Open Thread Thursday: The Skills to Pay the Bills


On Tuesday, Eli Neiburger’s article about ditching reference for IT shot around the online librarian world. So, what are the skillsets that the libraries of the future will require?

Directors and administrative types, what are you looking for in your hires?

Librarians, what did you learn on the job? What did you learn in graduate school that helped?

Library students, what do you think you should be learning about?

This is an open thread, so feel free to ignore my starter questions and name your own topic. (I hear porn in the library is back on the front page again.)

14 thoughts on “Open Thread Thursday: The Skills to Pay the Bills

  1. As a library-tech educator, I put a pretty high value on the meta-skill of learning how to learn. Pedagogically, this means I do less handholding than some tech educators, and assign more difficult independent projects while being rather more lenient on the quality of the final result (not that my students believe me when I say I will be!). Process, not product, with the goal of making students more confident and thus more willing to experiment and self-bootstrap.

    I also explicitly teach a lot of scaffolding skills — how to file a useful bug report, how to troubleshoot, how to use (and survive) web- and email-based support communities, how to read a standard (“don’t if you can possibly avoid it; find a description or primer instead!”), how to handle faily tech so as not to occasion fail with library patrons, etc. etc.

    It seems to work? I get a fair amount of “wow, I never thought I could do that, but look what I did!” from my students. The one obvious drawback is that this approach doesn’t produce a whole lot to put in the “tech skills” portion of a student resume — but I remain unconvinced that the “tech of the week” approach of several intro lib-tech courses I’ve looked at does so either.

    For my next class, I’m overhauling how I teach the few Real Techie Bits that I teach (basic SQL queries and regular expressions, though I’m thinking about adding a touch of MODS to the mix). I’ve heretofore done a single lecture day on ’em, but based on feedback, what I’m going to do instead is little progressive hands-on assignments throughout the semester. I think it’ll work better!

    • If this is who I think this is, I have to say kudos on what was probably the best class I took getting my MLIS. The whole program was fairly theory-heavy but this one tech-y class provided what I’d like to call “stealth theory” – what Dorothea wonderfully calls “learning to learn.” And really, most librarians who come into contact with patrons eventually need to transfer on some of this stealth theory, the reasoning and MacGyver-ing that allows the patron to a) find the answer or b) better communicate their question. So: kudos, Dorothea!

  2. I manage a department of ten librarians and what I’d like to see is student’s coming out of library school with some basic knowledge about “real” teaching and not just demonstrating databases. Understanding the differences between goals and objectives, understanding authentic assessment, active learning.

    But more than that, I’d like to see new librarians with initiative and flexibility. I want my new hires to be go-getters, but I also want them to be able to sit back, observe the culture, and adapt.

    • On the last T is for Training podcast (, there was some talk about instructional training as part of the MLS program like a 1 credit class or internship or something. It’s rolled together with public presentations to library trustees or politicians, but the capability of speaking to a group about a topic is pretty crucial.

      It’s in the same vein as your comment, so I thought it would be a good place to add it in.

      • I agree wholeheartedly about deep knowledge of instruction! I’m a semester out of library school and work as an academic reference librarian – all the job postings I see that I’m interested in seek strong instruction skills – and I’m talking about the “telling-aint-training” kind of skills.

  3. As an MLIS student who has only one more class to complete before graduating in August, and as a library employee (I started a year before beginning my MLIS), I think that the most valuable things I have learned, I have learned through my job. That being said, the MLIS experience has been immensely positive. I’m attending San Jose State online, and the majority of my classes have been much more applied rather than theory-based, which I think is great. Theory is good, and necessary, but I have truly valued being able to apply what I learn one night to my job the next day. The MLIS has also been good for learning more specialized skills like cataloging, which are not part of my job responsibility at the library but may be someday in the future. Learning these things has allowed me to better communicate with my co-workers who perform those jobs.

    Some of the skills that may be overlooked by an MLIS are customer service skills and communication. But many times, these skills come naturally to some people and other people can never learn these skills regardless of how many classes they take or seminars they attend. I’ve gotten a lot of this experience on the job.

  4. As Director of a small/medium sized library (6.5 FTE) – our cusomers need front line staff (and we are all front line staff at some point during the week) who are: comfortable dealing with people; can navigate well in the digital world of circ systems, social media, browsers, apps, wikis, etc; are not afraid to dig and and learn; can troubleshoot a printer/copier problem; and can think on their feet. Oh yes, and know the current crop of bestsellers, sleepers, new titles just in, etc.

