Libraries, librarians, skills and competencies

The debate about the skills and competencies needed in a library, and the degree to which these are matched by the skill sets of librarians often appears to be based on a mishmash of personal needs, general trend analyses, professional infighting and ambiguous demands on the education sector. This is a pity, because it makes it difficult to launch a much-needed discussion about the competencies needed in libraries and the future development of librarian training courses.

This is an attempt to tidy up the field.

Librarians are not libraries, and libraries are not librarians. This is an important premise. It means that the skill set offered by librarians does not always match the library’s skills requirements, and it means that the librarian’s competencies may be, and are, useful in areas beyond the library sector. Nevertheless, most librarians do work in libraries; which makes it meaningful to discuss the skills and competencies of librarians in the light of the development of libraries.

However, libraries can be many things. Different types of libraries demand different types of competence, just as different library jobs require different types of library competence. Demands put forward for a widening of the library profession’s field of competence, even on its behalf, will therefore not necessarily be wrong if they are based on your own library and/or your own role in a library, but they will most certainly be inaccurate.

Librarians and their training

The main librarianship degree course in Norway is the BA in Library Studies offered by Oslo and Akershus University College (HiOA). This course provides the professional grounding for county librarians, school librarians, library managers, college librarians, Statoil’s knowledge management officers, advisors at our county libraries, and university librarians, to mention but a few different roles.

It is obvious that this one course cannot fully prepare librarians for all of them! Their training and education give librarians a good grounding in key academic areas, problems and work practices – but can never provide detailed work procedures or approaches for specific types of libraries or specific roles inhabited by librarians.

Whether the course takes the right approach, and whether it has the right length, are of course matters that warrant debate. For example, it is a fact that the duration of the course is lagging behind compared to other courses which have traditionally been used for comparison, such as teacher training courses.

Relevant strategic considerations

In my opinion, the question of how the course adjusts to developments seen in libraries and in society is general, deserves continual attention and discussion. This is not necessarily because the current course fails to adjust appropriately, but because the library sector should, to a greater extent than is currently the case, be invited to engage with, or at least be granted insight into, the relevant strategic considerations.

To me, any criticism of the training course which is solely based on a perception that it fails to meet the specific needs of a specific library or library role, is clearly biased and inaccurate.

In-service training

The librarian training course should and must provide a basic grounding, a core set of library competencies. Based on this foundation, each individual librarian must develop further as they encounter the library and its users, their colleagues and their professional circle. A positive workplace atmosphere amongst colleagues is essential for the development of necessary skills and competencies at work.

It is not until our knowledge is tested in an encounter with reality that we become real librarians. Learning from colleagues and developing our own competencies, as well as those of others, within a professional workplace community, is not however restricted to rookie graduates. The hallmark of good workplace communities is the on-going professional development they offer in the form of experience transfer, testing and professional discussion in the workplace.

We all know the benefits of a workplace which encourages learning, which allows scope for your own professional development and shows care and concern for that of others. We also know that a capacity to adjust to changes and demands for new services as well as the uptake of new skills, are essential qualities when working in dynamic institutions such as libraries.

Management responsibilities 

In-service training is therefore a wellknown premise for building a positive workplace, and a necessary requirement for being good at your job. Nevertheless, I have the impression that there is little talk  of training plans and skills development in Norwegian libraries. Plans for in-service training and experience exchange are rarely featured in the day-to-day work regime, and many library managers have virtually no dealings with the skills development of their staff.

It is a disconcerting trend that managers within the library sector, rather than working systematically with staff training and skills development plans, prefer to take on new staff with a different set of skills and competencies.

I am not of the opinion that it is wrong to hire new staff with different skills, or that it is wrong to hire staff with skills and competencies other than those of a librarian. I do however hold the opinion that if you ask for a certain type of competence when recruiting new staff, without first having considered whether existing staff might be able to undertake the same tasks given a minimum of skills enhancement, then this demonstrates poor leadership.

In order to encourage a positive debate about the skills and competencies of librarians, which I believe we need, we ought to base our conversation on the understanding that the competence of a librarian is not the same as the skills and knowledge needed in a specific library or to do a specific library job.

Skills from other professions needed

Moreover, the librarianship degree programme must improve its communication with the profession about the training they offer and the considerations on which the development of the course are based. It is important that all librarians recognise the fact that libraries may need the skills offered by other professions, and that this does not demonstrate a failing on the part of the library profession, but simply that there is a need to employ people that offer complementary skills.

This must not take place at the expense of librarians being afforded opportunities to develop new skills and competencies. It is the management’s responsibility to provide a workplace that offers a good learning environment and provides opportunities for staff to enhance their skills.

Chief Negotiator The Norwegian Union of Librarians