Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Soft Skills that Librarians Lack

A kind reader sent me this short op/ed piece from Inside Higher Education advocating student instruction in “soft skills”: things like how to dress and groom for an interview, the importance of showing up on time, and the role of small talk and the handshake. The argument concerned undergraduates, but all I thought about were some of the hapless library school students and new librarians I’ve seen over the years who never got the soft skills lesson.

Some examples  in interviews:

A man shows up to an interview for a job at an academic library wearing something other than a suit. The worst one I’ve seen didn’t even have a jacket and tie, just a wrinkled dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to different lengths and what looked like suit pants. He was personable and friendly and gave good answers to questions, but if that was how he dressed for an interview, I feared he would show up to work in flip flops and bermuda shorts. Or rather, I feared that would happen if another library ever hired him.

A woman shows up for an interview. She’s wearing a dress, of sorts. It looks kind of like a large bag that had been left on the floor for a few days prior to the interview. She also had way too much makeup on, very unevenly applied, creating something of a Joker effect. Nobody wants to be greeted by that at the reference desk, and probably nobody ever will be.

Another woman, wearing a dark, tasteful dress, lovely shoes, well groomed. She sat through the day’s interview not saying a thing to anybody. Not just no small talk with other librarians throughout the day. Even her answers to questions were so minimal and quietly spoken that after a while we didn’t even bother trying to figure out what she was saying. She was the Calvin Coolidge of the library world. A woman famously went up to “Silent Cal” and told him she’d bet someone she could get him to say more than two words. His response? “You lose.” And when you’re that silent in an interview, Coolidge’s response applies to you.

And then sometimes these people get jobs. What do they do then?

There’s the cataloger I once knew who wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone, even in direct conversation. He would also only look down when walking around and pretend nobody else was around. It was more disturbing than it sounds at first.

A reference librarian who needed to be reminded that jeans and tee shirts aren’t really acceptable clothing when meeting with the public, especially legible tee shirts. Keep your love for Metallica to yourself, buddy.

And then there was crazy sweater lady, the crazier the better. She also had a LOT of cats, but fortunately they never accompanied her to work except as the topic of an incessant monologue. No, lady, your cats aren’t actually like human children, and no amount of wishing will make it so. I mean, honestly, when was the last time you saw a human child pick up a dead bird in its mouth and drop it outside the back door? And human children are terrible at mousing.

I could go on, but it would be too painful. I’ll leave it to you. What unprofessional behavior and lack of soft skills have you seen?



  1. You go into cataloging because you don’t want to talk to people.

  2. I worked in academia for years and this profession, for better or worse, attracts a lot of people on the spectrum, particularly males. I have had countless co-workers like the ones you describe: no social skills, poorly groomed, not even a basic sense of fashion, etc. Of course as Susan says, many people go into cataloging because they aren’t sociable, but I have also seen these traits in reference librarians. When I tell people that I have gotten every job I’ve ever applied for, they think I’m being an obnoxious braggart. But the fact is, I have a personality and know how to dress. Dollars to donuts this is what sets me apart every time. Now that I work in middle management I get to lead these interviews. I’m often shocked at not only the manner of dress of some of these people, but the complete lack of preparation before the interview. And I am not talking about recent grads here. Maybe other professions are seeing these same problems, but this has been an issue in libraries for years. I just can’t imagine how people make it through high school, college and grad school without the knowledge of how to dress for work or put your best foot forward when interviewing for a job.

    Anyway, this isn’t a new idea, as MIT has been offering these classes for a while. CBS Sunday Morning did a piece on it a few months back. Again, my guess is that some of these young people are on the spectrum and maybe didn’t get the intense level of therapy young autistic people get now, in order to help them learn these social skills/how to read social cues.

    • Clearly you haven’t been applying for jobs in the last 4 years.

    • I do hope that you don’t tell too many people that you’ve gotten every job that you applied for. That’s not a remotely empowering statement; that’s an incredibly demoralizing statement for those who don’t get every job, or any job, or an interview, despite having a strong CV, solid social skills, and a decent suit.

  3. One of the examples that stands out to me time after time was at a public library. The director and I were trying to find the fax number for one of the branches. The number we were using wasn’t correct, and we were flailing around the fax machine. Eventually we gave up and headed back upstairs to search her office for the correct number.

