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Defining What Librarianship and Library Education Should Be
Posted On March 15, 2022
Current discussions about the philosophical and ethical principles in library education center on such key issues as:
  • Cultural diversity of professionals and its impact on user perspectives and needs
  • Needs of historically overlooked populations (communities of color, rural dwellers, seniors, etc.) and how to assess and address them—and examine how to balance potentially competing needs in determining services and priorities
  • Addressing the health, economic, and other disparities in communities and the potential leadership that is required, not only in libraries and information practice, but also in negotiating solutions within larger communities and institutions
  • The need for renewed and expanded scholarship and internship, as well as other opportunities, for people of color and other diverse populations to provide better preparation and support during their early professional careers
  • Attention to systemic, generational change and how to incorporate that into theoretical development, professional practice, planning, and goal-setting

These issues aren’t new, but the resurgence of energy surrounding them is a hopeful sign of progress.


Information is available easily over the internet to anyone who is searching. Legal oversight is limited, and governments seem unable to control the companies that control searching. Determining the quality and veracity of information is challenging even for professionals. What is library education doing in these areas? We are seeing important proposals and discussions of new methods, approaches, and tools to help all users better navigate the information deluge that we all face.

In an April 2019 article in The Librarian Parlor advocating for the integration of community-based participatory research into the basic education of librarians, the author describes the need this way: “Library workers are often directly embedded in the community in which they serve. Academic libraries serve their campus community, sometimes public institutions serve their local community as well. Public libraries serve their neighborhoods and are very much embedded in the community. Library workers may also be users of their local library or part of the community that their library is hoping to reach.”

According to an article for Colorado Virtual Library, community-based participatory research is important because it makes research more democratic: “When those that you are evaluating (whether it be patrons, non-users, people with a disability, non-English speakers, etc.) are involved in the entire process, your data will invariably become more equitable. As a result, your evaluation outcome will more effectively address real problems for your community. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

A Syracuse University study from 2018, “Transitioning From the MLS to the MLD: Integrating Design Thinking and Philosophy Into Library and Information Science Education,” asserts that there should be a design thinking approach to librarianship, wherein “the integration of design thinking and philosophy more broadly [will] better equip future library professionals for a rapidly changing information landscape” (per the Abstract). The authors define design thinking as “user-centered design.” In other words, “If we think of our libraries as a set of process, products and services that librarians design to fulfill the information needs of community members, why wouldn’t we want to equip library science students with a design thinking mentality and a commitment to design that would bridge theory and practice?”

The authors believe this is essential to “best to prepare students to manage ambiguity through new approaches to identifying and solving challenging problems,” per the Abstract. They even suggest a new type of master’s degree, M.L.D. (master of library design). “As change creates more uncertainty for library practitioners, graduate library education needs to explore how best to prepare students to manage ambiguity through new approaches to identifying and solving challenging problems,” they write in the Abstract.


The field of librarianship at the practitioner level seems to be at a crossroads today, faced with serious issues and very intriguing potential opportunities. The foundations of the profession are changing and growing in complexity thanks to the seismic changes in information, research, and publication. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator:

  • There are 114 colleges and universities with library science or school librarian programs.
  • Six schools offer a certificate in library science or school librarian.
  • Nine schools offer an associate’s degree in library science or school librarian.
  • Ten schools offer a bachelor’s degree in library science or school librarian.
  • There are 97 schools that offer a master’s or advanced degree in library science or school librarian.

Library programs are heavily advertising for new students, but they appear to be focused more on marketing their programs as a quick fix rather than focusing on the key professional challenges that the field entails. Doing a quick Google search for colleges offering M.L.S.-accredited degrees brings up some interesting advertising intended to attract potential students to specific M.L.S. and related programs, including promises of “No GRE Required” for a data science degree (University of Denver), “Earn an MLIS online in as few as 18 months” (Syracuse University), and an M.L.I.S. that “can be completed entirely online” (Simmons University).

In an excellent 2021 think piece, “Overdue: Incorporating Social Justice Into the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education,” Christopher Sweet, information literacy and scholarly communications librarian at Illinois Wesleyan University, notes that the “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education was adopted by the ACRL Board in 2016. Many librarians, particularly those interested in critical librarianship and critical information literacy, were disappointed that social justice did not explicitly appear anywhere in the Framework.” He continues that “since diversity, equity, inclusion, antiracism, and social justice (EDI) are all important stated values of the library profession, the Framework could be improved. Fortunately, the Framework was intended to be a responsive document that would be updated on a more regular basis than the previous Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education.”

Over the years, the library field has issued other reports, standards, and articles to address the problems inherent in this imbalance of priorities, including ACRL’s 2012 Diversity Standards: Cultural Competency for Academic Libraries, the Association for Library Service to Children’s 2014 The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children, and the 2017 article “Diversity in Public Libraries Strategies for Achieving a More Representative Workforce” in the Public Library Association’s Public Libraries Online.

