Susan Hildreth leaves her mark by bringing together faculty, students, libraries

By Doug Parry Monday, July 30, 2018

Susan Hildreth has accomplished a lot in her career. In more than three decades as a librarian, she’s had stints as city librarian in San Francisco and Seattle, and state librarian in California. She managed a $250 million budget as director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services from 2011-15. But until she became the Information School’s first Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, she had never done an academic research project.

A research project was a key ingredient in the job, though, and part of what attracted Hildreth to take on the role. Funded by a 10-year, $1.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Distinguished Practitioner in Residence is bringing a succession of leading professionals to the iSchool to offer a practical perspective on scholarly pursuits in library and information science.  

As an influential figure in librarianship, Hildreth was able to do just that from the time she arrived in 2016, giving iSchool students and faculty first-hand knowledge of the way things work in public libraries and the skills needed to be effective. Hildreth developed and taught a course and worked to shape the Master of Library and Information Science curriculum before taking on the final piece of her tenure, a research project that addressed how librarianship education aligns with the needs of public libraries. She had a $50,000 budget and a tight timeline to complete it before the end of her term at the iSchool in spring 2018.

“I wanted the project to address this issue of alignment between the skills our graduates are coming out of our programs with and what employers need,” Hildreth said. “I needed some help to logistically figure out how to do that.”

Fortunately, plenty of help was available. Hildreth leaned on the iSchool’s wealth of faculty expertise and the aid of graduate students to help execute a research project that she hopes will have a lasting impact on the iSchool curriculum and for employers. She brought together faculty, students and library professionals for a pair of workshops this past spring where she challenged participants to think about how they would reshape MLIS instruction.

“We felt it was important to bring together students, faculty and employers,” Hildreth said. “I haven’t found another case where those three entities were brought together in a collaborative, participatory design approach, to try to work on curriculum.”

Her final report noted several key themes that emerged from the workshops. Among them: making community engagement a key component of all MLIS coursework; using design thinking as a framework for MLIS courses so that students are prepared to apply it in their jobs; placing more emphasis on experiential learning, such as internships and Capstone projects; and examining all MLIS courses through the lens of social justice and racial equity.

The workshops drew on one of the iSchool’s strengths — participatory design, in which stakeholders are actively involved in the process to help ensure the results meet their needs. iSchool faculty such as Associate Professor Jin Ha Lee and Assistant Professor Jason Yip, who have extensive experience with participatory design, were invaluable in carrying out the workshops, Hildreth said. She noted that the UW iSchool puts more emphasis on design thinking than any other top MLIS program.

“Participatory design is something I think that librarians have been doing for many years. They just haven’t called it that,” Hildreth said.

The workshops produced some exciting ideas and made people feel their time was well-spent, said Beck Tench, an iSchool Ph.D. student who helped organize the events along with Hayley Bierbaum, a master’s student in Human-Centered Design & Engineering.

“The ideas that were created, some of them at least, are very sticky with me. I want them to happen, and I think some possibly can,” Tench said.

One of the ideas in particular stuck out to her: a community library modeled after the kinds of free clinics put on by medical students. Workshop participants envisioned MLIS students gaining hands-on experience and learning about their communities as they serve them.

Hildreth noted that the iSchool is in a great position to put the ideas to work. It has a top-notch faculty, it attracts exceptional students, and it’s in a region with employers such as the UW Libraries, King County Library System and the Seattle Public Library that are leaders in the field.

“We have great institutions here, so we have this great little test kitchen for trying some of these things, and I think everybody’s ready to do that,” she said.

Marcellus Turner, chief librarian at the Seattle Public Library, said Hildreth’s professorship is an example of the way librarianship programs can make their coursework more effective and improve their partnerships with local library communities.

“It is great that UW iSchool had the foresight to create such a position on its faculty to help develop, broaden and mentor students to the world, work and possibilities of libraries,” he said. “I hope other libraries will realize the benefit for their schools, students and public libraries.”

Turner noted that in addition to bringing the “real world” perspective to the academic one, Hildreth will now be able to communicate with library professionals about the opportunities and constraints that exist at MLIS programs. He encouraged her to speak to groups of library leaders about her experience in academia.

“The experience on the educational side of the work of our profession will do wonders in helping practicing librarians and directors understand the education of the students and our future employees, as well as their interests and expectations for a work environment,” Turner said. 

Hildreth said she plans to remain a part of the iSchool community by helping Rolf Hapel, her successor as the Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, make the transition to academic life this fall. She also has a year left on her term as treasurer of the American Library Association and recently accepted an interim role as executive director of the Sonoma County Library near her Northern California home. As for the long-term? She has no firm plans.

“I had such great relationships with students, and I saw so much commitment and skill and knowledge there that they really convinced me that, ‘Yeah, I could retire now,’” she said. “I am going to miss all my wonderful colleagues at the University of Washington.”

She added, with a laugh: “I will not miss the weather.”