    As soon as we were back in the office, the cataloger who had sat next to the fax machine the entire time watching us called her to tell her the number was sitting next to the fax machine. The director and I just stared at each other for a moment trying to figure out why she couldn’t have just told us while we were there.

    I worked there 3 months and never once heard that woman’s voice. If I asked where to put a stack of books for re-cataloging, she would gesture. If I said hello, she would say nothing. I’m also shy, but that doesn’t mean I let myself be completely uncommunicative to coworkers.

  4. I’m glad I fell into cataloging, partly because it requires less human interaction than other aspects of the library world. However, I still can make small talk, socialize at librarian gatherings, and dress presentably. I sometimes wonder about different work places’ standards though. There is a blog devoted to library job interviews, and one hiring manager said that women should never wear pants and always wear stockings. I asked one of the university cataloging supervisors (who sits in on interviews) and she said she’d be wary of someone who WAS wearing stockings–for one, we live in a warm city, for another, the workplace is just not that fancy (or tied to gender roles). At my job it’d be a little much to show up to an interview in a suit–khakis, a button-down, and a blazer would be fine. We’re big on cardigans around here. I had one library professor who would wear suits every day, but old-fashioned ones with vests and pocket squares. In a job interview he’d either be found charming or very weird, depending on the interviewer. I guess the next time I do a job search I’ll have to start scrounging the thrift stores for used suits–I certainly can’t afford a nice new on on a librarian’s salary.

  5. Tired Librarian says:

    It’s easy to laugh, but I suspect that most workplaces have equity programs that include the handicapped – and that includes people with mental conditions. Many of these people described probably could be diagnosed with some autistic spectrum disorder.

    We have a brief history of our workplace written in the early 1960’s that is hilarious – it could never be written today – it would spawn too many lawsuits. It describes the considerable idiosyncracies and mishaps of the employees. It’s a riot – an early 60’s version of “Big Bank Theory”.

    Frankly, now you must endure a 3-4 hour interview/essay process to get an entry-level job. After jumping through all the hoops that Human Resources create in order to weed out everyone, only the blandest are left – not good for the workplace either. Or worst, those with the blandest exteriors but who are still bats-nuts crazy – the bullies, etc., survive the winnowing! Even worse for the functioning of the workplace

    Give me the good old days when someone won’t make eye contact but can do their job! Jobs for the differently abled! (like in the old days)

    Tolerance, people – tolerance!

  6. I remember one librarian candidate we interviewed years ago: dressed professionally, made eye contact, had plenty of people skills but was a smug, know-it-all type.

    One could tell right away that this person would go far in the right environment, but would be a drain on staff. Negative on any type of innovation, spending too much time promoting themselves and their cleverness, and wasting time and resources blogging on the Internets.

    I wonder what ever happened to that candidate?

  7. Tired Librarian says:

    Cats aren’t like human children. Everyone knows that, except sweather ladies,DOGS are like human children, but better.

    • Development Arrested says:

      As I am getting older and some of my friends are having children, sometimes on Facebook I have to remind myself which are talking about children and which are talking about dogs.

  8. You know, as a kid I always liked the crazy sweater lady librarians, and the weirdly quite ones. I was an introverted kid, and the strange librarians in sweaters and ratty hair were way more approachable to me than anyone wearing a fancy suit. I wonder how these sorts of things break down depending on job description. I know a children’s librarian who creates her own costumes for story hour and dresses up at least once a week. The kids love her. But she must have been at least a bit weird during her interview. I can see being so picky for a library director position, but for those of us who don’t have to go to the fancy fundraising dinners, let us be a bit strange!

    • The Librarina says:

      As one of those weird children’s librarians, I have learned to dampen that weirdness in interviews–at least until I’ve got a feel for the room. No purple sparkly nail polish or crazy hair colors, of course, and no talking about my infamous Dinosaur Storytime Hat unless I know it will be welcome.

      Unfortunately, it also means not wearing my bespoke Tenth Doctor pinstripe suit to interviews, even though it looks fantastic on me… :)

  9. I know a lot of librarians who are naturally quiet people. That doesn’t mean they aren’t completely capable of giving you a confident and clear answer to your reference question. Or of leading a helpful and well informed library instruction session.

