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Talking with David Shumaker About Mentoring Librarians

Dana Weber, Elsevier | July 01, 2010

David Shumaker, a clinical associate professor and the director of the Information Commons at the School of Library and Information Science at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, won SLA’s 2009 Vormelker Award for mentoring library and information science students. As this issue’s theme is “Supporting Early Career Researchers,” we’ve asked David to share some comments about his work and any wisdom he may have for information professionals in the early stages of their careers.

Dana Weber: What sparked your passion for mentoring library and information science students?

David Shumaker: What sparked it and what sustains it are different. Initially, I began teaching as an adjunct faculty member while still working as an information manager in my “day job.” I started teaching and mentoring because I enjoyed the challenge of trying something new and I thought it would be a way to have an influence on the profession. After I retired from my day job and took on teaching full time, my understanding of teaching deepened and my mentoring ability and confidence benefited. Now I keep mentoring because I enjoy helping students and new professionals clarify their goals and achieve them, and because I always learn from the folks I mentor.

Did you have a mentor early on in your career?
No, I never had a mentor in any formal or intentional sense. Maybe I should have! But early in my career I did have the privilege of working with senior people who encouraged me. I’m especially grateful to some of my library school professors at Drexel, and to my boss and other leaders at the Library of Congress' National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Later on, I found colleagues in the Special Libraries Association (SLA) whose wisdom and support were invaluable. Since I’ve joined Catholic University’s faculty full time, my colleagues have helped me adapt to the academic world.

What do you hope to pass on to new librarians and information professionals?
I like to remind younger students that some of them will be professionally active in 40, or even 50, years from now. I believe, along with Alan Kay, that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” So the best thing I can do is help young LIS professionals develop the competencies they’ll need as they go forth to invent the future. Sure, a part of librarianship doesn’t change; this enduring foundation includes values, ethics, fundamental principles of working with other people, and fundamental aspects of the nature of information. But part of the profession is changing dramatically, including our tools and the social context in which we work. Upcoming LIS professionals need to master both as they invent the future for librarianship.

Please, can you tell us about the Information Commons, the collaborative space you've helped steward at Catholic University?
Just as the Information Commons was ready to roll out in 2006, I took over responsibility for it from our school’s former dean Martha Hale. My job has been to promote it and put it to good use. It’s a flexible space, which students and faculty use for individual work, collaboration, meetings or just hanging out. We also share it with local professional groups. The Commons is an important part of our overall strategy to foster close connections among students, faculty and information professionals.

Besides via the Information Commons, how is your school helping LIS students build relationships?
We offer Information Colloquia featuring presentations by prominent LIS leaders. Presentations by key figures from public libraries as well as the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center and the World Digital Library have attracted good turnouts. By the way, the Colloquia aren’t just for our students. We actively publicize them to the professional community as well, as part of our school’s mission is to foster connections. We’ve started webcasting them too.

Why is it so important for early LIS professionals to share information and build relationships?
Complexity is a key reason why information sharing and relationship building are important. The tasks we confront every day require skills and knowledge that no single person can possess. That’s why we need to learn from one another and work in teams. Future librarians will spend a lot of time working in multidisciplinary, diverse teams — a context demanding professional ability and social intelligence.

To someone just beginning a career as an information professional, what encouragement can you offer?
Our skills are ever more critical to success in every sphere: the corporate world; primary, secondary and higher education; and the public arena. So, for the librarian who’s well prepared and ready to engage with a community, the opportunities are huge and the future is bright.

We are in a tough economy right now, and there’s a considerable amount of fear around. But we were in similar times back in the ‘70s, when I entered the profession, and somehow we have managed to prosper. That’s because of this fundamental and enduring fact: The world desperately needs more librarians.