April 24, 2018

Essential Soft Skills | Office Hours

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?

Continuous learning

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.

Professional responsibility

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.

Further skills

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.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens (mstephens7@mac.com) is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA

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  1. Your comment, Michael, about learning from failures really resonated with me. That is a crucial skill in the frenetic environment of 21st century learning. We need to learn from others’ mistakes so we can make our own.

  2. The importance of making mistakes and learning from them can’t be understated. Librarians seem to have a little more of the “perfectionist” gene than others, and I see too frequently the need to be perfect before moving ahead. It too frequently means that we either don’t move at all, or we’re so far behind that the conversation has moved past us.

    It’s on the current managers to make new professionals feel safe in taking risks, so that they can grow up to be innovative professionals in their own right.

    • I think “the culture of perfect” hurt us over the past few years – especially with the advent of the particitory Web and everything in beta attitude. Fretting about a typo or a new service with a few rough edges is not time well spent.

  3. This point is emphasized here as well http://www.eduhacker.net/libraries/librarian-skillset.html.

  4. 22 years, 6 libraries, no MLS says:

    Hm.. the Inside Higher Ed article was about teaching soft skills in community college; that’s fine, since one expects some remedial work to be necessary at the community college level. But let’s remember that LIS is graduate-level; should remedial work really be done here? How about screening prospective LIS students for these skills *before* admitting them?

  5. Thank you Michael for an extremely timely and important article. I agree with so many of your points, especially the idea that 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.”

    But I disagree with the idea that new librarians “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.”

    Sadly I don’t think that every organization welcomes this type of input and a new librarian would be better off to study the culture of the organization first before jumping in. I have been in situations where input was welcomed and encouraged and I have also been in situation where offering opinions was not welcomed. Of course you say “good” administrators and I agree that this is a sign of a good administrator, but I would hesitate to tell a new librarian to go this in all situations.

    • I appreciate your note of caution. And the idea that some libraries would not welcome fresh perspectives and ideas as readily as others. I hope those types of administrators are changing their viewpoints.

    • Marye, you got a very good point there.
      Due to personal experiences in the past two years, I have to agree or even worsen the situation by saying that in many organization and libraries, new ideas are not welcome.
      Or young professionals, usually straight from university with up-to-date knowledge and skills especially with electronic media etc., are treated like idiotis dreaming about some far away future (which is already here, by the way but who cares!?). Also, what happend more than once – as far as I have been told – was that the young people with ideas were told to start projects and work on their ideas. So for months or even an entire year, someone works on bringing an idea to life only to see the result being trashed without one look at it. And that happened not only once!!!
      Now remains the question: Does a behaviour like this encourage young professionals to engage in anything at all and bring forward ideas?!?!?!

      Other than this, I think Michael adressed a very important topic. It’d be a great succes if those soft skills would be of a greater interest here in Germany.

  6. As a current MLS student, I appreciate this article and think these are important skills for library professionals to be able to demonstrate. As a career counselor, I think the add-on to this article is making sure job seekers understand the way to highlight these skills on resumes, cover letters and in interviews!

  7. I really enjoyed this post, Michael, and I found the discussion of failure particularly interesting. I recently helped to organize a “Fail4Lib” preconference workshop at Code4Lib 2013 to discuss the role of failure in technical library work. Although we had prepared several discussion units in advance, we barely made it through the first unit and a few lightning talks in three and a half hours. I guess that’s a bit of a scheduling fail, but I came away feeling extremely encouraged by the eagerness with which my colleagues constructively talked about the experience of (often productive) failure in our work. The results of the follow-up survey indicated that there is a need for more opportunities like these. There are slides and some readings linked from the event page:


  8. Thank you for encouraging us to be bold.

  9. I don’t know if this qualifies as a “soft skill”, but I think that Library Schools need to do a much better job preparing students to work in the actual library environment–especially for those wanting to work in public libraries. How many classes do library schools offer in working with patrons? Do you teach skills on used to enforce the patron behavior policy? Do students learn how to provide customer service even for difficult patrons? Just this month, I have asked an inebriated patron to leave the library, called 911 for a patron going into a diabetic coma, broken up a verbal fight between two teenagers, soothed multiple patrons who were angry about the late tax forms, managed several patrons who didn’t want to pay for their computer printouts, talked to a patron about his offensive body odor and asked a plethora of patrons to keep their voices/music down in the quiet area. Library School did not provide any training in dealing with these difficult situations. I developed my skills by volunteering on the local crisis line and learning from more experienced staff. Providing a safe, supportive environment in which all of our patrons feel welcome is easily as important as having the latest technology. I would like to see Library Schools put more emphasis on these essential people skills.

    • Susie – Thanks for sharing the real world reality of the public library. I was working full time at SJCPLK when I did my MLS at IU in the 90s. I think that on the job experience helped balance out what you detail above. The crisis line experience sounds spot on for prepping someone to deal with the realities of a PL.

    • Michael. Do you think that library school prepares graduates for those realities of a public library? Do any of your classes teach skills for those difficult situations?

  10. Susie–I think one reason (just to offer a different perspective), why they don’t teach more classes like that is because libraries and archives are so different. I work at a small suburban library, that is really like a giant ball of sunshine. I deal with maybe 1 difficult patron a year. Meanwhile, my colleague literally 20 minutes away encounters revolving door of crazy and daily war stories.

    Nonetheless, I have a brother who works for the post office. For his training, paid actors were positioned in line to be “problems”. Someone screamed in his face, another wanted free services and wouldn’t back down, still another reverted to name-calling and throwing a fit of rage with her tiny daughter holding her hand. You don’t really know until you are in a situation how best to react. After he was done with this set of people and scenarios, the observers/instructors shared information with him about what he could have done differently/better. Quite honestly, this kind of training would have helped me. It may be something for the library profession to consider as a mandatory seminar, etc.

  11. These are great skills and you make such good points! I cannot tell you how many times I’ve said people are not coming out of high school prepared for college or life. And I think your post takes it to that next level and you’re absolutely right. I was very fortunate in that I have worked in my library while I was getting my undergrad and then only in the past few years did I go back to to school and get my Masters so I had some great experience and advice from other librarians already under my belt. But I do wonder if these soft skills can truly be taught or if they are the types of things that people must experience to become proficient. I clearly remember being taught about how to argue efficiently with a loved one in my college health class and I clearly remember laughing about how silly it seemed. But over the almost 15 years I’ve been with my husband, I now realize I do the exact thing they were trying to teach me but it only came with experience. It wasn’t really something I learned because of that class, although I’m sure that class helped in my journey. I’m not saying that it would be invaluable because I truly think these things should be taught. I’m just curious as to how much would really stick. Great post! Thanks!