    I also know a lot of librarians who like to talk about their cats. It’s their way of being friendly. If everybody in the library has the same interests and skill sets, you’re not going to be able to give great service to your patrons.

    I do think it’s important to show up neatly dressed, whatever your personal style might be.

  10. LadyBossyBoots says:

    O.K. — This is coming from a public library perspective, not an academic one but:

    EVERY library position requires some customer service skills. Even if you are a cataloger and your “customer service” may be limited to other staff members, you need to be able to interact with them professionally.

    I am on a lot of committees and work groups with various Technical Services staff, and they are the bane of my existence. Trying to get a bunch of no-eye-contact-making, won’t-speak-at-an-audible-level, scared-of-their-own-shadow staff members to work effectively as a group makes herding cats look like child’s play.

  11. The interviewee who totally TRASHED our website and several other things . . .

  12. I am, unfortunately, morbidly obese, and owning a suit for interviewing – which I do what, every 5 years or so if I’m lucky – is cost prohibitive. Still, I do my best to wear a good dress shirt that’s unwrinkled, dress pants, a nice tie, and to be completely groomed appropriately at the interview. I also turn on the charm, answer questions thoroughly, think about my answers, and ask intelligent questions. Like Lola, I’ve gotten every library job I’ve interviewed for (I didn’t get the one tech support job I interviewed for) and I think its because I made that effort, even if I couldn’t match the excellence of the outfits others have.

    Of course, at my current job, I was told one of my competitors had misspellings in her cover letter, so maybe I’m the least of evils.

  13. Floating Librarian says:

    The biggest one I’ve encountered is not knowing when a conversation has ended – or that two people are supposed to talk in it instead of one. This tends to be more of a problem with female librarians. With male ones, it tends to be a question of “stop messing around on Facebook and help me pack the shipment, you #$^*$&%*.”

  14. I worked with a librarian who spoke so softly she was inaudible and I asked her “what?” so often, it was embarrassing. How can you be a public librarian if people can’t hear what you are saying- it’s bizarre. Wouldn’t you think she would consider raising the volume of her voice after the third “what?”
    Frankly, at the public libraries I have worked in, reference staff often seem ill-suited to working with the public.

  15. As a cataloger, I feel the need to defend my kind. Most of us are in it because we enjoy it. I know many other catalogers who are friendly and enjoyable company.
    I’m always saddened at conferences when I see shabbily dressed librarians who snatch up every freebie in sight and carry several large bags around with their “plunder.” I felt the need to apoligize to a very nice vender at ALA who had been ravaged by a horde of children’s librarians who took his swag but didn’t even look at his display. Disgusting.

  16. Andrew Sherman says:

    Had a job applicant that said during the interview he wanted to start later in the day because it was “too hard to get up and make it across town by nine”. In my town, this is a 20 minute drive. Had a co-worker who quit after the first day. He said he didn’t know that he would have to talk to people as part of the job. I swear, you can’t make this stuff up.

    • Development Arrested says:

      A lot of people really don’t think you have to be able to interact with people to work at a library. I can understand their confusion as so few people go to libraries anymore. Now in theory, this is someone who should have known a little about the profession beforehand.

  17. I had an interviewee once who repeatedly commented on things that made her angry. That was unusual.

    A friend was conducting interviews one time and it came down to two equal candidates, so she chose the one who was NOT wearing the bright nail polish. The one she DID choose turned up the first day with a nose ring! (She turned out to be excellent at her job, despite the ornament.)

    A very smart candidate once said to me that she regarded the interview as a sort-of first date – she was trying to find a work relationship that would last a long time, so there was no point in presenting some dressed-up version of herself. She wore comfortable work clothes and had a small tattoo visible on her arm. She was hired and I am grateful every day she is here!

    • How lovely,,, now if only a giraffe came in for an interview, would they be hired over a gorilla?

  18. Try a Children’s Librarian with Selective Mutism….we had a one in our system for many years

  19. I’m interviewing for a public information position for a library district in Northern California tomorrow. I found this article just in time. Engaging but not overwhelming, keep my AC/DC shirt at home, put on the nice suit (dry cleaned and pressed), eye contact…ok, I think I’m good to go. Thank you AL!

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