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A catalog of needs

INFORMATION AGE America is facing a librarian shortage -- from school librarians to library directors to library school faculty.

There's a debate over how big the shortage will be and when its impact will be felt. But the American Library Association estimates that 47 percent of librarians will reach retirement age by 2008. Some of these baby boom librarians will work past retirement age. Others who retire won't be replaced. But there clearly will be a hole in library leadership.

The country needs a new generation of top-level librarians who can navigate and chart the world's rapidly spreading seas of information. Dreams of a transparent, participatory democracy cannot be fulfilled without librarians who meet existing needs and anticipate demand. Future leaders have to keep an eye on lingering low-tech needs, such as adult literacy programs, as well as the rapid, continuing changes in information technology. And in the face of wars and natural disasters, library leaders can help defend against the damage and destruction of the materials that record human knowledge.

The librarian shortage got attention in 2002, when Laura Bush announced a major federal investment in recruiting more librarians. Since then, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal grant-making agency, has distributed millions in grant money to recruit and educate a new generation of librarians.

Unfortunately, the solution isn't as simple as hiring new talent, because entry-level library jobs can still be hard to come by. The field needs bridges that help mid-tier librarians move into leadership. This means managing the complex, fast-moving world of 24-hour-a-day demands for information, from sheer facts to deep understanding.

To fill the need, the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College will use a $787,000 grant to start a new PhD program in management leadership. The grant comes from the institute's Librarians for the 21st Century initiative, which recently distributed a total of $21 million in grants for librarian education to 37 of the nation's universities, libraries, and library organizations.

Simmons is setting up an advisory board to design its PhD program. The goal is to create a cutting-edge, flexibly scheduled program that meets the needs of working professionals. It's a new approach, according to Michele Cloonan, dean of the library graduate school, who says library career advancement courses are typically offered in summer institutes sponsored by universities.

The challenge is to provide training that gives the pleasantly familiar job title ''librarian" a new, high-tech, international dimension.

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