Library Science

What Is Library and Information Science?

What Is Library and Information Science?
TA librarian serves as a conduit between the individual and the information they seek, whether the topic be the most casual hobby or the most critical field of study. Image from Unsplash
Marc Beschler profile
Marc Beschler July 28, 2022

Library and information science covers the study of librarianship and the information technology required to operate a modern library. Many jobs in the field require a master's degree.

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Hard though it may be to imagine today, there was a time when you couldn’t just grab a laptop or smartphone anytime you needed to do some research. Way back in those analog days, you might have to seek out a librarian to find your answer. For most of human history, libraries served as the primary repositories of information.

Libraries may seem like an outdated concept today but they are in fact anything but. As our access to enormous caches of information continues to grow, so too does the need for professionals who can guide us through the often-daunting search for information. That’s where library and information science comes in.

This article answers the question what is library and information science and also discusses:

  • Where library and information science professionals work (and how much they’re paid)
  • Library and information science academic degrees
  • Should I get a library and information science degree?

What is library and information science?

Library services and library and information science (LIS) have evolved tremendously as new technologies enter the overall information architecture, expanding the number of skills that an LIS professional needs. The public may think of library collections as consisting largely of books, but they are so much more. Professional librarians need to be skilled stewards of—yes, books, but also—magazines, newspapers, microfiche, microfilm, and various kinds of audiovisual material, including DVDs, CDs and even, sometimes, VHS and audiocassettes.

Maintaining outdated resources—does anyone remember Betamax?—is just one of the many responsibilities librarians assume. After all, information doesn’t expire just because the information technology that accesses it has. That’s one of the many reasons libraries are, and will continue to be, invaluable.

That makes librarianship invaluable as well. The librarian is the conduit between the individual and the information they seek, whether the topic be the most casual hobby or the most critical field of study.

And that’s not all librarians do. They also facilitate literacy through reading programs for both younger and older people. They provide open access to materials that might otherwise remain unavailable to the public. In short, librarians deliver and cultivate information literacy, a critical foundation of any advanced society.

Given the branching out of libraries to include computer services and increasing amounts of digitized material, library and information science has only become more challenging. Universities commit entire departments—and in many instances, entire schools—to the study of information services and information studies. Librarians require specialized skills and knowledge to manage the modern library’s many information systems. Developing these skills typically requires a degree program (more on that later).

Where library and information science professionals work (and how much they’re paid)

The LIS field encompasses many different types of librarians and other information professionals. The following section describes some of them and the competencies they require.

Where library and information science professionals work

According to the American Library Association (ALA), there are four types of libraries:

  • Public libraries:__ These libraries exist for the use of the general public and often serve as the heart of a given community. They offer critical services, such as computer access, that some communities would otherwise have to do without.
  • School libraries: This refers specifically to the libraries in elementary schools, sometimes called media centers. School librarians have the unique responsibility of fostering the initial stages of students’ information literacy, both in encouraging them to read and in training them how to find whatever information they seek.
  • Academic libraries: Academic libraries serve institutions of higher learning. At many schools, they are subdivided into libraries focused on specific fields, like law or medicine. Academic librarians typically need in-depth knowledge of the field they serve. Some are themselves academics within that field.
  • Special libraries (a.k.a. special collections): Special libraries and special collections center on a particular field, subject or even person (such as the assorted presidential libraries). Some special libraries are geared towards particular groups, such as the military or the visually impaired.

Library and information science job titles and average salaries

  • Library director: The library director’s role within the library is crucia. They formulate budgets and policies, hire and fire staff, and determine their library’s agenda and priorities. They also serve as their library’s liaison to the outside world by meeting with local government officials, raising financial support, and shaping the library’s image in the community through outreach and social media campaigns. (average salary: $85,409.).
  • Library manager: The library manager occupies the middle-management position so fundamental to the internal workings of an individual branch, with duties that include maintaining the catalog (supervising the shelving and repair of the physical inventory), training new employees, and setting schedules. They too may have duties that extend beyond the library’s walls, such as serving as the library’s official representative at community meetings. You might think of the library director as the library CEO and the library manager as its COO (estimated salary: $71,525).
  • School librarian: The school librarian is responsible for guiding students and educators through the use of the library’s facilities. They are also responsible for maintaining and promoting the collection and organizing literacy events and initiatives (estimated salary: $96,144).
  • Youth services librarian: Many libraries have sections devoted to young readers. Along with providing the same general support that all librarians must undertake, youth services librarians often engage in projects specifically geared towards young adults, conceiving of after-school activities and events designed to appeal to readers on the cusp of adulthood (estimated salary: $60,796).
  • Archivist: Archivists work in special collections and libraries attached to specific institutions, such as museums. Their focus is strictly on curating and preserving existing collections while also looking for unique opportunities to grow and strengthen them. Like academic librarians, archivists are likely to be specialists in whatever field their collections reflect (estimated salary: $76,841).
  • Metadata librarian: Created in the 1990s to describe work being done at institutions (government agencies, hospitals, etc.) where large amounts of data are stored, the position of metadata librarian is even more critical today. With the remarkable amount of data being created and preserved every single day, metadata helps facilitate information searches. The role requires skills in database organization and management (estimated salary: $102,107).
  • Research librarian: Like archivists, research librarians typically work at institutions with their own in-house libraries dedicated to a specific subject. Along with the curation of the library’s collection, they are mainly called upon to assist interested parties (writers, students, journalists, assorted scholars) in finding and understanding the material they need (estimated salary: $97,070).

Library and information science academic degrees

Most librarians need a postsecondary degree of some type. Some jobs are open to candidates with a bachelor’s degree, but most upper-level roles (i.e., in management and leadership) require at least a master’s degree.

Undergraduate degrees

Most LIS degree programs are graduate-level, but some schools do offer bachelor’s degrees in the field. Most are called either a Bachelor in Library Science or a Bachelor in Information Science.

Master of Library and Information Science

Most high-responsibility (and well-paying) library jobs require a master’s degree in library and information science (MLIS). Modern LIS programs, such as the graduate program at the University of Washington Information School, cover traditional skills like cataloging, archiving, preservation, and reader assistance as well as modern skills in managing digital libraries. Many include an equality and social justice component. As you consider programs, look for ALA accreditation; many employers prefer or require degrees from ALA-accredited institutions.

Library and information science doctorate

If you want to take your commitment to library and information science to the next level, you may need a doctoral degree. PhDs in LIS don’t simply assist in research projects—they frequently spearhead them. If you’re looking for a career at the cutting edge of research methodology, a PhD may be the right degree for you.

Should I get a library and information science degree?

Presumably, you already know whether this sort of career path is for you. If you love literature, if you love knowledge, if you love learning new things, and, most importantly, if you love helping other people in their own quests to gather information, then a career in libraries seems a natural fit. And if you want to build an enduring and rewarding career with steady advancement, you’ll likely need a graduate degree in library and information science.

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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