The future of LIS education

Linda C. Smith
Linda C. Smith, Professor Emerita, Interim Executive Associate Dean

In a society where makerspaces, Google, and smartphones proliferate, people don’t interact with information, technology, or libraries the way they used to. The digital world influences how we live, work, learn, and play, which in turn alters our information needs and expectations. For decades, library and information science (LIS) professionals have been leading the way in understanding the use of information. The roles of LIS professionals are evolving along with the information landscape, but how will educating these professionals evolve? What is ahead for the future of LIS education?

Re-visioning LIS education

To examine these questions, Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Programs Linda C. Smith partnered with Eileen G. Abels, dean of the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College, and Lynne C. Howarth, of the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, for the grant, “Educate to Innovate: Re-visioning Library and Information Science Education.” Led by Abels and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the national forum planning grant was motivated by questions of the new and changing roles of LIS professionals and how those roles will be “re-visioned” in the LIS curriculum.

“We are committed to keeping LIS education viable,” Smith said. “LIS professionals must not only be aware of diverse information needs, but ensure those needs are met. As educators, we need to equip our students with the necessary skills to build supportive and broad information services.”

A longtime educator, Smith has witnessed and been at the forefront of many developments in LIS education. She was elected president of the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) in 2009, and in 2012, was honored with the organization’s Service Award for her involvement with ALISE and support of LIS education. Smith also played a key role in the implementation of Leep, GSLIS’s online learning option—a significant innovation in education delivery.

To identify how the curriculum must evolve, the grant partners and steering committee planning the forum knew they must first ask the question, “What is emerging as the environment for which we need to educate?” To answer that question, they sought the perspectives of multiple invested and expert stakeholders.

In January, fifty-three invited librarians, educators, futurists, designers, archivists, knowledge management consultants, computer scientists, artists, architects, digital humanities experts, and more convened for a forum to discuss a vision for the information future. The multi-day forum, “Re-visioning Our Information Future and How to Educate for It,” was guided by Tomorrow Makers, an innovative facilitation group that uses hands-on modules, a visual scribe, and group and individual activities to encourage focused discussion and creative thinking.

“It was an interactive process with the goal of having activities that would give everyone a voice,” Smith said. “We looked at what opportunities were emerging and what that means for recruiting, educating, and equipping people to take advantage of these opportunities. Everyone was impressed with how engaged and passionate all the participants were about the work they were doing or could do, whether it was talking about the potential for digital humanities to preserve cultural heritage or creating brand new things.”

Activities during the forum ranged from creating a timeline of information services extending to the year 2045 to discussing artifacts that participants brought as representations of the information future. GSLIS Assistant Professor Nicole A. Cooke, one of the participants at the forum, brought a decal made at the Urbana Free Library’s makerspace to symbolize how libraries are changing.

“It’s about seeing libraries as more than just the materials—it’s about services, building things, and making things,” Cooke said. “It’s about the library accommodating what the community wants.”

Rejecting the status quo

Along with evaluating the future of the information landscape, re-visioning LIS education also relies on critically examining what is currently being taught.

“People are being confronted with very diverse communities with very diverse needs, and the status quo of how libraries have operated is not going to be sufficient anymore,” Cooke said. “We have to make sure students are adaptable. LIS professionals have moved away from having a solitary, singular role. Just like diversity is everyone’s job, teaching is everyone’s job, outreach is everyone’s job, and promoting the library is everyone’s job. We have to continue learning and growing.”

Cooke was the recipient of the University YWCA’s 2015 Leadership Award in Education, recognizing her work in social justice and her efforts to diversify the curriculum. One of her research projects, “Diversity in the LIS Curriculum,” examines how diversity and social justice are integrated in LIS education. The first part of the project involves a national survey asking participants to comment on and analyze the social justice or diversity courses they took in graduate school. The second part is a diversity audit of GSLIS courses to gauge in what ways cultural competencies could be better folded into the curriculum. As part of the audit, students in Cooke’s courses will help create a public repository of recommended readings and resources from diverse perspectives that instructors can use. The repository is specifically aimed toward GSLIS courses, but the project could serve as a model for other LIS schools.

