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.