What Is Library Science?

Updated icon
Updated on December 6, 2023
Fact icon
Fact Checked

When people enter a library or browse an online database, they don’t often think about the science behind its organization and how it is maintained. Libraries also function in other ways, including preserving information and materials, promoting information, and enhancing information to make it more available through digitization or otherwise. Today, libraries and library science have morphed with new forms of technology and are providing access to more than just information. They provide access to tools and technology and connect users to community and outside resources. 

Library science is a multidisciplinary field of study that focuses on the practices and management of libraries. Libraries have existed since ancient times, but library science was identified as a field of study in the second half of the 19th century. Due to the creation and expansion of the internet and information content, library science became included in information science in the 20th century. Melville Dewey pioneered the first librarian training program in 1887, which later evolved into a master’s program. The American Library Association (ALA) started to set standards for libraries and Master in Library Science programs. Any program that met ALA standards received accreditation and respect from library employers. 

This article will take you through the history of library science and librarianship to first provide a foundation for library science. Then, we will cover how library science and librarianship are intertwined yet different. We will also cover when ALA came into existence and how it helped form library science. Then keep reading to learn about how one becomes educated through library science and the careers available to a librarian with a degree in library science. 

The History of Library Science

Library science started and molded with the advancement of technology. In 100 B.C., paper was first created by China, and then the Arabs created the first paper mill in Bagdad in 751 AD. Later, paper-making was brought to the Europeans and other parts of the world. The Assyrian Library contained over 30,000 tablets and cuniforms, built in the seventh century BC. The Library of Alexandria contained 700,000 documents, and the House of Wisdom library in Bagdad contained around 400,000 books. After the Islamic Empire and the European Renaissance, academic institutions rose in number, along with libraries. In the 19th century, there were around 2,200 libraries. With the continuous rise of universities, technology, books, and online databases, there are now around 116,867 libraries in the U.S., according to the American Library Association. 

The idea of library science began sometime during the “Philosophies of Enlightenment”. Additionally, during the beginnings of America, libraries and information were considered a key to democracy. The 19th century also brought library classification standards such as the Library of Congress Classification and the Dewey Decimal System. Both are ways libraries today organize materials in the library for easy access. 

In the 1960s, library science collided with information science as an academic discipline. Library and information science is more user-centered and includes the study of human behavior and how communities interact with information. This shift from material focus to user focus resulted in information becoming available through digital means. Today, users can interact with information through audiobooks, e-books, large print books, computer games, brails, and much more. Libraries have also become a space for promoting learning through outreach programs and events. Many public libraries today offer family programs such as storytime and summer reading events. This seemingly simple profession has become multi-faceted over time. Librarians are also taught how to run a library through administration and business strategy. 

Library Science and Librarianship

Librarianship has existed much longer than the idea of library science as an academic discipline, but they have always been intertwined. Library science was birthed as an idea during the 19th century and evolved along side librarianship. Library science is a multifaceted discipline that guides future librarians in librarianship. Librarianship is the collection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. All of this and more is taught through library science. Most librarians receive library science instruction through a master’s degree in library and information science. Library employers prefer librarians with a master’s degree in library science from a program that is accredited by the American Library Association (ALA). 

The American Library Association

The American Library Association (ALA) is the first and largest library in the world. ALA sets the standards for libraries and library science. ALA was founded on October 6, 1876, in Philadelphia during the Centennial Exposition. Their mission is “to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.” ALA sets the standard in librarianship and library science. So much so, library employers prefer, if not require, professional librarians to have an MLIS degree from an ALA-accredited program. 

Types of Library Science Degrees

Institutions throughout the U.S. offer library science degrees as undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees, and Ph.D. degrees. A bachelor’s degree in library and information is often a good starting place for education in librarianship, but those pursuing librarianship may receive any undergraduate degree. The most important degree for librarians is a master’s degree in library science and the degree should be offered by a program accredited by ALA. Most states and academic institutions require librarians to have this degree before they are considered professional librarians. Ph.D. graduates in the field of library science are often those conducting research in the field as well as teaching librarianship in an academic setting. This section will briefly cover what to expect from each type of degree in library science. 

Bachelor’s in Library Science 

A major or minor in information technology, library and information, information science, and other related degrees often include coursework much like what is offered through the Department of Library and Information Science at the Catholic University of America. Some of the coursework from the program includes Digital Content Creation and Management, User Interface Design and Evaluation, Introduction to Data Science, Human Information Behavior, Information Architecture and Web Design, Database Design and Management, Design and Production of Multimedia, Programming for Web Applications, Systems Analysis and Evaluation, Data Visualization, Data on the Web, and Management of Information. 

