February 17, 2018

Coping with Continual Motion

By Betha Gutsche

A focus on competencies can help librarians stick to values while absorbing future shock

During the Pacific Northwest’s 2001 Nisqually earthquake, the ground in my backyard undulated as if it were the surface of the ocean. My notion of solid ground upended. A similar if not as threatening sensation of a once-solid foundation turned unstable now permeates the library world. In the face of seismic shifts in technology and social organization, librarians and library staff face changing roles.

Focusing on competencies—the skills, knowledge, behaviors, and attitudes that are involved in a job—can help the library profession keep its footing. When well done, they can define a framework for library practice that encompasses the solidity of tradition and the flexibility to absorb future shock. Identifying competencies critical to the vitality of the institution provides a basis for change management for the institution and the individual. While the nature and pace of change present significant challenges, many core values and services hold firm. This dynamic balance is apparent in the Competency Index for the Library Field, WebJunction’s compilation of competencies, which addresses a broad spectrum of library service and practice.

New expectation, new opportunity

Evidence of the tension and anxiety over changing roles abounds. Conversations about the present and future of libraries thread through articles, blog posts and comments, tweets, presentations, and videos. The tremors have even been noted outside the library world. “The Future of Libraries, with or Without Books,” a CNN.com article (posted in the technology section), begins with the proclamation: “The stereotypical library is dying—and it’s taking its shushing ladies, dank smell and endless shelves of books with it.”

The article continues with an oft-repeated litany of the forces of change impacting libraries today: the dominance of Google as information provider; the public’s interest in social media, gaming, online networking, and other nonbookish directions; the emphasis on community gathering place and the subsequent elevation of social activities and noise levels in the library; compressed budgets; and rising use. In response, as we well know, libraries are trying new strategies and tools to meet the new expectations.

“It’s a source of tension in the field because, for some people, trying to rebrand can be perceived as a rejection of the [library] tradition and values,” says Linda C. Smith, president of the Association for Library and Information Science Education, summing up the internal stress brought on by all these changes. “But for other people, it’s a redefinition and an expansion.”

The tech gap

Discussions about the adoption of web tools and social networks are particularly heated. With emotions running high, the schism between traditional library practices and new experimental technologies gapes.

In reality, there is strong continuity, with the future building on the past, not splitting sharply from it. Referring to an article by LJ Academic Newswire From the Bell Tower columnist Steven Bell about the online, socially networked Real-Time Library, David Lee King, digital branch and services manager, Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, KS, suggests, “remove all the 2.0, digital, online stuff from this idea, and we’re simply talking about the real, physical, day-to-day experience of a normal (yet very good) library. Emerging online services are working to make this normal, active experience we have at the physical library the same when we’re online.”

Timeless skills

How do competencies calm these waters? When you contemplate the competencies associated with a given position in a library in the course of a day/week/month on the job, the balance between traditional and experimental emerges. Most positions still cleave to long-established missions of the library to empower individuals with knowledge, to provide equal access, and to build the capacity of citizens functioning in a democracy.

Some competencies are timeless. For instance, interpersonal skills are still crucial for anyone who works with other people, whether it’s front-line staff facing the public or behind-the-scenes employees coordinating efforts. Now VP of strategic partnerships and markets for Gale Cengage, Stephen Abram identified five essential assets for lifelong success of “new” librarians: leadership, advocacy, interpretation, empathy, and imagination skills—“all five planted firmly in human behavior.” He defined “new” librarians as those “who need to reinvent themselves in this transformational employment environment,” which is “everyone in our field.”

Youth librarians, today as 50 years ago, invoke all of these skill sets as they conduct complex human interactions with children, teens, parents, teachers, other caregivers, and institutions. Reference librarians still demonstrate notable empathy and interpretation skills in the sensitive dance of the reference interview, whether conducted in-person, online, or through IM or texting. Effective managers at all levels practice the same range of skills, interacting with staff, other managers, library boards, political leaders, and community stakeholders.

Empowered by new tools

There are competencies for which the tools may change, but the intent remains the same. A children’s librarian still seeks to instill a love of reading in young patrons and to develop their information literacy. Literacy has expanded to include computer and media literacy but retains the intent of preparing individuals to work with the tools they need to move through their lives.

