The Skills You Don’t Learn In School

Photo Credit: Flickr User Donna Cymek

Photo Credit: Flickr User Donna Cymek

Librarianship is a profession that’s all about helping people, which means we need to be able to work with them. Even if you don’t work with patrons, you’ll still have to work with coworkers that run the gamut. Cat lovers(ahem), gamers, tattooed drinkers, the sweet old lady who doesn’t know what email is(patron or coworker), you might run across them all. You can’t escape people in this profession! Whether you were drawn to this profession because you love books, or because you wanted to put off student loans, having people skills is a must. We’re expected to have some technology skills and maybe even more advanced programming skills. That’s all great! However, there are a lot of things library school can’t teach you. People skills being one of them. No one can teach you how to be in the world, that’s something that we all develop as we move forward in life. Employers are looking for folks who have these skills.

For example, take a look at these qualifications taken from different job ads:

  • Excellent communication and interpersonal skills.

  • Demonstrated commitment to customer service.

  • Ability to manage complex workload, prioritize tasks and complete work on time with minimum supervision

  • Ability to work independently and collaboratively, and to contribute positively to a team within a rapidly changing, complex and multicultural environment

Basically, they want to know if you are a good person to work with. Are you going to be okay to work by yourself on certain things. Can you talk to people? Can you be a team player? Are you going to go crazy if someone asks you how to print for the millionth time? Addressing this in a cover letter isn’t as easy as saying “I am a great communicator” or “I work well with others” because they want to know how you do that. If it was asking for specific tech skills, it would be easier to address. “Excellent interpersonal skills” isn’t a course that you can take in school. Sure, we might take a reference or information literacy teaching course, but does it really show you how to work with a patron or be a nice person? Not really. These qualifications should be indicators of what is expected of us when we graduate. They want well-adjusted, socialized people, but being that person means that you should have developed that skill somewhere along the line.

Brett Bonfield, wrote in his post Perspective and Doing Good Work, “What you do before you get your library degree matters…” and for many of us this is true. Even if you don’t have prior library experience, there are transferable skills that you can use in a library setting. I spent many years slinging coffee beans, working in customer service. I had no clue that the experiences I had at the coffee shop would actually help me as a reference librarian. I’ve always been a shy person; but since I worked in a high traffic, noisy coffee shop, I learned to be loud in order to be heard. Now I’m more comfortable with the public and can handle being at the front of a crowd (check out Andy Burkhardt’s post on developing soft skills for more pointers). It took my awhile to realize it, but knowing how to deal/work with people is something I brought with me to library school, not something I learned in class. Taking what I’ve learned through the years and applying to the big picture has totally helped me feel like I’m in the right place. After all, we are a people based profession.

Do you think library school teaches people skills or is it something you develop as an individual? Any tips on how to get over shyness or people anxiety? Can you hate people but still be a librarian?  Feel fee to share your insights below!

31 replies

  1. We were just talking about this in a meeting of my practicum class yesterday! I agree that lots (all?) of library, archives, and information jobs require you to follow project plans and interact well on the fly with (crazy, pushy, or sweet) patrons in person and via email/phone/other technologies. And anyone can say in a cover letter “I’m a good communicator” but the trick is offering proof; and even more important is to actually be telling the truth.

    I’ve had a lot of random jobs (telethon caller, Christmas elf) that aren’t on my resume but that have given me the confidence to be personable in my current positions, which are much less embarrassing to discuss in cover letters and interviews. Thankfully.


    • I’ve had a lot of random jobs that have given me an interesting experiences. I once volunteered at a Family Expo and dressed up as Angelica from RugRats and I can assure you that kids do not like her. I got punched in the head! How that plays into libraries? Well, I can stand in front of a crowd who may or may not like me and at the end of the day, still be alive. It is a lot easier when I’m not in costume though.


        • Kids are so expressive. I don’t think I could have done anything to defend myself, the RugRats costume was really clunky. Someone had to help hold my head up as I walked. One kid almost punched the head off!


  2. The way I know to develop skills — any skills:

    1) Put yourself in a situation where you have to use them.
    2) Muddle through.

    Extra bonus points/you can develop them faster with:
    3) Ask yourself thoughtful framing questions before and during the experience;
    4) Reflect (whether by yourself or in conversation with stimulating people).

    Personally I got over a lot of my problems concerning public speaking, small talk, and getting along with people who aren’t nerds — all of which I used to have severe problems with — by teaching middle school for five years. This is perhaps an unnecessarily brutal strategy but you can start smaller :).

