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Librarians Have Skills That Pay The Bills

Sarah Houghton-Jan recently conducted a survey over Twitter about why people continue to work in libraries. The results were interesting, but also thought provoking. It made me think about my own career as a librarian and the skills I’ve developed. One of the reasons that people gave for continuing to work in libraries was “Fear that I’m not qualified for anything else.” I tried to be honest with myself and question if that was a reason I’m a librarian. The answer was a resounding no.

Not just me, but librarians in general have a lot of skills that can transfer well to other fields. Houghton-Jan in her post mentioned project management, information architechture, and writing. After some thinking about myself and a lot of other librarians I know, I recognized there are a lot of trasferrable skills that we librarians have.

Project Management

Much of what we do involves large scale projects. Whether it is redesigning a website, weeding the reference collection, or digitizing a collection of rare materials, librarians have experience in planning and managing projects.

Information Architecture

Librarians understand information and how to organize it like few others. This skill is needed a lot of places due to the terabytes or exabytes or yottabytes (it’s a thing, look it up) of data than is constantly being created. Librarians understand ways to get to information quickly and how to select which information is important. Librarians understand indexing, search, or semantic data. The future needs minds like ours to make sense of this wealth of information.

Writing

Our profession is filled with constant writing. Writing grants, proposals, scholarly articles, blog posts, web copy, emails, marketing materials, newsletters, etc.

Marketing

It’s necessary for librarians to promote themselves and their services in order to get used and stay relevant. Librarians create paper and electronic newsletters. They use services like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare to engage and interact with users.  They create marketing materials, whether they’re signs, ads, or banners. They network in the community spreading their messages via word of mouth.

Customer Service

This is (or should be) our bread and butter. Librarians have superior customer service skills. They want to make sure that their patrons are pleased, have a good experience, and get a sufficient answer to their questions. I can recall many instances of librarians chasing after people with one last resource that they found, or librarians who rush catalog a book to get it into someone’s hands. Librarians aim to please, and this translates to the for-profit world well.

Event Planning

There is no shortage of events that librarians plan and organize whether it’s a summer reading program, conferences, crafternoon, or gaming events at the library. Librarians know what it takes to make events successful.

Technology Chops

It might not always seem like it, but librarians are probably one of the most tech savvy groups of people outside of Silicon Valley. Librarians, for the most part, understand the web and how it works. They’re curious about new tools and like to experiment. Being able to adapt to the changing technological landscape is a necessary skill to have these days. Librarians possess this skill in spades.

Creativity

Out of necessity librarians have learned to be very creative. Budgets are constantly getting cut, and funds are almost always tight, but librarians find a way to do a lot with a little. We implement creative solutions on a shoestring budget, whether it’s running Linux on public workstations or finding more efficient ways of managing our collections. This could be very useful in places like the non-profit sector or start-ups.

I work in libraries because I really love learning. I love the idea of learning and I like helping other people learn. But I could see why someone might want to try something other than libraries. I don’t think that we should fear about not being able to do other things. We have skills that can be transferred to a lot of other fields. The ones I listed above are just a few. What other transferable skills do you think you have?

Andy Burkhardt

19 Comments

  1. Great post, Andy. It's pretty depressing to think that anyone would be in any job because they are afraid they can't do anything else! Ouch.
    One skill librarians excel at is communicating with a wide variety of people. And even more so, communicating oftentimes complex information with people that have varying degrees of knowledge in an area. That is certainly a skill a lot of businesses and careers smile favorably on.
    I would also say we have to work well with others. IT immediately comes to mind but also faculty, administrators, students, or whatever patron group you work with. I think of that less as customer service and more in terms of organizational communication.
    Thanks for getting me to think about it!

  2. You're definitely right about the communication skills. Librarians have a lot of soft skills like building relationships and connecting people that we sometimes overlook. We think about more specific things like project management skills or web design skills. These soft skills are really what make the difference in people though. If you're able to communicate well and be friendly and build relationships, it makes other pieces of the job so much easier.

  3. I think because librarians know a lot about how researchers, students, proff, etc look for information, how searching is done, research work flow and in general how universities work, they could easily find roles in publishing houses (especially STM).

  4. Great post!

    I'd like to suggest two allied skills that seem highly specialist at first glance, but which I think are fundamental to communication and to the transmission of knowledge …

    * Diagnostic ability.

    The basis of the reference interview or one-to-one help clinic. Librarians are able to draw out partially articulated – or even wholly unrecognised – information needs and desires and translate them into a form that makes them susceptible to searching, and thus possible to address or resolve.

    * An understanding of the myriad forms of information conceptualisation.