“[The audit] could be something any LIS school could or should do because it’s really looking at the curriculum as a whole,” Cooke said. “In wider conversations across LIS, we need to look at curricula and say ‘these are some things we do well, these are some things we do better, and these are some holes in our curriculum.’”

When considering the future of LIS education, Cooke emphasizes the importance of building a workforce that is as diverse as the communities being served. Multiple perspectives representing different demographics, viewpoints, and experiences will help ensure that various user needs are met and that people see themselves reflected in their libraries and information centers.

The IMLS grant writers identified diversity as one of eight selected trends shaping LIS education. Cooke envisions and is working toward a curriculum in which diversity is no longer a trend but a core part of LIS education. She hopes that current conversations around diversity will result in more action, more voices, more participation, and a more diverse workforce.

Reclaiming perceptions

It is clear that communities and information needs have evolved, but have perceptions of the field of library and information science changed over the years?

Smith and Cooke agree that communicating the value of LIS and the range of interesting opportunities within the field is essential. In her courses, Cooke encourages students to practice talking about their work through lightning talks, poster presentations, elevator pitches, and getting out into the community. Another way to demonstrate the range of LIS skills is to provide more possibilities for field experience and collaboration across sectors, which emerged as significant themes during the “Re-visioning Our Information Future” forum.

“It was rewarding to see people making connections across sectors, and that was part of what we were hoping,” Smith said. “If LIS education is going to have a healthy future, then we need to make more effort to make connections with a range of stakeholders. These points of connection will enrich our programs and broaden the opportunities for our students.”

Smith noted that after the forum, artist and educator Jer Thorpe expressed the need for an artist-in-residence program at libraries and archives. Other initiatives that emerged as a result of the forum include virtual field placements for students to connect classroom experiences to practice, a podcast to highlight diverse career opportunities, and exploration of innovative pedagogies such as studio teaching.

Cooke sees the potential mutual benefit of another suggestion coming out of the forum: embedding LIS faculty in the field for short periods of time. Not only would faculty keep better abreast of trends in the field, but professionals in other sectors would better understand what LIS offers. “I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential with outside collaborators in the community because they don’t know all that we do,” she said. “Librarians have to know what everyone else is doing—in tech fields and elsewhere. I’m really an advocate for reciprocity and seeing how traditional LIS can benefit other workplaces, workforces, and products.”

Advancements in technology are helping to shape our information future, but the foundational values upon which the field has been built—such as ensuring access to information, protecting intellectual freedom, preserving our cultural heritage, and valuing our diversity—remain important when educating future LIS professionals.

“As we embrace changing needs and identify how we can meet those needs, it all comes back to the values that have always characterized LIS education,” Smith said. “Future LIS professionals need to be open to using technology in new and creative ways, but at the same time, be motivated by the values that we have traditionally focused on.”

“We’re preparing LIS professionals to serve their given communities compassionately and effectively, whatever that community may be,” Cooke said.

Both Cooke and Smith are excited about keeping this conversation going. Cooke will continue her research, and, as part of another project, is looking at a historic group of GSLIS alumni known as the Carnegie Scholars to think about how to better prepare and retain underrepresented students in the future. Smith and her grant partners will continue to bring LIS educators into the conversation, plan to produce a white paper as a result of the forum, and will present on this topic at several upcoming conferences. News, resources, and updates will continue to be added to the project website at

The best LIS programs design their curricula to anticipate change. As Smith commented, “We never knew we needed to do so much searching until we had Google.”  When planning the future of LIS education, it remains vital that courses and field experiences evolve so that graduates are well prepared to lead the way in meeting emerging needs—even those we never knew we needed.

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