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Diversity on Both Sides of the Desk
March/April 2018 Issue

What is the future of education for librarians? When that question was posed to me, my mind scattered in several directions. I thought of what students learn in an M.S. in library and information science (M.S.L.I.S.) program. Every M.S.L.I.S. program is working to make itself relevant to the future needs of the profession, while also providing classes (e.g., data science) that give students flexibility as they consider their career directions. The gap between what students learn and the skills and abilities needed in the workplace is a constant tension between libraries and M.S.L.I.S. programs. Changing curriculum and providing experiential learning opportunities are among the solutions to this problem, which will always be with us.

Speaking of skills, there is the ongoing conversation about foundational versus core skills, and which ones M.S.L.I.S. students are acquiring. At the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) annual conference in February, Lisa Hinchliffe and others noted that foundational skills (flexibility, leadership, people skills, etc.) need to be acquired prior to entering an M.S.L.I.S. program, so that core LIS skills can be layered on top. Indeed, those foundational skills can be reinforced during a graduate program, but there is not room in the curriculum for them to be taught. Why? Because in addition to core LIS skills, students need to acquire the specialty skills required for their individual career paths (metadata librarians). The question we need to tackle is how to ensure students have those foundational skills upfront.

Back to the question at hand (the future of education for librarians); I considered the number of M.S.L.I.S. programs in North America and their sizes. There are currently 65 ALA-accredited M.S.L.I.S. programs, with three additional programs working toward initial accreditation. ALA’s statistics show that there were 15,445 students enrolled in an M.S.L.I.S. program in fall 2016, with a growing number of students finishing their studies completely online.

Undeniably, the points above are all important and worth discussing. However, when I think about the future, I think about who will be attending on-campus or online classes, and that raises an important aspect to that puzzle that we have not yet solved.

As a librarian of color, I know how much diversity this profession lacks. Look around the room at most library staff meetings, library-related events, and conferences, and you will know it too. Our professional librarians do not mirror the broad diversity in our communities. Attracting more people from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds is a goal that every M.S.L.I.S. program has. Every program engages in outreach to diverse populations, often through specific associations and events. Some programs have embarked on grant-funded activities or specific projects geared to matriculate an influx of diverse students. However, those activities and projects may be short-lived and not able to build lasting momentum to ensure a continued influx of disparate M.S.L.I.S. students.

Ger Graus, director of education and partnerships at KidZania London (, said, “Children can only aspire to be something that they know exists. They tend to choose to do something that they are already familiar with.” While many children use their K–12 or public library, those children likely do not know—at an early age—what a librarian does. Thus, a child cannot aspire to be one. Young children often want to grow up to work in those careers that they see on TV and in stories they read. Those stories are about professionals such as doctors, farmers, truckers, and teachers, but not librarians. Librarians are not superheroes or neighborhood heroes. Instead, they are purveyors of information about many things, including information on superheroes.

I want to propose a radical solution that will impact our profession in the future. It will require a sustained, long-term effort to obtain the desired impact. No, this radical idea will not provide a quick solution.

What do I want us to do? First, besides telling young children about a myriad of other career options, we need to entice them with stories of intrigue about the work that librarians do. We need librarians to be the heroes in stories and in real life. Second, we need these stories to feature librarians who represent the diversity found within our communities. Every child needs to see a hero librarian in his or her own image. Third, in those stories, the hero librarian needs to use foundational, core, and specialty LIS skills. Why should someone have to wait until graduate school to understand that there are core LIS skills? Clearly, children see hints of core medical skills when they read about a fictional doctor. Could the hero librarian also display LIS skills as part of the toolkit for saving the day? Finally, this cannot be done as a cute, one-off activity. This isn’t just a librarian bobblehead or a Halloween costume. This someone—and I will continue to use the phrase “superhero”—needs to become part of the always-trendy superhero universe. Yes, this hero librarian stands beside Batman, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Northstar, and the neighborhood heroes—doctors, police officers, firefighters, and farmers—children want to become.

Unfortunately, we would not see those children entering our M.S.L.I.S. programs for 15–20 years even if we began telling those stories today. I imagine, however, that those stories would increase the number of students in our M.S.L.I.S. programs and simultaneously increase the diversity among those students. Because of the backgrounds and interests of these students, our academic programs would naturally change to reflect the knowledge, skills, and abilities those students want and need to acquire.

I smile at the thought of M.S.L.I.S. students who are as diverse as our communities. I would like to see that diversity in our programs today, but if we need to start educating children about librarianship before they enter school so that they will consider librarianship as a career, then I am willing to be patient for them to join our ranks.

Jill Hurst-Wahl is associate professor of practice, Syracuse University School of Information Studies.


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