People with library and information science degrees are putting their skills to work in all kinds of interesting places. But the places may not be libraries, and the job titles may not say “librarian.”
From deep in the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose State University’s School of Library and Information Science is actively training more than 2,000 online students who are spread across 47 U.S. states and 18 countries. This year alone, hundreds of them will earn master of library and information science (MLIS) degrees and hundreds more will enter the program, one among scores of similar programs accredited by the American Library Association.
Will so many new graduates be able to land jobs in libraries? Probably not. But that’s OK, according to San Jose State program director Sandy Hirsh. While many graduates will find career homes in traditional libraries, many others will take their skills into other settings where information experts are also valued. Their business cards may never say “librarian.”
If the modern MLIS needed a poster child, Sandy Hirsh could be it. With a PhD in library and information science, Hirsh has been a university professor, a public library advisory board member, and a leader of information research and user experience programs at high-tech companies like LinkedIn, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard. One bright autumn afternoon on the California coast, over fresh salads and fish tacos, we talked about today’s librarian. [Full disclosure: I am a part-time lecturer in the San Jose State MLIS program.]
Who’s signing up for library and information science (LIS) programs these days? What are they looking for in a master’s degree?
There’s a mix of students and interests, says Hirsh. Some come for the library, and others come for the information science. Many enter LIS programs for the love of books and literacy, the mingling of research and education and community service, while others bring a keen interest in information organization and technology. Some feel a general kinship with the field but want to get to know it better before they choose a specific career path.
“The traditional [LIS] recruit is someone with a humanities background, female, second career,” says Hirsh, “but that’s changing. The demographics are skewing much younger than they used to—a lot of people are now coming straight out of their undergraduate degree or shortly after. It’s fascinating.”
For many, traditional libraries remain at the heart of the profession—and Hirsh is quick to point out that libraries are still vitally important—but as the field expands beyond libraries, a new crop of students is surfacing.
Hirsh sees that as a good thing. She believes that the LIS world—as well as the communities and work environments her graduates support—would benefit from an even broader base. Yet those who associate the degree with traditional libraries may not realize that an MLIS can lead to other career pathways. “I think there are still a lot of people who might really enjoy the opportunities they would get with a degree in this area,” says Hirsh, “but they don’t see the MLIS as the way to get there.” At least, not yet.
“We’re interested in attracting a wider range of students from a variety of backgrounds because I think that would be useful to our field as a whole,” says Hirsh. For example? “We need people working in areas like big data who are coming in with the perspective that you get with an MLIS degree. You could get into big data from a computer science or MIS perspective, but it’s very different when you develop skillsets for big data from an LIS perspective.”
What makes the LIS perspective different?
For Hirsh, it’s a passionate focus on users: understanding their information needs and helping them navigate complex information systems, whether the venue is a library or an archive or a database or the internet. “I feel like our field was about user-centered design before people started talking about user-centered design,” she says. “We’ve always put the user at the center of things, whether we’ve been designing organization systems, creating a physical place at the library, thinking about the user and the content, or providing the best services to help users connect with the information they need to answer their questions. I don’t think we lose that user focus as we expand the profession beyond the library.
“I think the way we approach content from a user perspective is a differentiator. I don’t think you’re going to get that if you go to a computer science program or an MIS program or any of the programs that have some spillover with us now. The perspectives and the kinds of sensitivities and skillsets that we prepare for will be different—and will be sought after.”
So what are fundamental skills and knowledge sets for librarians and information professionals now? What’s the common core for the MLIS?
In San Jose State’s LIS program, user awareness becomes a dimension of every course and specialty. Core courses cover:
- Information users and the social, cultural, economic, technological, and political forces that shape their information access and use
- The different resources and services that information professionals provide
for their user communities, and the systems and knowledge structures that connect users with information
- The organizations and environments in which information professionals work, and the ethical and legal frameworks that guide them
Hirsh explains: “They’re some of the same things I think we’ve needed to know for a long time, but we’re modernizing the ideas, contextualizing them for today’s environment, and thinking about them for the future. Whereas before we talked about ‘cataloging,’ now we’ve abstracted that idea so it’s about organizing systems. It’s not about MARC records;* it’s much broader and more inclusive to fit the kinds of evolving information environments we have today.”
Beyond the course content, Hirsh believes her program must also instill a mindset that nurtures an openness to global perspectives, a commitment to the profession, and perhaps most essential, adaptability, agility, and a dedication to lifelong learning. “The reality is that our environment is not going to stay static, and we need to get comfortable with change,” says Hirsh. “I tell new students in orientation, ‘This degree is just your starting point, not the end point of your learning. There will be things that will change, that you’re not going to learn in school. There was no internet when I was in school. Does that mean I stopped learning? Of course not! You have to continue learning. You have to continue to invest in yourself as a professional.’”
These professionals you’re developing are tomorrow’s librarians—though many won’t be called “librarians” or work in libraries. Where can they go with an MLIS?
Anywhere and everywhere, believes Hirsh. The job market is expanding because the information age has created a greater demand for user-friendly, service-oriented people who are adept at organizing, managing, and making sense of information. “There’s a huge range of opportunities for someone with a degree in the field, and it’s constantly evolving,” says Hirsh. “There are so many interesting areas—digital asset management, information architecture, virtual reference services, social media—this degree is preparing you for a whole suite of opportunities that engage with information of all different types. How you think about and apply your skills is limited only by your imagination.”
That imagination is still needed in libraries too, and many graduates will land in libraries and information centers in schools, businesses, government agencies, medical centers, and other organizations. “There are opportunities for librarians, and there will continue to be,” says Hirsh. But the traditional library is evolving, and Hirsh encourages all students—whether they want to be teacher-librarians in schools or data scientists in corporations—to become technically savvy, keep an open mind, and expect continuing change. Those best suited for the MLIS want to be in a dynamic field. In a 2013 study of LIS job trends, San Jose State found that 28% of the job listings assessed were for “emerging” positions—not what we’d recognize as traditional library jobs—and 32% required significant technology skills. “You can’t always predict what the opportunities will be,” says Hirsh.
This sounds like the information-age degree.
Could the MLIS be the information-age degree, a twenty-first century credential that could gain the caché of an MBA? Hirsh sees nothing but potential for an advanced degree, with a variety of concentrations, that prepares people for careers in information-intensive environments. “Our understanding of how to organize and make information accessible to meet user needs is unparalleled,” says Hirsh. “I love our profession. We have so much to offer, and I’m excited about the possibilities. I truly believe that we are only limited by our own creativity and vision.”
As data gets bigger, information piles up, and everyone has more tools for creating and sharing their own stories, surely the world could use more user-oriented people with LIS skills. Whether you call them librarians or information professionals, MLIS graduates will be embedded in our workplaces, our information systems, and our communities, helping us make sense of it all.
It’s a good time to have an MLIS. And it’s a good day to be a librarian.
* For those who have been spared the need to know, a MARC record is a machine-readable cataloging record, a computerized form of the information you used to find in your library’s card catalog.↩
Emerging Career Trends for Information Professionals: A Snapshot of Job Titles in Summer 2013, a report from San Jose State University’s School of Library and Information Science.
“New Career Pathways for Information Professionals in a Library 2.0 World,” Sandy Hirsh’s presentation at the November 2011 Library 2.011 conference. 53-minute audio recording with slides.
While many graduates will find career homes in traditional libraries, many others will take their skills into other settings where information experts are also valued.
“There’s a huge range of opportunities for someone with a degree in the field, and it’s constantly evolving. How you think about and apply your skills is limited only by your imagination.”