A new School of Information Studies (iSchool) initiative is serving as a discovery zone for public library innovation, a hub for student inquiry on librarianship topics, and a means to circulate new ideas and research findings to public library professionals.

The newly established “iSchool Public Libraries Initiative,” (IPLI) led by Associate Professor of Practice Jill Hurst-Wahl as director, has several key purposes. She says it creates an intellectual home for iSchool faculty and students who want to research public library topics and apply the knowledge they discover. Secondly, the initiative offers iSchool master’s-degree Library Information Science (MSLIS) students and others a faculty-supported research hub focused on topics in their field. In a third vein, students and faculty are helping public libraries build added capacity for innovation by sharing the information research projects uncover.

Ideas Are Welcome

At a time when public libraries face mounting operational and community-support challenges, ideas on how to innovate new offerings are most welcome, according to Hurst-Wahl. “Public library staff often lack time and resources, and consequently they may make decisions with a limited amount of information. Many times, especially with smaller libraries, they don’t have the luxury of sitting around and doing deep thinking about what they can offer. I felt that a group of researchers could provide better information and distribute it so that it is available to libraries, providing information about projects and programs that are in use and that are successful.”

The initiative’s goals include:

  • Researching the state of public libraries and their communities, with a focus on information needed by decision-makers and advocates
  • Compiling and disseminating information about how libraries are innovating, helping them build their capacity to do so
  • Applying iSchool research (such as issues about information privacy and the use of technology in marginalized communities) to the public library setting
  • Developing white papers, trade and scholarly articles, webinars, and presentations on innovation for the public library community’s use
  • Offering classes and professional development programming for library staff, administration and trustees on various topics, including collecting and using data to support public library activities.

Student Projects Underway

Two iSchool MSLIS students are each working 20 hours a week there as research assistants through Wilhelm Library Leadership Award scholar funds, and they have several projects underway.  

Heather Elia’s main focus is a national survey of innovative public library programs, especially those that don’t involve books and that are conducted outside of the library building. She’s scouring news articles, library newsletters, academic journals, conference agendas and other sources to source ideas that have been tried, tested and importantly, documented so that others can reproduce them.

Elia and first-year MSLIS student Sabrina Unrein also are working with EveryLibrary Institute, the non-profit research arm of the EveryLibrary, a national organization dedicated to building voter support for libraries. They have obtained information from state libraries and library associations across the United States about the array of legal (governance) structures public libraries use, and are producing a catalog of those models. That information will be used to help libraries understand which legal structures have more stable funding and better funding increases over time. 

A third effort, now in the literature-review phase, looks at the creative ways libraries are supporting the health and wellness needs of their communities, from providing information to hiring nurses and social workers on the library staff. Unrein, who has experience as a web developer, also is designing content and a web presence for the initiative and looking at ways to distribute project findings.  

The IPLI also has several other projects under consideration and is in discussion with potential collaborators.

Student-Led Agenda

Hurst-Wahl says the Initiative is designed to let students lead the research agenda. “I’m really empowering them to look at this as ‘our’ research and not just ‘my’ research, permitting them to tackle the subjects that are of interest to them, then having them figure out the ways they want to push out what they’re learning.”

Both Elia and Unrein are happy to be involved in the startup effort of the governance model project. “I would have expected something like this would have already existed, so it’s filling a big gap in resources,” Unrein reflects. “Anything to make public libraries better is a good thing. I’m looking forward to seeing what shape it takes because it’s so new, and it can go anywhere and that’s exciting.”

Elia says the initiative is widening her professional scope at a good time, just before she begins work in the library field. “I want to go into public librarianship. I think it’s important that there’s a way for public libraries to share with each other and I’m hoping that’s what this will be. Most people may only have opportunity to get to know one public library. With this initiative, we get to know a lot of different things about a lot of different libraries, and that’s only going to make the experience richer and give me a broader perspective.”