The Skills You Don’t Learn in School

by Annie Pho

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.