    Tall order.. some of this cannot be taught. It’s a mindset.

  5. I have a hybrid job title: I’m a Systems & Instruction librarian. While I don’t have any direct reports, I do have some suggestions for folks w/ traditional library skills who want to expand their skillset outside of their comfort zone.

    First: get some web space and set up your own installation of WordPress or Drupal. WordPress, especially, is relatively simple to get set up and there is a well developed community of people who can support non-technical people in their way to becoming semi-technical people and then full-fledged geeks. Setting up and running WordPress requires one to dip their toes into the world of MySQL, FTP, and using the command line to manage a server. It also offers a training-wheels environment to start learning PHP and CSS.

    The key is not that future librarians will be required to run WordPress or Drupal, rather that the diverse range of tools and troubleshooting skills needed to do this will come in handy in a variety of potential job environments.

    Second: Search Engine Optimization. I’m not suggesting that librarians need to know how to do web marketing. I am suggesting that mastery of both the theory and skills contained in this document: will kick-start any reference/instruction librarian’s skill set. Understanding the difference between searching a controlled set of well organized metadata and searching an uncontrolled set of heterogeneous documents at an architectural level really gives an edge when helping users connect with their information. I like to say that understanding SEO principles is like having a blue sheet for web search. It is that important.

  6. I wonder if advocacy would be a good thing to add to this. That was the one thing I felt very unprepared for after I graduated. I guess frustrated would be a better word, that the rest of the community/campus didn’t seem to understand what I was doing here and what my purpose was. I just expected them to know and when they didn’t, I spent a great deal of time whining about it instead of being proactive. From an academic librarian perspective I would see this as a crucial communication skill in terms of being able to collaborate better with other departments on campus (IT, Distance Learning, etc), especially if your on a campus that’s still trying or needs to move towards a more modern campus library model.

  7. Probably the most valuable course I took in graduate school was one on information seeking behavior. I took it as an elective, but I think it should be a required course for all MLS programs. Right now, I have responsibilities as a cataloger, reference librarian, web designer, and digital resourses manager, and understanding how people go about looking for information is an important part of all these different aspects of my job. Meanwhile, many of the hard skills I learned in library school (less than 10 years ago) are pretty much obsolete.

  8. Like Marleah, I worked in a public library for almost a year before beginning the MLIS program. I found a calling: I love working with patrons, teaching them new ways to search for and find information, connecting them with books, chatting with them on their good & bad days. Thus, if it is a public library setting, I think quality customer service is and should remain a top priority.

    I graduate in three weeks and, again like Marleah, I have found that the majority of my courses at SJSU have been applied skills rather than theory. I think the biggest plus of my MLIS education was that I was working in a library for the majority of the time (I was laid-off last Nov. due to budget cuts). This allowed me to take what I was learning and immediately put it into practice at my job. If I am offering advice to new students, it would be to work or volunteer while attending school so that you at least see the skills in use if not use them yourself.

    Again, for public librarians, I think my most valuable classes were Readers’ Advisory for adults and then a 2nd class for teens. This is a skill that is not (yet?) available through a web search. Yes, read-alike lists can be found but this is a personalized service that is built over time. The best RA happens when a librarian gets to know the patron and her/his likes & dislikes.

    Thank you, Andy, for a thought-provoking post. I am reading the comments with interest – and tweaking my resume accordingly!

    • Thanks for your comment, Jennifer! I rely on read-alike lists because my fiction chops aren’t really great. I’m more of a non-fiction person. But I will say that over time I’ve gotten to know which authors are generally associated with others, so it’s been a learning process.

  9. While the mad skills at the desk for which librarians are famous are obviously necessary, I’d like to re-emphasize the importance of people skills. It goes beyond being pleasant, efficient, or good at crowd control …
    Librarians can be as big on advocacy as they want to be, and can sell the public on how great their services are, but a patron who views the library as inconvenient, bothersome, or scary is a patron who will not come back. How do I know this? Maybe I am a bit tougher on what I expect out of my fellow librarians, but I refuse to go to my hometown library nowadays based on multiple experiences of bad service and worse attitudes. I buy my books now. Or borrow from friends. Period.
    I know it is hard to achieve such perfection and harmony when dealing with different people on a day to day basis (coworkers included) but remember: People who get bad service at a fast food joint simply start going to the one down the road. When you have only 1 library available in your town, what happens? Does it keep us from developing young readers, or good researchers? Do the robots win?
    And I do believe becoming a people person is learned just as you might learn cataloging, or IT skills. Just don’t learn it the hard way.

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