Library Thinker Series: What Skills Must a Librarian Have?

This post is a part of the Library Thinker Series where we examine some of the larger questions that we struggle with in librarianship and try to come to some insights together.

This week’s question is “what skills are necessary in the field of librarianship?” Are there “must have” skills that should be essential to librarians?

The most important skill that I see for librarians is to have a mindset of service. Librarianship is a career of service and not always the type of service you expect. Sometimes you get asked about a paper jam, or how to reformat a spreadsheet, or where the bathroom is. But sometimes you get asked for help with a job application or for help with research on media bias in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even though these second one’s are often more mentally stimulating, when you have a mindset of service you will answer all of those questions with similar zeal. You will want to do all they can to please their users.

This service mindset does not have to be only among public services librarians either. It could be an ILL librarian trying a lot of different avenues to get an item for a patron. It could be a web services librarian wanting to talk with patrons to genuinely improve their web experience. They don’t even necessarily even have to interact with patrons, though I believe this is extremely valuable. A spirit of service in my opinion is of the utmost importance in librarianship.

What is your take? What skills are necessary for librarians in this day and age?

Andy Burkhardt


  1. I think patience is a big one that goes along with service. Letting people work through a research question or navigate the databases while you watch and help is going to be more effective than zipping through it all yourself.

  2. Adaptability and flexibility. With technology changing as much as it is, librarians have to be ready for whatever is thrown at them. Also, you have to be able to adapt when a patron comes up with a shocking or unusual request – you can’t be thrown off too much!

  3. A service mindset is definitely a great starting point. Another vital skill would be willingness to learn or evolve. Library services and collections are in a state of flux right now. Without an eagerness to both learn new systems and try out (possibly risky) new ventures, we’ll quickly become obsolete.

  4. I forget that one sometimes. Either during reference or teaching, patience is often necessary. Let the patron explain their question to you, let them try out searches and ask them questions. Too often I think I forget to slow down and be patient during a reference encounter. I want to show something or explain something, but that isn’t always what is best for the student or what they need.

  5. Marleah and Eric, I think you are both on a similar track. I love all those words: adaptable, flexible, learn, evolve. That willingness to change our perspectives and how we do things is necessary in our field. Technological and societal shifts are reshaping libraries (and almost everything else). We need to change as our users are changing to be able to serve them. If that doesn’t happen then they’ll outgrow us. But as long as we keep them and their current (and probably future) needs in mind, and not be afraid to adapt and evolve and take risks, we’ll be fine.

  6. I would extend the concept of service and patience to our colleagues. We need to be as generous with each other as we are with our patrons.

  7. I’d agree Ginger. I don’t think we can really help patrons unless we are working well together or at least with some level of respect. I think that same respect should extend not just among librarians, but with non-MLS staff as well. At my institution we’re lucky to have a great level of collegiality among librarians, staff and faculty. And I would hope to try to continue that if I ever go to another institution.

  8. I really love what everyone’s said so far. In addition to all the other mentioned, I think another one that really hits me is the ability to think critically and creatively. Because you are in a service profession, you want to be able to solve the problems that people bring to you. Sometimes you don’t always have the skill set or the ability to do exactly what the person wants, but thinking critically and creatively about the issue can lead to possible solutions.

  9. Thinking critically is a good addition Becky, especially since that is what we ask our student to do in the classroom. Critical thinking is all about asking questions. Why did I choose this source? What is the author’s credentials and motives? Et cetera.

    Thinking creatively is tied to the idea of adapting to change. The same solutions and methods we’ve been using may not fit this new world we’re in. To come up with new solutions we will have to be creative in how we approach problems. That is why I like having brainstorming sessions where you are not constrained by time or money or feasibility. You can free up your mind, think in a different way, and sometimes come up with the beginnings of great ideas.

  10. I totally agree about the brainstorming. We love getting the librarians together to brainstorm instruction ideas for courses, even and especially when, they are liaison area upper-level classes. Granted this usually leads to totally off the wall ideas from me and my coworker (a mise en plas-esque race of library skills, students live blogging a presentation, a giant ball pit for a library scavenger hunt carnival, a library infomercial), but there’s someone there to find the usable and practical part of those ideas to actually build our instruction around. Then again…sometimes…those crazy ideas just work!

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