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Chicago Tribune

March 2, 2003

Library science sees many career changers
Shortage raises subject's appeal

Author: Jeffrey Steele, Special to the Tribune.

Edition: Chicagoland Final
Section: Education Today
Page: 4

Index Terms:

Estimated printed pages: 5

Article Text:

Sauk Village native Nanette Wargo spent part of her high school and college years working at libraries. As a high school student she worked part time in a south suburban library. And later, at Millikin University in Decatur, she served as a student clerk in the college library.

So when Wargo, 28, found herself unfulfilled in her position with a Homewood publishing firm two years ago, her thoughts returned to the work she enjoyed at a younger age.

Today Wargo is in her final semester in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and expects to earn her master's degree in library and information science in May. Soon after, she hopes to find a job as a cataloguer in an academic or public library.

"I really admire the goals of public libraries and believe they fit in with my own personal philosophy of getting information to as many people as possible," she said. "But there's quite a draw toward academic libraries for me as well."

With a serious librarian shortage looming, the talents of Wargo and thousands of others will be in demand in years to come. One in four librarians is projected to retire within five to seven years, and half within a dozen years, said Maurice J. Freedman, president of the Chicago-based American Library Association and director of the Ardsley, N.Y.-based Westchester County Library System. The impending shortage will hit community libraries hardest.

Lagging compensation

A key factor behind the shortage is that many who might have leaned toward librarian jobs have gravitated toward better-paying work.

"Librarians have been predominantly female, and like [those in] other female-dominant professions, they have been underpaid," Freedman said. "Such fields as database administrators and systems analysts, whose education and experience are comparable to those of librarians, are paid almost double the starting salary of librarians."

Until librarians are paid equitably, recruitment problems will exist, he added.

"It's particularly a shame today, because the array of skills--technical, human, bibliographical and in some cases child librarianship--make it an especially exciting and challenging profession," he said.

Many graduate students seem to have heard that message. Administrators at the two Illinois universities offering accredited graduate programs in library science--Dominican University in River Forest and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign--report strong interest from prospective students, including many mid-life career-changers.

In the past two years, for instance, incoming students in Dominican's program have included nurses, attorneys, teachers, homemakers, corporate refugees, actors and journalists, as well as an obstetrician, a police officer, a dental hygienist and a nutritionist. The students' average age is 35, and most attend part time, earning degrees within two to three years.

Core courses and electives

Dominican, which has offered a master's degree in the discipline since 1949, requires students to take 12 courses, said Elisa Topper, assistant dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

Students must take four core courses: Introduction to Library and Information Sciences; Organization of Knowledge; Reference and Online Services; and a management course. The remaining eight courses are electives, ranging from children's literature to Web page design to preservation and conservation of materials.

"We have, over the years, revamped the curriculum yearly to reflect the changes employers are looking for in students and the evolution of new technology," Topper said. "We have developed practicums in which students can put their knowledge to work before they graduate in an actual library, giving them experience they can put on a resume."

The majority of Dominican's graduates land positions in public or school libraries. Others find work in academic libraries and corporations.

"And some go into alternative library careers, which may include publishing, market research [and other] related areas where they can use the degree outside of traditional library environments," Topper said.

Among recent graduates is Ann Murphy Borel, information literacy librarian and director of the Academic Resource Center at the American University of Paris.

Borel, an American who has lived in Paris for more than 15 years, took a year off from the four-year private university in France to earn a master's degree in library and information science at Dominican.

An import from France

"I opted for the on-campus program at Dominican because it gave me the opportunity for experiential learning, contact with faculty and exposure to group work and teamwork with peers," Borel said. "It was important for me to communicate and interact with professors, practitioners and fellow students. For me, the learning shouldn't be accomplished in a vacuum or in isolation."

Borel reports the program is good for those interested in careers in communications, resource sharing, information system management or intellectual property.

The University of Illinois has offered degrees in library science at the Urbana-Champaign campus since 1897, said Linda Smith, interim dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. The graduate program features two required courses: Information Organization and Access, and Libraries, Information and Society. The course catalog lists more than 50 electives, and in any given semester, approximately 25 electives are offered.

Electives include courses that reflect common roles of librarians, such as cataloguing, reference and collections development. Other courses focus on particular parts of the library, such as children's services. And still others emphasize applications of information technology, such as Introduction to Network Information Systems or Information Storage. Midlife career-changers come from a variety of backgrounds.

Degrees of versatility

"We have teachers who want to specialize in school media services; we have lawyers who want to focus on legal information and become law librarians," Smith said.

The program also attracts people from insurance, finance and other business backgrounds who are interested in staying within a business environment and working in information systems or knowledge management, she added.

Many graduates find positions in libraries or in settings where they are information specialists and focus on managing digital or electronic information, Smith said.

"We place some [graduates] in non-profit organizations, where they may index materials or build Web sites to serve the constituency of that organization," Smith said. "And we certainly place them in children's services, reference and outreach activities within public libraries."

Most U. of I. students on campus are in their 20s or 30s, while those who take the program online tend to be in their 30s and 40s, Smith said. It's possible for full-time students to finish the degree program in 12 months, but many students take about two years to earn their degrees.

An affinity for libraries

Both Topper and Smith say common traits exist among students in library and information science graduate programs.

"The common bond with all these people is they're looking for fulfilling work, and most of them have had positive experiences in libraries throughout their lives," Topper said.

Smith said she sees in students "a commitment to service, and an interest in linking or connecting people with the information they need. Once you earn the degree, there are just so many different settings in which you can use the knowledge and skills. And the work is varied--as varied as the needs and interests of the people with whom you come in contact."

Graduate students have undoubtedly learned that today's librarians don't fit what Illinois Library Association President Sylvia Murphy Williams calls the stereotype of the prim and proper bookworm.

"We as a profession need to continue working on making people understand we no longer fit that mold," said Williams, director of Dundee Township Public Library in East Dundee. "We're fun people. We're not the mean people who tell you to be quiet all the time and charge you exorbitant rates for overdue books. We're not the stern disciplinarians you think we are!"


For more on the program at Dominican University, visit www.dom.edu/gslis/gslis.html. Dominican also is holding a university-wide open house at 1:30 p.m. March 16. For more on the program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign program, visit www.lis.uiuc.edu.

PHOTO: Ann Murphy Borel (right) came from Paris to earn a master's degree at Dominican University's Graduate School of Library and Information Science, where Elisa Topper is assistant dean. Tribune photo by Ed Wagner.

SPECIAL SECTION. Education Today.

Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune
Record Number: CTR0303020006