Understanding Design Education in Librarianship

 

Although creating information tools and services is an integral aspect of the field, American librarianship is typically considered a social science. In my 2016 dissertation, I demonstrated that an alternative epistemological approach—that of design–is an appropriate framework for librarianship, offering opportunities for innovation, empowerment, and stronger explicit alignment with the values of the field.1 However, despite an increasing interest in design education in iSchools at large,2 there has previously been little explicit incorporation of design in formal graduate level library education programs; specifically American MLIS and equivalent degrees.

In the past year, one thread of my research agenda has been focused on this educational issue identified in my dissertation work. Building on a pilot study with data from the University of Washington’s iSchool,3 I solicited data from additional MLIS programs to understand the educational backgrounds of people who choose to pursue library education. Anecdotally, people who choose to pursue librarianship come from the humanities. But is this true, or just based on a bibliophilic stereotype? And how many, if any, people pursuing librarianship come from a design background? Based on data from additional MLIS programs (a mix of iSchools members and non-members), I found very few instances of degrees in art-related fields (5.7%, n=4375); only about 30 of which reflected any sort of formal design education.4

If students aren’t entering programs with design knowledge, then it must fall to the programs to provide it. Therefore, my next step was a field scan of current design-related courses offered in MLIS programs. A preliminary curricular review of the top 20 ALA-accredited master’s level library education programs revealed that none required compulsory coursework in design.5 However, a few notable examples of optional elective courses incorporating aspects of design epistemology have recently emerged, including courses at Simmons College, the University of Maryland, San Jose State University, and the University of Washington. To understand a more holistic picture, I am currently undertaking a field scan compiling and analyzing curricular information from ALA-accredited MLIS program websites and course catalogs. About 50% of these programs are offered by iSchools member institutions, while the other half are not affiliated with the iSchools organization. Although our analysis is currently in progress, preliminary emergent patterns across both types of programs show that design tends to manifest in courses addressing research methods; database development; information management; information systems architecture; human-computer interaction; and web design—all courses that span the breadth of iSchool coverage. Additionally, two library-specific areas have been identified as including design-related content: school media programming and public library programming.

This field scan is the first phase of an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Forum Grant (RE-98-17-0032-17) investigating current incorporations of design thinking, methods, and perspectives in MLIS programs and how design might be increasingly included in these educational experiences. In addition to the field scan, we are also soliciting feedback regarding the interest in and use of design thinking and methods in library practice, and the use of and need for design skills and abilities in library practice from active librarians. The findings from these projects will inform a gathering of educators to be held next spring, in which we will review and discuss the results of the field scan and feedback from practitioners, identify aspects of design education relevant to MLIS education, share professional experiences, and brainstorm curricular approaches. If you are interested in participating in this gathering, please feel free to contact me!

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Dr. Rachel Ivy Clarke

Rachel Ivy Clarke is an assistant professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. Before becoming an academic, she worked as a graphic designer and librarian, (among other things). In addition to her MLIS and iSchool PhD, she holds a BA in creative writing. Clarke was the winner of the 2017 iSchools Doctoral Dissertation Award. For more about her work, click here.