Sunday, August 21, 2005

Goodbye Marian the Librarian. Hello information navigator.

The stock caricature — a bespectacled book-besotted lady — is no more. She is gone along with the card catalog in most of today’s school and public libraries. The electronic age has swept her away, leaving a computer-aided trained guide who is knowledgeable about databases and other forms of high-tech inquiry.

The librarian’s education has changed in line with the changing nature of the job. Although most are still women, these “navigators” — also known as information specialists — nearly all hold at least one master’s degree, while some even hold doctorates. They learn their craft at a college of information studies or a more traditionally named school of library and information science.

The University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies — the larger of the only two area institutions accredited by the Chicago-based American Library Association — recently introduced a master of information management (MIM) degree in addition to the standard master of library science (MLS) degree. Acceptance into the programs is more competitive than ever. Just 60 percent of applicants to Maryland’s College of Information Studies were accepted last year, according to Associate Dean Diane Barlow.

Maryland enrolls 500 students in its program, which offers five majors. With 235 students. Catholic University’s School of Library and Information Science, founded in 1934, is older but smaller and, unlike Maryland, does not grant a doctor of philosophy degree.

Another difference: Catholic is private, and Maryland is a public institution. The core courses required for students at each are similar, however, with Catholic focusing on a school library media program. Maryland, by contrast, offers a variety of specializations and concentrations, including a dual MLS degree that combines history or geography with library science.

Graduates are in high demand in a world where information sources keep expanding, and the challenge of determining reliable and appropriate sources can be daunting. The information age has increased the need for librarians who are specialists as well as generalists working in schools and public libraries. Jobs are open in law firms and corporate industry as well as in archive repositories and government offices.

Today’s librarians must be “more nimble and flexible” than in the past, says Martha Hale, dean of Catholic’s school. The word science in the school’s title never was more valid because, in Ms. Hale’s words, “[Today’s librarians] solve problems. It’s the way they think of themselves on the job.” Innovative technology forces them to be alert to new methods of acquiring and dispersing information, she adds.

Caren Norris, a librarian in a small private elementary school in Potomac, is typical of many Maryland students, says Ann Weeks, whose formal title is professor of the practice. She is the adviser for Mrs. Norris, a first-year student who took a summer class and will attend night school while holding down a job. That isn’t unusual, Ms. Weeks says.

The norm, she says, is people “interested in being able to manage information” coming into the profession as a second career. “We have lawyers, social workers and teachers …. People coming from teaching like the idea of having greater freedom — working with all the students and teachers in a school.”

Their chief personality characteristics, she says, are liking people, being curious and being lifelong learners, “which is what we are encouraging everybody to do.”

“One of the best things here is thinking of ourselves as professionals, being able to establish a network [among peers], which can be extremely useful for a librarian,” Mrs. Norris says. “The program emphasizes professional standards and teaches students how to think critically,” she says when asked to comment about Maryland’s program.

“Networking,” when it means connecting libraries so they can share resources, is a key word in today’s information systems, points out Ms. Weeks, who got into the profession in the 1970s.

“It was just the beginning of sharing materials electronically and connecting libraries of all types,” she says.

She remembers writing her doctoral dissertation on a typewriter. The subject was attitudes toward library networking and technology — “and, at that point, in some cases, technology was an electric typewriter. Libraries were just getting fax machines in the 1980s.” Now, of course, she uses a laptop computer and is comfortable with software and Web pages of nearly every kind.

These definitely are better times for many reasons, she notes. While librarians are expected to know more, they also are taught to be more reactive.

“I tell my students that they need to be aggressively helpful,” she explains. “I work primarily with people who will go into K-12 environments. We encourage them to take part in meetings with classroom teachers and be a part of the school. We expect them to know what the curriculum is so they can say, ‘Oh, you are teaching about insects. How can I help you teach what it is you are expecting the third-graders to know?’”

The Dewey Decimal System continues to be taught because it still is used to arrange materials in schools.

“But getting to [the material] is through computer rather than card catalog,” Ms. Weeks says.

Maryland’s four core classes are: information access, which deals with reference materials; information technology; information structure, which encompasses how information is organized; and “the user and use of libraries,” which is designed differently for people who go into archival work and those — the majority— who go into schools and public libraries. The latter even has the choice of an elective course on the art of storytelling.

Little else is familiar from the past. Librarians — information navigators or knowledge navigators — work in “information commons,” another term for a central place where information can be found in many different formats, and some work online in cyberspace.

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