Are we preparing graduates for the information workplace? That’s a question I recently considered while reading Paul Fain’s article “Grading Personal Responsibility” in Inside Higher Ed (12/13/12). He describes a new initiative at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, NC, emphasizing as part of the curriculum “soft skills,” including personal responsibility, interdependence, and emotional intelligence.
These are important concepts to consider, and I wonder just how much emphasis is placed on these types of skills as students move through our programs. Are LIS grads as work-ready as they could be? Are there some soft skills particularly necessary in information professions?
Consider the following soft skills essential for our libraries and information centers.
A given, right? It should be a tremendous concern if a student is graduating without experience communicating via the written word, as a participant in a conversation or group meeting, as a presenter in front of groups, and online within various interactive channels. Clear, concise writing no matter what the format—memo, proposal, brief, email, blog post, Facebook posting, Tweet—is paramount. A focus on literacy, in every sense of the word, should be crucial as students move toward their degree.
I would also stress the willingness to speak up and be heard. New librarians are often too silent. Of course, they shouldn’t be annoying or act as know-it-alls—those traits are career killers—but they should be willing to submit ideas up the chain, talk to higher-level administrators when they can, and use their communication skills to make themselves heard, recognized, and appreciated. They should join teams, even during probationary periods, and submit ideas for efficiencies and improvements. With money tight and staff limited, any good administrator is going to welcome this type of new librarian.
We don’t have the luxury to have new hires wait for detailed step-by-step assignments or direction. Librarians should take their projects and run with them and have the support of their administration to do so. Is the student who asks multiple questions about every detail of an assignment destined to be the hesitant micromanager hooked on having meetings with little tangible outcomes?
I can’t emphasize this enough. New hires should have a personal learning environment that is constantly refined and updated as interests shift and emerging trends impact information work. I advocate for interviewers to include “describe your personal learning network—how do you continuously learn?” in their list of questions for potential hires. Of course, libraries will provide opportunities for professional development, but this kind of growth starts with the individual.
Sensitivity and understanding
You must be a people person in today’s library. Empathic listening goes hand in hand with acceptance. This may be one of the hardest skills to teach and to measure, but a focus on service learning, with “in the field” experience, may provide much needed guidance in this direction.
This skill is threefold. We must be true to ourselves, true to our employers, and true to the ethics and tenets of the profession. A recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management and the AARP cited in the Wall Street Journal found “that ‘professionalism’ or ‘work ethic’ is the top ‘applied’ skill that younger workers lack.” I tell my students to establish their own professional mission statement or guiding philosophy, to rise above negativity they encounter in the workplace and in our field, and to always remember they are role models for the professionals that will come after them.
I would add other soft skills such as intuition, political awareness, and a willingness to make and learn from our mistakes. Transparency is evolving into an even more clearly defined “full frontal” strategy for some corporations—putting it all out there. We should follow suit. Library schools should teach case studies of failed library systems and initiatives. We must study our failures as much as we study our successes. There seems to be an ongoing unwillingness to do this. But in fact some libraries make bad decisions, and we have to admit that in order to learn those corrective lessons.
What soft skills would you add? What traits are needed for 21st-century information work? The crux of the matter is this: these skills should be taught throughout our programs, from the core to electives, practicums, and culminating experiences. Teachers should not only teach these skills, they should model them. It’s a tall order for our evolving curriculum, and assessing skills such as intuition and sensitivity is tough. The yield of such hard work, however, is an evolved institution that trains dynamic, responsive library professionals.