around the country, although some programs may be better able to help graduates find jobs in the local area. Many graduates also find positions in settings other than traditional libraries; these may include special libraries, software or hardware development companies, information management firms, indexing and abstracting agencies, and information technology firms.

Sources of further information:

  • ALA Placement Services - provides assistance with job placement in conjunction with the ALA Midwinter and Annual Conferences, as well as divisional national conferences. This service is available to anyone - not just ALA members or on-site attendees.
  • Guide to Employment Sources in the Library and Information Professions – an annual listing, available through the ALA Office for Human Resource Development and Recruitment, of national and state associations, schools, and other agencies that provide placement services and/or job position vacancy notices for library and information jobs.
  • “Placements and Salary Survey” - an annual compilation of new master’s in library and information science graduates’ employment sites and salary data published by Library Journal