A History of SLIS

February 14, 2017

A tour through old course catalogs, courtesy of the Simmons College Archive

Simmons College was established in 1899, focused on the education of women. The School of Library Science opened as one of its first schools in 1902 with a Bachelor of Science degree in library science. According to the course catalog, the degree prepared students for “work with adults and children; cataloguing, reference and research; positions in circulation departments; and administrative positions as heads of libraries, branch libraries, or departments.” Browsing through the Simmons College Archives’ collection of historical course catalogs, we get an idea of what those early degrees entailed. 

In 1903, students entering the School of Library Science were required to take a Typewriting course, unless they could demonstrate competence through a skill test on entrance. The course catalogue notes that “the typewriter is so commonly used for all library records that it is desirable that library school students should know how to use it,” but the administration clearly doubted students’ ability to master it, suggesting that they “may not attain speed or great skill.” By the 1930s, five successive courses of typewriting were required, along with courses teaching shorthand. Such was the emphasis on technical handwriting and typing skills—relevant for the card catalogue systems of yore—that students finishing their first year of the Library Science program were equally qualified to continue their courses in Simmons’ Secretarial School. 

Up to the 1960s, typewriting was still at the fore, and students enrolled were required to have access to a typewriter. As technologies evolved, the focus shifted towards computer science and the application of new technologies to library management and information delivery. Course catalogues through the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s offered general competencies courses, including “Emerging Technologies in the Library / Media Center” and “Database Management.” More specific courses were bound to their time period, such as “Microcomputer Database Management” and “Desktop CD-ROM Publishing.” 

In the late 2000s, program goals for the School of Library Science had evolved to embrace computer science skills and applications, with the course catalog specifically identifying a need for basic technical and system support training, the ability to work with software/hardware applications, and an understanding of web management and programming. 

The courses that SLIS has historically offered to technological competencies required to prepare its students for their careers closely tracks the progression of LIS professions’ relationship with evolving technologies. A forward-thinking and innovative approach to programming continues to help SLIS adapt to our quickly changing technological landscape in the present day. “Computers in Society,” a course originally offered in the year 2000, will be offered again this upcoming Spring semester under a new name, “Social Informatics.”

For images of Simmons College Catalogs, courtesy of the Simmons Archives, visit this article on the SLIS tumblr page

Article by Samantha Strain, Dean's Fellow for Digital Outreach