12 Oct 2015

The good librarian


Michelle Dalton, in her most recent Libfocus post called on librarians to communicate with each other more and to share our knowledge and experience. She made this call based on a previous post by Aoife Lawton. The post that follows can be seen to be following in the spirit of their call.

I recently put a call out to a number of librarians asking what, for them, makes a good librarian. I didn't try to define what a good librarian was. I worked on on the basis that we know one when we see one. And that we recognise the qualities that make a good one. I asked for three qualities from each person.

So, what, then, are those qualities that make a good librarian? I received, what I consider to be, excellent replies and these replies are posted, word for word, below... [each persons answer is one paragraph]

Obviously it depends so much on the role, but in acquisitions I think proven analytical skills, excellent communication and an ability to up-skill quickly are essential. The evolution of the digital environment means no one can rest on their laurels. There are obviously a number of other things such as being approachable and organised, but those are top for me right now

1) People skills - not necessarily are you gregarious or extrovert, but can you engage with people? Do you have a sense of empathy? Do you like helping people? Librarianship is first and foremost a service profession.  You need to provide a good quality service to your users, and being able to engage with people, who have a wide variety of library familiarity, goes a long way in establishing that.  I remember a colleague laughing in the face of someone who asked a really stupid question, a really really stupid question.  That’s appalling.  You keep a straight face and answer the question to the patron’s satisfaction, then, if you like, laugh about it afterwards, privately.
2) IT skills – like it or not, technology is ubiquitous.  Unless you’re specialising in, for example, rare books or special collections, you’ll be using IT a lot (heck, even if you are rare books bod or collections specialist, you’re still likely to be using computers. I’m not saying you need to be able to code, or hack into networks, but you at the very least when someone from your IT department (if you have one, that is) speaks to you about computers, you should be able to discern if he or she is pulling the wool over your eyes.
3) A synthesis of 1) and 2) Pedagogical skills -  give a man a fish etc etc.  Your, and your users, life will be made easier if instead of you finding the material or doing the catalogue search, you can effectively teach your users how to do the same.  Can you effectively cut through library jargon and demonstrate your mastery of your library by showing others how it’s done?
Finally a key skill in the negative.  A love of books is not a pre-requisite or even necessarily desirable for work in libraries: you’ll spend far more time dealing with people I’m afraid

I would say the ability to network and market the library, the ability to embrace change, a willingness to learn

It's interesting because I would say there's a big difference in what employers look for in public libraries compared to academic. I'm going to answer it from a public libraries perspective. The main thing you need to have is experience though the type of experience can vary. In public  libraries its still very much about the books, so even if your previous experience is in a book shop, it will count. You need to be able to demonstrate a good knowledge of fiction. The second thing I would say is a good knowledge of how public libraries fit into the wider community, their ethos, their purpose or role that they play in the community- who they serve and why. That's not necessarily a skill rather than a way of thinking. Public libraries are all about people and serving the community and a good librarian has to be as well. The third thing I would look for is people skills - good communication.a good librarian will develop partnerships, build relationships, connect with groups, and communicate daily with colleagues and public. You need to be able to resolve issues both with the public and colleagues. Unfortunately this is something you learn with time, you can't do a MOOC on it. You will get asked in interviews in public libraries about this and its important that you can demonstrate that you can handle conflict through good communication.
Hope this is helpful, they're not the kind of things you can learn but you can acquire them through volunteering, or working in other sectors, not just libraries

Three things that I look for when hiring library staff:
I like to try new things in my library. Whether that's eliminating the traditional non-circulating reference collection, standardizing loan rules so that everything goes out for the same amount of time, circulating unusual items like sewing machines and ukuleles, or using open source software, I need my staff to be open to experimentation; staff buy-in is essential when you're trying to push the envelope.
Working with the public, especially a changing public with evolving needs and expectations, can be difficult. In order to provide excellent service to the public, staff need to be calm, collected, and courteous. Staff also need these traits to work with well each other. If staff don't get along, work could become a lot harder. This is especially true in a library with a small staff – like mine.
Finally, and most importantly, I look for people who want to work at my library. I want staff to be excited to be here and to find satisfaction in the work.
These three traits – being open to experimentation, being calm/collected/courteous, and being excited about the job – are some of what I look for when hiring.
PS – I'm always willing to review resumes and cover letters and to talk to new librarians looking for advice! [Any body wishing to take up this offer can contact Alex Lent]

Qualities would be patience kindness and a passion for life. Library skills are a given as you just did a degree or masters, work helps you develops those skills, Skills would be to lead, work well with teams and look for collaborations to better the library even outside collaboration, I suppose it depends on the library sector but they need to know that sector really well and the organisation. And know the leaders, mover and shakers within that sector

I guess the things I'd be looking for are an aptitude with IT skills or willingness to try it out. I think it's important for all aspects of library work that someone is thorough and I'd be trying to establish this from CV and interview questions. Finally because of the environment we work in (academic libraries) where library work can vary greatly, I'd be looking for flexibility.

