Susan Hildreth: Bridging LIS and Practice | Learning in Practice

As the inaugural Distinguished Practitioner in Residence (Professor of Practice) at the University of Washington Information School (UW iSchool), Susan ­Hildreth contributes a wealth of experience to her role connecting academia with the public library field.

Hildreth brings extensive field experience to the University of Washington’s iSchool

As the inaugural Distinguished Practitioner in Residence (Professor of Practice) at the University of Washington Information School (UW iSchool), Susan ­Hildreth contributes a wealth of experience to her role connecting academia with the public library field. Hildreth stepped into the two-year position, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in August 2016 and has been teaching, helping develop the curriculum, and conducting research on the future of libraries ever since. Hildreth, a former city librarian in Seattle and San Francisco and state librarian of California, served from 2011 to 2015 as director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and went on to head the Peninsula Library System, Pacific Library Partnership, and Califa Library Group in San Mateo, CA. She currently serves as American Library Association (ALA) treasurer and an Aspen Institute Fellow.

You’ve worked in so many sectors of the library world. How has your experience informed your teaching practice?

It gives me a lot of opportunity to share experiences with the students that they wouldn’t necessarily hear about. Also, I spend a lot of time…in informal advising.

I [serve] on our MLIS program committee [composed of] a number of our faculty members who teach in the MLIS program, and we get together on a regular basis to review curriculum, policies, all kinds of things. We’re always trying to find the balance between theory and practice, an on­going challenge. Theory, critical thinking, analytical research skills…are some of the most important skills that our students can develop, particularly [because] their roles in the library world change so quickly.

But it’s also important to be able to demonstrate how critical thinking skills can be applied in the workplace. I’ve been teaching a core course here, Management of Library and Information Centers. I try to help them understand some management theories and some approaches to administration and how that plays out in the workplace.

What are the barriers you see students encountering?

One of the barriers to many programs, not just [UW], is the cost. Are [applicants] in a position to be able to pay for their tuition? Do they have to go into debt? Are they going to get a job that allows them to pay those funds back? We don’t have a lot of scholarship funds here at UW, and other programs may have less.

The cost of graduate education is a big barrier to ensuring a diverse library workforce. The cost, and in some cases the time investment, is challenging. If we don’t have a lot of scholarship funds to be able to bring students into the program who don’t have a lot of resources, that’s going to impact the nature of the workforce.

What are you finding to be the biggest disconnects between how LIS programs are taught and the realities in the field?

Part of the [research] project I’m doing is trying to work on aligning a curriculum that we’re providing with the identified needs of employers. [In] a preliminary literature review, I found that [Boston’s] Simmons School of Library and Information Science has been working in somewhat of a similar vein. The interesting thing is that the top core skill and knowledge area that was identified in both was interpersonal communication. To me, that really says emotional intelligence. What these employers and librarians who have been in the field for a while say is, we want people coming out of these programs who can deal with any situation and deal with it effectively.

Information about a certain specialization is not as critical as the ability to work with people, work in teams, identify best ways to communicate. And emotional intelligence is not always an easy thing to teach. It’s more about identifying it and talking about approaches.

There are other areas that were of importance as well. Writing was one. Teamwork, customer service skills, and also cultural competence. We are not as focused on driving people into specializations as giving them skills that could be used across the spectrum of library types.

How can LIS education best tap and integrate the expertise of midcareer library workers without a degree? Should competency-based degrees be an option?

That’s a tough question, because there are so many continuing education opportunities available. And there’s not a clear mechanism [for] evaluating all these opportunities and figuring out what’s the best match if you’re looking for a specific skill or transitioning. It could be that LIS programs could create some kind of suite of short courses, kind of like a boot camp, to bring folks up to speed in some of these areas of specialization. One challenge is that although many LIS programs have good working relationships with the field, not all programs are organized to provide continuing education.

We do have paralibrarians who enroll to get an MLS. Most of those folks are coming to us online and working a full-time job. That’s a huge commitment. In some cases, parapro-fessionals, depending on their work history and other kinds of education, can petition out of some elective courses.

Many of our state libraries have developed their own programs for competency-based certification, particularly for rural or small library staff, directors, leadership, or even rank-and-file librarians, because they’re not getting the kind of application pool they want, or because they have great folks who may have BAs or other kinds of experience and they are valuable in their community and doing a great job.

How do you feel about the role, now that you’re in your final semester?

I think I’m learning a lot. I think the school is learning a lot. It’s been a huge opportunity. I’ve also kind of been the guinea pig. I think we’ve made some great progress.

One thing I would like to mention is [the iSchool] Technology and Social Change group, otherwise known as TASCHA. [It has] done a lot of research in terms of U.S. and global librarianship over the years. The Distinguished Professor of Practice being hosted in the same organization that also hosts TASCHA is a great opportunity. We have an existing informal relationship, and I think for future Distinguished Practitioners, the integration of their research work with TASCHA’s research…could have more alignment...because TASCHA’s work...will have a lasting legacy for libraries globally. I would like the Distinguished Practitioner’s work to possibly be a part of that suite of resources. At [the Public Library Association 2018 conference in Philadelphia] and at ALA annual [in New Orleans], we’re presenting a program specifically on the work I’m doing in terms of curriculum alignment. We’re going toget the word out that way, and I’m really excited about that.

We’re very fortunate to have the kind of extra support and visibility that the Gates Foundation brought to the program. But I think these efforts are happening everywhere. We have to continue to support a relationship with the field and academy to effectively align curriculum and employer needs. We want to try to think about some out-of-the-box partnerships where the knowledge and research of the academy could be leveraged by the field.

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