While people of a variety of educational backgrounds practice the tasks of librarianship, master’s level library education traditionally distinguishes professional librarians from other library workers. The MLIS and equivalent degrees are intended to prepare students to be not just practicing librarians, but professionals—future leaders and community anchors in the library world. In the 21st century, these future leaders increasingly require new skill sets beyond what has been traditionally taught in master’s level library education programs.  A recent report on the future of MLIS education notes an increasing need to foster graduates that are collaborative, creative, socially innovative, flexible, and adaptable problem solvers. The Aspen Institute’s recent report on the future of public libraries emphasizes the need for libraries to foster new organizational cultures that emphasize innovation.

Design thinking helps leaders in other fields achieve these characteristics through a unique, problem-centered, iterative approach. Although the specific verbiage varies, design thinking approaches generally consist of four major phases: an investigative phase, wherein a problem is defined and understood; a planning phase, where ideas are generated; a development phase, where products or artifacts are actually created; and an evaluative phase, intended to assess the product. These phases are not linear, but form an iterative cycle, allowing constant reflection and improvement.

A basic representation of the design thinking process, including the various terminology used in different sources
A basic representation of the design thinking process, including the various terminology used in different sources

All of these phases play a role in fostering 21st century leadership skills. The investigative phase establishes a problem-solving mindset by identifying patterns, clearly identifying and articulating issues and goals, and emphasizing empathetic understanding of users and customers by seeing things from their perspective. The planning phase, in which many possible solutions are brainstormed, encourages collaboration and innovation. Because design thinking emphasizes multiple approaches to solving a problem, it generates more—and more innovative—solutions. The development phase encourages creativity in the most literal sense, through the creation of problem solutions, but also encourages adaptation and flexibility, as designers find themselves navigating constraints and restraints. The evaluative phase pushes leaders to communicate value clearly, and feeds back into investigation for continued improvement.

Design thinking has generated tremendous traction in industry, where it has been applied to more than just the looks and usability of physical products. Businesses such as Proctor and Gamble, Kaiser Permanente and Costco have applied design thinking to strategic planning, business models, and organizational structures and processes. These organizations that have embraced design thinking and methods have been shown to do better financially than their less design-conscious competitors. Although libraries are not businesses, professional library managers and leaders also support strategic planning, organizational processes, and the creation of tools and services for library users and patrons. Design thinking is a natural approach to these tasks, and indeed, some libraries are increasingly drawing on design thinking and methods to help inform their practice.

While these tools are certainly useful, current efforts in this space are siloed: they occur independent of one another and lack a systematic, field-wide approach. Librarians are not formally educated in design principles and methods or taught to consider their work as a form of design. As the future of librarianship progressively hinges on reimagining the profession in a design mindset, education for this perspective needs to be systematically included in formal education. We posit that educational opportunities informed by design can support library professionals’ mastery of decision-making and problem-solving skills to improve their ability to address community needs. This National Forum brings together stakeholders from library practice, master’s level library education, design education and design professionals to discuss strategies, suggestions, and actionable recommendations for ways these needs can be addressed systematically in formal library education.