By investigating and experimenting with new tools and methods, that librarian may discover powerful new ways to accomplish the basic goals. Story time could be embellished with a video or images projected on a large screen; children might use online games to learn math, typing, or problem-solving while also gaining fluency on the computer.

Catalogers still need a grasp of the principles of information organization and perhaps a thorough knowledge of one or more classification systems. However, many contemporary catalogers have been riding the technology rails for years, learning new classification systems and new tools for enhancing access to the collection, acquiring the knowledge as necessary to keep up with a sink-or-swim reality.

Gravitation toward IT

An increasing number of positions in libraries, especially in larger institutions, tilt ever closer to the entirely technical end of the scale. Many positions are filled by IT professionals from outside of the library field. Technology competencies comprise an ever-growing piece of the performance pie, impacting every job in the library. Entirely new competency areas must be defined, with job descriptions that sound almost alien to the library environment.

This gravitational pull toward IT arouses angst and doubt about the future of libraries. Tensions between librarians and IT are well chronicled, sometimes humorously. While the institution operates on increasingly sophisticated technology platforms, it still provides services on a very human level. Technologies easily lure people into focusing on the features of a system and all the cool things it can do. If it doesn’t enhance the mission and objectives of the institution, then it probably is not worth pursuing. Toward this, all technical competency statements should end with an explicit “to better meet the needs of the user.”

Kate Sheehan, open source implementation coordinator for Bibliomation, a consortium of public and school libraries in Connecticut, labels the strain between technical and traditional library practice as the “digital divide inside the library.” She acknowledges the need for a strong technology skill set in her role but also asks, “Do our techies need to have public service experience or skills?” It’s a fair question. As members of the team that successfully delivers services to the end user, they are not exempt from employing communication skills, team participation skills, or internal customer service skills for responding to the technical support needs of other staff.

In some libraries, IT people are expected to teach employees and patrons, demonstrating the associated range of training design and delivery skills. It also seems crucial for nonlibrarian IT staff to understand the foundations of the library, its history, and its role in the community it serves.

The interpersonal is universal

In fact, there has been more attention paid to the importance of interpersonal competencies, aka soft skills or behavioral skills. No position in the library is an island. When there is dysfunction in a department or branch, the source may not be owing to any lack of technical skill but to an inability to work effectively with others. Personal and interpersonal skills comprise the set of competencies that are universal.

The ability to communicate effectively, work constructively in teams, assume leadership at many levels, and continually improve one’s knowledge and ability—these are competencies that apply to any industry and even to one’s personal life. Individuals who advance in this competency see rewards beyond better performance on a particular job; they have more potential for advancement, career development, general social well-being, and even health.

Competency building blocks

Building competency-based approaches to professional education, hiring and recruiting, staff training, or performance management is akin to working with LEGOs™. There is no definitive competency construction that will fit all types and sizes of library. Every construction will differ, customized to the unique needs of each institution. Using competency categories and statements as building blocks allows many different combinations tailored to the particular application and organization.

The Competency Index for the Library Field is intended to be a modified faceted classification. It is a catalog of items that can be mixed and matched. When writing a job description for a new hire or a learning plan for a current employee, consider the full range of knowledge, skills, behavior, and attitudes that would make this person most successful. Just about every position will include some personal/interpersonal competencies. (See how this interplay looks on p. 29.)

Living documents

In an earthquake, it is the rigid structure that is the most likely to fail. Flexible structures bend and sway and then return to center as forces quiet down. This principle applies to individuals, groups, and organizations—and to competency frameworks. Competency sets need to be living documents rather than standards arrived at laboriously over years.

The iterative development process of software design provides a good model. Competency development should be incremental and ongoing. To keep competencies fresh and relevant, follow the cyclical process of planning, gathering requirements, implementing, evaluating, and then back to planning. Each iteration adds modifications, allowing the design of a competency construction to grow incrementally in conjunction with its use.

For any library position, compare the competencies listed in its official job description with the skills, knowledge, and behaviors actually in use. Discrepancies may indicate an evolving skill set and the need to adjust the competency expectations for new hires or for staff training.