    So to answer your other question, no, I don’t think library school qua library school teaches people skills, because that’s not the sort of thing you learn from doing your homework. But if you approach library school as a way to seek out crucibles for developing those skills, and you ask yourself thoughtful framing questions about how and where to work on those skills in library school, then yes, it can be. It’s the difference between doing a group project (as library school students will), and doing a group project while paying tons of attention to what people’s personalities are and what the subtexts of the interactions are and where they work and where they don’t and how your actions impact the situation — making the group dynamics, not the assignment, your primary locus of intellectual and emotional engagement.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andromeda, I think you make a really good point about approaching group work as an exercise in people skills. Professors who assign group projects often say they are important because group work happens all the time in the library profession. That’s certainly true in most settings, but it’s still possible to go through a project griping about slacker group members or communication snafus and never really LEARN anything about working with other people. It’s that old, but always applicable challenge: “assign yourself.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think, as a profession, we have this idea that we’re supposed to be introverted and passive. That anything more outgoing comes across as ‘salesmanish’. [Which isn’t a bad thing, as we’re selling a service, once you get down to it.]

    The beauty of TED talks online is that you can see so many different presentation styles and see that they all work in their level of engagement and how the point comes across. You just have to find what works for you. We don’t all have to be super loud and on all cylinders all the time, nor do we have to be The Librarian From Above.

    To paraphrase Stephanie’s comment above, one must also be prepared to interact well on the fly with (crazy, pushy, or sweet) COWORKERS in person and via email/phone/other technologies, all of which have their differences.

    And for the record, while it might not be on a resume, if you walked into my interview room and said that you had previously worked as a Christmas Elf or trade show character, I would think that was awesome. Flexibility and a willingness to stretch your imagination on how to engage is a great skill.


  4. You have to make yourself to it–either get a job that puts you in contact with people or put yourself in situations where you have to talk. I used to dislike public speaking–maybe I still do–but I made myself sign up for conference presentations, etc. so that I couldn’t back out. Now, I don’t even really care anymore about having to speak in public. Not to say that I’m good at it, but at least I don’t worry about it anymore.

    I also always say I don’t like people. Not true really. I like learning about people and am good at talking one-on-one, most of the time. But I don’t like crowds/groups and not always good at chitchat. I got a job as a volunteer coordinator for a few months, and I had to deal with hundreds of volunteers, as well as the the public.

    It’s definitely about practice. I feel like I’m a bit out of it again and need to start practicing more. Though I think I’m saving my people energy for when I really need it–in a few months, when I become president of one of the library organizations.


    • I agree with you, working with people can take practice. Being at ease around lots of different folks is something you work at, especially if you’re a shy person like me. I personally hate yelling, and I never try to talk over other people in conversations but working at a coffee shop forced me to shout and yell. Now I know that I can project my voice if I need to.

      My approach this past year is to try and do stuff that scares me. I was terrified of public speaking but I signed up for an instruction internship and now I teach info lit classes on a weekly basis. It wasn’t easy at first, but I’m learning to be comfortable in front of crowds.


  5. I think you sort of pick up some of those skills during library school. We often had to do group projects, which required some people skills. The more effort you put into it during those opportunities, the more you’ll get out of it.


  6. Communication skills are also key for archivists. I’m technically a Processing Archivist, but 50% of what I do is reference, either by email or telephone, in person, even in patron’s offices. I also interface with donors, sometimes at their homes. So I need to have the people skills to manage all that activity, in addition to working largely solo the other 50% of the time. There’s still this weird stigma/impression of archivists being anti-social or something, but coming from a more library/higher ed background, I can’t imagine doing a good job if I couldn’t have great interactions with the faculty and staff at my organization.

    As for the public speaking and other softer skills, it helps to participate in student groups and to do a lot of student work in grad school. You really do learn how to manage…”difficult” people…and how to work collaboratively (or at the very least, you learn what can derail good collaborative work). If you volunteer with student groups, you can run meetings, take turns presenting activities, it all adds up to build experience.


  7. So once we have those skills, how do we communicate them to our potential employers? It’s not as though we get to audition for the role of Librarian. What’s the best way to tell or demonstrate to people that we can interact and work well with others when we won’t have the opportunity to show them firsthand?


    • Loranne – in a way, you do get to audition… its called “The Interview!” Also, since references are a part of any job application, making a point to express those skills in your current situation (classroom, volunteer, work – library or not) is a way to represent those skills. Lastly, I’d argue that social media or a developed online presence would count in this area too. Interacting and having an open personality in digital spaces shows that you have the character to be collegial.


  8. Communication skills, in any profession, are crucial but especially important when you are in a profession that 1. helps people seeking information and, 2. you are front-line ambassadors for your institution.

    I wish more library schools devoted time in the curriculum to people management – because some librarians will move on to administrative positions that will require a different set of skills beyond subject matter expertise. Running a whole library, dealing with staff conflict, recruiting and employee recognition all entail really strong people management skills.