For a cataloguing librarian -someone with attention to detail, self-motivated and enthusiastic.It's hard to separate out skills, temperament and aptitude - particularly when librarians undertake so many different roles, but the longer I work the more I value good communication skills, which are vital in every environment.

I think interest /curiosity is key, along with respect for users, a commitment to professional development, effective searching skills, & a lot of energy

Sure, no problems. Three skills, qualities or characteristics hmm let me see... Creative, analytical and humble. Let me explain why! Creative, to be curious and always learn new things and questioning what we are doing. Analytical, to be able to go behind the obvious see patterns and be able to see consequences and draw conclusions. Humble, to be able to understand and be empathetic to keep good relations and networks and capable to communicate in a polite way.

I would say adaptability, customer service and resilience. The profession is changing so fast in so many ways that you need to be able to adapt to things as they happen. You also have to be prepared to think outside the box and try new career paths within the field if needed. Customer service is important as too many people still think all we do is sit in an office and read books all day. You need to be good with people to work in most library jobs. Finally resilience as it's not an easy profession to work in and sometimes you need a thick skin to cope with both changes and patrons!

Willingness to learn new skills or update existing ones & show evidence thereof. Willingness to change & adapt & evidence thereof. If resistance is futile (the Borg) at least use it your advantage. Willingness to work in a team - don't ask someone to do something they you're not prepared to do; listen to others' reasons for not doing X, sometimes just listening is sufficient & other times a longer process may be required for both sides. Back to willingness to adapt.

I would say: a desire to continuously learn and develop new skills and expertise, a willingness and ability to collaborate and build relationships, & you need to be a good communicator too

Be creative - being able to identify opportunities and spot potential for a service or resource that is not being delivered by other units in the wider organisation. Being creative helps librarians embrace change.
Know your audience - be they students, academics or the general public, if you don't understand the needs of the people you support, or if you don't know how to ask the right questions to get to that point, then you've failed.
Be a champion for your profession - be that locally by advocating for the library in the wider organisation or nationally/internationally through representation on committees/groups and by contributing to the research literature.

Enthusiasm for the profession, pro-active mindset, willingness to learn continuously
a LIS degree. Experience can be acquired on the job (with a hard-working attitude as the prerequisite)

1. Interesting and Interested. These qualities can't be understated and I think one informs and develops the other.Librarians tend to come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have lots of different interests- this means our scope of information is quite broad. To be interested in users of our services, not just in their well being and research needs but to be interested in what they have to say- how they say it and in what contexts helps us learn new things and new ways to interact with people.
2. Love to Learn. Being a librarian is the career where you are guaranteed to learn something new every day
3. Resilience - Some days are harder then others, some people will never understand you worth or what you do, others expect you to be a miracle worker with no funding.... getting a job in this sector can be disheartening.

1. Be sociable. You should be interacting with other library staff, users and any other stakeholders: telling them about what you and your library are doing and learning about what they're doing.
2. Be curious. As a librarian you're in a great position to be always learning new things. If you're not, refocus your job to make sure you are.
3. Be strategic. Library's change slowly so plan ahead for the projects that might take take six months or two years to come together - always keep a few long term projects or potential projects in mind.
Not that I consider myself an exemplar of the above but it's something I aim for!

1. user/client focused, rather than a library-centric mind-set
2. the ability/aptitude to continually identify how new technologies can be harnessed to support No.1
3.to be able to work methodically,accurately,with attention to detail so that (all) outputs are reliable and factual/evidence-based where possible

People skills, including communication skills, are essential.
 A librarian must be willing to learn.  You can learn how to do most things if you want to.
 A librarian needs to be able to adapt to change and have a flexible approach to work

Firstly I would look for someone who is motivated and passionate and really wants to work in a library. Who is willing to join committees and advocate for the profession. 
I would look for someone who is curious, who keeps an eye on current trends in the library world and is willing to upskill to improve their skills. 
Finally I think it’s important to have a sense of social justice and empathy. We deal with the public a lot, so it’s good to have empathy to them and your workmates. As we deal in information it’s very important to have a sense of social justice and value intellectual freedom and privacy.

A big thanks, in no particular order, goes to Shona Thoma, Mick O'Dwyer , Ger Prendergast, Jack Hyland, Ronan Madden, Jane Burns, David Hughes, Helen Fallon, Michelle Dalton Niamh O'Donovan, Siobhan Dunne, Elaine Harrington, Claire Sewell, Daniel Gunnarrson, Brid McGrath, John McManus, Breeda Herlihy, Siobhan McGuinness, Alex Lent and Alex Kouker...


  1. Interesting to see one comment on Twitter that expressed surprise at the lack of inclusion of something or other. As one of the folk approached, I wanted to keep my comments general. If I hadn't been approached, I wouldn't be saying "wot, no Microsoft Excel or Access?????" as the role of the Librarian is so diverse. I reckon that if you'd asked different people, you'd get far different answers to those given above.

  2. Thanks David, I think that it really is difficult to generalise as roles can be so varied. Like yourself, I was thinking of skills or qualities that could apply to all/any roles. The ability to learn is referenced a lot in the post I notice, and if you think about it, that potentially covers any new skill that may have been omitted to an extent! :)