Around Tappan Square

Diversifying the Library Field
Student interns turn around a troubling trend.

by Matthew Green ’02
photos by Megan Colletta ’03

As a high school student, Becky Thompson ’03 equated librarians with “old spinsters.” So when her career counselor revealed that Thompson matched the profile of a librarian to a T, she wasn’t exactly ecstatic.

“That’s not me,” she recalls thinking. “But all of my career-interest surveys pointed to librarian.”

Years later, Thompson has finally accepted the prophecy. As one of six student participants in Oberlin’s year-old library internship program, she is enthusiastically learning the complex science of librarianship and helping to reverse a troubling national trend.

Recent statistics indicate that the supply of trained librarians in our country has plummeted and that the profession is struggling to meet future demands due to a high retirement rate and the closing of several U.S. graduate programs. At Oberlin, the Library Diversity Intern Program is helping to recruit students into the field—particularly those from diverse cultural backgrounds. Coordinators here are hoping that other undergraduate programs will follow suit.

Beginning with the spring semester of their junior year, Oberlin’s paid interns are exposed to the multi-faceted nature of librarianship through lectures, visits to other libraries, and on-site training. They remain on campus over the summer, working intensively with librarian mentors on independent projects that extend into the fall. As seniors, they wrap up their internship with off-campus winter-term projects hosted by alumni—more than 600 alums work in the field. And upon graduation, they can count on library staff members to lend job-searching support and help with graduate school applications. The program is funded by a $140,000 federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

“This is a contribution that Oberlin is making to a profession that desperately needs it,” says Haipeng Li, reference librarian and co-director and founder of the program.

“There’s a growing crisis in terms of a national supply of librarians. It’s not the kind of profession that is readily visible to the public,” adds Ray English, director of libraries and co-director of LDP. “In some ways Oberlin is uniquely positioned for a program like this because of the school’s diverse history.”

The internship program in part helped Oberlin land the 2002 Excellence in Academic Libraries Award in the college library division from the Association of College and Research Libraries and Blackwell’s Book Services. The selection committee especially saluted Oberlin for its model programs aimed at recruiting students into the profession.

The library staff is equally pleased. According to English, three of the six students who completed the program’s inaugural year have expressed strong interests in pursuing librarianship as a career. “That’s a good outcome,” he says.

back to top