  9. My suggestion is get a part time job in your university’s bookstore! My first real job was working my university’s bookstore as an undergrad for three years. I learned to deal with all sorts of people – classmates, professors, parents, alumni, and random people from the larger community.
    I also had to deal with people in high stress situations when books ran out or when students had to face that high price tag (great prep for a stressed out researcher). I had to explain/teach students how to find their books on our shelves (a great instruction experience). I also had to teach new employees had to navigate our odd software and I’m pretty sure I explained how to use our old dot-matrix printer a thousand times.

    I also had to deal with customer service issues over the phone and through email (I ended up being my managers go-to person to answer the “How do I use your online ordering system?” e-mails.)

    Let me tell you, I entered that job as a shy girl who had no idea what she was doing (I’d never even been behind a cash register before) and I ended as a student manager and the go-to person for a variety of customer service issues. I’m so in debt to all the people skills I learned at the job.


  10. Anyone have thoughts about how to “prove” these soft skills in a cover letter? I really feel like these are the areas in which I am strongest, but it is difficult to address in applications because anyone can say they’re good at communicating and interacting with people. It’s not really quantifiable.


    • It’s SO HARD to prove these types of skills in a cover letter. If you can just talk to them in person, they would obviously see what a wonderful, smart person you are. Part of showing good communication skills is having a well written cover letter, I would think that would show them you can write and think coherently. For me, I have a section on my resume where I list out professional service experience and I might refer to a group project in my cover letter. I’ve slowly realized that cover letters show them your personality and your resume/c.v. shows your skills.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It is really tough. (I’d actually start by asking your references to address this, since they can prove it more credibly than you can! Of course, people don’t always call your references, so you can’t rely on that.)

      Just like with any other kind of communication, though, my feeling is — when you’re stuck, go for stories and concrete examples. Or, to quote your high school English teacher: show, don’t tell. Can you tell a story (very, very concisely) about a time when your communications or people skills led to better outcomes, in some way that’s relevant to what the job description is asking for?

      Back when I was writing a zillion cover letters (oh, the pain) I had a set of go-to anecdotes I would select from/cut-and-paste/tweak for each letter, depending on what specific skills I most needed to demonstrate.

      So, for example, I used to be the scheduler when I worked in a school. Constructing a school’s schedule means listening to ALL the constituencies in a school (teachers from every department & division, administrators, parents, students), eliciting their real needs even though they typically can’t articulate them, and balancing competing (often irreconcilable) needs and wants in a highly political process. See, I just demonstrated communication skills in under a paragraph :). No, it’s not quantifiable, but it’s concrete. (I could make it stronger by adding some evidence of how I produced a good schedule or ended up with people generally satisfied or what-have-you. I also made this stronger in real letters by adding some numbers — even things that aren’t quantifiable have some numbers attached and sometimes that makes your case stronger. So, e.g., I could say that I worked with 80+ faculty scheduling hundreds of courses and tutorials for ~500 students. The communication skills aren’t quantifiable, but the quantities give a sense of the scope of the problem I was addressing.)

      Of course you can also tweak the particular bullet points and action verbs you use in your resume.

      I blogged about this a while ago:

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, your example is really helpful. I do remember seeing your post but I must not have read it carefully, so I’ll go back and bookmark it!


  11. I definitely think that interpersonal skills are something that you must have to be a good librarian—before I decided to go to library school, one of the librarians I was working with gave me just this advice, in fact, and wanted to make sure that I (a definite introvert) understood that there were no library jobs that didn’t require some involvement with other people. Her advice was one of the things that made me begin to realise that my previous work history (in marketing and customer service) had actually given me a lot of valuable transferable skills, as I wrote about at the beginning of my library school career last fall:

    Great post, and very valuable for library school students who are coming straight from undergrad and worrying about their resumes!


  12. You can totally be a misanthrope and be a good librarian. Customer service doesn’t require that you love people, or even like them very much. You can love what you do and be very good at tolerating other human beings with a smile. It’s all a trade-off. I love working in the library so much that I’m willing to deal with other people. I’m great at customer service because I’m great at pretending to care.

    It frustrates me when people talk about customer service like it has to come from the very depths of your heart. That’s bullshit. If you can’t or don’t want to make it, then fake it. And fake it well.


    • That’s true, you don’t have to be completely genuine in every transaction. I think having customer service experience just gives you the ability to work with a diverse range of people. That doesn’t mean you need to like them or they have to be your friends. Drawing boundaries is VERY important too. When I worked at the coffee shop, I had regulars who I chatted with almost every day. It didn’t mean they were my friends outside of the shop.

      I’ve had experiences where certain customers did try to get too personal, to the point where I got really scared. I had to have a co-worker walk me to my car. This is how I learned to establish boundaries.


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