The Future of MLS

Rethinking Librarian Education

February 26, 2015

We’ve all seen various reports and discussions around the future of libraries. From Pew (“The Future of Libraries: 7 Questions Librarians Need to Answer”) and the Aspen Institute (“Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Pub­lic Libraries”) to forums (ALA Summit on the Future of Libraries) to articles (Slate’s “What Will Become of the Library?”), and our own white paper (“Re-Envisioning the MLS”), there is no shortage of data or discussion on the topic. We know the challenges:

  • State and local government workforces have faced significant reductions since 2009. In 2011 alone, state and local governments cut nearly 250,000 jobs. While some hiring has occurred lately, reductions have been significant and are unlikely to grow to pre-recession levels.
  •  Securing a library job can be challenging. Compe­tition is fierce, and the skill sets of students who have recently graduated with an MLS need to correlate with the skills libraries seek.
  •  There are many sources of information and pro­viders of information services. It’s not just Google. In­dividuals have many choices of which a library or librarian may not be preferred or even considered.
  • The nature of information is changing. Being data and information literate (analytics, visualization, curation) will be critical to success in education, employment, and everyday life.
  • Communities are changing. We’re growing older and more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, income, and ability. The information and technology needs changing populations will pose challenges.

Given these challenges, there is need to engage in a parallel discussion regarding the future of librarians.

To seed this discussion, the iSchool at the University of Maryland launched its three-year Re-Envisioning the MLS initiative. We started with two key questions: What should an MLS program look like in four years? And what types of students should we recruit into the profession? This duality is critical, as we anticipate substantive changes to what makes up an MLS degree, which will affect who we recruit into the profession.

Our first year is focused on engagement, with years two and three focused on redesign and implementation. More information about our efforts, including speaker archives and dates of future events, is available at (search #HackMLS).

What have we learned to date? Key findings indicate the need for MLS programs to graduate information profes­sionals who:

  • Inform, by serving as vital conduits to the information resources that people need when they need them.
  • Enable, by actively providing their communities with tailored opportunities to succeed through the resources and services provided.
  • Equalize, by ensuring that – regardless of background, ability, means, or any other factors—their communities have access to the information resources, services, and skills necessary for today and tomorrow.
  • Lead, by taking leadership roles in their communities around access to and the availability, dissemination, and preservation of information.

Success in these areas is critical and requires the right type of person from the onset. Characteristics identified include:

  • Adaptable. Information professionals must be willing and eager to continually learn and adapt to the people using the information, how they use information, and the kinds of services they need.
  • Creative. Information professionals must be willing to try new techniques, programs, and services. There should be a willingness to take risks, to fail, to learn, and to try again. They must actively seek information about trends and best practices.
  • Leader. Information professionals need to have a strong ability to communicate and adapt their leadership style to their environment, as well as effectively navigate the changing needs of organizations. They are self-reflective enough to know when to be constructively aggressive and when to provide others with the opportunity to lead.
  • Tech-savvy. Information professionals must be comfortable with technology and have a desire to always adapt and update their skills. They should be eager to learn how to use new devices, be comfortable with social media platforms, apps, analyzing data, and developing coding skills—and should approach technology through the lens of usability, accessibility, and inclusiveness.
  • Marketer. Information professionals need to know how to advocate on behalf of their organizations and communities. They also need to anticipate and know how to articulate a vision for access, inclusion, services, technologies, and other key community needs. This requires a willingness to engage in constant and ongoing analysis and change.
  • Service-oriented. Information professionals have an obligation to focus on the community that they serve, individual needs, and inclusion. They need to ensure that services—whether they be programming, literacy instruction, data analysis, or records management – are designed and implemented based on the actual needs of their users and communities and not based on arcane information practices of our professional past.

Future MLS students must embrace change, work well with ambiguity and uncertainty, be willing to pick up new skills all the time, focus on the needs of increasingly diverse communities, meet people where they are and get them to where they need to be, be able to articulate and move toward a vision, and lead.

We are only part way through our journey toward Re-Envisioning the MLS – but it is clear that the future of the MLS does not lie with those who seek a quiet refuge or who won’t embrace ongoing change in the information, technology, and community needs landscapes.

John Carlo Bertot is professor and MLS program director at University of Maryland’s iSchool.

Lindsay Sarin is MLS program coordinator at University of Maryland’s iSchool.