May 11, 2018

Librarian Superpowers | Office Hours

Remember this? Essential Skills + Mind-set² x Support = Success.

How does the formula for success hold up with an engaged group of international librarians working to build a model of the 21st-century library professional? At the Next Library Conference in Aarhus, Denmark, I found out, along with my workshop coleaders Jan Holmquist, assistant library director, Guldborgsund Public Library, Denmark, and Mylee Joseph, consultant, Public Libraries and Engagement Division, State Library of New South Wales, Australia. As part of our sessions, groups of participants created visual representations of the formula. Sharing some of the creations and crowdsourced ideas could further the conversation about our roles as community learning connectors and change agents.

Artistic activities

Participant groups in the workshop used flip chart pages, markers, sticky notes, and more to create illustrations, infographics, and human-shaped diagrams to bring the formula to life. One group presented an alien-like drawing with a big “right brain,” antennae, large ears, and a third eye to portray the importance of creativity, awareness, listening, and seeing potential that might not otherwise be apparent. This figure also had two hearts beating with empathy and trust for the community. Support was conveyed by the multiple feet of the community itself holding the figure up.

A more anatomical depiction included colorful sticky notes labeling a “stomach for change” or “guts” for the job and feet that were “always moving” to “step out of the comfort zone.” Another pictured the info professional being held aloft by the leaders of the organization, with arms outstretched to reach the community, stressing that this librarian was brave and could admit vulnerability.

Building Blocks

Some key elements of the equation rose to the top. Though not a scientific survey, the wisdom of the crowd was apparent in the skills, mind-set, and support most often included in the “build a librarian” model. Perhaps these will spark discussion in your institution as you craft a new position or update older ones.

It’s interesting to note that the line between required skills and mind-set felt a bit blurred. One model might include creativity, flexibility, or empathy as a skill, while another placed those in the mind-set category. Maybe the fuzziness indicates how closely tied our foundational and learned skills are to the more emotional and humanistic aspects of our work.

Skills noted across the models included project and space management, the ability to tell a story, cooperation and collaboration, a deep understanding of librarianship, and communication with staff and users. The mind-set category included being open-minded to all aspects of our work, emotionally mature, playful, curious, happy/positive, observant, courageous, and motivated.

Across both categories, an oft-mentioned element identified as “librarian superpowers” was defined as the ability to listen closely to the community, take a fearless approach to community engagement (“daredevil,” read one sticky note), and leap obstacles to service in a single bound. One group added a shield to their info pro, emblazoned with these mottoes: collaborator not competitor, model best practice, neutral and safe place, open to all, and, simply, “Research!”

The focus on support articulated what is needed from library administration. Of course, time and money were mentioned, but the models also defined support as tangible recognition and appreciation by administration. Staff should be “treasured.” Clear communication and transparency also set the stage for success, as does an atmosphere that promotes play and making mistakes.

One group highlighted the need for support from colleagues at their own workplace and across the profession. This included opportunities to interact with other departments on in-house projects or attend conferences/participate in online networking.

Compassionate Creatives

All of the groups mentioned creativity in some form as well as an emphasis on meeting our work with humanism, grace, and kindness. One sticky note simply stated, “Listens without judgment,” while another cut into the shape of a heart read, “Open. Passion. Empathy.” The exercise itself was a creative one, and we hope our participants found it inspiring.

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



  1. Trisha Daugherty says:

    I just stumbled across this website, while O was researching what it takes to be a librarian. First, a small amount of background info. I am 45 years old , and have always had a great love for reading and the library. I chose to get married out of high school rather than go to college. Now I have the chance to go to college. According to the internet, the outlook on jobs Isn’t great looking. I am terrified of spending the next 6+ years in school, only to end up with a framed diploma on the wall. Do you have any advice for me? Thank you so much for your time.

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