State law for decades has placed the director of Hennepin County's massive library system on the top shelf.

Lawmakers decided nearly 40 years ago that Hennepin should be the state's only county where applicants for the top library job needed a master's degree in library and information science.

But recent efforts to recruit a new Hennepin library director found the law resulted in a limited pool of candidates with little diversity.

So county officials asked legislators to strike the requirement and it passed with little controversy, save for objections from a group of librarians who feared the change would undercut the profession.

Their concerns were based on the demands visited upon the head of a large government department who oversees 41 branch libraries, 835 employees and an $88 million budget.

"We are not trying to take away the importance of the degree," said Hennepin County Chief Human Resources Officer Michael Rossman. "But we felt very strongly, in the long run, that we want to find the best leader whether or not they have the degree."

Hennepin County launched an extensive national search for an executive director, a position that Rossman compared to the head of a large company. A screening group of county administrators, library board members and Friends of the Library officials came up with a list of several candidates. But officials weren't comfortable hiring any of them, and the search continues.

"We are trying to break down real or perceived barriers that might keep the best applicants from these positions," Rossman said. "These type of barriers can stop people of color and diversity from ever getting a chance to interview."

The law eliminating the degree requirement says that applicants should be qualified by education and that preference would be given to candidates with library experience.

An uncommon standard

In Minnesota, only St. Catherine University in St. Paul offers a master's degree in library and information science accredited by the American Library Association (ALA), the degree required under the old statute. St. Catherine has 125 students enrolled in the program.

A Hennepin County study showed that very few metro library systems demand a master's degree in library science for its leaders, including St. Paul and the Minneapolis system before it merged with Hennepin County. The ALA does require the degree for its executive director, though it considered dropping that mandate last year.

Kirsten Clark, president of the Minnesota Library Association, said her group didn't take a stand on the statute change. However, it did issue a statement that it was concerned the proposed change was introduced without checking with Hennepin County Library staffers, and went on to affirm the value of a degree from an ALA-accredited graduate school.

The degree requirement for the Hennepin County Library system was passed by the Legislature in 1981. Nobody seems to remember the reason for the standard, which is uncommon for U.S. library systems. The degree requirement has been debated for years, said Maureen Hartman, deputy director with the St. Paul Public Library.

Rep. Mark Freiberg, D-Golden Valley, chief author of this year's bill removing the requirement, said such a statute specific to Hennepin County "seemed a little weird." The executive director of a library, he said, isn't someone who would be shelving books; the job could be done equally well by someone with a master's in public administration or human resources.

"It should be up to the county to determine the qualifications and not have the Legislature micromanage them," Freiberg said. "I heard from several librarians, including one who is a legislator, and they understood the reasons. But I'm not sure it's a universal sentiment among librarians."

Rossman said he heard about pushback mainly from librarians who work in the Hennepin County system. Five members of AFSCME (which represents library staffers) testified against the change, arguing that changes in qualifications would hurt their business. Many of the library's senior managers have a master's in library science and the county doesn't plan to drop the graduate degree requirement for those positions, he said.

"We have promoted great directors from within the system and have great leaders now," said Rossman. "We thought about not rocking the boat if we didn't need to, but we wanted to maintain the county's values."