Master’s Degree in Library Science

Most graduate degrees in library science take about two years of full-time coursework to complete.  Many degree programs involve either an internship, research project, capstone project, comprehensive exam, or a combination thereof. There are plenty of choices in library science programs. Some degree programs offer more areas of concentration for those who know what area of librarianship they want to pursue, and some degree programs offer online or in-person courses. Additionally, some online programs offer highly interactive online classes with plenty of collaboration opportunities. 

The typical coursework to expect may include courses such as Information Science and Technology, Information and Communities, Librarianship and Professionalism, Organization of Information, Introduction to Library and Information Studies, Research Methods, Information Sources and Services, Information Technologies, Administration and Management, Public Libraries, Academic Libraries, School Media Centers, and Special Libraries and Information Centers. Other coursework will be chosen through electives or go toward the student’s area of concentration. Some areas of concentration include Children and Youth Services, Archives and Data Curation, Law Librarianship, Health Science Librarianship, Music Librarianship, Cataloging, and School Library Media Specialist. Many library science programs also offer certificates in various areas of concentration. The most common library certificate is for school library media specialists. A library media certificate is for those pursuing a career as a school librarian in primary and secondary schools. 

Ph.D. in Library Science

A doctoral degree in library science prepares professional librarians and information specialists to conduct original research and present findings through scholarly writings and presentations. Ph.D. students in library science also are prepared to teach library and information science on an academic level to graduate and doctoral students. The largest part of a Ph.D. program in library science is conducting a dissertation and other scholarly writings and getting them ready for publication. For decades, topics included research on historical preservation, library user experience, information organization, and library administration. In more recent years, scholarly work has turned the focus towards more social topics and topics involving the frequent growth in technology. For example, the doctoral program through the College of Communication and Information Sciences at the University of Alabama offers areas of study in Advertising and Publication, Book and Publishing Studies, Health Communication, Interpersonal Communication, Media Process and Effects, Rhetoric and Political Discourse,  and Social Justice and Inclusion Advocacy. 

Careers in Library Science

A career in this discipline mostly involves work in a library or archive. When studying library science, most programs train students for a career in either an academic or public library. There are also other areas of concentration students can earn that relate to library science including archiving and historical research, music librarianship, law librarianship, library management and administration, and information organization and analysis. Additionally, academic and public librarianship offers many different career options, which this section will cover. 

Careers in Academic Librarianship

There are some basic careers in academic librarianship including a reference librarian, a public services librarian, an outreach librarian, a collection services, and library administrators. A reference librarian often answers research questions for students and helps students find information they are looking for, and they also assist faculty in finding information for their classes or scholarly projects. A public services librarian wears many hats and assists students and faculty by providing facilities, and resources, and collaborating with other librarians and faculty to come up with solutions and complete projects. An outreach librarian conducts surveys and studies to collect data on what students and faculty want from their library, and they host events in and out of the library to promote the library’s services and resources. 

Some academic libraries at research universities staff subject librarians to help students and faculty in specific areas. For example, the University of North Texas staffs 23 librarians and each one offers expertise in a specific area. Some areas of expertise include Music Reference, World Languages and Cultures, Spanish, Art, Dance, Theatre, Visual Arts, Design, Biological Sciences, Biology, Biochemistry, Chemistry, Environmental Sciences, Forensics, Mathematics, Physics, Jewish and Isreal Studies, Philosophy and Religion, African-American Studies, International Studies, Military Science, Military History, Psychology, Technical Communication, Business and Economics, Interdisciplinary Studies, Media Arts, Library and Information Science, English, Latina and Mexican Studies, Gender Studies, Comics Studies, Engineering and Technology, Education, Sociology, Anthropology, and Data Analytics. 

Careers in Public Librarianship

Public librarianship includes careers in Youth and Children Services, Cataloging and Collection Services, State and Genealogy Archives, Reference Librarian, and Administration Librarian. Youth and children services librarians are over the children’s, teens, and young adult sections of the library and they provide programs such as storytimes, book clubs, crafts, and other family-friendly programs for entertainment and learning. A cataloging and collection services librarian creates metadata entries for books and materials and also determines what materials are most needed and wanted by the community for the library to hold. In large cities, especially historic cities and state capital cities, there will be a state and genealogy archive librarian who will keep records such as obituaries, newspapers, marriage announcements, etc. A reference librarian for a public library is equipped with information on employment opportunities, city and state services, city and state documents, and other reference material that is helpful to the community the library serves. Lastly, administration librarians are typically library directors, assistant directors, and regional managers. Library administrators ensure the libraries are equipped with the necessary materials and resources to serve the community as well as provide instruction for the library staff and ensure the staff have the knowledge and skills necessary to complete their jobs. 

Additional Links

To learn more about ALA and what they are doing today, visit https://www.ala.org/

To learn more about a degree in library science visit these websites: