Teaching to the Team | Learning in Practice

Library leaders have strong views about what library schools should be doing to prepare the kind of employees they’re looking for, what graduates should know to transition successfully to library work, and how schools and libraries can collaborate to produce prosperous graduates.

Library leaders share how LIS programs can prepare librarians they’re eager to hire

By the time most library leaders reach their top management positions, they’ve been out of library school for a while and can take a long view on how their time there shaped their first job, their work supervising new librarians, and their experience at the helm. Others come from the business world and have a unique perspective on library education, often having taken a degree when already high up in a library organization to qualify for a director’s role. Either way, they can have strong views about what library schools should be doing to prepare the kind of employees they’re looking for, what graduates should know to transition successfully to library work, and how schools and libraries can collaborate to produce prosperous graduates. LJ spoke with leaders nationwide to get their opinions about today’s library education and wish list for the future.

Soft skills are key

When asked what skills they need in library school graduates, library leaders were apt to focus as much or more on soft skills and mind-set than specific duties. As Alysse ­Jordan, a former academic librarian and currently director of library and research services for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), New York, tells LJ, “Which specific skills are needed to be a successful librarian are constantly shifting because technology is constantly changing, so adaptability is more important than the ability to do a particular task.” She notes that aptitude to pivot quickly is more important than it was in the past. “Today’s graduates [must] thrive in a complex environment that can be unpredictable,” says Jordan.

Chicago Public Library (CPL) commissioner Brian Bannon (a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker) also mentions adaptability as an important skill for graduates; he emphasizes curiosity as well and discusses the desirability of design thinking, using creativity and empathy to meet a customer’s needs. “Design thinking is the common vocabulary used by our most innovative and effective partners,” says Bannon. “In order for the library to creatively respond to emerging demands, our librarians must be comfortable with design skills like building empathy, creative problem-solving within constraints, [and] prototyping and iterating on an initial design before launching any new program or service.”

John Szabo, city librarian of the Los Angeles Public ­Library (LAPL), echoes the need to have the right mind-set. Szabo comments, “It’s very important for graduates to have a sense of the big picture—that they’re able to understand and grasp broadly what public library service is about and what it does for a community.”

Christopher Platt, chief branch library officer at the New York Public Library (NYPL), emphasizes a concentration on communicating outcomes. “We’re working on…empowering our staff to characterize their work in ways that reflect the intended impact,” notes Platt. “It’s nice to hear from an individual that they had 20 kids at a bilingual story hour. It’s nicer to hear them characterize it as 20 kids and their parents/caregivers had an experience that helped build confidence in communicating in a new language, added words to their vocabulary, and contributed to their under­standing of diversity.” Communication skills are also top of the list for Paula Miller, director, Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL). “A lot of soft skills are important,” says Miller. “Conflict management, customer service, advocacy—all of them are related to communication, whether it’s among our staff, with our customers, or with our partners in the community.” Miller echoes Platt in discussing the ability to communicate data that is backed by a narrative. “Our libraries have changed; what we need to measure has changed. We need to rework the tools that we traditionally used to capture and use data, but we also encourage our staff to not only use the numbers that are available to them but also to tell the related stories so that we’re capturing the whole impact of what we do.”

The Customer is Always First

Several library leaders mentioned customer service as an important soft skill that is too often overlooked. As Chicago’s Bannon comments, “Today’s public library careers are about community-embedded public services. [We] need to attract professionals with a service orientation, an understanding of community needs, and an entrepreneurial spirit that will allow them to creatively shape the libraries of the future.” Marcellus Turner, executive director and chief librarian, Seattle Public Library (SPL), says that his city is lucky in this regard. “As we’re in Seattle, we’re able to hire a lot of people who have experience in Starbucks and Nord­strom, so they’ve been taught customer service.”

Jim O’Donnell, university librarian at Arizona State University, Tempe, is also adamant that customer service training is vital in library education. “The first course taught in library school should be a customer service course.” While other library tasks must be accomplished with technical proficiency, says O’Donnell, those should be taught second. “First of all,” he says, “make the students people who focus on the interests, concerns, practices, and frustrations of users and help them think about how everything they do needs to have a strong link to assuring and improving customer satisfaction.”

Technical Skills Still Count

While soft skills are essential, the library leaders interviewed say that, of course, it doesn’t end there. In the meantime, changes in libraries are already resulting in changes in library school. Ray Baker, director of the Miami-Dade Public Library System, FL, notes that, in his view, library schools have already undergone welcome transformations. “In general, it seems that most are maintaining a strong curriculum focused on the core principles of librarianship but are also providing substantial coursework in nontraditional subject areas such as coding, web design, digital libraries, and information management systems.” These are skills that he pinpoints as an increasing part of the daily life of librarians.

Turner also looks for graduates with a knowledge of project management because the library is having more librarians lead projects. His wish list also includes graduates with governmental or budgetary coursework, because, he says, many of SPL’s new hires move quickly into supervisory positions; it also includes facilitation training, as the library’s staff members increasingly must engage in and moderate community conversations. “Some degree of coursework or experience around management and leadership” is desirable to Szabo, too, who wants graduates to expect an eventual move into some kind of leadership role. “Someone who’s graduating and coming to work in a public library will inevitably, at some point in their career, be asked to supervise people, be in charge of a project, manage a library location or a group of libraries,” he says, also noting that a leadership attitude can be put to work even before that happens. “People can lead from any position, and those leadership skills will serve [even] an entry-level librarian very well.”

The ability to gather, manipulate, and present data ­effectively—in other words, proficiency in informatics—was brought up by several library leaders. As Szabo says, “Public libraries are increasingly focused on the ability to analyze and use data to inform planning and better target audiences that need and use our services. Graduates who understand data and how to use it, and have experience doing that, are very needed and will be assets to the libraries they join.” He also notes that librarians who can develop strong partnerships with school districts, sharing and analyzing data that relates to that partnership, will help their organization be more effective.

Baker tells LJ, “An area that could [do with] more attention are skills in data analysis and how to use that data to show what is happening in a branch location or to demonstrate the effectiveness of a program. Data analysis is important because numbers don’t always tell the whole story. What is learned from these analyses helps shape future programs and services.” Baker also mentioned skills working with vendor data as a plus. “The ability to aggregate data has become more in demand as more library content and corresponding usage data often live in the databases of third-party vendors,” he says. “It benefits us as a library system to not only be able to understand this data but to aggregate it on our own.”

Not everyone, however, is a data enthusiast. SPL’s Turner feels that the emphasis on working with data sometimes goes overboard and that a moderate background in data management is usually sufficient. “Everyone who joins us should have one or two classes in data management and how to use open data,” he explains. “The difficulty is that, even in a system our size, we might have only one or two opportunities to employ someone working at that full time, whereas I still need the traditional skills of working at a desk, knowing how to work with children’s literature, all those things.”

Turner laments that an emphasis on informatics is one of the factors working against diversity in his library system. “In Seattle...we get [people of diverse backgrounds] moving here and that shows up in the library school. The challenge is that the library may not go on to be the beneficiary of that diversity, because a lot of the students move into informatics instead of libraries.” Of course, it’s possible that reducing that emphasis would lead not to more diverse applicants for library positions but to those students enrolling in a different graduate program; since Seattle is a major tech industry hub, some students may deliberately seek programs with an informatics focus in hopes of well-remunerated employment in private industry. Turner also notes that where faculty are from the library field rather than from an informatics background, a school tends to produce a more well-rounded set of graduates.

BCPL’s Miller sees a need for graduates with coursework in urban librarianship, though she says that she doesn’t find many with that background. Such graduates will also need the ability to work with professionals outside of the library—social workers, for example, and individuals in agencies that help people experiencing homelessness. “We don’t have a social worker on staff,” in Baltimore, says Miller, “but we certainly wish we did. We are in discussions with the health department about whether their staff [can] be deployed to some of our branches. As libraries become more involved in their communities and more aware of community indicators and needs, we need to be ready to step up our part of that partnership.”

LIS Should Drive DiversITY

The lack of diversity in the library profession was a problem much discussed by the interviewees. When asked what he would change about library school, the presence of students from a greater variety of backgrounds was Bannon’s top wish. “Library schools should recruit a more diverse set of students into our profession” he says.

“Libraries like [LAPL] and academic libraries not only want but need workforces filled with librarians who represent the communities they serve,” says Szabo, who emphasized that library schools must present the importance of diversity in their curriculum as well as their recruitment. He praises a partner in this work, labor unions. “Finding creative ways to work around employment issues and civil service rules is important for us,” he says. “We have found that labor leadership are eager to work on those kinds of things, to figure out solutions and break down those barriers to people joining the profession.”

CFR’s Jordan, meanwhile, says that library schools’ requirement of practical experience as part of the curriculum is a way for schools, and the profession, to become more diverse. “Requiring a practicum is a way of helping diversity in the field,” she notes. “If you’re required to do one for credit, it’s more fair than needing to do unpaid internships after graduating, which not everyone can afford.”

For BCPL’s Miller, internships are also crucial for assisting diversity, but she hopes that a push toward diversity can happen even before that. “We need to encourage librarianship as a possibility [for people] at a younger age,” she says. She also says that a way to increase the diversity of the profession is to recruit paraprofessionals who are already working in librarianship. Maryland, she says, has statewide library associate training institutes aimed to do just that.

Setting expectations

Jordan says that because things change so quickly in the library world now, it is important for library schools to inform students that the career tracks of old are obsolete. “Graduates need an ability to think innovatively and creatively, not to allow themselves to get too stuck on a track they had for themselves that is not working out.... I see a lot of people who are coming out of library school and maybe haven’t been set up with the right expectations,” she continues. Jordan explains that when she entered the profession around 20 years ago, librarians generally had one job at a time and moved along on a specific, predictable track. Today’s economic climate has caused changes in how people have to look at their careers, she says. “A lot of the interns that I’ve supervised that were in library school weren’t able to find a full-time job when they graduated,” says Jordan. “They had to pull together two or three part-time jobs because, like a lot of industries, we’re in a gig economy. I don’t think their expectations matched what they found in the job market. They also weren’t clear [about] what they would have to do to distinguish themselves if they wanted a certain kind of leadership career.”

Practical experience can help graduates to have the right expectations, says Jordan, who notes that it is too often lacking. “When I was working in academic libraries and we would have library school students come in and we would talk about our library and our jobs, even though they were about to graduate, the visit was often the first time they had a frank, realistic idea of what it was like to be in a library setting,” she explains.

A practicum is required at many library schools for good reason, says Jordan. “At the end of the day, when people are going into tremendous debt, what they care about is being able to get gainful employment.... I don’t think you can be a librarian without having had library experience.” Jordan encourages library schools to prepare students for the budget realities in libraries. “If we can only have two people instead of five, you want to have two people whom you know are capable of doing the job that previously five people did. In that case I need to hire somebody who has the right skills, knowledge, ambition, and drive. Even if the person is fresh out of library school, if they have done internships and worked while they were in school and had a lot of exposure to different kinds of library experiences, that person will be interesting to me to hire.”

Practical experience is also highly valued at NYPL, says Platt, who explains that the library recently reinstated “a Librarian Trainee program that helps groom library science students for professional roles in NYPL.... Many leaders within our organization and the profession went through a previous iteration. It helps students apply new knowledge and ideas on a practical basis and learn how to fit within the culture and dynamics of a large, busy urban library system.”

Fortunately, many library leaders are proactive about communicating their evolving needs to library schools, often by sitting on the boards of local schools or their alma mater. As Szabo says, “The responsibility is also on us to reach out and connect to those programs and offer our assistance.”

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