Intercultural Competence for Community College Librarians,” a May 2020 paper by San Jose State University’s Phyllis Pistorino, states, “Community colleges host the most diverse population of students in the United States, often considered a reflection of the communities they serve. As centers of institutional learning, libraries at community colleges have a responsibility and an opportunity to provide service grounded in the tenets of intercultural competence.” As for school libraries, 2019’s Social Justice and Cultural Competency: Essential Readings for School Librarians documents both empirical research and promising practices to help school librarians and teachers work together to promote social justice and develop learners’ and educators’ cultural competence.”


The most recent data I found on the demographics of librarians, from December 2021, included the following:

  • 64.1% of all Librarians are women, while 30.5% are men.
  • The average age of an employed Librarian is 48 years old.
  • The most common ethnicity of Librarians is White (81.4%), followed by Hispanic or Latino (6.8%) and Black or African American (6.0%).

A 2021 fact sheet from the Department for Professional Employees states, “Just over 83 percent of librarians identified as white in 2020. Library technicians and assistants were slightly more diverse. Among library technicians and assistants, 78.6 percent identified as white in 2020.” I have found no reliable data related to the social and economic breakdowns for the field.

“Despite our ongoing quest for diversity and a growing number of initiatives to increase it, the demographics of the professional librarian population haven’t changed in any significant way,” notes Jennifer Vinopal in a thoughtful 2016 article. “We are starkly lacking in diversity based on race and ethnicity (we are overwhelmingly white), age (librarianship is an aging profession), disability, economic status, educational background, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other demographic and identity markers of difference.” She says that the lack of diversity should serve as “an invitation to us to look critically at our culture, our practices, and our assumptions, and investigate what it is about ourselves and our profession that is preventing underrepresented people from being able to, or even wanting to, enter and stay.”


In 1997, a pair of articles was published in The Library Quarterly that gave two different perspectives on whether the field of library and information science needed a philosophy. Jim Zwadlo argued that the field had no philosophical base on which to build programs and education and to oversee professionals and their institutions. And, further, his argument is evident by the article title: “We Don’t Need a Philosophy of Library and Information Science—We’re Confused Enough Already.” In a response titled “We Do Need a Philosophy of Library and Information Science—We’re Not Confused Enough: A Response to Zwadlo,” authors Gary P. Radford and John M. Budd wrote, “There is, no doubt, a need for thoughtful, reflexive explorations of the nature of library and information science as a discipline,” but Zwadlo’s argument fails because he “needs philosophy to argue that we do not need philosophy.” Perhaps this was intended to prod discussion in the field about the need for a stronger foundation to guide the ongoing development of library and information services and collections.

In 2012, Emily Ford put forward the idea of “[e]ngaging in a reflective and philosophically-based practice of librarianship (a praxis of librarianship), one that frames decision-making and library work with the question: ‘what we do and why we do it?’ [which] will enable the library community to have successful conversations with those they serve. As a result, librarians will be invited to participate in important community decision-making efforts, and be able to further impact communities.”


“The same systemic racial oppression that occurs in other areas of life, occurs in information creation, dissemination, categorization, searching, and preservation,” notes a guide from the University of Pittsburgh Library System. “The traditions of universities and scholarly publishing have been western, globally north, English-language, upper-class, male, and white dominated. Early science societies and journals were white male educators and the white male wealthy who could dabble in scientific inquiry. Broad changes to scholarly publishing have occurred in the last 50 years, but English is still the predominant language for exchanging scholarship and the global north and wealthiest countries are dominant in many fields.”

Librarianship and information science aren’t the only fields that are dealing with these core issues. For example, classics, Earth science, history, rhetoric, public administration, African American studies, disability studies, and education are grappling with equity, diversity, and inclusion. All of us in librarianship need to deeply re-examine our own assumptions and biases.

One person who has deeply impacted my life is Gratia Countryman. In 1889, she was one of the first female graduates of the University of Minnesota. When she became director of the Minneapolis Public Library in 1904, she was the first female head librarian at a major American city library system. “When she started, the library was mainly a place for the elite members of society,” Robbinsdale Historical Society writes. “But over her 32 years as director she made library services open to all.” She even hired a psychologist to work with citizens needing emotional and psychological support during the Great Depression. Her personal philosophy was simple: “If a library is to perform its functions of elevating the people, it will need to adopt methods other than buying a fine collection of books and housing them in an attractive building and then waiting in a dignified way for people to come.”

This article sums up Countryman’s life perfectly: “In her youth, a library was a sacred precinct for guarding the treasures of thought, to be entered only by the scholar and the student. … Her crusading zeal carried the book to every part of her city and county, to the little child, the factory worker, the farmer, the businessman, the hospital patient, the blind and the old.”

We have much to learn in order to fulfill our obligations as librarians. By examining our past and involving ourselves deeply in our present discussions, we can work to create a better future for the profession, our users, and ourselves.

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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