The Basic Skills of All Librarians

In response to my last post, someone asked me “what are the basic skills that all librarians should have, if any?” There are several possible responses to that. The evasive response would be that if library schools can’t seem to figure out that question, the I certainly won’t be able to do so. However, I find that I can’t answer the question as it’s phrased because it needs more clarification. The phrase “basic skills” is deceptively simple, yet I think it can cover at least two different meanings which both determine how one might respond and lead to confusion and disagreement where perhaps none exists. Both basic and skills need some clarification. So here goes.

Basic in the phrase “basic skills of all librarians” can mean either 1) a basic set of skills that all librarians should have, or 2) a set of skills that all librarians should have at a basic level. I might disagree with either interpretation, although I agree with Lane Wilkinson’s argument in response to my last post that there are probably sets of skills that all libraries should have available. Though I might disagree with either interpretation, I’m more open to the second interpretation, which means we have to define what we mean by skills.

As with basic, there are at least two different meanings of skills at play here, a hard sense and a soft sense. In the hard sense, to have a skill means to be able to do something, it means knowing how and not just knowing that. In the soft sense, it means something more like knowing that, or knowing a bit about, or even being aware of. For example, let’s take a skill common in and essential to academic libraries: cataloging. To have cataloging skill in the hard sense, one must be able to catalog materials with some proficiency and efficiency. Cataloging in the hard sense is a skill developed over time and presumably improved over time. Cataloging as a skill in the soft sense means something like knowing how catalogs work, being aware of minimal cataloging standards, or something along those lines. It’s the kind of knowledge of cataloging that, say, reference librarians would need to get the most of of searching OPACs.

We can also interpret coding as a skill in a hard or soft sense. By coding as a skill, we can mean that the person is fully capable of efficiently and proficiently writing code to develop some digital object, OR we can mean that the person is aware of the basics of coding. For example, I couldn’t just sit down and start writing code of any kind. However, I know how code works and generally what it does. My last post mentioned html, and I know a bit of that as well. Just yesterday I had to go into the html of a website I was making and adjust the html because there were some problems with the margins that the editor wasn’t fixing right. I couldn’t write it, but I knew what to look for, I spotted the problem, and I fixed it. Does that mean I have “skill”? I usually interpret skill in the hard sense, so I’d say no. I do a lot of things well. That’s not one of them. Someone totally unfamiliar with how any code or markup language works might say yes.

With these distinctions in mind, let’s break “basic skills of all librarians” into two phrases: 1)  Basic Set of Skills of All Librarians, and 2) Basic Skills of All Librarians. Let’s interpret the first phrase in the hard sense, that is, a basic set of skills (in the hard sense) that all librarians should have. This means that all librarians should have these skills, and they can actually employ them usefully, efficiently, and proficiently. Let’s interpret the second phrase in the softer sense, meaning that there are some number of things that all librarians should have at least a basic minimal knowledge about. As for coding, personally I don’t have skill in the first sense, but I do in the second.

We can apply these distinction to the initial question. Now, are we asking (in my terms) “What basic set of skills should all librarians have?” in the hard sense, or are we asking “What are some basic-level skills of all librarian?” in the soft sense? Our answers might still differ, but at least we’re clearer on what we’re talking about.

Answering the first question, I’d have to say “none.” I can’t think of any library-specific skills (in the hard sense) that all librarians should have, while again agreeing that there are skills that all libraries should probably have. No library operates on this principle, and the larger the library the more specialized the skills get. In smaller libraries, librarians might need minimal proficiency in a larger number of skills, but no one will achieve complete proficiency (skill in the hard sense) in everything necessary to run a library. There’s neither the time nor the necessity. If that’s what people mean when they say “every librarian needs to learn coding,” then it’s very easy to point out the fact that every library in existence gets on without all the librarians having this skill (in the hard sense).

If instead we’re asking “what are some skills or knowledges that librarians should have or be aware of in at least a minimal sense?”, then my answer might change. I would still be very reluctant to claim that there were too many skills in the soft sense that all librarians should have. The world of librarianship is too complicated and diverse for there to be many. I might include things like knowing how catalogs and databases work, understanding the role of libraries in the support of students and faculty, or some other very general things. Regardless, it’s this second question that I think is the most useful one to discuss. Coding might be a good candidate for inclusion in that list, but only if we’re clear on what we mean by basic, skills, and even coding. I’d still say no, but I’m much more likely to be persuaded by others if this is the sense we mean.

12 thoughts on “The Basic Skills of All Librarians

  1. Excellent post, as always. You definitely wear your Enlightenment sensibilities on your sleeve (“Definissez vos termes ou nous ne nous entendrons”).

    Listing necessary and sufficient skill-sets for librarianship is a fools errand, as I’m sure you’ll agree, and to me it smacks of misguided essentialism. Instead, I think we ought to be discussing librarianship in purely functional terms. It’s about what we *do* rather than any specific, jointly sufficient concatenation of necessary conditions for being a librarian. Skills like proficiency with jQuery and the ability to parse MARC records are historically and culturally contingent, whereas a function like facilitating access to an organized (and/or curated) collection of information is trans-historical and universal (if that’s even what we do).