    We know more about the conceptual containers into which systems, machines, academic disciplines and people put chunks of information than anyone else. With people this chunking is often only partially realised, since humans construct and relate meaning in such exquisitely personal and sophisticated ways; in contrast, controlled systems and taxonomies can feel forced and illogical in their attempts to render the same world in a hierarchical and organised way (LCSH, anyone?…). We mediate between all these worldviews.

    I really can only say, GO US!

  5. GO US indeed! I like “diagnostic ability.” We're able to recognize what the real question actually is or grasp the actual problem. As for your second point, I was trying to say a little bit of that in “Information Architecture” but you captured it's essence much bettter than I. We can see the value in both highly controlled information as well as very personal information. No two people have the exact same conceptualization of reality so they will conceptualize information differently. Librarians realize this and are experts at working on ways to help people find information that is meaningful to THEM.

  6. Oh yeah, definitely with publishers. They know how people's minds work and librarians work on marketing these products to researchers all the time. “Use our stuff!” I've talked to a lot of former librarians who found jobs with vendors or publishers. We want products to be great.

  7. Great post!

    I'd like to suggest two allied skills that seem highly specialist at first glance, but which I think are fundamental to communication and to the transmission of knowledge …

    * Diagnostic ability.

    The basis of the reference interview or one-to-one help clinic. Librarians are able to draw out partially articulated – or even wholly unrecognised – information needs and desires and translate them into a form that makes them susceptible to searching, and thus possible to address or resolve.

    * An understanding of the myriad forms of information conceptualisation.

    We know more about the conceptual containers into which systems, machines, academic disciplines and people put chunks of information than anyone else. With people this chunking is often only partially realised, since humans construct and relate meaning in such exquisitely personal and sophisticated ways; in contrast, controlled systems and taxonomies can feel forced and illogical in their attempts to render the same world in a hierarchical and organised way (LCSH, anyone?…). We mediate between all these worldviews.

    I really can only say, GO US!

  8. GO US indeed! I like “diagnostic ability.” We're able to recognize what the real question actually is or grasp the actual problem. As for your second point, I was trying to say a little bit of that in “Information Architecture” but you captured it's essence much bettter than I. We can see the value in both highly controlled information as well as very personal information. No two people have the exact same conceptualization of reality so they will conceptualize information differently. Librarians realize this and are experts at working on ways to help people find information that is meaningful to THEM.

  9. Oh yeah, definitely with publishers. They know how people's minds work and librarians work on marketing these products to researchers all the time. “Use our stuff!” I've talked to a lot of former librarians who found jobs with vendors or publishers. We want products to be great.

  10. Hi Andy. May be you will recognise me, i am from Turkey, we had talked before on the web. I am in Denmark now, Royal School of Information Sciende. Anyway, i am writting a thesis and my problem statement is “how can we make library more creativity for user atractive?” If you have any idea, or any examples for creativity, i will be very happy Andy. Thank you :)
    Serdinç

  11. Serdinç, I definitely remember chatting with you. I hope you’re enjoying Denmark and going to school there. The best example of creativity in libraries I have heard of lately was a talk by Randy Hensley. He’s discussing information literacy, but the ideas about creativity could be used in a number of different library contexts. Here’s a pretty good write up of his talk. The Creative Dynamic of Information Literacy

  12. Very very thanks to you Andy :) After i finished my thesis, i will share you and your followers. Thanks again! :)

  13. Andy, I completely agree with you that we librarians have many transferable skills. Because we are in the business of information, we find it easy to learn, remember, and organize. Oftentimes we are indeed “walking encyclopedias”. For me, my strongest points are customer service and foreign languages, some of which I speak, and others I have used in cataloging. At the moment, I’m trying to learn new web developing skills.

    But my question is, how do I translate this into a new job, especially in this economy? I lost my job as a librarian three years ago at a non-profit cultural research institution, and I haven’t worked full-time since. In the meantime I’ve noticed the reduction of librarian job postings generally, and of those, more seem to be wanting interns and preprofessionals. The laundry list of required education and skills also seems to be expanding without a corresponding increase in salary. And add to that all the new MLS graduates to the marketplace in the meantime.

    I have absolutely no fear about doing other things – while I was already a librarian I worked at a dot.com for three years managing accounts. But I still have one heck of a time finding any kinds of appropriate jobs to apply for, and convincing potential employers that I’m not “just a librarian”…

  14. This is really interesting; I’m in the life science and many of my peers are tackling a very similar challenge of how to transfer the skills gained as a scientist to other lines of work. It’s interesting to see how much similarity there is (perhaps not surprisingly given that both librarians and scientists share a focus on research) – writing, creativity, project management and facility with information are exactly the types of skills scientists tend to emphasize when branching into new fields as well. Anyway, great post!

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