Most professions now place demands on practitioners to update their skills and knowledge continually, with librarianship no exception. Competencies help to identify the details of expanded job expectations and the areas for further training. However, there is one skill set that could be considered an übercompetency—the ability to adapt to change, to be flexible and fluid. This overarching competency helps to unlock the achievement of all other skills and knowledge. It reads:

  • Anticipates and adapts to change and challenges effectively
  • Maintains the flexibility to accept change and to adapt with curiosity and enthusiasm
  • Maintains a positive attitude in the face of challenges and unanticipated changes
  • Anticipates future trends and recommends changes in priority or direction in alignment with organizational goals
  • Explores and adopts new technologies for their potential to deliver new ideas, products, and services
  • Recommends and takes reasonable risks to test implementations of change

The old-vs.-new arguments tend to fixate on specific tools. However, efforts like Library 2.0 and Library 101 are really about acquiring new skills and knowledge in order to keep libraries relevant and vital. When you reduce the flash and big talk to the underlying competencies, the message is about adapting to changing societal needs and norms. It’s about sustaining the mission and vision of the library in its community and enabling library practitioners to strive for excellence in delivering on the mission.

A tool for stretching

In a blog post, Mary Drew Powers, a recent graduate of the University of Washington’s Information School, wrote how intimidated she felt after reading through WebJunction’s Competency Index. “At first I felt panicked. How can I possibly be up to date on ALL of this?” Once she stepped back and took in the bigger picture, however, she realized the value of just being exposed to the comprehensive listing of competency statements. “This gives me two things,” she noted, “a way to measure myself against an ideal, and goals to strive for.”

With or without a degree, everyone who works in a library must stay nimble and ready to receive new knowledge and skills. Although earthquakes appear as episodic, abrupt disruptions, the earth is actually in continuous slow motion. If librarians and library staff engage in continual learning, we will all be better prepared for those larger seismic shifts.

Author Information
Betha Gutsche, Editor in Chief of the recently published Competency Index for the Library Field, is a Program Manager at WebJunction


The following examples illustrate possible competency constructions for specific roles built from facets of the WebJunction Index:

EXAMPLE 1 Web Services Librarian

The core building blocks for the Web Services Librarian role include these established competencies:

  • Web Design
  • Development of Web Technologies
  • Management of Library’s Web Presence
    These implicit competencies may be just as important for a Web Services Librarian:
  • Digital Resources Technology
    Develops and manages interface services to provide integrated access to the library’s resources
    Pursues efforts to sustain and improve the digital resource systems and services
  • Teamwork (Personal/Interpersonal)
    Works effectively in teams with strong team-building skills and attitudes
  • Project Management (Personal/Interpersonal)
    Employs sound project management principles and procedures in the planning and implementation of programs and services

EXAMPLE 2 Young Adult Librarian

The core building blocks for the Young Adult Librarian role include these established competencies:

  • Young Adult Services and Outreach
  • Information Resources for Young Adults
  • Programming for Young Adults

These implicit competencies may be just as important for a Young Adult Librarian:

  • Customer Service (Personal/Interpersonal)
    Applies customer service skills to enhance the level of user satisfaction
    Applies effective techniques to address difficult situations with users
  • Project Management (Personal/Interpersonal)
    Employs sound project management principles and procedures in the planning and implementation of programs and services
  • Web Design (Systems & IT)
    Implements and manages the library’s presence on the web to place the library’s services in the path of the users
    Understands the importance of having a web presence beyond the library web site
    Investigates and develops the library’s presence on social networking sites (Facebook, LinkedIn, Eventful, etc.)
    Evaluates and implements widgets and other tools for extending online access to library content

Stephen Abram. The New Librarian bit.ly/dd8y41

Steven Bell. Real-Time Library http://bit.ly/15t1vF

CNN.com: The Future of Libraries, with or Without Books bit.ly/95NEg

Competency Index for the Library Field bit.ly/ZYTCV

iACPL video: The IT Department and the Librarian bit.ly/8HNAV

Kate Sheehan. The Digital Divide Inside the Library bit.ly/BFRdN

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