Distinguished Practitioners in Residence have practical effect on MLIS program

Portraits of Susan Hildreth, Rolf Hapel and Cindy Aden
Distinguished Practitioners in Residence so far include (from left) Susan Hildreth, Rolf Hapel and Cindy Aden.

Students studying to be librarians need to know what they’re getting into, say local public library leaders. “This is a wonderful profession, but you need resiliency in working with the public all day. The staff encounters a multitude of social problems that weren’t there 30 years ago: homelessness, the digital divide, people with mental health issues. That’s all part of what we do,” says King County Library System Executive Director Lisa Rosenblum, who oversees 50 libraries in 36 highly diverse cities.

The iSchool is bringing this real-world awareness into its classrooms with the assist of its Distinguished Practitioners in Residence, prominent library leaders brought to the UW to share their boots-on-the-ground expertise as teachers, colleagues, researchers and critical links to the library world. They work with Rosenblum and other public library leaders to match what libraries actually need in the workforce to what’s being taught at the iSchool.

“The practitioners are helping us to prepare students for the industry,” says Associate Teaching Professor Chance Hunt, who had a 25-year career in public libraries and government before joining the UW full-time. “The students need not just real-world examples or scenarios or case studies, they need the practical insights of people who’ve actually done the work.”

The Distinguished Practitioners have helped shape Master of Library and Information Science curriculum to emphasize such needed skills such as adaptability, critical thinking, and community responsiveness. “We want librarians with a real customer, social-services mindset,” says Rosenblum. “The old-school approach was how smart you were, how quickly you could look up information. Now it’s how well you embed in communities and align with community needs.”

“They’re connecting the learning, the philosophy, the ethics, the history, all the foundational pieces of our business to what that looks like in the real world.”

They also need students who understand a core concept of librarianship: intellectual freedom. “Some students haven’t fully embraced the idea that libraries have a responsibility to present all viewpoints, even those that make them uncomfortable. We have made that known to Distinguished Practitioners and other leaders at the iSchool — that we need more intensive training in this area,” says Rosenblum.

Effective leadership training is a major emphasis pushed by Distinguished Practitioners. “The iSchool is now focusing on leadership skills and the leadership mindset, which is something we critically need in the librarians we hire,” says Pierce County Library Systems Executive Director Georgia Lomax, who gives the iSchool program an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

“The practitioners are really important in shaping a new generation of library leaders,” says Lomax. “They’re connecting the learning, the philosophy, the ethics, the history, all the foundational pieces of our business to what that looks like in the real world. They really help students be better prepared and more knowledgeable about what it’s going to be like.”

The Distinguished Practitioner in Residence program, funded with a 10-year, $1.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, launched in 2016 with former California State Librarian Susan Hildreth named as the first practitioner. Denmark’s prominent library innovator Rolf Hapel followed. The newest is Cindy Aden, whose travels across the state as the former Washington State Librarian give her a deep working knowledge of even the smallest rural library’s needs.

Over their two-year term, the Distinguished Practitioners share their expertise widely. “They are our outside consultants,” says Rosenblum. “When I want my board to know what is going on in the profession, what the future thinking is, I use the Distinguished Practitioners to talk to them. We sometimes need to hear that big-picture thinking.”

The hard-working Distinguished Practitioners also conduct research related to the future of libraries. Hapel, working off European models for civic engagement, has helped develop a project called “Community Labs,” partnering with the UW’s Center for an Informed Public, the iSchool's Technology and Social Change Group, and the King County Library System. The project will create spaces inside libraries where communities can explore ways to combat misinformation and political bias. “We’re testing what that could look like and feel like,” says Rosenblum.

The Distinguished Practitioner in Residence program is still young, just 4 years old, but it is already changing things up in the library world, making a sizable impact off campus and on. “To bring the practitioners’ level of collegial bridge-building and strategic thinking here has been a real asset to everyone in the school,” says Hunt. “Colleagues sit up differently, listen differently, learn differently, are energized by this new thinker coming into their community.”