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Librarians changing image from shushers and book shelvers

Hattiesburg — It’s up to the University of Southern Mississippi to produce librarians for Mississippi. As the state’s only library science program that’s accredited by the American Library Association, it can’t keep up with the demand.

“There’s no state in the union that’s not looking for librarians,” said the director, Dr. Melanie J. Norton. “Our people are sought all over and can get jobs anywhere as long as they can articulate their ability.”

She says neighboring Alabama steals a lot of Southern Miss graduates, and she knows of others working in Alaska, Arkansas, California and Texas. Most graduates work in school library media centers but they also work in community, public and private libraries and in archives and museums. One grad is working in former President Bill Clinton’s library.

“In the library field we’re managing information. It’s an information economy, and our graduates will go out to manage people, resources and information,” Norton said. “For instance, library graduates work in law, medical and corporate libraries and do things like manage geological information for oil companies. We do many things and it’s possible to become specialized.”

Although the school of library science’s enrollment has increased 235% between 2001 and 2004, there are only 45 students in the undergraduate program. The director believes the shortage is due to a lack of knowledge about what librarians do and to the old stereotypical image.

“People don’t know what a great, exciting career the field is, and they still see us as little ole ladies with sensible shoes and buns and as someone who shushes,” she said. “That prevents people from being interested.”

That old image was discussed a lot at the recent Mississippi Library Conference. Norton feels more students would enter the field if they knew the range of things librarians do. She wants to change this misconception about a hard working profession.

“We do everything. We provide services to communities, pay attention to laws, organize complex information, manage budgets and must be politically savvy,” she said. “The competition is great for those librarians who classify computer languages, set up online catalogues and design systems.”

The need for librarians grows as the world becomes more complex and full of more information. “Librarians are doing more business than ever,” Norton says. “There’s a need for all this information to be organized. The Internet is full of stuff but it’s not organized or checked for reliability.”
She often hears the comment, “Why do you need a degree to shelve books?” and believes that thinking shortchanges the profession. Libraries often serve as community centers and provide educational services for people without resources.

“At the first level of library science, we try to make the students problem solvers,” Norton said. “It’s a mistake to think we’re not ‘people’ people.”

A master’s degree in library science is often a second degree for a teacher or business person. The director says graduate students do not have to have undergraduate degrees in library science.

“They’re not all English majors either,” she said. “They come from very diverse backgrounds — political science, history, paralegal. Sometimes it’s someone who wants to learn about managing museums and archives.”

The field is still 95% female, and Norton says she would like to have more males enter. She feels the profession opens many doors and has the opportunity to significantly impact society. “Librarians are cross-educators and teach students how to use technology,” she said. “They may help the next Einstein or someone who will find a cure for cancer.”

The Southern Miss program has seven professors, including Norton, and will add one more. General degrees offered include: BA with library science major; master’s in library science; and dual master’s in library science and anthropology; library science and history and library science and political science. School library media programs include: BA with library science major; endorsement for certification A license and master’s for school library-media specialists; specialist in library and information science; and specialist’s with emphasis in school library media specialist at the AAA level.

If she could do two things to help the profession and increase the number of students entering this field, Norton says it would be to provide more funding and change the image.

“There is a need for more funding so we can offer more to the students but an image change is the best thing we can do overall to help the profession,” she said. “It’s fundamental to the maintenance of democracy and provides a product the public needs.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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