May 24, 2018

Formula for Success | Office Hours

How do we “build a librarian” for 21st-century information work? It’s an ongoing discussion in libraries and LIS programs that has many sides and a range of opinion. Some argue that while library school offers the foundations, theories, and service concepts of the profession, on-the-job experience seasons the information professional for doing the work. I would argue it is a mix of all of these things and more. How do we insure the folks serving our varied constituents have the skill sets and attitudes required?

Submitted is this equation:

Essential Skills + Mindset² x Support = Success

Each part of the formula is vital, and the outcome doesn’t work if any are removed. The responsibility for success depends on a careful balance of LIS education, the individual, the institution, and the profession. Unpacking the various elements of the equation paints a full picture of what will help this information professional thrive.


Essentials include both hard and soft skills and the foundational aspects of the profession such as ethics, access, and service.

Hard skills are those that are taught, can be assessed or evaluated, and prepare folks to do library work. The areas of expertise that I believe are especially pertinent include information organization, instructional design, understanding the user experience, and cultivating life literacies (digital and otherwise).

I have written previously about soft skills (see Office Hours, LJ 2/15/13), such as taking initiative; communication face-to-face and across multiple platforms; sensitivity; and professional responsibility. Recent columns have also explored the importance of compassion, empathy, and finding balance as soft skills that add to our impact as professionals.

Note that in my equation mind-set is squared, multiplied to the power of two. Sure, you can take classes and stand behind a reference desk, but if the mind-set is not there, the potential for success plummets to “biding my time” and “just give me the paycheck.” My aspects of mind-set would feature continuous learner, a high degree of curiosity, creative thinking, and a wholehearted approach to service.

Finally, we multiply these factors by support. That’s where our institutional leadership enters. Library leaders, how do you support your staff? What do you provide to help them grow as professionals? I’d tip my hat to some favorites: a high degree of transparency; ongoing and varied development opportunities for learning and improvement; and the sweet gift of time to participate and flourish. Support can waver owing to poor leadership, organizational deficiencies, or setbacks from outside forces such as budgets or governance. These would cause the whole equation to break down. While the mind-set of the individual is key to success, institutional support sustains that mind-set and allows people to use their skills for the greater good.

Next steps

How do we make this work? LIS schools should insure curriculum is up-to-date while maintaining our core principles. When was the last time your school did a full curriculum review and syllabi were assessed for relevance and currency? Institutions, please hire for mind-set as well as the fundamental skills addressed above. Look for fresh ideas, new perspectives, and ways of thinking that align with our core values. Then, support these folks as best you can. Mentoring, learning opportunities, and time to explore offer enrichment and give back to the institution as a whole.

As I write this I am looking forward to sharing this formula in a workshop at the Next Library Conference in Aarhus, Denmark, June 11–14. I am coteaching with Jan Holmquist, assistant library director, Guldborgsund Public Library in Denmark, and Mylee Joseph, consultant, Public Libraries and Engagement Division, State Library of New South Wales, Australia. Through some playful and interactive work with our participants, we will explore what it means to be a catalyst for learning and change within our institutions. I am excited to see where the conversation will take us.

Those working in an evolving learning library, no matter what type or size, must often consider the best paths to successful engagement as community learning connectors. As more time is devoted to providing learning opportunities, knowledge experiences, and outreach to our community of users, skills acquired in a modern, constantly evolving LIS program, an attitude based on service and support, and ongoing organizational encouragement are essential. (See also the sidebar to “The Midcareer MLIS.”)

This article was published in Library Journal's June 15, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA



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