An Essential Skill for All Librarians

If I can’t beat the gurus, sherpas, and assorted sages, I’m going to join them. Today I’m going to tell you, fellow librarians, the most basic, core skill that all of you need, more important than coding, cataloging, database searching, or anything else. It’s a subject barely taught in library schools, and yet mastery of it will do more for your career than just about anything actually taught there. What is librarianship really about? It’s about communication. And where there’s communication, you need rhetoric.

Rhetoric has a bad reputation among people who don’t know better and people who should know better. It’s probably because of that hypocrite Plato, who maligned rhetoric as supposedly less ethical or true than philosophy while using numerous rhetorical techniques to communicate his ideas. Consider the Allegory of the Cave: brilliant, effective, and a total rhetorical manipulation of the audience. It’s why Plato is so much more pleasurable to read than Aristotle, even though Aristotle was a lot more savvy about rhetoric.

What is rhetoric? Aristotle defined it as “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” Thinking of it as a form of argument, we might add Chaim Perelman’s definition of argumentation from The Realm of Rhetoric: “The aim of argumentation is not to deduce consequences from given premises; it is rather to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses that are presented for their consent. Such adherence never comes out of thin air; it presupposes a meeting of minds between speaker and audience.” But rhetoric is much broader than just argumentation and persuasion. The rhetorician Andrea Lunsford defines it as “the art, practice, and study of human communication.” (See some more definitions here.) As the art and practice of human communication, what could be a more basic element of librarianship than its study.

Think about all the communication that goes on in libraries every day: phone calls, meetings, emails, IMs, negotiations, reference questions, performance reviews, grant proposals, instruction sessions, research guides, cover letters, job interviews; every one of these interactions is about communication with an audience for a purpose and could benefit from improved rhetorical skill and knowledge of rhetorical theory and techniques.

One of the simplest rhetorical skills is often the most forgotten: consider your audience. Good communication is all about connecting with a particular audience, but plenty of librarians when writing or speaking think it’s about conveying information. If they write it or say it, that’s enough. I’ve seen this numerous times in library instruction sessions over the years, where librarians think their duty is to present information, when really their job is to connect their audience to the information presented. There’s a difference.  How many librarians have you seen go into a room of 18-year-olds and deliver a canned talk in a monotone? Or bury a LibGuide in an avalanche of dense prose? Or write and publish a dreary article no one would every want to read? Or give tedious and irrelevant answers to questions during a job interview? Painful stuff from people who haven’t considered their audience.

Consider other rhetorical concepts, kairos for example. Kairos is, roughly, knowing when to speak. It’s knowing the proper time to intervene in a conversation or a crisis. People who just blurt out what they’re thinking whenever they think it aren’t as effective in persuading others as people who join the conversation at the proper time with a proper consideration of their audience and their purpose for speaking. How many librarians deliberately think about the proper time to speak and then do so? How many of you think about the distinction between the logical, emotional, and ethical appeals and when to use the appropriate ones when working with other people? Or think about the assumptions behind people’s writing or speaking, or the patterns of their arguments that are often more revealing of their motives and goals than what they seem to be saying? That might sound abstract, but thinking about that stuff and applying it can be very useful in understanding and operating in a workplace or organization.

I can say with some assurance that my study, teaching, and practice of rhetoric has helped me more in my career than anything else I’ve ever learned. My ability to communicate effectively in speech and writing has been essential and beneficial to my work. Whether it’s participating in meetings, working with students, or stymieing machinations, rhetorical techniques have always come into play. There is no escaping rhetoric. There’s only good and bad rhetoric. And yet probably 99 out of 100 librarians haven’t read Aristotle or Perelman or Lunsford or Corbett any other rhetorical theorist, much less deliberately practiced rhetorical techniques. Even some of you right now are probably thinking, oh, that might be important, but surely not all librarians need to study rhetoric. Yes, you do. Every one of you.

Think about some policy or service you want to implement. It doesn’t matter how good it is, someone in charge has to be persuaded to implement it. That’s your audience. Think about what it’s like to be that person. Put yourself in that person’s shoes and ask what would persuade you then. Everyone wants something, but they all want something different. Change too little or too slow angers one group in the library; change too much or too fast angers another. Who’s resistant to the change you want to make, but whose consent you need? Are they not persuaded by your passion for change? Is the problem their conservatism or your rhetorical failure? I know what you’re going to say, but can you be sure?

Before you learn whatever new thing you’re planning to learn, learn rhetoric first. Then practice it for a few years. You’ll thank me later.

9 thoughts on “An Essential Skill for All Librarians

  1. Great post – I completely agree that connecting with your audience is an under-appreciated skill for librarians. You suggest reading Aristotle, Perelman, Lunsford, and Corbett, but if you had to choose just one work to recommend to a rhetoric newbie, what would it be?

  2. Graham, that’s a tough one. It sort of depends on what you want to do. A good overview to start with might be Persuading People: an Introduction to Rhetoric 2nd ed. by Robert and Susan Cockroft. For understanding informal argumentation, I’d recommend Perelman’s The Realm of Rhetoric. It’s relatively short, but has a lot packed into it. I also really like Edward Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, but while it’s a good synthesis of classical rhetoric (Aristotle, Quintillian, etc.) it’s rather dense. So it might be best to start with Cockroft and get an idea of where to go from there.

  3. I’ve seen some academic libraries change, As the librarians became more technology-oriented, they began to be almost contemptuous of people skills.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • I do get the feeling that a lot of librarians think human communication is less important in libraries than technological skill. The instruction librarian community is aware of the need to work on rhetorical skills appropriate to instruction, but the general idea seems to be that people skills are just for public services librarians. I argue they’re for everyone, and the technology-oriented librarians who haven’t mastered them are doomed to frustration, whereas those who have mastered them have made great changes in their libraries.

  4. I am currently studying for my MLIS at UNCG and found this particular post to be extremely enlightening. As a matter of fact, I feel as if I’ve become privy to information meant for an era bygone, when librarians where safeguarded from the onslaught of technology. Not to downplay the significance and convenience afforded by certain technological innovations, having clear and effective communication albeit in a persuasive manner is paramount. Often we are distracted by the superficial items…

    • I’m comfortable with technological innovations and am, in my way, rather more techie than might be evident from my writing. However, I do think that the human connection gets lost in the emphasis on technologically mediated communication that permeates higher education these days: MOOCs, digital learning objects, online tutorials, etc. Perhaps it’s the nature of my job and where I work and what I do, but the personal connection is still extremely important in my job and other professional activities.

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