    • Thanks, Lane. And yes, I’m very reluctant to list any skills essential for all librarians. I think it’s asking the wrong question completely. First there was an implication that my way of thinking is somehow related to an alleged disappearance of library jobs, but I didn’t understand the connection.

      I’ve gotten into enough scuffles around library technology issues that I now want everyone involved to be very clear about what we’re talking about before beginning the discussion. I still remember with some amusement when I was accused of being some archaic luddite driving the profession to extinction because I don’t use Twitter, or something like that.

      On the other hand, after a consultation with a student this morning, I have discovered one tech skill that all librarians should have: the ability to use Crtl (or Cmd)-F to search through digital documents. On that at least I think we can all agree.

  2. Great post! I have found the knowing and practicing great customer service skills are a must. Letting your patrons know you are there for them is so important and simple. Some time a smile can make a difference in a patron interaction and it is something I see librarians not doing.

    • For public services librarians this is certainly important. It fits in with what I argued in an article about imagination, sympathy, and the user experience, that just putting ourselves in the place of the library user and thinking what we look like to them would improve their experience a lot.

  3. Hi. Appreciate the reply, especially one that is really thoughtful.

    However, I guess I just really disagree.
    Yes, libraries have various needs. And MLIS programs are not preparing people to address those needs. This is really not new nor is it unique to libraries. My friends who are teachers say the same thing about their education degrees, as do my friends who have CS degrees, and accountants, engineers, etc. Higher education really only provides job training to people who become professors…I think everyone over the age of 20 would agree with this.

    But, I feel that the MLIS degree is in more danger than most because it seems we can’t even come up with this common skill set. I just think having this baseline is generally one of the things that separates a professional degree from an academic one.

    Libraries have needs. And I would like to see librarians be the ones to address those needs. But too often, the profession seems to fetishize things that don’t have real value. Yes, we love our patrons and it’s our burning desire to support them, but love is cheap and there’s people with even more impressive degrees then ours waiting in the wings. Values and theory are nice, but what have you done for us lately? We need to go to the gym. It’s a potluck and we need to start bring something other than our charming personalities…
    We are not academics, we are information custodians…and custodian is just a fancy word for janitor. We need to start getting dirty.

    Or not.

    • Hm. Sorry, realised I got really vague and cutesy in that last paragraph.

      All I’m saying is, I think we really need to critically look at our identity. Most librarians will not be academics, so we should focus on exposing and encouraging people to develop professional skills. Focusing on subject qualities of librarianship makes the decision not to hire librarians easier for administrators, not harder….

    • fitz, I don’t mind ending in disagreement, although I’m not sure exactly what we’re disagreeing about at this point. If it’s that all librarians need to learn to code proficiently, then I’ve yet to see an argument that could begin to prove that. If it’s that there should be a common skill set among all librarians, that’s more plausible, but I don’t know exactly what that would be. You say that not all librarians become academics, but I write primarily for academic librarians. Contrast someone who is a subject specialist at a large research library with someone who is a children’s librarian at a suburban public library. What skills or knowledge would be common to those two librarians? Relatively few.

      I think the desire to find a common set of skills/knowledge/etc. for ALL librarians is motivated by a false idea that there is some essential unifying attribute of ALL libraries, the libraryness of the library. Libraries are incredibly varied. Even academic libraries are varied, but when we throw public, school, corporate, law, and other special libraries into the mix, not to mention the bewildering variety of archives often associated with these libraries, what unifying attribute is there? What library school curriculum could prepare every student to be equally effective for every necessary skill in every possible library setting? Why would we even bother, given the division of labor in every workplace?

      Anyway, again, it would help if I knew precisely what we’re disagreeing about and how you think I’ve gone wrong in my thinking.

  4. I’ve always worked in small libraries,where I was responsible for everything from ILL to book repair to cataloging to reference to promoting reading to programming to–well, you get it. I’ve worked at academic libraries and high school libraries (baby academics) and in virtual reference. I’ve found that every single stupid boring class I ever took, whether in cataloging (yuck, but more fun when you actually need it) to selection (essential) was useful. Specialization was emphasized in library school, but in my life generalization has been critical. There isn’t always division of labor, and then there’s the single most useful thing I learned in grad school, from a guest lecturer in a management class who told us that as a manager, you have to know how to do everything that your subordinates do in their jobs. You don’t have to do it as well as they do, but you can’t manage them effectively unless you know what it is that they do. But hey, I’m not a bricks-and-mortar librarian any more–I only live online.

    • Very small libraries are definitely an exception, although I still don’t think that a single librarian can learn to do all the necessary functions of a library as well as a diverse staff. There’s also usually not a need to specialized even if there were time. When I worked at a small college library, I definitely did things that were outside my education and training. I didn’t do them particularly well, but someone had to do them.

  5. I enjoyed your analysis of the question and the scope and various perspectives it brought to light. How about this: If you had to design a librarian education program what would you include in the required core courses of Essential Librarian Skills 101 and 201? Take the perspective these people will be showing up at your library to help you out and work during your vacations.

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