There’s a lot of consternation out there about training our workforce.
Recent articles from voices in the field of library and information science (LIS) have questioned the value of the MLIS or pointed toward an uncertain and evolving future. Former LJ editor in chief Michael Kelley’s “Can We Talk About the MLS?” garnered much attention. Kelley argues that the profession should have a serious conversation about the values and merits of formalized, professional LIS education. Is the library degree, in his words, “an expensive and unnecessarily exclusionary credential”? Kelley’s call for discussion is a sound one and is echoed in Brian Kenney’s similarly themed piece in Publishers Weekly, “So You Think You Want To Be a Librarian?” Kenney’s frank approach looks beyond collections to interaction: “Librarianship today is about greeting each customer (in person or online) and making sure that his or her library visit is one of the best experiences of the day.”
These articles struck a nerve; the resulting links, comments, and discussion serve as evidence of librarians’ interest in the topic and, perhaps, their sensitivities to these issues. Why the consternation? Librarians want libraries to succeed, and they know that libraries must evolve in order to succeed. The future of libraries is closely linked to the skills of newly minted librarians.
It is important to note that creating change—and having the sort of workforce that’s capable of creating change—is a chicken and egg issue. How is change effected? Will libraries change only when they’re infused by throngs of fresh thinkers who have graduated from progressive LIS programs? Or will LIS programs prepare students to work in evolved libraries only when libraries start making demands though hiring practices?
Another way to put this: Who is setting the agenda for the future of libraries? Is this a role for LIS education, or should LIS education be subservient to the demands of hiring libraries?
The truth is, libraries and LIS education must work in tandem to address these issues. New librarians are often the source of fresh and compelling ideas, but without receptive (and hiring) libraries, their ideas won’t result in much more than some frustrated blog posts. Likewise, libraries won’t have relevant people to hire if LIS programs are out of touch.
Are we still too internally focused in a time when outreach and community engagement are increasingly important? Kenney’s call for a discussion about the “difference that libraries make in people’s lives, with services that go well beyond circulating content,” resonates with us. We see the value in exploring how people exchange, access, and create information and how the library can facilitate this within its community.
Strengthening ties between information institutions and the schools that educate the folks who will guide them is an obvious solution and one that Kelley calls for in his editorial. We’ve advocated for assignments aligned closely with real user experience observations in libraries and see the need for more, even deeper collaboration. The Library Test Kitchen works with the Harvard Library, as well as with academic and public libraries nationally. “We believe positive change will grow from within the existing system.” It’s striking that this innovative experiment is born from design thinking and not LIS.
We’d like to see this idea scaled up. Couldn’t a network of prototype libraries across the country be physical and virtual “test kitchens” for exploring and testing new services, apps, and outreach strategies? If these libraries concentrated on pushing the boundaries of service and outreach while actively working with students and educators, the concept of the flipped classroom inverts even further. Those close to finishing the degree could assume teaching roles for incoming students as one part of a broad, culminating experience focused on demonstrating skills acquired through the partnership.
These prototype libraries could also be hubs for user research, disseminating relevant data to neighboring communities. While all of the communities that libraries serve have particular strengths and weaknesses that make them unique, there are numerous commonalities, too. Identifying these commonalities and sharing related research would prevent libraries from having to duplicate efforts and would enable them to make decisions based upon data rather than relying on opinions and guesses.
Use research interplay
Centralizing the workload of conducting user research would be very useful to smaller libraries, but these prototype libraries could also be shining examples of what to do with this research. The prototype libraries would employ a design thinking–based approach to decision-making; they would actively identify problems in their communities and prototype, test, and, finally, implement solutions. While other libraries might adopt the programs and services that result from this process, the important thing for them to learn is the benefit of using the process in their own organizations. In this way, the prototype libraries can illustrate the gains of having an organizational focus on improving library user experience and employing design thinking. The more libraries that thrive because of their smart, user-focused organizational habits, the more likely other libraries will pay attention to these strategies.
Ideally, these libraries would partner with LIS programs. Both organizations would enjoy a constant exchange of ideas while providing meaningful internship opportunities for students. In return, these libraries would have a steady stream of enthusiastic workers. Kelley ponders the value of apprenticeships in libraries. While we value the foundational work completed as part of LIS programs, we also recognize the value of on-the-job learning. Prototype libraries with formal connections to LIS programs would be an ideal place to shape future librarians. Given the task to participate in big-picture thinking and the day-to-day operations of a library, students would get an extremely well-rounded education.
Without this sort of structure, the idea of library apprenticeships, while intriguing, is problematic. If students only learn from existing libraries, there’s a big risk of replicating less than stellar practices and ideas. A formal apprenticeship or directed fieldwork program at prototype libraries could ensure the right skills and ways of thinking are getting passed along.
This idea isn’t limited by geographic constraints. Countrywide or even worldwide partnerships aimed at improving online services would enable students—as well as library staff and users—to reap the benefits of diverse influences.
We don’t consider this to be pie-in-the-sky thinking. Even a grassroots effort to begin this process is an important start—one progressive library school partnered with a library is all it takes to get things started. Fortunately, similar dynamics are already happening informally. Take for example Fayetteville Free Library’s Fab Lab, NY: the idea originated in a class taught at the Syracuse University iSchool that encouraged students to partner with public libraries. A student pitched the idea to the receptive Fayetteville administration, and a fruitful partnership was born. Eventually, a student involved with the project was hired by the library to continue the work.
The library world needs visionaries both in the field and throughout academia. Students, professors, front-line staff, and library management can all help create the future for libraries. Perhaps even more important than big-picture thinkers who generate new ideas are the first followers—those who stick out their necks to join in, test, and implement fresh ideas. The risks taken by these first movers make them effective evangelists. Meanwhile, modeling this behavior shows that it’s safe to try new things and demonstrates the effectiveness of new ideas.
A network of user experience–focused prototype libraries linked to LIS programs would benefit libraries and LIS programs alike. The most important recipient of these benefits? The communities that would enjoy vibrant and relevant libraries.
Aaron Schmidt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a principal at the library user experience consultancy Influx and a 2005 LJ Mover & Shaker. He writes at walkingpaper.org. Michael Stephens (email@example.com) is Assistant Professor at the School of Library and Information Science, San José State University, CA