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Checking out the future

Forget dusty book stacks. Tomorrow’s librarians are all about tech.

Mary LaBombard of Quincy working during a class at Simmons College’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Mary LaBombard of Quincy working during a class at Simmons College’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / April 16, 2011

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L ibrary science used to be the realm of career changers. Bookish types, having put in some years in the work world, would enroll in a graduate program with dreams of one day making a living surrounded by the noble hush of book stacks, card catalogs, and shelf upon shelf of reference tomes.

Not so today. “More people today are coming straight out of college,’’ says Michèle Cloonan, dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. “The students are younger. Ten years ago, the vast majority of them had worked before coming here.’’

Tomorrow’s librarians face a two-year graduate school curriculum freighted with technology courses that didn’t exist 10 years ago, courses that will likely be replaced by others within a year or two. The future of libraries is a constantly evolving digital landscape, and technical literacy, as it is in so many other fields, is absolutely essential to find a job in a brutal job market.

“Get as many technology skills as you can,’’ advises Jamie Cantoni, 26, of Cornwall, Conn., who’s in her final semester at GSLIS and has already been out in the job market. “What’s most shocking is when you go to apply for jobs how much they value strong technology skills. A master’s in library science is not enough to get a job anymore. You need a second master’s.’’

That’s precisely what Meghan Poepping, 26, is doing. The Minneapolis native is pursuing a three-year program that includes a masters in Archive Management and another in English and Irish history at Simmons. Fall freshmen in the archive program, which trains students to curate collections of historical material, has almost tripled since the 2001-02 academic year, making it the fastest-growing program at the school.

“I got a B.A. in history,’’ explains Poepping, who spent two years working in an accountant’s office after college. “I loved it, but I didn’t want to teach. A friend was going into library school and talked about archives. It’s a perfect blend for me — history and making information accessible to people. Archives can come across as a very secluded job, but contact with people is very important to me.’’

GSLIS students can choose between two concentrations — Archives Management and the School Library Teacher Program — or remain generalists, which is what the majority of them do. They focus on careers as reference or catalog librarians, and Web masters, among other specialties.

While the core mission of librarians hasn’t changed — they are still committed to provide information to patrons who need it, wherever they are — most everything else has. (The gender split has stayed even. Women comprise 80 percent and men 20 percent of the student body.)

“What has changed is that the environment in which we create, use and disseminate information has grown,’’ says Cloonan. “We have to cater to people we may never see and provide 24/7 services.’’

And make sure that information is preserved, even as technology evolves.

“I teach preservation, and we need to make sure we keep information in digital form into the future,’’ says veteran library science teacher Ross Harvey. “It’s a new way of thinking. Think about the kind of information that people in the future will want access to, like digital photographs in jpeg. What guarantee is there that 100 years from now people will understand that file format?’’

The emphasis on technology begins early at the GSLIS. Every student must create a website and wiki page within the first six weeks. They cannot continue their studies until they complete these projects.

Linnea Johnson, manager of technology at GSLIS, also teaches the required hard-core course, Information for Technology for Information Professionals.

“It’s a confidence thing,’’ she says about technology literacy. “You can be overwhelmed by technology. We want our students to be able to talk comfortably about systems and talk to server and data base vendors.’’

Five times a semester, Johnson takes her students across the hall to the school’s technology lab, where they work in groups doing research, networking, writing code, and exploring IP addresses, ports, and scanning.

One memorable event is the “PC autopsy’’ on the “corpse’’ of a dead computer that Johnson requires all of her students to complete. This means taking the machine apart. In groups of two or three, they disassemble it, taking out everything — from the hard drive to the memory card to the central processing unit.

“I want them to have the attitude they can jump right in and try a few things on their own to see if they can pinpoint where the problem is,’’ says Johnson.’’ The real challenge comes at the end where they have to put it back together again.’’

Conor Cote, 23, loved the experience, but then he loves puzzles of all stripes. “We’ve put the computer on a pedestal, but we’ve never seen the inside of one,’’ says the first-semester student from Billings, Mont. “It’s an expensive piece, but it’s just a machine. We learned how these things are all connected.’’

Starting out with an archives concentration, Cote could easily change to become a systems librarian, a job not for the faint of heart. A systems librarian is in charge of all technology in an institution and tasked with keeping all of it functioning and up to date.

Along with tech skills, the more practical experience a student can get the better. Jason Homer 24, who is in final semester, maintains part-time jobs at the Middleborough Public Library and the Regis College Library while in school. He keeps up with the changing technology as best he can.

“It changes so often that some of what was new two years ago has already moved on,’’ he says. “I get the newest information by following the American Library Association and read its posts every day. “It’s like law school,’’ he adds, laughing. “You work hard to learn all you can and then it’s pretty much worthless when you start working.’’

Homer majored in English at Stonehill College, and like many students, didn’t know what he was going to do when he graduated. “I didn’t want to teach, but I started thinking about how to teach others without being in the education system. I applied here and got in.’’ His current plan is to work in a medical library.

“It’s different from any other library,’’ he explains. “It’s the only time in a librarian’s career when a life is on the line. ‘Can they use this different drug in their trials? No, someone took it 50 years ago and died.’ But anything digital is interesting. It’s hard to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life.’’

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.